The Form of Teaching Matters

January 25, 2015 Leave a comment

A recent article in the Economist entitled “Falling Away” stated the following

Just one extra year of schooling makes someone 10% less likely to attend a church, mosque or temple, pray alone or describe himself as religious, concludes a paper published on October 6th that looks at the relationship between religiosity and the length of time spent in school. Its uses changes in the compulsory school-leaving age in 11 European countries between 1960 and 1985 to tease out the impact of time spent in school on belief and practice among respondents to the European Social Survey, a long-running research project.

By comparing people of similar backgrounds who were among the first to stay on longer, the authors could be reasonably certain that the extra schooling actually caused religiosity to fall, rather than merely being correlated with the decline. During those extra years mathematics and science classes typically become more rigorous, points out Naci Mocan, one of the authors—and increased exposure to analytical thinking may weaken the tendency to believe.

This article summarizes the results of a paper “Compulsory schooling laws and formation of beliefs: education, religion and superstition”, by Naci Mocan and Luiza Pogorelova. National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2014.

There are a number of things of interest in this report. On one level there is the analysis of the impact of schooling on religious belief that speaks to the impact of the formational power educational institutions have on all aspects of our lives, not just our cognitive growth. On another level is the fact that the authors of this report use mathematical and statistical analysis to report their findings and communicate the message that “school causes religiosity to fall” (emphasis added).

In regards to that second level, I make it a point to teach my AP Stats students that correlation does not imply causation. We even have some fun looking at spurious correlations put together by tylervigen.com. That fact is that from a statistical perspective causation has nothing do with the results of the study, but rather the design of the study. The results of this particular study are achieved through the European Social Survey, which is an observational study, thereby lacking the control/treatment groups necessary to conclude causation.

So then, if the researchers are reporting that they believe school causes religiosity to fall, it is because they want the data to indicate that. That fact should be very instructive to us as Christian educators: there is no way to separate your worldview from mathematics, in this case the interpretation of data analysis. Our students need to be brought up with an understanding that this is largely how the discipline of statistics is undertaken, especially in studies reported on in popular media. My hope and prayer is that my students will be more thoughtful consumers of data – that they would have both the Christian wisdom and the statistical tools to truly understand what a study is trying to communicate.

Returning to the first level, that of recognizing the formative power of educational institutions, I would like to share the thoughts of Albert Mohler as he addressed the article on his Briefing Podcast.

This report makes no distinction between the impact of education and the impact of school, now that’s a crucial issue. Those are two different things. Education is about learning, school is about the institutional context in which that takes place. I think there is no reason to doubt that the longer one is in one of the secular school systems of Europe the less likely one is to be referenced as a believer. But the big issue here that isn’t even confronted in this story is the fact that those schools, those institutional contexts, become the very engines for the secularism their here trying to report on and trying to track and measure.

I recently completed a course in my doctoral studies on curriculum development and Dr. Mohler makes a point that seemed to be the theme of my course: there is a difference between schooling and education. Much of what we refer today as education, is really just schooling – the day to day routines and practices of an institutions – and that schooling is what shapes us at a deeper level than simply informing us on what we need to know. I believe Dr. Mohler is right in pointing out that the institutional contexts of education are driving secularism rather than the content that is taught.

The article indicates that as mathematics and science classes become more rigorous, increased exposure to analytical thinking may weaken the tendency to believe. I have written before about the myth of critical thinking in mathematics and I believe that applies here. I truly feel that any mathematician who is honest will tell you that as rigor and analytical thinking increase, the need to believe actually deepens, not weakens. I have even heard this point made by mathematicians who are decidedly not Christian. The more we learn the more we realize what we don’t know, what we can’t know, and we gain a deeper appreciation of the beauty and mystery of the discipline of mathematics.

