Looking Backwards

Playing a local game (something like checkers-meets-tic-tac-toe) with a friend from Kibera. You can see Dominion: Prosperity is also on the table…

The term has come to a close, finishing the first half of my Fulbright year, which provides a bit of time to look back over what I’ve done, what’s worked well, and what’s worked less well.  A big part of the plan for the first time was to try out the existing structures, get to know what’s going on in the university, and figure out interesting ways forward that might work in the local context.  There were a lot of failures this term, places where things didn’t work as expected, where it’s clear that things need to happen differently next time around.  So if this post sounds bleak in some ways, rest assured that I’m already working hard on projects for next term that will try to get around these difficulties in one way or another.

  • Teaching Face-to-Face

    Despite my mandate to work on electronic education, I felt it was very important to teach a face-to-face course in order to better understand the undergraduate students and their context.  To that end, I co-taught Foundations of Mathematics with David Stern.

    The course went reasonably well, but has definitely made me consider the degree of work necessary to really address the problems in the education system. We were working with first-year students, which is ideal in many ways. It’s easier to do something revolutionary with first-years, simply because they haven’t lowered their expectations too far yet. (This was true even when I was teaching at the University of California; the first-years are a lot more open to non-traditional techniques, simply because they expect University to be different from secondary.)

    There’s far too much a culture of teaching to the test within Kenya. The entire goal of the secondary education is to get kids to pass the KCSE so they can get into University. But the syllabus is completely packed, and so the curriculum revolves around rote learning because there’s no way to actually teach the whole syllabus effectively. As a result, the people who go on to University are the best rote learners. Again and again in our weekly quizzes we saw that the great majority of the students were able to reproduce information or operations that had been given to them, but fewer were able to synthesize even rudimentary results. (Fans of standards-based teaching take note: this is the logical end-game of standardized testing.)

    So our question going forward is how to get more students critically engaged in studying science? This means caring about the details in addition to writing the correct answer in the blank, and working to actually understand the subject matter to a degree where synthesis is possible.  (I should note that I think we had a good-sized number of students who ‘got it’ on one level or another.  We gave out 18 ‘firsts’ for the course (equivalent to an A) among the 64 students who took the final.)

    And this has to happen in a context where the size of the student population is booming while the number of teachers and size of facilities is staying pretty much the same. It’s a massive challenge, requiring some real innovation on the part of the education system.

  • Teaching Electronically

    I also co-taught an e-learning course with David, entitled Algebraic Structures. This was a second year course which was rocky to say the least. Most of the issues mentioned above held (except the problems of class size), but with many additional problems unique to the e-learning environment.

    First a note on class sizes. While face-to-face classes at Maseno tend to be in the 100-300 range, our e-learning class had eight students, only two or three of whom could be said to be active in any way. The others didn’t even attempt the assignments or participate in the class discussion forums.

    E-learning requires a great deal of student initiative to avoid missing deadlines, to keep up with the steady drum-beat of assignments, and so on. In fact, the work loads tend to be higher than in the face-to-face classes, simply because teachers in face-to-face settings aren’t able to actually process homework for the class sizes involved. On the other hand, discussion forums in e-learning environments can lead to a far higher-quality of student interaction than one sees in face-to-face courses. But this requires a certain critical mass of students; a friend who’s worked quite a bit in e-learning believes the cut-off is around 40 students for the effects of student interaction to really start working.

    The Maseno e-Learning students are generally all working real jobs in addition to their course-work. This greatly limits their ability to keep up with the workloads necessary to succeed in a class. Of course, Kenyans are incredibly hard workers, so this really isn’t the biggest problem.

    The bigger issue, I think, is the expectations carried into the classes, just as we saw in the face-to-face setting. The students don’t know how to work towards understanding and synthesis, since they’ve been trained only to reproduce. I think that with e-learning these student expectations matter quite a bit more than in face-to-face settings; this could mean it will be even more difficult to change the culture of learning in an e-learning environment than in the face-to-face environment.  On the other hand, the whole fact of e-learning is so different from face-to-face that we get the opportunity to radically change expectations at the outset.  But to do this, we have to take initiative and offer high-quality, innovative courses which challenge the students to think in new ways.

  • Work with Secondary Students

    The work in schools, through the Maseno Maths Camp and the Mini-Maths Camps, were by far the most successful story of the term. These events give us a direct way to change the expectations of kids while they’re still young, and to expose teachers to different ways of thinking about mathematics and teaching. Working outside of the established curriculum structure lets us run free and show things that are genuinely interesting.

    Too much teaching in Kenya is by the stick: secondary math teachers are stereotyped as stern old guys who beat multiplication tables into their students with a cane. And even with caning on the decline, grades and KCSE scores are taking up the role of the stick. The whole curriculum is based on creating a culture of fear — fear of bad grades, fear of not getting to university — instead of on creating a love of the subject or an appreciation for its beauty. We tend to run from the things we fear, get out as fast as possible, and always come back to the things we love. So if we want to see Kenya using math and science productively, we need more people who love the subjects, who will think to go back to good ideas when they’re finally out of academia. And that’s what we’re really trying to get across in the maths camp.

  • Seminar

    One more project, which fizzled rather badly, was the seminar I planned on representation theory and statistics. The idea was to put together a mini-course of interest across many of the sub-departments in mathematics. The seminar ran up against three problems which killed it rather quickly. First, the seminar organizer left the school just as the term was starting, meaning there was no organization across the departments to get people in for the seminar. Second, chaos around the teacher’s strike and some student unrest at the start of the term made scheduling difficult. Finally, and most importantly, people simply didn’t have the time to participate. The teaching staff have insane teaching loads (3 classes, 100-300 students each) which generally keeps them from engaging in research or other professionally useful activities, and the students have insane course loads (usually between 6-9 classes) leaving little time for extra-curriculars. And yes, there’s an obvious policy-level solution here: Teach fewer classes better.

    In fact, the people who did show up to the seminar were two post-grads from our usual crew and eight undergraduates. Some of the undergrads I had helped with some probability questions the previous day; they showed up for the expository talk and brought along a bunch of friends. Interestingly, this meant pitching the content to the level of first-year undergrads. I should say that there’s a massive hunger to learn waiting to be harvested here: Students are enthusiastic for good opportunities regardless of their course loads. I’ve seen this demonstrated repeatedly.

    Unfortunately, I understood that the research seminar was more-or-less doomed as a concept under the current conditions, and let it go by the wayside, redoubling efforts on the courses I was teaching.

It’s useless just to outline problems without solutions, though.  So in the next post I’ll write about my plans for next term, with new ideas to address the problems I ran into this term.

2 thoughts on “Looking Backwards

  1. Balazs December 24, 2012 / 6:11 pm

    Thanks Tom for this update, it’s really fascinating. For someone like me who remains to be convinced of the full merits of E-learning in pure maths teaching it is interesting to note that you most successful project was the face-to-face of mathcamps. Please keep us posted!

    Merry Xmas, and have a nice break!

    • tom denton December 25, 2012 / 8:51 am

      Hey, Balazs!

      Thinking things over this last week or two since classes ended, I’m coming more to believe that enabling quality blended learning structures is the best way forward in the universities. There’s piles of merits to e-learning, just as there’s a lot of merit in face-to-face learning, and there’s a lot to be gained by combining the merits of the two. So I’m planning to help Strathmore get an online homework system up for their service classes, and to try some more drastic experiments in blended learning at Maseno… Will write about these ideas soon!


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