Tag Archives: remembering

Inspiration

I spent some time in an inspirational state primary school on the outskirts of Melbourne last Friday. It got me thinking about the inspirational moments in my own schooling and who the teachers were who inspired me … and why.

Grade 3 Mr Ross: I remember him writing us a letter from New Zealand where he was spending his holiday. When he came back to school he taught us a Maori song.

Grade 6 Mr Quinn: he was kind.

Year 7 Mr Ok***e: I spent a year with a caliper on one leg and he would ‘keep an eye on me’. I remember him letting me have his chair rather than sit on the floor during a whole school assembly and telling me I didn’t need to pick up papers during a litter drive.

Year 9 Mrs Burs***i: She taught us French, brought French cakes into school one day and lent me a paperback novel ‘Dickon Among the Indians’ because she thought I would enjoy it. She was also reputed to wander about her garden topless so there was a frisson of scandal about her.

Year 11 Mr Gr**t: because he was handsome and I was young and impressionable.

Year 12 Mr Ma****e: who would become so engrossed in his English literature class that he would mutter “Damn their eyes” when the bell rang mid conversation.

Year 12 Mrs Eng**h: She gave up her Saturday mornings to take me painting and came in an hour early one day a week to teach me. I was the only student in her year 12 Art class and she didn’t want to have me miss out on the opportunity to study Art.I have always felt I let her down because she said I was destined to become the first female director of the National Gallery.

Year 1 University: my English professor, a frail elderly man, entered the lecture theatre, stood behind the lectern and sang one of the Border ballads. It brought tears to my eyes because it was so moving.

What stands out in this recollection?

The teachers who inspired me did so because of their passion, their ability to extend my view of the world, but most of all because they connected with me as a person, they cared and they demonstrated their caring. That’s why I remember them. They knew me.

It’s a very long time since I was at school but some teachers have never deserted me, they continue to reside in a corner of my mind and form part of the network of experiences that have formed me and my view of what education should be about.

I keep hearing that relationships are at the heart of successful teaching.

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Amplify – it’s powerful, it’s also dangerous.

I have just watched a promotional video for a new piece of educational technology called an Amplify. It’s a tablet that has been specifically designed for the classroom and it is powerful.

Powerful is a word I often find associated with another word – dangerous.

You can read about it here:

http://www.informationweek.com/education/instructional-it/amplify-tablet-hopes-to-rule-schools/240150167

You can also watch a demonstration of the tablet here:

http://www.amplify.com/tablet/

OK. So what’s the danger? It looks wonderful.

We know from looking at successful school systems around the world that the teacher is the single most important influence in learning at school. Yep. It’s Finland again! The meta studies done by Robert Marzano reinforce this.

But what is the first thing the teacher does with an Amplify tablet at the start of the lesson? She starts the class by “pressing a button” and she checks who is in her class by looking at her screen. Whoa!  I thought the first thing a teacher should do at the start of a school day or lesson is establish a relationship with her class. I thought the most important thing was to look at the kids, scan the room, make a couple of encouraging remarks that set a tone of shared endeavor, not look at a screen and press a button.

So here is my first fear – that learning becomes mediated through the tablet rather than through the teacher, that learning ceases being a shared human activity and becomes an interaction between a screen and a student.

Of course this is not inevitable. We can hope that teachers will see that the Amplify is a tool to make the art and science of teaching more effective. But pressures on teachers, administrators and school districts are growing and the main pressure is to pass the standardized, multiple choice tests that are sweeping across and bedding down in GERM countries.

The Amplify tablet is the perfect device to train kids to pass these tests.

For example, the Quick Poll enables the teacher to run a fast true/false test to check on understanding. What depth of understanding can be evaluated when the only possible answers are ‘true’ or ‘false’? The demonstration suggests that instruction can then be ‘differentiated’ on the basis of these T/F results, but clearly this can only be at the most superficial level both in terms of the conceptual depth of the topic being studied and the learning needs of the individual student.

