A Deliberate Math Dumb Down?

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Charlotte Thomson IserbytDAY 7: The Skin­ner Hor­ror Files

The Influ­ence of Thorndike Lives On.…


Edward Thorndike  "Thorndike introduced the concept of reinforcement."

Edward Thorndike
“Thorndike intro­duced the con­cept of reinforcement.”

Beware! When the media mouth­piece for the neo­con­ser­v­a­tive edu­ca­tion agen­da (The Wall Street Jour­nal) uses words “true mas­tery” and “prac­tice,” par­ents MUST under­stand that “they” are rec­om­mend­ing use of the Skin­ner­ian Direct Instruc­tion although “they” obvi­ous­ly aren’t going to tell par­ents that!

This kind of edu­ca­tion, which is not sim­ple rote learn­ing, but is Skin­ner­ian mas­tery learning/direct instruc­tion, is suit­able for work­force train­ing and no more.

Par­ents are for the umpteenth time being tak­en to the clean­ers by the so-called “experts” who get the most media!
Thorndike quote2The Wall Street Jour­nal arti­cle I’m talk­ing about was post­ed on Sep­tem­ber 22nd and titled “How We Should Be Teach­ing Math.” This arti­cle, authored by Bar­bara Oak­ley, an engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor, was sub­ti­tled “Achiev­ing ‘con­cep­tu­al’ under­stand­ing does­n’t mean true mas­tery. For that, you need prac­tice.” That part of the title is what caught my eye. Uh-oh. “True mas­tery.” “Prac­tice.” Here we go again. The arti­cle begins:

One of my engi­neer­ing stu­dents recent­ly approached me with a mix­ture of anger and befud­dle­ment, thrust­ing toward me a quiz sheet cov­ered with red pen marks: “I just don’t see how I could have done so poor­ly. I under­stood it when you taught it in class.”

…He still thought that because he “under­stood” the mate­r­i­al, he was all set.

I’m now a pro­fes­sor of engi­neer­ing,… What I dis­cov­ered when I start­ed over at age 26—first tack­ling reme­di­al mid­dle-school math and then work­ing my way toward a Ph.D. in sys­tems engineering—is that a con­cep­tu­al under­stand­ing only gets you so far.

Con­cep­tu­al under­stand­ing has become the moth­er lode of today’s approach to edu­ca­tion in sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing and mathematics—known as the STEM dis­ci­plines. How­ev­er, an “under­stand­ing-cen­tric approach” by edu­ca­tors can cre­ate problems.

Today’s Com­mon Core approach to teach­ing STEM is at least super­fi­cial­ly appeal­ing.… [empha­sis added] 

This well edu­cat­ed engi­neer thinks she has a bet­ter idea. But beware of her solu­tion! Watch her rhetoric and note the words I put in bold. Notice that the stu­dents are hooked up to a com­put­er and must take quiz after quiz until they attain “true mas­tery. This is Skin­ner’s orig­i­nal Pro­grammed Instruc­tion at work:

…[T]he devel­op­ment of true exper­tise involves exten­sive prac­tice so that the fun­da­men­tal neur­al archi­tec­tures that under­pin true exper­tise have time to grow and deep­en. This involves plen­ty of rep­e­ti­tion in a flex­i­ble vari­ety of cir­cum­stances. In the hands of poor teach­ers, this rep­e­ti­tion becomes rote—droning reit­er­a­tion of easy mate­r­i­al. With gift­ed teach­ers, how­ev­er, this sub­tly shift­ing and expand­ing rep­e­ti­tion mixed with new mate­r­i­al becomes a form of delib­er­ate prac­tice and mas­tery learning.…

…[J]ust because a stu­dent might think he under­stood an idea… does­n’t mean that he has mas­tered the idea.

My angry, befud­dled stu­dent, and many like him in my class, went on to take quiz after care­ful­ly designed quiz—all on the com­put­er, and all designed to help stu­dents get the prac­tice that would allow them to gain true mas­tery.

Under­stand­ing is key. But not super­fi­cial, light-bulb moment of under­stand­ing. In STEM, true and deep under­stand­ing comes with the mas­tery gained through prac­tice. [empha­sis added] 

Thorndike Animal IntelligenceIt is sig­nif­i­cant that an engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor wrote the above arti­cle. She is sug­gest­ing Mas­tery Learn­ing, a deriv­a­tive of the Skin­ner­ian oper­ant con­di­tion­ing. Edu­ca­tion in the USA is now the Sovi­et poly­tech (dumb­ed-down work­force train­ing) sys­tem, with no grades, no com­pe­ti­tion, etc. Cer­tain­ly NOT aca­d­e­mics! Engi­neer­ing becomes a rote activ­i­ty, no cre­ativ­i­ty. So remem­ber this as you read on. (Also, remem­ber that Pres­i­dent Rea­gan signed agree­ments with Sovi­et Pres­i­dent Gor­bachev in 1985 that merged the USA and USSR edu­ca­tion systems.)

We in Maine had Sovi­et edu­ca­tors train­ing our teach­ers in how to imple­ment work­force train­ing — back in 1995. The Ban­gor (Maine) Dai­ly News pub­lished an arti­cle on Jan. 12, 1995 titled “RUSSIAN TEACHER REVIEWS WORK IN SAD 53” explain­ing the extent of coop­er­a­tion between Rus­sia and the U.S. in school-to-work (planned econ­o­my) activ­i­ties. Accord­ing to Seekins’s research these activ­i­ties were not con­fined to ivory tow­er mus­ings, but had pen­e­trat­ed edu­ca­tion at the local lev­el. Some excerpts follow:

PITTSFIELD—Russian exchange teacher Tanya Koslo­va addressed the SAD 53 board of direc­tors Mon­day night to express her appre­ci­a­tion for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with the dis­trict and Maine Cen­tral Insti­tute [MCI—deeply involved with work­force training].

