Tag Archives: gifted

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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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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Wow! Congratulations for Being Human

I have written about this before. It’s time to go a bit deeper. We have become hooked on a weird interpretation of praise. Afraid that our children might grow up with a less than optimal sense of self-esteem, we lavish them with praise for the oddest things. Little Mary comes home with 10/10 for spelling – yet again – and we tell her what a clever girl she is. Johnny wins the grade three running race and we frame his medal. But what has Mary really got to be proud of if she just happened to be born with the kind of memory that easily remembers and recalls visual spelling patterns? Why should Johnny feel a sense of achievement because he was born with longer legs and the kind of musculature that makes it easy for him to run fast? They really didn’t have to do much more than turn up in order to do well.

If we want our children to become people who strive to improve, who are prepared to put in the hard work it will take to solve the serious problems we face as a society, let’s start praising our children for something more than simply existing. Let’s praise them for the efforts they make.

We have far too many bright children in chains because we told them how clever they were for nothing more than being who they were. They are the ‘gifted under achievers’ whose sense of worth got all confused and mixed up with the innate gifts they were told they had, rather than the use they made of those gifts. These kids face the risk of losing who they think they are every time they face a challenge they may not be able to lick easily. Who wouldn’t back away when the odds are so high?

So what do they do instead? They deliberately fail by not turning up at tests, by failing to hand in work, they feel sick when there is an exam or they decide that they have a lousy teacher, a disruptive work group or too many personal problems. Their school reports are filled with comments about how they have “not reached their potential”. If my sense of self is tied to someone’s idea about my potential, it becomes a very risky business to try and reach it. What if it isn’t actually as high as everyone thought it was? What if I fail along the way? That will mean I am a failure.

Meanwhile the kids who knew that they had to earn praise by actually doing something are working hard to improve, seeing mistakes as pointers to the next things they need to learn. For them failure isn’t any threat to their self-esteem because they understand that their sense of achievement comes from getting better at things that are really hard in the first place. When these kids fail at something, they only become ‘failures’ if they give up. Carol Dweck describes this as having a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’. Check out her book “Mindsets’, it is well worth the effort.

It’s hard, but not impossible to help these kids remove the chains that hold them back, but it is far better not to forge them in the first place. Part of the secret is to praise effort rather than ability. Ability is more or less what we were born with. Why would we expect praise for something that had nothing to do with us? Being lucky enough to come from a particular gene pool, be born in a particular social stratum in a prosperous country may be cause for gratitude, but not for pride. So keep the praise for what our children DO rather than who they are.

The very act of providing praise can restrict growth and learning. Carol Dweck explains how it is that students who are praised for being clever can actually perform more poorly on tests, including IQ tests, when compared with those who are praised for putting in effort. Dr. Arthur Costa, in his teachings on Habits of Mind advises us to hold back on judgmental responses when a student answers a question in class. Praise for an answer is praise for an end product rather than a process. Keep the praise for evidence of thinking going on, not for answers. I have seen thinking simply shut down in the room when I have responded to a student with something like, “That’s great Mary, good answer.” Everyone thinks “why bother? Mary’s hit the nail on the head. No more work needed”.

We certainly need to acknowledge the responses of students in class, but save the praise until the thinking work has been concluded. And even then, direct it towards effort not just cleverness.

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If You Love Me, Let Me Fail

We need to make sure our children are not denied the right to fail. They need to experience the privilege of coming second, fourth or, sometimes even last.

Why is it a privilege?

Because it will teach them something of enormous value.

I grind my teeth when I see a younger brother or sister being given a gift when it is the other child’s birthday. “It’s just so he won’t feel left out” is the justification. Well, it’s OK to feel left out sometimes. In fact being left out sometimes may be the only way to develop empathy, to understand how it feels to have to put your own wants on hold in favor of someone else’s. Listening and responding to the world with empathy and understanding grows out of having experienced some of the world’s woes.

I worry for the children who invariably get A’s or 10/10 in tests. They are heaped with praise and the expectation in their own minds, as well as those of their parents and teachers, that they will always shine, always come top of the class. They can answer every question correctly and faster than their classmates. They are learning that they invariably know best. But these students often hit the earth with a thud in their fragile adolescent years. That is when the work begins to really challenge them and they find they have never developed resilience, persistence, flexibility and the organizational skills that are needed to deal with really hard work. They haven’t learned how to learn from others. These gifted students find themselves overtaken by the less innately able ‘battlers’ who discovered how to solve problems cooperatively, to learn from failure, to get back up again and try a different approach.

An understanding of the value of the ‘other’ is what makes us seek out the ideas and insights of other  people. The child who never has to give something up for someone else, who never puts his needs second, will continue to see himself as the centre of all things. Thinking interdependently, and listening and responding with empathy and understanding require a degree of selflessness and the capacity to accept that someone else’s ideas and experiences might actually be more valuable than our own.

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