# Tag Archives: Ben Orlin

## Memorization or Learning?

I originally started to write a post on a memorization technique I’m using for the unit circle, and went looking for representative jeremiads both pro and con. Instead, I found Ben Orlin’s piece When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning (from five years back):

…which is the opposite of a standard, boring piece and serves as a good counterpoint to explain some recent shifts in my pedagogy.

It’s a good piece. In many ways, the debate about memorization runs parallel to the zombie problem–students regurgitate facts without understanding. Ben’s against that. Me, too. Ben says that testing requirements create tensions between authentic learning and manageable tests; I have various means of ensuring my students understand the math rather than just hork it up like furballs of unknown origin, so am less concerned on that point.

But I don’t agree with this sentiment as much as I probably did a decade ago: Memorizing a list of prepositions isn’t half as useful as knowing what role a preposition plays in the language.

Not in math, anyway.

A couple years ago, after I’d taught trigonometry two or three times, I suddenly noticed that at the end of the year, my students were very fuzzy on their unit circle knowledge. (It’s no coincidence that Ben’s article and my observations are both focused on trigonometry, a branch of math with a significant fact base.) When working trig equations, they’d factor something like the equation above, use the Zero Product Property, solve for sin(x)…and then stop.

“You’re not done,” I’d point out. You’ve only solved for sin(x). What is the value of x?”

Shrug. No recognition. My tests are cumulative. Many students showed significant recall of concepts. They were using ratios to solve complex applications; they were sketching angles on the coordinate plane–both concepts we hadn’t revisited in months. They could sketch the unit circle from memory and eventually figure out the answer. But they had no automatic memories of the unit circle working backwards and forwards, even though I had emphasized the importance of memorizing it.

Upsetting, particularly at the end of the year. The name of the class is Trigonometry, after all. Solving for sin(x) requires not one tiny bit of trig. It’s all algebra. Trigonometry enters the picture when you ask yourself what angle, in radians or degrees, has a y to r ratio of 1 to 2.

The sine of π/2 is not among [the important things to memorize]. It’s a fact that matters only insofar as it connects to other ideas. To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means.

Well, okay, but….if a student in a Trig class can’t work a basic equation without a cheat sheet, what exactly has he learned? He already knew the algebra. Does the same standard hold for SOHCAHTOA, or can I still assume the student has successfully learned something if he needs a memory aid to remember what triangle sides constitute the sine ratio? What else can be on the cheat sheet: the Pythagorean Theorem? The ratios of the special rights?

Ben describes memorization as learning an isolated fact through deliberate effort, either through raw rehearsal or mnemonics, both of which he believes are mere substitutions for authentic learning. He argues for building knowledge through repeated use.

Sure. But that road is a hard one. And as Ben knows much better than I, the more advanced math gets, the more complex and numerous the steps get. Most students won’t even bother. Those who care about their grades but not the learning will take the easier, if meaningless route of raw rehearsal.

So how do you stop students from either checking out or taking the wrong road to zombiedom?

I’ve never told my students that memorization was irrelevant, but rather that I had a pretty small list of essential facts. Like Ben, I think useful memorization comes with repeated use and understanding. But what if repeated use isn’t happening in part because of the pause that occurs when memory should kick in?

So I’ve started to focus in on essential facts and encouraged them to memorize with understanding. Not rote memorization. But some math topics do have a fact base, or even just a long procedural sequence, that represent a significant cognitive load, and what is memorization but a way of relieving that load?

The trick lies in making the memorization mean something. So, for example, when I teach the structure of a parabolas, I first give the kids a chance to understand the structure through brief discovery. Then we go through the steps to graph a parabola in standard form. Then I repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. So by the time of the first quiz, any student who blanks out, I say “Rate of Change?” and they reflexively look for the b parameter and divide by 2. Most of them have already written the sequence on their page. The memorization of the sequence allows them repeated practice.

But it’s not mindless memorization, either. Ask them what I mean by “Rate of Change”, they’d say “the slope between the y-intercept and the vertex”. They don’t know all the details of the proof, but they understand the basics.

I take the same approach in parent function transformations, after realizing that a third of any class had drawn parent functions for days without ever bothering to associate one graph’s shape with an equation. So I trained them to create “stick figures” of each graph:

I drew this freehand in Powerpoint, but it’s about the same degree of sloppiness that I encourage for stick figures. They aren’t meant to be perfect. They’re just memory spurs. Since I began using them a year ago, all my students can produce the stick figures and remind themselves what graph to draw. They know that each of the functions is committed on a line (to various degrees). Most of them understand, (some only vaguely), why a reciprocal function has asymptotes and why square root functions go in only one direction.

