Tag Archives: Common Core

Handwriting – the beauty of variation

Keyboards are everywhere. I marvel at the speed with which my own kids manage to pump out text on a full sized keyboard or with their thumbs on a smart phone. In the USA there is a growing debate about whether or not children need to be formally taught cursive writing. The new Common Core State Standards do not mandate its teaching. In Australia we have seen frequent discussions about the problems faced by final year high school students being required to write extended passages long hand in exams, when they are unused to the practice during their school year. They feel they lack fluency and their hands ache!

For some years now I have been troubles by the weird and wonderful ways in which I see young adults holding pens and pencils. They look awkward and they revert to keyboards as soon as practicable.

When I taught grade one and two children  a major part of my curriculum was teaching them how to hold their pencils efficiently and how to form letters that would lead to fluent, legible, effortless handwriting. The refrigerators in the homes of my students were festooned with examples of their early attempts.

There are those who regard this particular learning process as a waste of time,  as clinging to an old, outmoded technology.

I disagree!

How often do we set things that are essentially different up against each other for comparison and competition?

Which is better, the movie or the book?

Which side of the brain is most important, the left or the right?

Who is smarter, men or women?

Which do you prefer, oysters or chocolate cake?

Which is better, a photographic or a painted portrait?

These comparisons don’t work.

Neither does the question, ‘which should we teach, keyboarding or handwriting?’

There will always be a place for the handwritten, just as there will always be a place for the painted.

Just because a child can easily take a photograph of a tree doesn’t mean that we should not give him the opportunity to draw or paint a tree. There is something about the artist that is revealed in a painting, a personal response to the subject matter and a reinterpretation of the literal truth that comes about when a subject is painted or drawn.

So it is with handwriting.

We know that every person’s handwriting is unique. Why? Because the movements of the pen on paper are influenced by the character and experiences of the writer. They keyboard gives us the vocabulary and the syntax. The pen gives us something of the person. Another manifestation of the marvelous variations between people can be seen in the formal, controlled and perfectly formed handwriting of one person, the tight, tiny, cramped writing of another and the expansive, impetuous scrawl of yet another.

Our handwriting is one of the things that proclaims our individuality.

How many of us hold dear the early attempts of our children to write us notes, the love letters of an early sweetheart or even the handwritten name of a long dead loved one in a favorite book of poems?

We seem to be very good at throwing out our babies with the bath water in education.

Let’s not do it again.

Let’s continue to teach our children the intimate, expressive art of handwriting as well as the efficient, expedient skill of keyboarding.

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The Power of Metaphor

The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran in his fascinating book “The Telltale Brain” describes the uniquely human capacity to create metaphors. It requires a sophisticated ability to juxtapose two seemingly unrelated concepts because they have some point of similarity at a deeper cognitive level.
An unopened bud is an evocative metaphor for a baby. Not because babies are green and grow on bushes, but because as babies grow they open up and reveal themselves, often revealing unexpected delights and great beauty.
To create or appreciate a metaphor we need to get below the obvious and the literal. We need to think in depth and to integrate our understanding and create links between previously disconnected bits of information.
In McREL’S ‘Classroom Instruction That Works’ we explore the powerful learning strategy of looking for similarities and differences. When we sort through new information and compare and classify it, we are making sense of what we are learning and finding sensible ways to connect this new knowledge with what we already know about the world.

The interpretation and, even more powerfully, the creation of metaphors, takes thinking to a different level of abstraction. It encourages students to look beyond the literal, to become more subtle and nuanced thinkers, There in lies the power of the metaphor in learning.
Which brings me back to an earlier blog about poets and about Einstein.
Where is our richest store of metaphor? In poetry. And how prominent is poetry in your curriculum? Is the focus on informational text relegating poetry to an optional extra?

Poetry has been a common thread running through the heart of every enlightened society. Not only because through poetry we are often able to touch the otherwise ineffable, sense the fleeting, more insubstantial but nonetheless essential aspects of lives. Poetry is the means by which we can learn to think beyond the literal and dig deeper into experience and our conceptual understanding of the world.