As Christian educators I hope that what we take from this article is the realization that the form of teaching matters. The practices, routines, and habits of the classroom and the school at large go farther in impacting students than the content that we attempt to pass along. This notion forms the basis of my forthcoming dissertation, so I anticipate writing about it in much greater detail in the months to come. For now let me close with a quote from James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom which has gone a long way in shaping my thoughts on this issue of education v. schooling:

Education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information; rather, education is most fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people. What makes them a distinctive kind of people is what they love or desire – what they envision as “the good life” or the ideal picture of human flourishing. An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices. And this will be true even of the most instrumentalist, pragmatic programs of education (such as those that now tend to dominate public schools and universities bent on churning out “skilled workers”) that see their task primarily as providing information, because behind this is a vision of the good life that understands human flourishing primarily in terms of production and consumption. Behind the veneer of a “value-free” education concerned with providing skills, knowledge, and information is an educational vision that remains formative. There is no neutral, nonformative education; in short, there is no such thing as a “secular” education.

I have a forthcoming article entitled “Cultivating Mathematical Affections: The Influence of Christian Faith on Mathematics Pedagogy,” that will be published in a Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith theme issue on the matter of mathematics that goes into more depth on this topic. I will link to it and share some more thoughts here once it publishes, but for now, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Praying for Niger

January 24, 2015 1 comment

While you may be aware of the tragedy that took place earlier this month in Paris in the Charlie Hebdo shootings, you may not be as aware of the ongoing violence in Niger that is also being carried out by Charlie Hebdo protestors.

Here is an article by Christianity Today that summarizes some of the recent events in Niger. The headline of the article is “Scores of Churches Destroyed by Charlie Hebdo Protests in Niger.” However, the devastation goes beyond simply churches as this quote from the article makes clear (emphasis added):

More than 70 churches have been destroyed, along with numerous Christian schools and organisations, including an orphanage.

The extent of the attacks came to my attention through Scott Eberle, a math teacher working with Christian schools in Niger. Scott has commented on this site numerous times and I have been after him to contribute some full length posts whenever he is able. I encourage you to learn more about his ministry of bringing the Gospel through Christian education to Niger. Here is one particular post that I have shared here before on “The Beauty of Math: From Theory to Classroom Practice.”

Please join me in praying for Scott, his family, his ministry in Niger, and everyone else who has been affected by this terrible tragedy.

Photo by Danette Goodmanson Childs

Photo by Danette Goodmanson Childs

Categories: Current Events Tags: ,

From the Classroom to the Community (and back again): Stories of Statistics, Significance, and Service

January 12, 2015 Leave a comment

This week I am giving two different talks at the 2015 Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Antonio, TX. What follows is information relating to the second talk. You can find my first talk here. My first talk was on cultivating mathematical affections – how we can change the way we understand affect in math education to produce students who value their mathematical experiences. My second talk is actually one practical example that can you can implement in the classroom to instill in students an appreciation of mathematics.

This talk was for a session on best practices for teaching introductory statistics. The focus of my talk was on integrating service-learning projects into the statistics curriculum, a topic that I have written about numerous times here at GodandMath. In addition to the resources that you will find below, feel free to check out some of the prior posts on service learning:

  • Serving through Statistics: the first (and largest) service project that I implemented complete with video summaries and interview with students.
  • AP Stat Reading Best Practices Presentation: Short presentation I gave on service learning in AP Statistics at the 2014 AP Statistics Reading in Kansas City, MO.
  • CAMT 2012 Presentation: Presentation I gave at the Conference for the Advancement of Mathematics Teaching based on the first statistics service-learning project mentioned above.
  • Geometry and the Homeless: the first service-learning project I did with my geometry students. An updated version from this last school year should find its way onto the site by mid summer.

ABSTRACT:

This presentation will outline the design, implementation, and evaluation of service-learning based statistics projects in which students partner with non-profit organizations in their local community. These projects synthesize the major concepts of experimental design, data analysis, and statistical inference in the real-world context of community service. Through these projects students integrate their conceptual understanding of statistics with the practical functioning of their local community, ultimately gaining a deeper appreciation for the role statistics plays in the organization and evaluation of service societies. Successful examples and practical resources will be provided.

