Tag Archives: facts

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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PISA.PIRLS.NAPLAN. I’m going Crazy

Maybe it isn’t me going crazy at all. Maybe being out of step with a world bent on testing the life out of learning is the only sane way to be.

Check out this video. Sit back and watch for about 8 minutes.

Then tell me how you design a standardized, multiple choice test to assess these most fundamental learning skills – creative thinking, determination, persistence, observation, experimentation, planning, the ability to finish what you start – the list goes on and on.

Please! Do! Tell me how.

Because if we can’t test these skills and attitudes, if we value our educational practices and achievement on measures that ignore them, then what on earth are we measuring that has any deep meaning for what we doing with our kids?

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OK. It’s Finland again.

 

The more I read about the successes of the Finnish school system the more convinced I become that the key is in its teachers. You can check it out here.

http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com/

In Finland the length of the school day is shorter – that’s because great teachers know how to make the most of every minute. Many studies have revealed the enormous amount of time devoted to non-learning tasks in the classroom. Good teachers know how to organize a school day and a group of kids so that time is never wasted.

Time is provided in the school day for professional learning. Good teachers understand they are lifelong learners and are eager to build on their skills. They are committed to learning in their own lives.

There is no strict curriculum, no pacing guides, just broad outlines of areas to be covered. This is because the community and the authorities know they can trust teachers to do what is best. They believe they have the knowledge, the training and the intellectual discipline needed to make the best choices about what kids need to learn and when they need to learn it.

There is no ‘payment by results’ because there is a proven belief that all the teachers are good teachers. They do not gain entry to the profession until they have demonstrated that.

Children have around 75 minutes of free play each day because teachers understand that ‘the work of childhood is play’ and they understand how to integrate the things children learn in the playground with the things going on in the classroom.

Teacher candidates are selected from the top 10% of high school graduates. No one becomes a teacher in Finland because they couldn’t get into another course and because of good pay or long  holidays.

The profession is held in high regard and much is expected of teachers. It is more difficult to enter university to become a primary teacher in Finland than it is to enter medical school in some universities.

There is no whole scale testing of children until they are 16. Teachers are trusted to know what is needed and then to provided it.

30% of primary school aged children receive some form of additional learning support as soon as their teachers deem it necessary. Learning problems are addressed as they are revealed and noticed by highly skilled teachers.

93.2% of students graduate from high school in Finland compared with 76.82% in the USA. And in the USA we need to keep in mind the reality that this percentage is inflated by the “credit recovery’ programs that allow for a D graduation after the completion of a short summer course for failing students. Finnish students stay at school and succeed because they have had a history of quality teaching.

In other words the quality of the Finnish education system rests on the quality of the teachers.

The quality of the teachers is ensured by a demanding initial selection system and a lengthy period of professional preparation during which the ongoing suitability for teaching is constantly monitored.

You don’t get into a classroom in Finland if you are anything other than a highly skilled teacher.

 

Sir Ken Robinson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY) has commented that all over the world nations are tinkering with education. Mostly they look at rewriting standards and curriculum and then they work at designing tests.

What they fail to do, and the single thing that they MUST do, is look at the teachers.

Finland began reforming its education in the 1960s.

There are no magic bullets.

There are no short cuts.

If we don’t begin the hard work now, when will we?

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How Bad Can It Get?

Let me tell you just how bad it can get – this relentless striving towards the ‘benchmark’. It reaches a pinnacle in the creation of the Pacing Guide. This nightmarish document becomes the focus of everything the teacher does in the classroom.

How is it created? Not by evil trolls beavering away in subterranean caves, lit by the flickering fires of hell. No. It is created by well-meaning souls who believe they are doing Something Good for education.

And it’s done more or less like this.

A careful examination of past standardized tests reveals the sections of the mandated curriculum that have been tested most frequently as well as the number of questions that relate to each area of the curriculum.

Each section of the curriculum is given a loading based largely on the proportion of questions it attracted in these past tests. This analysis will form the basis of the content and timing of the Pacing Guide.