…Cum­mings told the board that MCI will be the recip­i­ent of the School-to-Work fund­ing in con­junc­tion with the Maine Youth Appren­tice­ship Program.

The school could receive up to $8,000 to pro­vide staff train­ing to bet­ter inte­grate aca­d­e­mics with the pro­gram pro­vid­ed by appren­tices’ work­sites. (the delib­er­ate dumb­ing down of amer­i­ca, p. 345–46)

A his­to­ry les­son is in order. The pow­ers-that-be don’t want you to know this his­to­ry. One has to go clear back to 1928 when a sim­i­lar argu­ment for dumb­ed-down math was being made by Com­mu­nist edu­ca­tors at a meet­ing of the Pro­gres­sive Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion. Edward Thorndike, who con­duct­ed ear­ly behav­ioral psy­chol­o­gy exper­i­ments with cats, along with oth­er Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions mem­bers, attend­ed a this meet­ing at which the atten­dees were informed that the pur­pose of “new math” was to dumb down stu­dents. We know all this because an attendee at the meet­ing, O.A. Nel­son, an edu­ca­tor, lat­er spilled the beans:

I know from per­son­al expe­ri­ence what I am talk­ing about. In Decem­ber 1928, I was asked to talk to the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence. On Decem­ber 27th, naïve and inex­pe­ri­enced, I agreed. I had done some spe­cial work in teach­ing func­tion­al physics in high school. That was to be my top­ic. The next day, the 28th, a Dr. Ziegler asked me if I would attend a spe­cial edu­ca­tion­al meet­ing in his room after the AAAS meet­ing. We met from 10 o’clock [p.m.] until after 2:30 a.m. We were 13 at the meet­ing. Two things caused Dr. Ziegler, who was Chair­man of the Edu­ca­tion­al Com­mit­tee of the Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions, to ask me to attend… my talk on the teach­ing of func­tion­al physics in high school, and the fact that I was a mem­ber of a group known as the Pro­gres­sive Edu­ca­tors of Amer­i­ca, which was noth­ing but a Com­mu­nist front. I thought the word “pro­gres­sive” meant progress for bet­ter schools. Eleven of those attend­ing the meet­ing were lead­ers in edu­ca­tion. Drs. John Dewey and Edward Thorndike, from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, were there, and the oth­ers were of equal rank. I checked lat­er and found that ALL were paid mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of Rus­sia. I was clas­si­fied as a mem­ber of the Par­ty, but I did not know it at the time.

The sole work of the group was to destroy our schools! We spent one hour and forty-five min­utes dis­cussing the so-called “Mod­ern Math.” At one point I object­ed because there was too much mem­o­ry work, and math is rea­son­ing; not mem­o­ry. Dr. Ziegler turned to me and said, “Nel­son, wake up! That is what we want… a math that the pupils can­not apply to life sit­u­a­tions when they get out of school!” That math was not intro­duced until much lat­er, as those present thought it was too rad­i­cal a change. A milder course by Dr. Breck­n­er was sub­sti­tut­ed but it was also worth­less, as far as under­stand­ing math was con­cerned. The rad­i­cal change was intro­duced in 1952. It was the one we are using now. So, if pupils come out of high school now, not know­ing any math, don’t blame them. The results are sup­posed to be worth­less.”(Empha­sis added. Excerpt­ed and adapt­ed from page 14–15 of my book)

Thorndike quoteFor a bit of his­to­ry, here is what Edward Thorndike was doing in ani­mal psy­chol­o­gy at that time:

A Thorndike puzzle box illustrated

A Thorndike puz­zle box illustrated

Thorndike was a pio­neer not only in behav­ior­ism and in study­ing learn­ing, but also in using ani­mals in psy­chol­o­gy exper­i­ments. Thorndike was able to cre­ate a the­o­ry of learn­ing based on his research with ani­mals. His doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion, “Ani­mal Intel­li­gence: An Exper­i­men­tal Study of the Asso­cia­tive Process­es in Ani­mals”, was the first in psy­chol­o­gy where the sub­jects were non­hu­mans. Thorndike was inter­est­ed in whether ani­mals could learn tasks through imi­ta­tion or obser­va­tion. To test this, Thorndike cre­at­ed puz­zle box­es. The puz­zle box­es were approx­i­mate­ly 20 inch­es long, 15 inch­es wide, and 12 inch­es tall. Each box had a door that was pulled open by a weight attached to a string that ran over a pul­ley and was attached to the door.The string attached to the door led to a lever or but­ton inside the box. When the ani­mal pressed the bar or pulled the lever, the string attached to the door would cause the weight to lift and the door to open. Thorndike’s puz­zle box­es were arranged so that the ani­mal would be required to per­form a cer­tain response (pulling a lever or push­ing a but­ton), while he mea­sured the amount of time it took them to escape. Once the ani­mal had per­formed the desired response they were allowed to escape and were also giv­en a reward, usu­al­ly food. Thorndike pri­mar­i­ly used cats in his puz­zle box­es. (Empha­sis added, links removed. Keep read­ing HERE)

Keep in mind that all of this is talk­ing about CHILDREN. In keep­ing with this mon­th’s theme, this graph­ic says it all. Skin­ner con­tin­ued Thorndike’s work: Thorndike Skinner