So did they learn, or did they memorize?

I haven’t changed my views on conceptual learning. I believe “why” is essential. I’m not power pointing my way through procedures. I am just realizing, with more experience, that many of my students won’t be able to use facts and procedures without being forced to memorize, and it is through that memorization that they become fluid enough to become capable of repeated use.

Like Ben, I think a zombie student with no idea that cosine is a ratio, but knows that cos(0) = 1, has failed to learn math. I just don’t think that student is any worse than one who looks at you blankly and has no answer at all. And addressing the needs of both these students may, in fact, be more memorization. Both types of students are avoiding authentic understanding. It’s our job to help them find it.

So I’ll give an example of that in my next post.

## Math Instruction Philosophies: Instructivist and Constructivist

Harry Webb has been on a tear about discovery vs. traditional explanations. The hubbub has pulled the great god Grant Wiggins, originator of backward design, which is a bible of ed schools as a method for developing curriculum.

Now, let us pause, a brief segue, to reflect on those last two words. Developing curriculum. I’m talking about teachers, yes? Teachers, building their own unit lessons, their own tests, their own worksheets. As I’ve written, teachers develop their own curriculum and, to varying degrees, have intellectual property rights (I would argue) to their material. So when reformers, unions, politicians, or whoever stress the importance of curriculum, textbooks, and professional development in implementing Common Core, there’s a whole bunch of teachers nationwide snorfling at them.

So Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote Understanding by Design, which describes their framework and approach to curriculum. It is, as I said, a bible of ed schools. I have a copy. It’s good, although you have to look past their irritating examples to figure that out.

(Note: See Grant Wiggins’ response below. I’ve reworded this slightly and separated it to respond to his concerns. Also throughout, I changed “direct instruction” to some other term, usually instructivism.)

The book clearly states that there’s no one correct approach for every situation, that arguing between instructivism and constructivism creates a false dichotomy. So I was jokingly sarcastic before, but my point is real: it’s hard to read Grant Wiggins and not think that, so far as K-12 curriculum goes, he leans heavily towards constructivist. As one example, in a text section that discusses the fact that there’s no one right approach, he includes this table on the activities dominant in each approach. When I look at this table, I see a clear preference for constructivist approaches. I also see it in this highly influential essay and much of his writing. But as Wiggins states in the comments, and in the book, he clearly denies this preference. However, Wiggins’ book is the bible of ed schools for a reason, and it’s not for its categoric embrace of all things instructivist. So put it this way: what he says are his preferences and what any instructivist would take away from his preferences are probably not the same thing. I say this as someone who periodically rereads his work because of the value I find in it once I shift my focus away from the trappings and focus in on the substance. I encourage anyone who agrees with my impression of Wiggins’ preference to read him closely, because he’s done a lot over time to inform my approach to curriculum development.

(end major edits–I put the original text at the bottom)

So Wiggins reads all this hooha, and comes out with this outstanding description of lectures and why they are a problem. I agreed with every word of this post (there are two others), so much so that I tweeted on it. (Note: I agree for math. History’s a different issue.) As I did so, I was vaguely disturbed, because look, while I don’t write a lot about ed school per se (and even defend it, slightly), I spent a lot of time in class naysaying. And if they’d been saying reasonable things like this about lectures, what had I been disagreeing about?

And then Harry comes through brilliantly, answering my question and pointing out a huge hole in Wiggins’ 3-part series:

Wiggins writes of a survey of teachers in order to support his view that different pedagogies are required to achieve different aims. Unsurprisingly, the teachers give the right answers; the ones that they probably learnt at Ed School. However, the survey response that is taken to represent lecturing is called, “DIRECT TEACHING Instruction on the knowledge and skills.” Now, although I do not recognise my practice in Wiggins’ definition of lecturing, I do recognise myself in this definition wholeheartedly. And so I think we are being invited here to see all direct teaching – dare I say direct instruction – as non-interactive lecturing that lasts for most of a period.

Hey. Yeah. That’s right! Wiggins naysays the lecture in his essay, but the overall debate is between instructivism, of which lectures are just a part, and it’s , and it’s instructivism that has a bad name in ed school, not solely lectures. Harry says that he explains in classroom discussion, but rarely lectures. Which may sound like someone else.

Harry scoots right by this, because he’s all obsessed about the fuzzy math and constructivist debate, and it occurred to me that this area needs elucidation, because most people—and reporters, I am looking at you—don’t understand this difference.

So here it is: not all explanation is lecture, and not all discovery is constructivist.

In an effort to not turn all my posts into massive tomes (don’t laugh), I’m going to write about this difference later. Here, I’m just going to show you the difference through different teachers.