We deny our children much if we fail to foster their understanding of and love for poetry and metaphor.

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Amplify – it’s powerful, it’s also dangerous.

I have just watched a promotional video for a new piece of educational technology called an Amplify. It’s a tablet that has been specifically designed for the classroom and it is powerful.

Powerful is a word I often find associated with another word – dangerous.

You can read about it here:

http://www.informationweek.com/education/instructional-it/amplify-tablet-hopes-to-rule-schools/240150167

You can also watch a demonstration of the tablet here:

http://www.amplify.com/tablet/

OK. So what’s the danger? It looks wonderful.

We know from looking at successful school systems around the world that the teacher is the single most important influence in learning at school. Yep. It’s Finland again! The meta studies done by Robert Marzano reinforce this.

But what is the first thing the teacher does with an Amplify tablet at the start of the lesson? She starts the class by “pressing a button” and she checks who is in her class by looking at her screen. Whoa!  I thought the first thing a teacher should do at the start of a school day or lesson is establish a relationship with her class. I thought the most important thing was to look at the kids, scan the room, make a couple of encouraging remarks that set a tone of shared endeavor, not look at a screen and press a button.

So here is my first fear – that learning becomes mediated through the tablet rather than through the teacher, that learning ceases being a shared human activity and becomes an interaction between a screen and a student.

Of course this is not inevitable. We can hope that teachers will see that the Amplify is a tool to make the art and science of teaching more effective. But pressures on teachers, administrators and school districts are growing and the main pressure is to pass the standardized, multiple choice tests that are sweeping across and bedding down in GERM countries.

The Amplify tablet is the perfect device to train kids to pass these tests.

For example, the Quick Poll enables the teacher to run a fast true/false test to check on understanding. What depth of understanding can be evaluated when the only possible answers are ‘true’ or ‘false’? The demonstration suggests that instruction can then be ‘differentiated’ on the basis of these T/F results, but clearly this can only be at the most superficial level both in terms of the conceptual depth of the topic being studied and the learning needs of the individual student.

We see an example of a Khan Academy mathematics video on ratios – all good stuff. But the testing component is a perfect copy of the standardized test four point multiple choice questions with which we are all so familiar.

The example project completed at home by a student is a cut and paste affair from a collection of videos and information gleaned from the on board Encyclopedia Britannica, personalized by a photo taken by child.

The Amplify looks to be the perfect tool to prepare kids to take these tests, and because these tests have already shown their power to narrow the curriculum, to sideline creativity and the development of effective thinkers, to devalue and disempower teachers, the Amplify can also be dangerous.

It is instructional to note that Amplify is a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the CEO of Amplify is Joel Klein. Klein was the former Chancellor of New York City Schools and one of the primary drivers of high stakes standardized testing in the USA. He was also a powerful influence on Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Minister for Education Peter Garret and we are watching the debilitating effect high stakes blanket testing is already having in this country as standards fall instead of lift since the introduction of NAPLAN in 2008.

There is a saying “Follow the money”.  We have already seen the vast amounts of money being spent on testing instead of learning. While the Amplify sells at a more appealing price point that an IPad, there is a $99 per year ‘plan’ attached.

What a pity that we are not able to see the launch of such a powerful tool in a different environment. If only we were free of the testing straight jacket, if we trusted well trained teachers to do their job, if we valued thinking above remembering, creativity and innovation above the ability to repeat learned information. Perhaps then the Amplify would be just ‘powerful’ and not also ‘dangerous’.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Kid’s Temperature’s Too High – Put Him Outside In The Snow

Pasi Sahlberg has called it GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. It’s an apt acronym because it is infectious and it is doing us no good at all. In fact it is doing what all infections do – weakening us and making us vulnerable to all sorts of other opportunistic infections.

A GERM infection happens when policy makers see that something is wrong with education and instead of drilling down to find out what is causing the problem and then seeking solutions, they decide to measure what is wrong and then try and use that metric as a solution. That is tantamount to taking the temperature of a child with the flu, discovering that it is too high, and putting him outdoors in the snow.

