Posts tagged ‘assessment for learning’

Engaging math for all learners

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The UK extends its revised secondary (high school) national curriculum to 15-year-olds from September. The focus is on engagement, and in particular engaging all learners — regardless of ability — with rich, varied and compelling math activities.

And to reflect the new priorities, the UK’s public examinations — the General Certificate of Secondary Education GCSE — will boost assessment of applications and problem solving from 20 per cent to 50 per cent.

“This does not mean that technical competence is no longer important, rather that just being able ‘to do’ mathematical techniques will not be sufficient,” writes Sue Pope of the UK Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency* in Mathematics in School.

“Students will need to be able to think for themselves and decide when and how to use their mathematics to tackle problems within mathematics and in other contexts.”

The new curriculum is ambitious and defines “an entitlement of experience for all learners.

“Rather than labelling learners and restricting access, the richness of the entire progamme of study needs to be made available to all,” says Sue Pope. “Whilst this may seem daunting, particularly if you are used to teaching level by level… it can also be liberating.”

Mick Waters, director of Curriculum at te QCDA: “If we want young people to do well in mathematics, it helps if they enjoy the subject… to see that the subject is fascinating and exhilarating, to see the way it affects everyday life and helps to change the world in which we live.

“We have to strike a balance between the challenge of incremental steps in understanding, knowledge and skills, and the joy, wonder and curiosity of learning.

“It is not about ‘basics’ and ‘enrichment, all children should have a rich experience.”

For students to develop problem-solving and mathematical thinking schools “their classroom experiences need to be rich and varied”:

A rich mathematical task…

❏ Engages everyone’s interest from the start,

❏ Allows further challenges and is extendable,

❏ Invites learners to make decisions about how to tackle the activity and what mathematics to use,

❏ Involves learners in speculating, hypothesis making and testing, proving or explaining, reflecting, interpreting,

❏ Promotes discussion and communication,

❏ Encourages originality and invention,

❏ May contain and element of surprise,

❏ Is enjoyable,

❏ Allows learners to develop new mathematical understandings.

The QCDA worked with some 30 UK schools to develop programs of rich tasks aimed at “combining understanding, experiences, imagination and reasoning to construct new knwledge”.

Tasks and case studies are spelled out in the downloadable Engaging Mathematics for all Learners.

*Shortly after the election of a new Conservative government in May, the UK Department of Education announced legislation will be introduced in the autumn to close QCDA.

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June 11, 2010 at 7:13 pm Leave a comment

Grading gets an F

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THE PRINCIPAL of my school has bravely initiated a discussion about whether or not D and F grades should be used by teachers. The argument goes along the lines if D and F grades are ditched then teachers will need to work with their pupils to find the success within every student.

Ds and Fs don’t motivate or promote learning. Finding success does.

Ds and Fs have enshrined the out-dated pedagogy that grading is about sorting and ranking, that students need to be judged in comparison with one another.

The result of such alpha-numeric grading is that the traditional idea of the “good” student — the students who most closely resemble the aspirations of their teachers — is the scale against which students are judged; learning is demonstrated by turning homework in on time, doing well on quizzes and tests and putting your hand up to answer questions while not talking out of turn.

The result of such behavior is turned into a mathematically nonsensical percentage inside a computer, which then spews out the grade. And for many teachers that’s it.

If a student does not fit into this rigid mould, or cannot demonstrate learning by these criteria, then the result is F for Failure.

Yet the research should be pointing us to question this approach: Not only does this traditional way of measuring learning not reveal the learning going on among many students, it is actually an obstacle to learning for all students… the achievers as well as those who appear not to be getting it.

As part of the discussion in our school I was challenged in a meeting to summarize the case against alpha-numeric grading. I mumbled a few sentences as best I could for as long as it seemed polite to do so.

Then, later, I kicked myself for forgetting the key reason grading does not work. So, I decided to summarize in short sentence bites the best case I could muster for a two-minute contribution:

❏ Grades tell students nothing about what they need to do to improve.

