Tag Archives: processing

What if testing is STOPPING our kids from learning?

Our schools continue to be run as if they were nineteenth century factories. We focus on standardization and its measurement. We process in batches. We talk about ‘value added’ assessment as if we viewed our children as raw material to be processed in some kind of assembly line. We focus on eliminating outputs that do not meet our predetermined standards of quality for the end product.

We do our best to standardize the inputs in the only way we know how – by original date of manufacture or birth date. We then develop processing techniques that we try hard to standardize across every factory/school . These are the curricula and teaching practices that are required in each school district in order for the process workers/ teachers, to get positive evaluations. We design cheaply administered tests to ensure that every end product/child meets the same criteria of successful processing/schooling. At the end of each processing year every module/child submits to the same test to determine the value added to the raw material. Faulty modules/children who do not meet the standard are reprocessed through either the repetition of the previous processing system or some form of modified processing, until they do meet the standard.

The core of the assembly line factory, the practice on which its products would stand or fall, was standardized measurement of quality. It is precisely this practice permeating current education systems, that will destroy education and ensure that our children fail in the 21st century.

Why? Because our children are not widgets and learning does not work like that.

Real, transformational learning takes place when we are fascinated by something, when we develop a passion for a subject. Our strength as a species comes from our diversity not our uniformity. Every child has the capacity to be fascinated by something different and our schools, with their standardized curricula and testing, do everything they can to stifle this diversity, to ensure that every kid learns exactly the same thing.

We learn best when we take risks, when we chance failure because even though it is really difficult material, it fascinates us enough to make the risks and the hard work worthwhile. I recall my horror when I was informed by a group of young women in the final year of their undergraduate degree that they were withdrawing from my subject because they felt they would not get an A and that would have a negative effect on their Grade Point Average. Our testing regime, our relentless focus on end of manufacture measurement, is stopping our kids from learning.

Seth Godin, in a recent TED talk (http://getideas.org/resource/seth-godin-stop-stealing-dreams/?v=1352307111) uses a powerful analogy.  He says that we are focused on getting our kids to collect dots and we measure success by how many dots they have accumulated by the end of the school year. Instead, we should be teaching them to connect the dots, and this we are failing to do.

There is only one thing we need to focus on in education – thinking. Google has made the belief that there is some set of facts that is somehow mandatory learning for every student an archaic notion. You cannot think without something to think about. The content of any curriculum should be determined and judged by one fundamental criterion – how does it advance the students’ ability to think?

We need more brave schools, prepared to turn their backs on the factory model and actually encourage kids to try to do things that are too hard. We need more people in positions of influence to say, “Our kids want to come to school every day. They are intrigued by the things we do every day. They create new ideas, they innovate, they take risks, they are excited about the things they have already learned and they want more. And I don’t care if they can’t pass your standardized test. We are doing something much more important. We are educating.”

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Our Kids Are Not Hamburgers

 “Education reform movements are often based on the fast food model of quality assurance: on standardization and conformity. What’s needed is a much higher standard of provision based on the principles of personalized learning for every child and of schools customizing their cultures to meet local circumstances. This is not a theory. There are schools everywhere that demonstrate the practical power of these principles to transform education.

 

Standardization tends to emphasize the lowest common denominator. Human aspirations reach much higher and if the conditions are right they succeed. Understanding those conditions is the real key to transforming education for all our children.” SirKenRobinson.com

 

It seems that every education system in the world is trying to reinvent itself. My interests lie mainly in two systems – Australia and the USA. Of course, neither of these can be understood without reference to what is going on elsewhere in the world. What bothers me is that the focus in both systems is on end points and how to measure if we have reached them.

 

In Australia there is no fudging that the development is all about curriculum, assessment and reporting. A complex process is afoot to write a curriculum (or standards, since we hope that the implementation and delivery will be left to the professional judgment of educators)and alongside that to design assessment materials that will measure in a standardized fashion the extent to which those end points have been reached at the conclusion of each school year.

 

In the USA we wait with bated breath as the Core Curriculum State Standards are implemented and each state develops its own standardized assessment tools.

 

In other words, both countries are standardizing a set of expected outcomes and a battery of ways to measure outcomes in a standardized fashion. For every child, in every context.

 

Since the standards cover schooling from K – 12, we are making assumptions about the kind of knowledge a child entering school today will need when he or she leaves school in 2025. Wow!

