Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bungee Barbie! and CCSS : My rebuttal

I recently came across this disturbing article by Kathleen Porter-Magee:

Common Core + Bungee Jumping Barbie = Epic Fail

I had just finished reading about the Bungee Barbie experiment in my NEA magazine, and couldn't wait to try it out in my classroom. It aligns with our standards, is research-based and endorsed by NCTM, and above all, is hilariously funny! Check out these sample links for yourself.

So after reading Kathleen's uninformed dismissal of Barbie as an "Epic Fail", (I can just see her bawling her eyes out in the cardboard box in the back of Andy's Mom's car in Toy Story) I just couldn't help but write a rebuttal. So go ahead, read her article, and then my response posted at the bottom of her blog. (also listed here). Weigh in on it, tell me what you think!

(begin response)
Mandy Bellm
I find it pretty insulting to list “Bungee Barbie” in the title, followed by “Epic Fail” if you don’t take the time to research and understand the math behind it. The Common Core Standards are a necessary step forward for the USA, standardizing expectations across states so that all students are held to the same standards. Many of the states that quickly signed onto CCSS were able to do so because the standards and benchmarks were actually below what they already require of their students. I teach in Minnesota, and that is for sure the case here with our new 2007 standards. And isn’t that the goal of education? To not only meet the standards, but to surpass them?

Looking around the globe at top-performing nations in mathematics, Finland and Singapore (and even Canada) surpass the USA and have common core standards that focus on higher-order thinking skills and problem-solving in realistic situations. While I agree with you that some drill and practice, and some summary tasks are needed, they cannot be the bulk of instruction time. The Bungee Barbie experiment is not meant to teach slope or linear regression in and of itself. The big idea, or essential skill, is to look for patterns in the distance that barbie falls, compared to the number of rubber bands tied to her feet, and to use that information to predict much larger scales of bungee drops than could ever be simulated in the classroom.

NCTM’s Illuminations website has the entire lesson planned out for you. It’s not hard to follow. Check out the link below.

The explicit skills to be taught by the experiment are highly valuable for a number of careers and are expressed in the standards as well. Designing, conducting, reporting and analyzing data from an experiment are critical skills. Accuracy of measurement leads to discussions of multiple trials and central tendency. Data collection and reporting builds fundamental graphing skills and a firm understanding of independent and dependent variables. Analysis of the data for a best fit line leads to deeper understanding of slope and linear relationships because students can visualize exactly how the number of rubber bands affects the distance barbie can fall without hitting her head on the ground. And lastly, students achieve an enormous sense of accomplishment when they can use the information to make predictions, and then test and confirm their results. You can bet they will have their iPhones and Android video recorders out on the day they chuck Barbie off the school balcony, because they sense that it is something big and meaningful. And they will remember it for the rest of their lives. How often does that happen in school anymore?

Now obviously any decent teacher is going to teach foundational skills either before or in concordance with an experiment of this magnitude. A very firm understanding of the goals and objectives and learning outcomes is needed so that it doesn’t turn into, as you call it, “throwing Barbies around the room”. And THIS is the big item that sets the USA apart from Singapore and Finland. We go around and around with what we should teach, and when we should teach it, and change our minds and change our minds again, but teachers need time to plan and test and work with their teams to adopt well-paced, focused and meaningful curriculum. Finland teachers have nearly half of their teaching day set aside for planning effective instruction, and mentor support for improving their skills throughout their career (not just in the first 1-3 years). Students are graded on the progress they make against their OWN prior knowledge, not against that of their peers.

The current testing atmosphere in the USA is quite a bit like running a race. Very few students come out as "winners". I’m sure all of us adults would love to enter a marathon and have our finishing times published and compared with the rest of the field, based on some predetermined groups such as our age or socioeconomic background or race or gender. And, by the way, no consideration is given at all to our physical health or athleticism, nor what training resources and time we had, or where we lived, or if we had a family that supported us emotionally and economically through the whole process. But that's not how it works. We gauge our success in the race on if we beat our time goal, or came in a certain place, based on realistic expectations. Somehow we forget that with kids. And how awful it must make them feel when they fail over and over and over again.

The powers that be need to make up their minds, and quickly, about what education in the USA will mean for future generations. This focus on high-stakes testing MUST be re-purposed into a tool for meaningful improvement. NOT punishment. Whether or not the current state standards, or the new CCSS, or some other listed of standardized benchmarks are used, the mindset behind their use is going to determine whether they are successful. And lay off Barbie, please! Look at the laughs Barbie and Ken got in the Toy Story series. Teens of this generation will laugh and learn and retain much more about linear regression from Bungee Barbie they ever did the antiquated “bouncing ball” version of the same experiment. I will personally post the pictures on my blog in a few months after my accelerated math class knocks this one out of the park. (end response)