PRESENTATION:

Below you will find the PowerPoint that accompanied my short 10 minute presentation (click on the image below to access the PowerPoint). Due to time constraints, the meat of the information can be found in the resource documents that I have also included below.

serving

OUTLINE:

The main question I aim to address  is this: what is the best resource that a teacher can introduce into his/her statistics classroom to help students make meaningful connections between course material and the true value of statistics?

I don’t think it is technology (be that calculators, iPhone apps, online applets, or statistical software packages) which is often discussed as a teaching aid in statistics. I don’t even think that is integrating current articles and published studies into classroom discussion.

Don’t get me wrong, both technology and current events can be powerful pedagogical tools and there certainly is a place for them in the classroom. As a teacher who regularly uses technology and “real-life” articles in my lessons, I would like to submit to you that there is actually something else, something better, that when used well can really cement the value of statistics in the hearts and minds of students. That something: service-learning. As it turns out, I think the best resource that you can introduce into a statistics classroom is to actually get the students out of the classroom and into the local community.

Why I think service-learning is an effective vehicle for communicating the significance and value of statistics to students:

  1. Students are actually doing statistics. 
    • There is something about the physical practice of getting outside the classroom to collect and analyze data that implants an appreciation for the processes of statistics into students.
  2. Students are actually doing statistics in an unfamiliar/uncomfortable (read: human) way.
    • In service-learning there is interaction with actual human beings. The data on the paper now has a face and the analysis becomes a little messier and less clinical. I find this tends to stretch students out of their comfort zone in a good way. It also encourages their focus to shift from individualistic outcomes (such as what grade they might receive) to more altruistic aims of education.
  3. Students are actually doing statistics in an unfamiliar/uncomfortable (read: human) way and they (as well as the community) are experiencing firsthand the fruits of their labor.
    • I require students to complete their project by giving an oral presentation to the service agency. Interpreting confidence intervals/levels, p-values, and significance levels becomes so much more meaningful to students when they have to explain these concepts to a service-agency and build connections for the agency as to what to do with this information practically moving forward.

DESIGN:

  • A non-profit service agency which requires survey research for program evaluation, grant applications, or client needs assessment is identified by the students.
  • Students will participate in a group which will provide the following services:
    • Meeting with agency and developing a survey instrument
    • Piloting and conducting survey*
    • Compiling, organizing, and analyzing data
    • Presenting final results to the agency
  • The teacher acts as a consulting facilitator outside of the direct chain of project command

KEYS TO SUCCESS:

  • The Power of Choice
    • Students have a vested interest in a personal topic
    • “How can we apply the concepts learned in statistics to benefit our local community/service agencies?”
  • Meaningful Applications
    • Real life scenario with real people
    • The “Aha Moment” – Deep connections drawn from course material to project implementation
  • Improving Civic Mindset, Professionalism, and Presentation Skills
    • Obligation is to the community/organization, not just a grade
    • Comfort levels stretched through community interaction
  • Required Reflection Beyond Calculations
    • Students chose the topic so they have to defend why it matters
    • Importance of statistics cemented

NEED FOR REFLECTION:

  • “Some people may think that this reflection process refers to a kind of ‘touchy-feely’ exercise that might be quite foreign to the mathematics classroom. I prefer to think of it as the processing of a rather complex set of experiences to assure that students share and solidify their insights and thus obtain maximum lasting benefits. This has actually been one of the most important contributions of the service-learning initiative.”
    • Hadlock (2005)
  • “Service-learning in its most effective and well-developed sense is more than another name for ‘real-world learning’ and consists of more than applied work in the public/non-profit sector. It involves a multilayered reflection process that can substantially increase its educational value in a broad sense…. Service-learning reflection asks the learner to become more aware of what he/she brings to the learning process: values, assumptions, biases – many of which are unexamined and potentially problematic….To leave these aspects unexplored would be to miss a vital educational opportunity, for they invariably stir up thoughts and feelings highly deserving of reflection and discussion.”
    • Zlotowski (2005)

Check out the presentation and the resource documents for more information. Always feel free to contact me through this site if you have any further questions or want to discuss the topic in more detail.

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