A curriculum is developed for each grade level based on this analysis, making sure that previously untested areas of the curriculum are not left out entirely, but ensuring that the topics attracting the biggest number of questions also get the most time.

The school year is broken up into, for example, nine week units. The curriculum is similarly divided.

A test is devised for the end of each nine week period. Its format will closely resemble the high stakes test to be taken at the end of the school year. It will test exactly what was in the nine week curriculum and its questions will reflect the same priorities that went into the decisions about the content focus – the more likely it is to be tested, the more we focus on it.

The data obtained from these nine week tests will be provided to principals quickly so that they can call to account every teacher whose students are not meeting expectations. There will be an accountability meeting with each of these teachers in the principal’s office.

We now have a system in place that provides a ‘laser-like’ focus on the material to be tested by the State. From time to time an Assistant Superintendent will visit the school and pop into classrooms. Her task is to make sure that on this particular Tuesday, or Friday, or whenever, every teacher is teaching exactly what is expected according to the Pacing Guide. The teachers know better than to deviate from the Pacing Guide because its content will be tested at the end of the nine weeks and they will be held to account.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE KIDS?

Let’s get something very clear here and now.

The role of the kids is to pass the tests so the schools are accredited and the district isn’t penalized.

The students’ task is to make sure the district doesn’t look bad.

This is how bad it can and has become.

It doesn’t matter if there is a violent thunder storm rolling about over the top of the school, fascinating the kids. We can’t talk or read or write about that. It’s Wednesday and the Pacing Guide says we should be learning about Mali.

It doesn’t matter that James has just come back from a holiday in Mexico and saw a parade on the Day of the Dead. He has photos, and a head full of questions. But it’s Monday and the Pacing Guide says we need to work hard on understanding the water cycle.

It doesn’t matter that Timmy still doesn’t understand the multiplication of fractions. He has to move on or he won’t have covered the rest of the topics by the end of the nine weeks. He can come back after school, at the weekend, in the summer … to plug the gaps in his understanding. We know that the building of mathematical understanding is a cumulative process and a misunderstanding now will undermine everything that comes next, but we just have to move on.

Yes, this is how bad it gets.

Perhaps the greatest evil of high stakes standardized testing is that it takes our eyes away from the children and focuses them instead on the tests themselves.

Children become sources of data.

Learning becomes something that is cut, sliced, packaged and weighed.

Until we rid ourselves of this impediment to education and find valid, humane, child centred forms of assessment, testing will continue to STOP our children from learning.

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Why is PISA getting such a bad rap lately?

I have been reading a great deal of educational comment recently questioning what is described as an obsession with PISA scores. PISA is the OECD’s three year survey of educational achievement of  15 year olds in science, mathematics and reading. Let’s get one thing clear from the start.

The criticisms have more to do with us and how we are using PISA, than it has to with the PISA assessments and data themselves.

Most of the criticism of PISA seems to be coming from the USA where there is an epidemic of standardized testing that has swept across the country, causing a significant malaise in education. In the USA we are looking at PISA as if it is yet another high stakes test. Viewed this way the stakes are indeed very high, because it is the nation’s education system that is been assessed – and found wanting. In Australia there is similar criticism, perhaps because although the nation’s 15 year olds still perform well above the OECD average, their edge is slipping.

I guess it is understandable that when you see a test is not treating you well, the first thing you want to do is find fault in the test. The problem is that we are focusing on the wrong things.

Finland has been lauded internationally for some time now because of its student achievement levels on all three PISA measurements – science, mathematics and reading. I listened recently to Dr Pasi Sahlberg, a life-long educator who was traveling in Australia earlier this year. He is currently the General Director of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, Finland and previously he was a Senior Education Specialist with the World Bank as well as the Director of the Centre for School Development, Helsinki.