In all GERM countries we see the same scenario:

  • blanket standardized multiple choice style testing of all kids – in the belief that this one test is a measure of the effectiveness of everything important that goes on the school
  • shock horror reactions to the results followed by the apportioning of blame – and the imposition of sanctions against low scoring schools and teachers
  • mammoth efforts to lift the scores in the next round of tests –  narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test, teaching of test taking skills, loss of free play time, development of scripted teaching programs that de-skill teachers, devaluing of subjects that are not tested
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The USA is deeply enmeshed in this epidemic with the majority of school districts GERM ridden. One of GERM’s prominent advocates Joel Klein invited Australia’s Prime Minister and Minister for Education to discover what the infection had done to his New York City schools. The inevitable happened. When you are exposed to GERMS you become infected. That infection is spreading through the Australian school population. You, dear reader, will know the severity of the epidemic in the schools around you.

There are a few school systems that remain immune to GERM – Finland is one – but without action this growing epidemic may become a pandemic.

The root of this problem lies in the belief that one standardized test, administered in the same way, to every child, in every school at the same time is capable of measuring the complex, rich, varied nature of education and, more importantly, is capable of measuring our children. It is not.

If you read this blog you already understand the important things that go on in schools. You also understand that the things that matter the most are the very things that a four point multiple choice question cannot measure.

What can you do?

Make your voice heard.

Within your professional organizations have this subject raised to the top of the list of concerns. Don’t let it languish at the bottom – too hard, too complex. It’s strikes at the root of our professional ethics if we meekly allow something so destructive to go unchallenged.

Write letters to the newspapers, contact talk back radio, contact your local politicians.

Talk to your parents, your local community groups.

Focus on what you know is important.

If you are a teacher, focus on helping the kids to learn and refuse to let your professional skills be diminished. Teach the curriculum with all the depth and richness you can muster. Don’t teach the test, teach the children! Make it clear that if you have to administer the test you will, but also make it clear that it has no significant place among the important things you are doing at school.

If you are a parent understand the pressures on teachers and let your voice speak for them. You have the right in Australia to refuse to allow your child to sit for NAPLAN tests. In the past the refusal of parents in Victoria to allow their children to sit for an earlier manifestation of NAPLAN  – the LAP tests – resulted in their lack of statistical validity as a measure of achievement and they quietly faded into the background. No one can discipline parents, you can’t have your pay docked or lose your job, if you pull your child out of the test.

Above all else –

THINK about what effect these high stakes standardized tests are having on education and then consult your own professional conscience and set of ethics.

How much are you prepared to tolerate?

You can listen to Pasi Sahlberg speaking in New York about GERM on this 18 minute video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdgS–9Zg_0

There is a much longer talk given at the University of Melbourne available at:

http://live.unimelb.edu.au/episode/how-finland-remains-immune-global-educational-reform-movement

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Is This Systemic Child Abuse In The Name of Education?

If there are two things that get my blood boiling they must be the devastating influence that high stakes standardized testing is having on schools, and hence our children, and the denial of time to play that accompanies this.

I had a wonderful opportunity when I was a school principal in the USA. Testing had finished and we were faced with the daunting task of keeping the kids focused and gainfully occupied during the last couple of weeks before the summer holidays. They sniff freedom in the wind at that time of year.

Adjacent to my school there was a open air swimming pool. It was a private subscription pool and none of my kids had ever entered the water of that pool. Around 95% of them were African American and about 60% were living below the poverty line. Private pool membership was not high on their parents’ priorities.

I received an unexpected phone call from the pool manager who offered us the pool for the next two weeks, complete with life guards. The season wasn’t due to begin until after school finished and he thought this would be a neighborly gesture.

I was delighted and immediately contacted all my teachers to see how they felt. They expressed the same enthusiasm and so we set about putting together a schedule so that the kids could all have several opportunities to go to the pool, with a particular emphasis on grades 3 and 5 who had just completed a tense week of testing.

