Tag Archives: reasoning

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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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.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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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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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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Distractions and Engagement

Everywhere I go now there are TV screens. In the doctor’s waiting room, at the car repairers, in restaurants, at airports. Everywhere. It’s as though we are being told that we don’t know how to amuse ourselves with our own thoughts or with a book.

I remember the great conversations we had as a family when our kids were small. We would go out to dinner every now and then and the new environment, the people around us, the occasion itself were spurs to some great discussions, lots of laughter and questions, questions, questions from the kids. They were curious and intrigued by everything. We relished the opportunities to interact with them and get them thinking about what they saw and heard.

I was in a restaurant last week and at the adjacent table was a family of five. The parents had their eyes pretty much glued to the TV screen on the wall in front of them, two of the kids were profoundly involved with their phones and the third just sat gazing into the middle distance. What else could he do? There was no one to talk to.

The disturbing thing was that my phone was sitting on the table on front of me, and it buzzed. My hand went almost instinctively to pick it up, to check out what piece of utter trivia or earth shattering importance was waiting for me. We were in the lull between having placed our order and receiving it. That space where you dip your bread in the olive oil and balsamic and try not to take too much edge off your appetite. It was the time when you check out the other diners, rearrange your napkin, ponder whether dessert is a likely option tonight. I knew if I picked up my phone, my companion would probably pick up his and there we would be, both tied by our eyeballs to our phones.  Conversation potential zilch!

When did we forget to talk to each other? When did the world around us decide that we could no longer be occupied with our own thoughts and the thoughts of others? Why are we allowing this to happen?

I think we are in real danger of forgetting how to engage – to engage with ourselves and with others. I fear that we are becoming immersed in a sea of distractions that tug us away from one another, and away from what goes on in our own heads. On our phones we flick from email, to twitter, to facebook, and back again. On our computers we hit link after link, scanning articles, leaving them half read and hardly considered as we move on to the next fascinating throw away tag line.

I think we need to learn a whole new set of manners about smart phone use in public. I also believe we need to teach our kids and ourselves to resist the temptation to flit about like intellectual butterflies from one distraction to another, from one hyperlink to the next. We need to teach our kids and ourselves how to engage.

It is possible to set an Ipad so that the opportunities for browsing are limited. With ‘Guided Access’ the teacher or parent can restrict usage to a single application and control which features are available. If your kids are using Ipads at home or at school for a specific purpose you can encourage them to stay on task, in focus and not be tempted to flutter off to the next pretty flower.

My son tells me of a great smartphone game when groups go out to dinner together. Everyone puts their phone in a pile in the center of the table, one on top of the other. The first person to pick up a phone should it ring or buzz has to buy a round of drinks.

Students easily become overloaded by the sheer volume of sources available to them when researching on the internet. Instead of allowing them to jump from source to source, teach them how to thoroughly investigate one or two. Show them how to determine the source of the information, encourage them to read to the end, ask them to compare and evaluate two sources on the same subject, for example www.crazydogtheoriesonhealth.com and www.mayoclinic.com or www.theearthreallyisflat.org and www.nationalgeographic.com.

Start a movement! The Bring Back Conversations Movement. Create a T shirt. Ask for a table where you can sit with your back to the TV in a restaurant. Design a bumper sticker. Start a conversation group.  Do whatever it takes to encourage people to communicate with clarity and precision and to listen with empathy and understanding.

In the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman I discovered that simply placing children in desegregated schools doesn’t appear to lead to greater racial interaction. Young children when dressed in either a red or a blue t-shirt at school will eventually choose their friends from those kids wearing the same color shirt. It seems to be that only when we talk about something can we begin to influence behavior. We need to talk to our kids about the need for conversation. We need to teach them how to participate. We should be encouraging them to explore the contents of their own mind and the minds of others and then to share their ideas.

It isn’t one thing or another. We should be teaching our kids how to be sociable users of social media. We should also be teaching them how to interact and communicate without always needing an electronic gadget as an intermediary.

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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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