 

How many times I have listened to the experts tell me that we don’t know what the employment needs will be in five years’ time, let alone thirteen. The rate of technological, economic and social change is accelerating. Our kids walk around with cell phones in their hands today that do the work of large desk computers of five years ago – and more. Yet we believe we can reform education by setting standards for curriculum that specify the kinds of knowledge our kids will need when they leave school.

 

Don’t get me wrong. We need standards if we are not to flail around in a free for all soup of educational practices. The standards as expressed are sound and significant but the dangers lie in the implementation and evaluation.

 

Let’s not fall for the standardization myth, the one that says unless every kid reaches the same standard with the same material in the same time frame, our system has somehow failed. Our kids are not assembly line products. The assembly line, quality control model works well for cars and hamburgers. We can control and standardize inputs, ensure a high, common standard of processing and then evaluate each item as it rolls off the end of the line.

But some kids grow up on farms and others in high rise tenements, some kids love to bury their noses in books, others need to push their bodies around, move and do stuff with their hands. Some kids’ brains are eager to accept abstract concepts at an early age and some want images, pictures and sounds with their learning. Some kids can’t sit still. And we really don’t have a clue what they will need to be successful in thirteen years’ time – except for one thing. They will need to be able think flexibly, creatively, effectively and efficiently. Whatever the world looks like in 2025, we know this ability will be a foundation for whatever their lives look like.

 

My hope is that as we continue to reform our education systems in Australia and the USA we don’t lose sight of the fact that the declaration of standards needs to remain flexible, adaptive to the needs of kids and open to change. The teaching of thinking needs to be explicitly embedded within the standards. It should be foundational, not incidental. In addition, our methods of assessment need to reflect the rich and totally desirable variation among children. We limit our aspirations when we expect every child to meet the same set of expectations, whatever they may be, and penalize those who do not.

 

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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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Pollyanna, Move Over!

It’s all about optimism. Not the ‘walking about with a mindless grin on your face’ sort of optimism. Not the Pollyanna version either. It is the kind of optimism that underlies the belief that I can probably solve this problem, and even if I don’t, I will have learned a lot along the way.

When my daughter was six she went through a tough time at school. It was no different from the kinds of problems most children face as they learn how to get along with people. Every day we would ask her about the problems she was having. And things kept getting worse.

As a circuit breaker we decided that from now on we would not greet her with questions like “Did Christy give you a hard time today?” Instead we would ask her to tell us some of the good things that had happened. Only when we had a couple of those on the table would we give her the opportunity to explore any of the problems. It worked. Gradually she began to enjoy school again and the morning grizzles disappeared.

I started thinking more about this a few years back. I was attending a couple of lectures as a wifely duty.  You know the sort of thing – it’s important to him so I must fly the spousal flag. Sitting in the lecture theatre it occurred to me that I had a choice. I could maintain my ‘bored but supportive’ stance, or I could look for something interesting. I could make a choice, and I did. There was a lot that I didn’t understand, but within that unfamiliar territory I discovered several fascinating way points. And it got me wondering.

Why do we bother? What is it that makes some people bound through life while others lurk in the shadows? Why do some kids stride forward bravely at every challenge and others stand at the back, scuffing their feet and looking at the ground? Maybe it is because they have lost their optimism, the belief that they will succeed and even if they don’t they will have enjoyed trying and will have learned some new things along the way.

As adults we can help our kids preserve their optimism. They certainly come with it into the world. No baby ever doubted he would talk, or walk, or run. Watch the determination of the toddler to climb up on the couch and you see optimism in action. Our five year olds enter school filled with optimism and eagerness to learn. When I taught a combined grade one and two I used to think I could walk into the room with large sheets of newspapers, tell them we were going to spend the next half hour tearing them up into tiny bits and they would all cheer. They were enthusiastic about everything in life, so optimistic. It’s around grade three that we start hearing them say “I can’t do that”. What goes wrong?

I think one of the things that goes wrong is that we start to focus too much on the end products of kids’ efforts, rather than on the processes. We do the same thing with adults. By doing this we create too many failures. Too much failure makes us into pessimists.

I am trying hard to be an artist. Not all my paintings work. Sometimes the best thing I can do with a finished work is to paint over it with white paint and start a new one. What was that painting? A failure? If that’s the case then I ought to put away my brushes because I have a lot of ‘failures’. But I learned so much about composition, about mixing colors and about what not to do next time. So the end product may not have been a success but the process certainly was. I learned stuff and kept my optimism intact.