I’m an Aussie, so this was all very familiar territory. In Australia we attempt to make all our youngest children  ‘drown proof’ with swimming lessons during school time. Sometimes it is held one morning a week for ten weeks but more commonly the little ones will go every morning for two weeks. The buses arrive in the morning, they head for the pool with their teachers and a few parents in tow, and return tired and ready for a quiet afternoon two or three  hours later. I was also used to being in charge of my own school. You see, in Australia – as in Finland – the principal actually has the authority to lead and to manage, to make decisions about staffing, budgets, how money will be spent, what contracts will be issued, how schedules will be formulated, what specialist teachers will be employed. I was learning, with great frustration, the straight jacket of micro management that was in place in my new school district.

And so I decided that I probably ought to inform my supervisor of my intentions and my plans.

That showed me my first mistake.

I had not asked permission.

The response was swift and final.

“This activity is not approved. It is an inappropriate use of instructional time.”

Apparently we were meant to spend the last two weeks of the school year getting the kids ready for the next year and the next round of testing.

We did have a field day, and some of the kids did get to have a dip in the pool. But that was all.

Every year I was there I struggled with the instruction that my kids were only to have 15 or 20 minutes of recess each day. I would walk around classrooms in the afternoons and see children dozing off at their desks simply because they had spent almost all of their day physically understimulated, sitting down or walking in lines from one room to another.

In my first year I submitted the daily schedules to my supervisors for approval. I had included a thirty minute ‘rest’ period each afternoon for my 4 and 5 year olds.

You guessed it. “Not approved. They are here to learn, not to rest.”

In the end I resigned.

Why does this all still upset me?

Because as long as we place such emphasis on high stakes standardized tests we will see more and more of this kind of thing. We will see the needs of childhood pushed aside in the interests of high test scores. I watch with dismay as Australia moves more and more closely to the USA model.

At the International Conference on Thinking in New Zealand last month, UNESCO had a stand. On the back wall was a poster with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Article 31 states:

“States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”

There are only three members of the UN that have not ratified this : Somalia, because there is no government in Somalia, South Sudan because it is such a new nation, and the United States of America.

We may be justifiably concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum, the superficiality of the tests, the loss of the arts because they are not tested. There is another consequence that must not be ignored – the loss of play.

In my belief system, to remove opportunities for free play from children is a form of child abuse. It is a systemic denial of a fundamental right of childhood. And schools all over the United States are doing just this and if we allow it we will see the same in Australian schools and any that subscribe to GERM.

A principal friend of mine in Australia had 23 plastic milk cartons delivered to the school and left in the playground. He watched what the children would do with them when left to their own resources and what he saw amazed and delighted him. The thing is, these children had a 30 minute free play recess mid morning and a 50 minute free play recess after eating lunch. How long will it be before our Australian policy makers decide this is not an “appropriate instructional” use of time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Aspirations

When I was an elementary school principal in Virginia we would have a wonderful lunch every months. Each school nominated a girl and boy Citizen of the Month and the School Board would host a sit down lunch at a local hotel. Each child would have an opportunity to stand up, give their name and describe their aspirations. Many, but not all, of these schools served high poverty communities.

What disturbed me most was the that the vast majority of boys would say their goal in life was to be a football or basket ball player. It seemed these were the only role models they knew, the only adult men they looked up to, the ones they most wanted to emulate.

I was, therefore, deeply impressed when I heard a TED talk by the educational scientist Sugata Mitra.

Sit back and be amazed for seventeen minutes as you watch it here:

One of the many things that struck me most deeply was his comment towards the end. He described the ten year old boy who wanted to be a footballer. After watching ten TED videos – he wanted to be Leonardo da Vinci.

This video as well as the one about Caine’s Arcade in my earlier blog both make me question everything we are doing in schools.

I have asked the question before about standardized testing.

Are we stopping our children from learning?

Perhaps the question has even broader application.

 

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