An Interview with Alan J. Singer: Gideon’s Homework

Sep 25, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Alan, as a professor and a parent, I suspect you have some pretty astute observations about teaching and learning. First tell us about your grandson, Gideon.

Gideon is a very active, very athletic, nearly nine-year old. He has a twin sister, Sadia, and they both love baseball, soccer, and break-dancing.

Sadia is the more avid reader and is plowing through the Harry Potter series like an express train. Gideon usually has too many exciting things going on to spend too much time on homework. They both scored on the proficient level in math on last spring’s common core aligned standardized assessment.

2) Now, how does he seem to be taught math?

We live in a middle-class / solidly working class ethnically diverse community. The twins’ public school is well thought of by parents and both kids look forward to school every day. I think the problem is that teachers are under tremendous pressure to produce higher test scores and feel that their jobs are on the line.

From what I can tell that leads to a lot of focus on repetitive drills and leaves little time for more interesting, thoughtful mathematical discussion. Math becomes a chore that interferes with learning. I try to counter this by working math into our discussions and projects, especially when we bake. Their father is an architect and they love to draw. They are very interested in proportion and ratios. From soccer corner kicks they are also learning about angles.

3) What about how he is tested in math ?

Last year the twins spent weeks taking practice tests and went to Saturday morning test prep organized by the parent’s association. One Saturday morning I went to walk them to test prep at the school and they were hiding on top of a chest of draws under a pile of stuffed toys. They love school but they hated test prep. When I asked them about the tests, Sadia said they were just boring.

4) Do you see anything wrong between the two?

My great concern is that teaching is becoming test prep because teachers are graded on the test results. Parents are also worried that if their children do not get top scores they will be denied admission from the better middle schools or the better classes. What happens to kids whose parents are not architects, whose grandfather is not a college professor that loves to bake with them?

5) Are his teachers simply preparing him for standardized tests or the world of work in which he had probably be pretty sharp about money and numbers?

I am not sure most teachers or parents see the connection between the world of work and of numbers. You input data, the algorithm crunches the numbers, and out pops answers. By the way, what is an algorithm? As far as I can tell it is just a formula with instructions.

When I was in high school students were not allowed to use pocket calculators on tests – because they were not invented yet. Today calculators give you the answer, the wrong answer if you plugged the numbers in incorrectly, so numbers are divorced from work.

Hopefully sports calculations will keep numeracy alive, but I am not convinced.

6) Estimation—good skill to have and how does it develop? Is it being taught correctly?

The problem is that estimation is being taught as a discreet skill, when it should be approached as a way of thinking about the world. We always estimate, draw conclusions based on limited evidence, guess. The key to successful estimation is to do it consciously and systematically and to root guesses in careful observation and previous experience. I estimate distance every day when I park my car near a fire hydrant. I estimate ingredients when I cook. I estimate time when I plan lessons.

7) Does he spend a lot of time on Twitter or these other things, or does he conscientiously do his homework ?

Gideon is almost nine. No nine-year-old boy that I know does homework conscientiously. I certainly did not. He doesn’t twitter yet or do social networks. He loves hip-hop videos and interactive online soccer and baseball games. Both Sadia and Gideon play a video game they got from their father that is very creative where they plan houses with rooms and furnishings.

8) Does he really need to learn more about how the world works or does he need to become less interested in pleasing his teachers?

I think we have to leave them both alone. Their mother was worried that Gideon did not read on his own until one day she tripped over him as she was rushing out to work and he was on the floor reading a book.

9) You recently posted something on this in some magazine or newspaper- tell us about it and the original source. I am a teacher educator at Hofstra University which is located in the New York City metropolitan area and I write a blog for Huffington Post where I discuss educational issues. Sadia and Gideon are two of my great sources of knowledge and inspiration. I hope they do not grow up too fast because I have a lot more to learn from them.

Tonight in Prospect Park Sadia was climbing trees and estimating distance and calculating which branches would support her weight. Gideon was doing running flips, back flips, and cartwheels and estimating distance and how many turns and flips he could fit into a given space. About a month ago he estimated wrong, landed badly, and broke a bone in his foot. But almost nine-year-olds heal quickly and his estimation seems to be getting better.

10) What have I neglected to ask ? The best way to access my Huffington Post blogs on educational issues and curriculum is to google Alan Singer Huffington.

Alan Singer is Director of Secondary Education Social Studies in the Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership 128 Hagedorn Hall / 119 Hofstra University / Hempstead, NY 11549

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