A class of seven year olds has just had a spelling lesson that focuses on the spelling pattern ‘ph’. They have made lists of ‘ph’ words, and looked for ‘ph’ words in their reading. At the end of the week there is a spelling test and one little girl spells the word like this: ellephant. The teacher marks it incorrect and the tally of failures for the week goes up by one for that child. If mention had been made of the correct initial letter, the correct number of syllables, the correct terminal letter and the correct use of the ‘ph’ she would have had a 4:1 ratio of successes over failures and come out way ahead. Optimism preserved!

If we want our kids to become skilled thinkers, to exercise the Habits of Mind that characterize successful people,  we need to ensure they remain optimistic thinkers who believe that they will gain as much from the acts of thinking and trying as they will from the end product.

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The Flour Mill In My Head

I love analogies. So much so that I sometimes get into trouble for using them too frequently. Perhaps this is because I am also a painter, drawn to strong images that tell a story bigger than just themselves.

There is an ongoing debate in the world of education about the relative merits of the teaching of facts over the teaching of the skills involved in the manipulation of those facts. The growth of testing is a partial cause of this argument. One of the dangers of multiple choice standardized tests is that they can become very information heavy, requiring students to remember large swathes of factual knowledge or to perform automatic skill routines. To do well in these tests students need to know the parts of a flower, significant dates or the names of presidents and prime ministers, or they need to be able to load the required numbers into the multiplication or division machines in their heads and crank the handle, spitting out the right answers. We need tests that can be readily and cheaply graded and analyzed by computers . I think it is possible to design multiple choice tests that require creative, divergent thinking, but it isn’t easy and we don’t see too many of them.

As tests become more and more important to teachers and schools, we find curriculum gradually morphing to resemble the tests more and more closely. Teachers become more agitated as they find themselves required to focus on making sure their students remember the facts and the routines. Curriculum begins to serve the tests rather than the tests serving curriculum.

What’s wrong with this picture? Here’s where I want to resort to an analogy. A flour mill takes in grain, feeds it through grinding processes and produces flour. The process of milling cannot take place without the grain. Teaching our children how to think is analogous to the grinding process, making them able to mill the facts effectively and efficiently, to produce quality end products, namely worthwhile, well judged, reasonable, creative thoughts. But you can’t grind flour without grain and you can’t think without information to think about. The facts we teach our children are all the grist to the mill. They should never be seen as an end in themselves. Just as some grains make certain kinds of flours for specific different purposes, so too do we need to select the facts we teach to suit the purposes of our educational system. But grain without milling will produce nothing, and neither will the teaching of facts if we fail to teach children how to think effectively about those facts.

So let’s change our perspective and see the teaching of facts for what it really is – the provision of the essential raw materials for the teaching of thinking rather than an end in itself.

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The world is a very big pond.

When I decided to become a classroom teacher of young children I was more than a little surprised to     discover that I would also need to learn how to teach them to swim. This was several decades ago in Australia, but even today Aussie kids are expected to be ‘drown proofed’ before they leave grade two.

The first task was to help them feel at home and safe in the water. We encouraged them to put their faces in the water, to splash and be splashed, to venture out of their depth but with something to hold onto. As their confidence grew and as they learned about doggy paddle, and a rudimentary stroke, they began to venture into deeper water. Soon they were confident and skilled enough to venture into the deep end without fear of sinking.

It’s a useful analogy. The world outside the school is a pretty big pool and in parts the water is very deep. It’s easy to drown out there. We see some kids who leave school and continue to play in the shallows. Others plunge in fearlessly, take on big challenges, and hopefully have the skills they need to make sure they can swim safely among the bigger fishes.

It’s my belief that if we teach our kids how to think effectively we are giving them the skills they need to negotiate the uncertainties of deep water and the pressures of the tides and currents that will pull them this way and that throughout their lives. Thinking will help keep them safe in the deep end.

I am looking forward to exploring how we can best teach our kids to think in the deep end. I will be sharing my thoughts but I also look forward to hearing the ideas and experiences of others. It is always encouraging to explore with like-minded people, but it is very exciting to find yourself changing your mind about a long held belief because of the power of an alternative argument. I love to be challenged.

So tell me, amid the pressures of each day, in the classroom or in the home, how do you make sure your kids are thinking and not just remembering, are working it out and understanding and not just doing as they are told?

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