We see an example of a Khan Academy mathematics video on ratios – all good stuff. But the testing component is a perfect copy of the standardized test four point multiple choice questions with which we are all so familiar.

The example project completed at home by a student is a cut and paste affair from a collection of videos and information gleaned from the on board Encyclopedia Britannica, personalized by a photo taken by child.

The Amplify looks to be the perfect tool to prepare kids to take these tests, and because these tests have already shown their power to narrow the curriculum, to sideline creativity and the development of effective thinkers, to devalue and disempower teachers, the Amplify can also be dangerous.

It is instructional to note that Amplify is a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the CEO of Amplify is Joel Klein. Klein was the former Chancellor of New York City Schools and one of the primary drivers of high stakes standardized testing in the USA. He was also a powerful influence on Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Minister for Education Peter Garret and we are watching the debilitating effect high stakes blanket testing is already having in this country as standards fall instead of lift since the introduction of NAPLAN in 2008.

There is a saying “Follow the money”.  We have already seen the vast amounts of money being spent on testing instead of learning. While the Amplify sells at a more appealing price point that an IPad, there is a $99 per year ‘plan’ attached.

What a pity that we are not able to see the launch of such a powerful tool in a different environment. If only we were free of the testing straight jacket, if we trusted well trained teachers to do their job, if we valued thinking above remembering, creativity and innovation above the ability to repeat learned information. Perhaps then the Amplify would be just ‘powerful’ and not also ‘dangerous’.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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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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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Show Me How To Make Up My Mind. Please!

I really want my kids to be able to make up their own minds about things. I want them to check out the evidence, verify it, set it against what they already believe to be true, listen to what other people have to say, add a bit of direction thanks to their moral compass and then make decisions. How do we teach them to do this?

When I taught grade one and two I had a vigorous discussion with a parent because I was not ‘leveling’ the books that his son was bringing home to read each night. The practice was then, and still is in many schools, to classify books according to a set of rules about difficulty – sentence complexity, vocabulary, conceptual levels, they were all taken into account. Children were then tested to determine an appropriate level and they were required to select their reading from that level. I didn’t like this process one little bit.

Research has shown that children may initially select books that are too hard or too easy for them, but in a fairly short time they will develop the ability to self-select the books that interest them and are within their ability.

I wanted my kids to understand their own reading ability, to be metacognitive learners who could regulate and adjust their learning. This begins by knowing which books are too hard. I wanted them to take charge of their own learning by giving them the freedom to select a book with lots of really hard words and long sentences but about something that fascinated them. I wanted them to choose for themselves to struggle with something simply because it was worth the effort.

I had fallen in love with some books in my childhood because of the illustrations, the feel of the paper, the smell of the cover, and I wanted my kids to experience that kind of love affair too. My passion for some of these books had nothing to do with the length of the sentences or the vocabulary, nothing to do with the subject, but something about the heft of the book in my hand, the feel of the cover when I ran my fingers across it. These books would have been way outside my ‘level’.

I wanted to give my kids the experience of making choices so that they could get better at it.

When I became a principal I was able to have some influence over curriculum planning. In one school my staff created unit planners that were wonders to behold. They were created on huge sheets of paper and offered these primary level kids choices about the areas of the topic they would focus on, the primary learning styles they would use, the levels they were working in in Bloom’s taxonomy, the ways in which they would record and then share their learning. With oversight from the teacher, the kids would track their own choices to make sure they were stretching themselves and not stuck, for example, in only visual learning, written presentations, recall and description and working solo. They were being helped to be metacognitive learners who understood and regulated their own learning.

When teaching at tertiary level I have given students the opportunity to write their own exam questions. The only advice they were given was to write questions that would demonstrate how much they knew, and the more they knew (obviously) the higher the grade they could earn. Assessment was something they were doing for themselves rather than something that was being done to them.

How do you organize your teaching so that children are taught how to be metacognitive learners who understand their own learning and can make their own informed choices?

Why would we expect young people to make good choices if we haven’t taught them how?

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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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