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Math-tutoring benefits depend on brain-region size, wiring

Original post made on Apr 30, 2013

Size does matter, Stanford scientists have discovered -- at least where math is concerned. Stanford scientists have discovered that the size and wiring of specific brain areas -- known as structures -- predicted how much a child will benefit from math tutoring.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, April 30, 2013, 9:54 AM

Comments (12)

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Posted by parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 30, 2013 at 11:00 am

Please let the folks at Everyday Math and Stanford Ed Dept know about this research.


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Posted by Saliapin
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 30, 2013 at 11:04 am

Wait a minute... It seems that the main conclusion from this study, at least as summarized above, is that learning to quickly answer simple arithmetic questions (a task arguably requiring mnemonic prowess more than reasoning skills) correlates with the size and function of cerebral areas involved in memory processing and storage. Is this surprising?
I would be more curious to find out whether tutoring helped these children learn how to solve problems involving math.


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Posted by Steve C
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 30, 2013 at 2:39 pm

What about the kids who received no tutoring? From this article we are to presume that they all had smaller Hippocampus sizes?


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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2013 at 8:15 am

Can we please get rid of Every Day Math now? This was inflicted on my advanced math student - who LOVED math for math's sake - when in 3rd grade and it's been painful to see the lost opportunities since. There is little to no real math practice in the program. They teach the kids many different arcane ways of doing standard basic math, and make them solve the same simple problems instead of advancing. The results are now clear in middle school, confusion in doing basic algorithms (where they learned several arcane ways to do basic math instead of getting practice doing the standard algorithm). I just about lost it recently when my child was doing a page of algebra wrong, even knowing how to do more advanced algebra. Why? Confusion about the directions, because in EDM, they learned that following arcane directions was what math was about, not just solving the MATH. Every assignment is 80% figuring out directions and 20% or less acual math, and it never got better. I hate what that program has done to my child's advancement and love of math. This research seems to shed much light on why administrators should realize what was obvious to parents.


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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2013 at 9:36 am

So .. what does this study say about math instruction in general?

Are we to glean from this article that not everyone learns math the same way?


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Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Downtown North
on May 1, 2013 at 9:40 am

"Every assignment is 80% figuring out directions and 20% or less acual math, and it never got better."

That's exactly as it is in the real R&D world of Silicon Valley. Excellent preparation.


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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2013 at 9:43 am

While not a fan of EDM (as I understand it), I would like to point out that:

> Every assignment is 80% figuring out directions
> and 20% or less acual math

this is the way that analysis (and eventually "math") works in the real world. Most problems, as presented to "problem solvers" are poorly specified, and require a lot of thinking on the part of the "problem solvers" to cast, and recast, partial solutions so that the people who are asking for the work to be done (and ultimately paying the bills), are able to understand the actual problems to which they are seeking solutions. (More often than not the clients are clueless about what they really want done.)

It's not exactly clear what EDM is trying to do in its approach to math instruction, but math in the "real world" is nothing like that which is presented to students in previous years in school text books.


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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 2, 2013 at 11:13 am

@Wondering
With all due respect, I agree with your point, but that's not what's going on here in the program. This is not about advanced problem solving, this is about the kids spending 80% of their time on poorly written, arcane instructions with almost no actual math practice. Math is a language - the language of science - and in order to learn a language and speak it fluently, you do, at some point, have to actually learn it and use it.

For example, instead of just trying to teach them a principle and give them practice so they master it, they'll explain one way of doing the problem, then another way of doing the same exact problem, then another way -- then ask the kids to solve the same simple problem all three ways and grade them on that instead of building on the basic principle to learn more advanced math.

My kid, who was once advanced, got tripped up in the beginning on even basic long multiplication this year in 6th grade because, when I asked about serious errors to simple calculations, my child admitted not remembering how to do the calculation because of confusing all the different methods they learned. As the year has progressed, I've seen how my child seems to have learned a powerful lesson from EDM that following arcane instructions to the letter is more important than solving the problem and getting the right outcome regardless of how one does it!!! I'm sorry, but that's not a positive lesson for the real world or for learning higher math as far as I'm concerned!

Having different ways of looking at a problem is good for teachers if those different ways are used to help kids who look at things differently to learn, but they backfire if you force everyone to learn all those different arcane procedures and don't give them practice solving problems, basic or advanced.

Secondly, the figuring out directions isn't about solving problems, it's about figuring out the often less than clear way the EDM people want to convey the information. You are talking about applying math -- the equivalent of speaking a language in the real world, which I agree is important. I am talking about just teaching them the basics of the language -- the equivalent of teaching them to speak a language at all, as opposed to sticking little kids in the back room to learn whatever basic math they can from an old Fortran manual.

I am still resentful that my child didn't have access to the program his friend got in 5th grade because that teacher has been around long enough to ignore the arm twisting from the district to dump decades of math instructions in favor of this pointless experiment on our kids.

Like I said, can we get rid of EDM now? It's too late for my kid, but it's not too late for the ones still in elementary school.