Finland, it seems has a very different attitude to PISA and, in fact, to all forms of standardized testing. PISA testing just happens to be something that they do. It is not viewed with anything like the significance that countries caught up in the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) give it. In Finland students do not take any externalized standardized tests until they have finished high school – at around 18 years of age. They do not judge the quality of their education using PISA data, but they do acknowledge that PISA data reinforces what they already knew about their education – that they had excellent teachers and successful schools.

And they knew all this without ever having resorted to widespread standardized testing.

The problem with our way of looking at PISA is that we focus on the numbers (are we above or below the OECD average?) and the ranking (who is beating us?). Our efforts then are directed towards trying to improving the score, competing with the others and moving up the ranks (the Prime Minister of Australia is determined to have Australia back in the top 5% of PISA by 2025). We start asking questions about how to tighten and standardize the curriculum, how to ensure that everyone is teaching the things that are going to be tested, how to give our students the test taking skills they will need to be successful in the tests.

But PISA is far more than ranking tables and scores. If only we would take the time to examine the data we would learn much more about how to improve our education systems. We would discover that we will achieve nothing if we continue to focus on accountability and standardizing curriculum.

We know from PISA  that in the 2006 round of testing less than 10% of the variation in student performance was explained by student background in five of the seven countries with the highest mean science scores of above 530 points. PISA demonstrates that equity and performance are highly related. In Finland, equity is considered more important than excellence. Dr Sahlberg tells us that “we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system, and not so much on excellence and achievement like many other countries have done.”

What are we doing to ensure that all our young people have access to the same quality of education regardless of socio-economic circumstances? In Finland it is illegal to charge fees for any education program that leads to a qualification, because education is deemed to be a right for all its citizens. There are no private schools in Finland. If we only looked more closely at the PISA data we would see that equity, not accountability or curriculum, is foundational to high achievement.

In Finland it is virtually impossible for a ‘bad’ teacher to enter the profession. The demand for teacher training positions is so high that last year 2,500 people competed for 120 positions and the selection panel was able to cherry pick the best of the best. Teachers are not paid dramatically high salaries, but they are highly respected. According to Dr Sahlberg “it’s more difficult to get into primary school teacher education in Finnish universities than medicine.”

We could also learn much about student attitudes towards specific curriculum areas as well as their views on the world. For example, a majority of students reported in PISA 2006 that they were motivated to learn science, but only a minority reported interest in a career involving science. This information needs to be fleshed out if we are hoping to create a nation of innovation and creative development in the immediate future. Why is it that one significant feature of a student’s background in terms of science achievement was whether they had a parent in a science-related career? What is the significance of the fact that PISA reveals USA 15 year olds did not do well in mathematics and yet they feel very confident in their mathematical abilities?

It is disturbing to discover that there is some degree of pessimism among the students about the future of the natural environment. On average across OECD countries, only 21% of students reported that they believed the problems associated with energy shortages would improve over the next 20 years. Are we taking this into account when we review our educational priorities?

PISA is a powerful resource if we would dig more deeply and use it to do something more than hijack the ranking tables to justify a test taking industry that is capitalizing on our failure to think below the surface. In New York, Pearson Education currently has a five-year, $32 million contract to administer state tests and it creates and sells education programs seamlessly aligned with the high stakes standardized tests for students and teacher assessments they are also selling. Pearson reported revenues of approximately $9 billion in 2010. This is big business.

What a tragedy if the most tangible outcome of a comprehensive review such as the OECD’s PISA was to be the creation of a multi-billion dollar industry rather than a successfully educated generation of our nations’ children.

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Where Are The Poets and Where is Einstein?

In a recent blog I was fretting about the future of poetry. The problem is    actually wider and deeper.

Einstein said:

 “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.”

He also said of his most famous discovery:

“The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition”.

 

And so the inevitable questions are:

  • How do we test for imagination using a multiple choice Scantron sheet?
  • What are we doing to teach more than just the acquisition of factual knowledge?
  • Why is the teaching of music in decline?