Before I start: labels are hard. Roughly, the terms reform, student-centered, constructivist, “facilitative” (Grant Wiggins’ term) all refer to the open-ended investigative approach. Instructivist, teacher-centered, traditionalist, direct instruction are all terms used to describe the approach where the teacher either tells you how to do it or wants you to figure out the way (not a way) to do it. (Note: I left “direct instruction” in here, because I believe it’s still an instructivist approach.)

Very few math teachers are pure constructivist. We’re talking degrees. I have no data on usage rates, but I’d be pretty surprised if 80% of all high school math teachers didn’t use traditional instruction-based approach for 90% of their lessons. I speak to a lot of colleagues who dislike pure lecture and would like to teach a more modified instructivist mode, but they aren’t sure how it works. However, most high school math teachers are instructivists who lecture. Full stop.

Constructivist Approach (aka investigation, reform)

Dan Meyer: Dan Meyer’s 3-Act Meatballs
Fawn Nguyen: Barbie Bungee
Fawn Nguyen Vroom Vroom
Michael Pershan: Triangles and Angles (he calls this investigation. I’d personally characterize it as “in between”, but it’s his call.)
Cathy Humphries: Investigation into Quadrilaterals

This is a partial list. Dan’s blog has links to all his various projects, as well as other bloggers committed to the investigative approach.

(By the way, I am dying to do the Vroom Vroom one, but I’m not enough of a mathematician to understand the math behind it. Neither does Fawn, apparently. The math looks quadratic. Is it?)

I’m not a fan of the open-ended reform approach, but I like all sorts of the activities the constructivists come up with. I just modify them to be more instructivist.

Remember that both Meyer and Nguyen use worksheets, practice skills, and many other elements that are pure instructivist. Pershan rarely does open-ended activities. In contrast, Cathy Humphries is very close to pure constructivist math. Total commitment to reform.

Traditional Instructivism (Lectures)

Much MUCH harder to find traditionalists bloggers. I’ve included two of my “lectures” that have relatively little discussion, just to fill out the list:

Dave at MathEquality is traditionalist, a guy who works hard to explain math conceptually, but does so for the most part in lecture form. However, it’s also clear he keeps the lectures fairly short and gives his students lots of in class time for work.

But he’s the only one I can find. Right on the Left Coast appears to be a traditionalist, but he writes more about policy and his disagreement with traditional union views. (Huh, I should have mentioned him in my teacher blogger writeup of a while back.)

In order to give the uninitiated a good idea of what lecture looks like, three google searches are informative:

factoring trinomials power point

holt math power point

McDougall Litell math power point

Many high school teachers build their own power point explanations. Others just take the ones provided by publishers.

Still others use a document camera or, if they’re extremely old-school, transparencies.

What they look like is mostly this:

Khan Academy: Isosceles Right Triangles

Many teachers are really, really irritated at the fuss over Khan Academy because all he does is lecture his explanations—and not very well at that.

The most vigorous voices for traditional direct instruction comes from people who don’t teach high school math. That’s not a dig, it’s just a fact.

Modified instructivist

I’m not sure what to call it. There’s not just one way to depart from instructivist or constructivist. The examples here generally fall into two categories: highly structured instructivist discovery, and classroom discussions with lots of student involvement.

Me:Modeling Linear Equations
Me: Modeling Exponential Growth/Decay
Michael Pershan: Proof with Little Kids
Michael Pershan: Introducing Polar Coordinates
Michael Pershan: The 10K Chart
Ben Orlin: …999…. and the Debate that Repeats Forever.
Ben Orlin: Permutations and combinations

For a complete list of my work, check out the encyclopedia page on teaching. I likewise recommend Pershan and Orlin’s blogs.

A question for Grant Wiggins, and anyone else interested: what differences do you see in these approaches?

A question for reporters: when you write about reform or traditional math, do you have a clear idea of what the fuss is about? And did these examples help?

Question for Harry Webb: You sucked me into this, dammit. Satisfied?

If you have good examples of math instruction that falls into one of these categories, or want to propose it, tweet or add it to the comments. I’m going to write up my own characterizations of this later. Hopefully not much later.

*******

Here’s what I originally said in the changed paragraph:

So Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote Understanding by Design, which describes their framework and approach to curriculum. It is, as I said, a bible of ed schools. I have a copy. It’s good, although you have to look past their irritating examples to figure that out. The book clearly states that there’s no one right answer, that arguing between direction instruction or constructivism creates a false dichotomy, but then there’s this table on the activities dominant in each approach. Cough. Okay, no one right answer, but a strong preference for facilitative/constructivist.