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Posted by wallet check
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 2, 2013 at 3:08 pm

It seems like the size that matters in deciding whether tutoring is good or not is wallet size. People with money buy tutoring for their kids in Palo Alto. While it may not help evenly across the ability spectrum there is no doubt that it helps those who have it more than it helps those who don't have it. And that depends on money not brain size.


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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2013 at 9:30 am

> math is the language of science

Not exactly. The language of science is human language—more often than not, English. Math is a tool of science, but science is far more the unraveling of nature's secrets using methods that hopefully lead us to the "truth". Being able to create models of reality that can then be "solved" by mathematical tools (increasing computer simulations) is what science is about.

One of the problems with a discussion about EDM is that those of us who have no direct exposure to it have a hard time trying to understand what parents (who are typically not very "mathematical" themselves) are complaining about. Many parents believed that their children were not being taught very important skills like how to multiply and divide, using the "traditional" methods (or algorithms).

There are many videos on Youtube that deal with the topic of Everyday Math. While most of us had no problem with the traditional methods, it seems that some students do. The general thrust of the justification for Everyday Math seems to be that it increases the "frame size" to which students are exposed, so that those on the bottom end of the "learning curve" are not left behind.

From reviewing the videos on multiplication and division, the EDM methods seem "odd"—since the "traditional" methods seem obvious, and the EDM methods introduce a lot of extra "paper work" to do the calculations need to get the correct result. Those pushing EDM seem to believe that there was too much "mental" work required in the "traditional" methods for the weaker students to be able to assimilate. For someone who is able to solve simple math problems in his head, this has always been a very poor excuse for justifying EDM, to my way of thinking.

Your example about having to solve problems more ways than one has been pointed out as an example of how EDM wastes students time. That really is hard to say, since there is no "standardized" way to solve problems. Looking at things from different angles is very important to the problem solving process. In fact, there is a general "rule" in the systems business: "if you haven't been able to solve the problem the old way—turn the problem upside down". That means simply that many problems look like that might be amenable to a solution using one set of rules—when, in fact, those problems need a new set. Only the "problem solver" will be able to recognize that his original approach is failing, and to start looking at the problem from some other approach.

How do you teach this sort of "creative thinking"? It's difficult to believe that anyone in the world has come up with a method that works unconditionally.

EDM is not all that uniformly received by parents. The Math STAR scores do not seem to have suffered from the PAUSD's use of the program—but there really should be an evaluation of this program soon. There is no reason to believe that five people called Trustees of the Board of Education have the slightest idea how a teaching methodology is going to work. The only way to determine the effectiveness of this methodology is to put it through a Program Review—which should be scheduled at/about five years.

If you really feel that EDM has failed your child, why not write up your thoughts and present them to the School Board. It couldn't hurt to talk to other parents who might feel as you do—encouraging them to do the same.


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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 9, 2013 at 10:45 pm

@Wondering,
You're still confusing advanced problem solving with the basics, which EDM does an abysmal job of teaching, especially if you look at the implications of the above study.

It's silly for us to argue over an analogy, but I know plenty of scientists who made their careers based on how just doing the math revealed the science. (And aren't you being a little English-centric there?) In the analogy of math as a language, one does have to learn how to express oneself well in the real world, but first one has to actually learn the basics. EDM is doing an abysmal job teaching the basics and helping kids build on that. It's like they assume that good old math practice is damaging to some kids' self esteem so it needs to be worked around. That seems to be the guiding principle of the program.

My kid was doing long division in 2nd grade, and excited about pure math, until EDM got them working sideways instead of doing math in the way the above article describes works. Another example - they ask in every assignment for kids to explain themselves in words. My kid would always miss it. I'm sure you will say it's important for kids to be able to explain themselves, to which I would say, sure (my kid is extremely verbal, this program was not helping kids who are not). But as someone with a technical degree from MIT (and yes, I can evaluate my kid's math program), I could see that every time, my kid was trying to explain the basic math concept, the fundamental principle, without even the vocabulary to do it, and had a very sophisticated native understanding of the math.

That's not what they were after, they were looking for a verbal regurgitation of what was just done. They spent far more time on those kinds of things than actual math. Over time, my kid was made to feel that the understanding of the math was wrong (that the mark-off was for the understanding), and that simplistic performing-monkey verbal regurgitation was what math was all about rather than understanding the math. This approach was ingrained in everything about that program.

I just didn't have the time to tutor my kid outside of school throughout this and now it's having a serious impact. And by the way, my kid is off-the-charts creative and doesn't need to be "taught" creative thinking or how to look at solving real world problems in different ways. My kid is also someone with an absolutely otherworldly memory for places and events. Now, can we teach math in elementary school again?


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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 9, 2013 at 10:49 pm

BTW, my child's testing scores have suffered since EDM. And as far as the school board -- perhaps you do not remember the great protests when the district decided on EDM in the first place. I was in there, too. Made no difference.


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