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Julia Steiny: Teach Real Algebra Instead of Wasting Time with Apps

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

 

Teach real algebra, because most of the apps and programs that currently promise to teach kids algebra are fun, but a total waste of time.

Emmanuel Schanzer majored in Computer-Science at Cornell University. With such a high-value degree, he knew he could sail into a lucrative, snazzy job. But he was keenly aware that he was a C.S. hotshot (my word) because he'd entered college with good math skills already under his belt. No one codes who doesn't understand algebra -- you know, the hard stuff that looks like a Slavic language with some numbers thrown in. To get a lot more kids, especially ill-prepared urban kids, into the bright future that comes with computer science, someone had to build up their math first.

So later on, Schanzer would create Bootstrap's curriculum. Because -- buyer beware! -- most of the apps and programs that currently promise to teach kids algebra are fun, but a total waste of time.

"When you hear, 'This is so amazing! These apps teach kids to program!' That's snake oil. Every minute your students spend on empty engagement while they're failing algebra, you're assuring that they're not going to college. Studies show that the grade kids get in Algebra I is the most significant grade to predict future income."

A man with a math mission

In college Schanzer searched for a way to improve math instruction through real programming, and found Program by Design (PxB, about which I've been writing for the last 2 weeks). While excellent, it's pitched too high, assuming strong math skills that challenged urban students haven't yet acquired. He vowed to redesign it one day -- after cashing in on his computer-science degree.

But his years working in the tech sector were no match for his passion. Plan "B," then. With an education degree in hand, he started teaching his beloved algebra in urban schools. But the programming tools available to his students were maddeningly off the mark. "First, none of the popular K-12 computer languages/teaching tools had anything to do with math, which seemed insane to me. They had things called "functions" and "variables," but they didn't behave at all like the functions and variables students see in their math classes. How's that supposed to help them? Students were expected to entertain themselves by playing with the tools, but it wasn't clear what they were supposed to learn."

"The student-engagement bandwagon has gone too far"

"The goal is to help kids get the computer to do something, because there is an intangible value in being in control. It's engaging, no question. So in the last 5 years, all the sexy languages are drag-and-drop programs, like Scratch and Alice. I have enormous respect for these tools, as long as they're a first step towards Python, Java. But by themselves, they are a terrific answer to just one question: How do we make it seem easy to code?"

Those programs have built-in blocks of code, represented by icons that kids can manipulate. But kids don't interact with the code itself, never mind write it or program.

"Typing code is hard. If you forget a semicolon, the program doesn't work. So the supposition has been that if they play with a tool, it will help them later. But that's not programming and it's not algebra. Classroom time is valuable. If you're spending 50 hours in the course of a year "coding" in block language, you're stealing time from real learning. Students get an "A" in high school and then go to college and find programming is something else entirely, and get totally turned off."

Bootstrap is born

Like a good Millenial, Schanzer founded a start-up to solve the problem. Bootstrap's programming language behaves like the algebra students learn in class, reinforcing honest-to-God algebraic concepts. Yes, Bootstrap teaches kids the basics of game building, but only by teaching the math that supports the code.

The materials are free and online, though professional development is available. Every lesson is cross-walked with the Common Core, assuring teachers that their efforts will result in real learning. A growing library provides homework assignments and warm-up activities. Teachers can use each lesson's script until they're familiar with the program. And a pre and post-test measures the learning.

"Teachers know if it's not real math. You have to do things the way teachers do it in a classroom. Bootstrap enforces mathematical behavior -- same vocabulary, steps, style as a math book. This is a math class." The fun video on Bootstrap's homepage shows kids loving the approach.

As luck would have it, Schanzer found himself Boston's subway one morning and noticed a guy, a German, working with Program by Design. Lo!, the man was none other than Matthias Felliesen, creator of PxD. With that chance meeting, Schnazer secured allies in his efforts to get math to urban kids. Bootstrap started to take off.

And if a Bootstrap student starts to soar, a teacher can point the budding computer-scientist to PxD for more challenge, and a pipeline to college.

Schanzer is fulfilling his college-born dream to propel bunches of kids into bright futures at places like Cornell. Absolutely, engagement is important. But the key all along has been to shore up math itself.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building demonstration projects in Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.comhttp://juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

 

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