Tag Archives: GERM

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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Tests for Non Thinkers.

I had the good fortune to work for a year as the assistant principal in a school for gifted children in grades 3 to 5. It was good fortune because I had an enlightened principal who trusted her group of enthusiastic and skilled teachers to stretch her kids, to engage them and to teach them how to think.

The one blot on the landscape during the year was the round of high stakes standardized testing we endured. The powers-that-be had demonstrated a smidge of wisdom because at least they made these tests untimed.

And therein lay a problem for some of our kids.

It was one of the early days of the testing period and   the time when the school buses would arrive to take the children home was rapidly approaching. One lad was hunched over his desk still struggling with the last test for the day. Very few bubbles had been filled in on his scantron sheet and he was chewing the end of his 2B pencil in frustration. The principal was getting anxious because the buses simply couldn’t be held up if he hadn’t finished the test, but at the same time, it was an untimed test. What to do?

Finally she asked the boy what the trouble was. She knew how bright he was, she knew he should be able to blitz this test. He shook his head and replied, “I just can’t decide which one to choose … it’s so hard having to choose only one”. She smiled, reminded of the the criticism of multiple choices for gifted kids – they can often find a reason why each of the four choices might be right.

“Just answer the questions the way any regular kid would” she advised him.

“Really?’ His face lit up and the test was completed without further hesitation.

What was going on here?

This boy was proving something we all know about these awful, simplistic, multiple choice, fill the bubble tests.

You can’t do them if you think too hard.

This was a child who thought deeply, creatively, saw all the angles, all the possibilities.

This kind of test was not for him.

This kind of test was for the quickly recalled facts, shallow thinking, crank-handle-turning routines and glib formulae that are remembered for the test and then forgotten.

It was not a test for thinkers.

And here’s the problem.

We are creating a generation of kids who are being educated to pass tests that are NOT DESIGNED FOR THINKERS.

Does that worry you as much as it worries me?

 

 

 

 

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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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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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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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“PISA:It’s Poverty Not Stupid” – maybe.

I have just finished reading Mel Riddile’s analysis of the 2009  PISA results published in the NASSP blog “The Principal Difference’ in 2010.

His argument basically is that if we divide the USA population of tested students according to levels of poverty and then compare them with other countries with similar levels, we find we are not doing too badly. He argues that US schools with less than a 25% poverty rate score a creditable PISA score of 551 for the less than 10% population and 527 for the 10% – 24.9% population) – better than any of the other countries with similar (overall) poverty numbers. I’m no statistician, but it seems to me that comparing a select group from the USA (only those schools with less than 25% poverty rate) with an entire country with a poverty rate of less than 25% is not comparing like populations. He concludes that the problem with the US reading scores is basically caused by poverty.

This misses the point – that growing levels of poverty may well be the result of problems with education. Classic chicken and egg stuff. The success story of Finland began forty years ago when poverty levels were far different from what they are today. The restructuring of the education system went hand in hand with a growing social equity.

We know this to be true – education is the path out of poverty. It follows that famine, pestilence and natural disasters aside, a growing level of poverty suggests a failure of education.

An extensive analysis of results in the light of social equity can be found in the report “PISA 2009 Results:  Overcoming  Social Background Equity in Learning Opportunities  and Outcomes (Volume 2).

OECD analysis of their test results leads the report to state:

“GDP per capita influences educational success, but this only explains 6% of the differences in average student performance. the other 94% reflect the potential for public policy to make a difference”.

You might protest that growing income inequality in the USA makes a measure such as GDP per capita an unfair yard stick, and in a sense you might be right. But why is there such income disparity? Because a growing segment of the population does not have the educational opportunities to access higher incomes through better paying jobs. Once again poverty and schooling are inextricably linked.

My conclusion?

It’s not poverty. It’s certainly not ‘stupid’. It’s a complex interplay between schooling and poverty, an interplay in which schooling is letting down too many of our kids and leading to an increasing number of them facing futures of poverty.

Mel Riddile says “Instead of looking to low-poverty countries like Finland for direction, we should be looking to take what we already know about educating students in high-performing, high-poverty schools …”. I respectfully disagree – in part. Indeed we DO need to look at countries where a long term vision has created social equity in education where it once did not exist. We must look beyond our boundaries, to resist the “curse of riches” and learn from others.

And yes, we must stop labeling schools as failing. Instead we must recognize that it is the system that is failing and any remedy will be systemic, not school by school. Finland has developed a SYSTEM that ensures there will be no failing schools. We are trying to fix the problem by looking at one school at a time.

We need systemic change.

 

 

 

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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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