A USA report by the Center on Educational Policy in December 2007 found that 62% of schools had increased the instructional time spent on the two major tested areas of English Language Arts and mathematics. It also found, unsurprisingly, that 31% of schools had reduced the time given to non-tested subjects. Another five years has made things worse. Some school systems, faced with budget cuts, have eliminated specialist music teachers from elementary schools altogether.

The reduction in time given to non-tested areas was found to be more prevalent in school districts that were considered in need of improvement. “In need of improvement” can virtually always be read as “high poverty”. If the trend continues we can expect to see the Arts become curriculum offerings for the affluent while the poor will be more and more denied the opportunity to share in these riches of our society, in the same way they are denied the more material riches.

The high stakes testing regime has been alive and kicking in the USA since 2001 and has had plenty of time to do its work on the Arts. In Australia the Federal government, for reasons known only to itself, and not to educators, is heading down the testing path of the USA – as usual about ten years later and just as the USA begins to wake up in more enlightened circles to the fact that this path leads nowhere desirable.

I was disturbed to find that although there was a weekly specialist music lesson, there was virtually NO classroom music in the school I lead in the USA. There was a smattering in the very youngest classes, but nothing more. I recall the astonishment on the faces of the kids and the teacher of one of my grade three classes when I went into the room and had them all stand up, follow me, and learn the song and actions to “A Pirate Went To Sea, Sea, Sea”.

When I was a classroom teacher my classrooms were always filled with music. The CD player was on my desk, we had quiet classical music in the background during writing sessions, we sang songs about numbers, about countries, about ideas. Music was a part of how the children learned.

Often the music was also associated with movement, so we were on our feet singing counting songs, clapping, jumping and stamping our feet as we sang our multiplication tables. I would make up short refrains to help children to learn how to spell difficult words so we could sing them as well as write them and recite them.

I interacted with the music teacher so that she could adjust her music program to expand on the things we were learning about in other curriculum areas, and so that we could sing the songs and play the music she had been working with when the children returned to my classroom.

Here is the problem. As the Common Core State Standards and the Australian Curriculum are implemented in their respective school systems, we can anticipate a flood of testing to follow close behind. Results will be made public in the name of some sort of ‘accountability’ – often more a search for someone to blame. That will increase the stakes for these tests and the inevitable slide will accelerate, as tested subjects take up more and more curriculum time and the non-tested arts subjects are relegated to the frills area of the curriculum.

We need to take at least two kinds of action.

Firstly we need to protest loudly and often if and when we see any diminution in the time and value given to the arts in our schools.

Secondly, we need to find ways to incorporate the kinds of learning that are facilitated by the use of images, non-linguistic representations, the translation of knowledge into visual media and the use of music in our classrooms, whatever we are teaching.

If specialist arts lessons are reduced, let’s bring them into all the areas of the curriculum that will be tested. Let’s teach our kids mathematics, poetry, grammar, science, social studies – the whole panoply – with color, with images, with music and with movement.

We need poets and we need more Einsteins.

 

 

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The need was never greater

I am a regular user of social media. It helps me keep in touch with friends and family all over the world. I have even found people again with whom I had lost contact through the twists and turns of the decades. But I have decided to absent myself from the political discussions that I find there. I will watch but try hard not to participate. Why? Because they are so disheartening.

We choose our friends, and in doing so we insulate ourselves from the more extreme edges of society, the places that are anathema to our own values and views of the world. But online we find ourselves linked in to a much wider and more diverse network as we see the posts of our online friends being responded to by their friends and contacts. From time t to time I have joined in. But no more – if I can help it.

The abuse, intolerance and failure to exercise reasoned judgment that I have encountered online have dismayed me. Never have I been made more aware of the need to teach our students how to think, how to examine evidence, to take in data from all sources, to listen with empathy and understanding to the arguments of others and to express their own thoughtful opinions with clarity and precision.

Let us hope that educators will do a good enough job to ensure that the next generation of voters is more informed, more thoughtful, more analytical and more just. They say that we get the governments we deserve. Our children deserve the best. It is our responsibility to ensure that as they grow and learn they are equipped to choose the best.

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