Monthly Archives: January 2013

Maybe we care too much about the wrong things.

I have just returned from Wellington, New Zealand, where I spoke with my husband on the interplay between language, thinking and learning at the 16th International Conference on Thinking. The last time we spoke at one of these conferences was in 2007 in Sweden. The conference had changed this year and had a significant focus on the teaching of thinking.

Even more exciting than the opportunity to share my own thinking was the opportunity to listen to others.

What was my impression? I came away feeling hopeful. The notion of high stakes standardized testing as an important feature of education was virtually ignored. Curriculum was not ignored and nor was the need for assessment and evaluation, but the bitter debates and the destructive practices that have been circling lately were put into context for me. It’s an unsettling context.

Edward De Bono and John Edwards held an on stage conversation towards the end of the conference. De Bono coined a new word – ‘ebne’ meaning ‘excellent, but not enough‘. Others spoke of the need to avoid ‘either or’ thinking when we consider what is important in education.

Excellent but not enough – ebne.

Avoiding ‘either/or’ arguments.

Could this be a way forward?

Could a new, more positive mind-set dispel some of the fear and the gloom?

I am drawn to those who advocate encouraging administrators, teachers, students and parents to simply turn their backs on the testing program, to refuse to participate, politely and firmly. But I am also aware that this is a confrontational path. We could win the battle, but it will require a wide spread, concerted effort and may involve a lot of pain and disruption for our kids.

Could an alternative be to focus on ‘ebne’, to simply absorb the testing, put it into the place where it really ought to be – simply one of many measures, excellent, but clearly not enough. Instead of a head on fight with the ‘testucators’ might we take the sting out of their program by refusing to take it more seriously than it deserves, by refusing to get into either/or debates about testing or learning?

This too will take a lot of energy because we will need to educate the community. We will need to make sure our kids understand that the test really isn’t the only thing that measures the worth of their learning. Our parents will need to understand, because we educators tell and show them repeatedly, that the standardized testing program is only a small part of the whole assessment and evaluation process. We will need to make sure they understand the weaknesses of the league tables, to see them for what they are – an irrelevancy to the real business of learning.

Our teachers will need to be reassured that they are supported by their administrators and their communities. Principals need to have the courage to resist giving up valuable learning time to the teaching of test taking skills. Reports to parents need to be informative enough to ensure they understand how and how successfully their children are learning regardless of what a single snapshot multiple choice test might say.

It needs to be made obvious when anyone walks through the front door into the school that this is a place where learning is valued, where teachers know what they are doing and where progress is made and charted every day. And we need to encourage the world into our schools to see just how good they are.

We need to feel confident enough to say “I don’t really care too much about your tests. My school is too busy learning, to focus on those. We’ll get them out of the way and then return to the task we do best, the real reason we are here  – teaching.”

It’s Finland all over again! Could their secret to success be that they actually don’t really care too much about the PISA tests they blitz every few years?




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Australia – this is the future if we allow the current pressures to have their way.

GFBrandenburg's Blog

On this blog I have reprinted examples of what I see are crappy test items and dissected them, hoping to show readers that those items neither made sense nor measured what they are purported to measure.

However, I never worked inside the testing industry itself, so I don’t have direct experience of making up BS test items on an industrial scale.* My own experience, however, is that EVERY test — no matter how good — has validity and reliability problems. This passage shows that the tests on which all US educational decisions are supposed to be based are, in fact, ridiculously badly made from the beginning, and cannot possibly measure what they pretend to measure, are unreliable, and thus utterly invalid.  (Plus the tests are snatching at least potentially valuable class time away from our students, while enabling a handful of big corporations like Pearson (more on which below) are…

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Loss of playtime – an abuse of childhood

I am now in my second week of camping at the beach. I am surrounded by children. I take great delight in watching these kids as they exercise the parts of their brains and bodies so neglected by our test obsessed education system. They are so inventive with so little. Small beetles and bugs are fascinating, they spend hours deeply immersed in books, they invent new games and challenges, they turn cartwheels, they ride bikes, they cooperate and sometimes they fail to cooperate and then they learn about negotiation, about forgiveness, about sharing. They make things out of grass and bits of wood and bark. They play tricks on the adults. They laugh, they squabble, they share secrets. With the minimum of adult direction they fill their days with play – the work of childhood.

I often read about the loss of school learning during the summer vacation. I never read about the loss of vacation learning during the school year. How much independence, inventiveness, imagination, team work, self motivation and cooperative work and play, learned during the holiday period, simply withers on the vine due to neglect during the school term?

I found it became untenable that I was required to limit the free play recess period of my elementary aged children to 15 minutes a day when I was a school principal in the USA. It felt like a form of child abuse. In the interests of maximizing instructional time we removed the opportunity for play and wondered why it was so hard to keep these children focused on school work as the day dragged on. We wondered why they were so unable to negotiate their way out of quarrels, so clumsy at working in teams. But these are skills learned by doing, not by being told. These are skills forged in the free for all of the playground, the same place where imagination, fairness and resilience begin to grow, are tested and thrive.

This poem by D J Enright comes to mind.

Blue umbrellas

‘The thing that makes a blue umbrella with its tail –
how do you call it?’ you ask. Poorly and pale
Comes my answer. For all I can call it is peacock.
Now that you go to school, you will learn how we call all sorts of things;
How we mar great works by our mean recital.
You will learn, for instance, that Head Monster is not the gentleman’s accepted title;
The blue-tailed eccentrics will be merely peacocks; the dead bird will no longer doze
Off till tomorrow’s lark, for the letter has killed him.
The dictionary is opening, the gay umbrellas close.
Oh our mistaken teachers! –
It was not a proper respect for words that we need,
But a decent regard for things, those older creatures and more real.
Later you may even resort to writing verse
To prove the dishonesty of names and their black greed –
To confess your ignorance, to expiate your crime, seeking one spell to
life another curse.
Or you may, more commodiously, spy on your children, busy discoverers,
Without the dubious benefit of rhyme.

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