Thursday, March 08, 2007

Isaac Asimov, clocks, and the WASL

Isaac Asimov, in his classic essay "Dial Versus Digital," warns that digital watches threaten to eliminate an easy way to determine direction.
When something turns, it can turn in just one of two ways, clockwise or counterclockwise, and we all know which is which. Clockwise is the normal turning direction of the hands of a clock and counterclockwise is the opposite of that. Since we all stare at clocks (dial clocks, that is), we have no trouble following directions or descriptions that include those words. But if dial clocks disappear, so will the meaning of those words for anyone who has never stared at anything but digitals. There are no good substitutes for clockwise and counterclockwise. The nearest you can come is by a consideration of your hands. If you clench your fists with your thumbs pointing at your chest and then look at your fingers, you will see that the fingers of your right hand curve counterclockwise from knuckles to tips while the fingers of your left hand curve clockwise. You could then talk about a “right-hand twist” and a “left-hand twist,” but people don’t stare at their hands the way they stare at a clock, and this will never be an adequate replacement.
What spurred my memory of this piece was a sample math WASL prompt discussed by Linda Thomas. Thomas notes that 40% of students missed the question, but doesn't theorize why. First and foremost, students have to know the difference between "clockwise" and "counterclockwise." Admit it. You had to think, maybe even trace the movement with your finger, wasting valuable time remembering which was which. Even if the student is savvy enough to recognize that lines JE and LG are distractors (315-45 = 270 means it has to land on a perpendicular, no matter what), and remembers that a perpendicular line intersects another at 90 degrees, if they head in the wrong direction, they'll pick wrong answer B. (I'd like to see the breakdown, if B was the second pick.)

I'm not sure if "clockwise" is a mathematical concept that's explicitly taught in school. People who have grown up in an analog world might take it for granted. Asimov makes that prediction:
What shall we do about all this? I can think of nothing. There is an odd conservatism among people that will make them fight to the death against making time decimal and having a hundred minutes to the hour. And even if we do convert to decimal time, what will we do about “clockwise,” “counterclockwise,” and locating things at “eleven o’clock”? It will be a pretty problem for our descendants.
Make that a pretty WASL problem.

(Oh, and where did I find a copy of Asimov's essay? The place a student is most likely to find pithy writing these days. A standardized test.)

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