❏ Grades tell students nothing about what they have achieved.

❏ Grades focus students on grades and collecting points, not on what they are learning.

❏ Grades introspectively focus students on ability, or their feelings of lack of ability, not on how they can work to improve.

❏ Grades destroy intrinsic motivation.

❏ Grades don’t measure learning: grades measure obedience, compliance and how well a student can jump through a teacher’s grading-policy hoop.

❏ Grades discourage intellectual risk taking.

❏ Grades divert the attention of teachers and parents as well as students.

❏ Grades encourage rote learning, memorization not reflection.

❏ Grades pit student against student, ranking and sorting.

❏ A grades require F grades. Grades force teachers to give Fs to justify the As. Grades work against finding the success in every student.

❏ Grades increase stress. Stress is bad for learning.

❏ Grades don’t describe learning.

❏ Grades throw students off the back of the boat.

❏ Grades discourage student collaboration.

❏ Grades reward skills not valued in later life, such as memorization.

❏ Grades demoralize and demotivate.

❏ Grades label and stigmatize.

❏ Grades are part of an out-dated carrot and stick, rewards and punishment behaviorist approach to education.

❏ Grades lower the self-esteem of low achieving students and discourage risk taking among higher achieving students.

Readers will find plenty of links elsewhere in this blog on the research behind these statements. But a good start would be From degrading to de-grading by Alfie Kohn.

October 21, 2009 at 9:05 pm 1 comment

UK moves closer to ending damaging tests in favor of teacher judgement

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UK SCHOOLS are further ahead than most of their competitors in developing and using formative assessment, assessment for learning, in classrooms. But the pressures of traditional testing still appear to be holding back further progress.

In 2005 the UK’s chief of Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ken Boston, predicted that external summative tests for 11-year olds and 14-year olds will eventually be replaced by moderated teacher assessment, possibly by 2015. He said that teachers in England will one day be allowed to select tests for their pupils from a bank of assessment tasks and tests and choose when the tests should be taken.

Research focussing on a cohort of pupils over eight years, extending from before the introduction of national testing for seven-year-olds in the UK, has revealed that after the introduction of the external tests, teachers’ own classroom assessment became more summative.

Before the introduction of tests, pupils felt that teachers’ assessments helped their learning but they later noticed that their teachers increasingly focused on performance outcomes rather than learning processes. Pupils themselves began to adopt summative criteria in commenting on their own work.

Reporting on the findings, the pamphlet The Role of Teachers in the Assessment of Learning concludes that opportunities to help learning — and reduce the gap between higher and lower achieving children — are being missed.

The pamphlet has been produced by members of the influential UK Assessment Reform Group as part of the Assessment Systems for the Future Project funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

“Worse perhaps is the distorting effect on assessment for learning… Many (UK) schools give the impression of having implemented AfL when in reality the change in pedagogy that it requires has not taken place. This may happen,for example, when teachers feel constrained by external tests over which they have no control. As a result they are unlikely to give pupils a greater role in directing their learning, as is required in AfL, in order to develop the capacity to continue learning throughout life.

“The nature of classroom assessment is dictated by the tests.”

The report acknowledges that the use of teacher assessments for summative purposes is not without its problems. But, it adds, these problems need to be judged against “the ample evidence that a system based on tests is flawed”.

“Systems relying heavily on tests results are found wanting in several respects, particularly in their ability to give a dependable, that is, both valid and reliable, account of pupils’ learning… the negative consequences of summative assessment for learning and teaching can be minimised by more appropriate use of teachers’ judgements” it concludes. It adds:

❏ Testing-based assessment fails to provide information about the full range of educational outcomes that are needed in a world of rapid social and technological change and therefore does not encourage the development of these skills.These outcomes include higher-order thinking skills, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, the understanding of how to learn, and the ability to work and learn collaboratively in groups as well as independently.

❏ It inhibits the development of formative assessment (or assessment for learning) which is proven to raise achievement levels and reduce the gap between higher and lower achieving pupils.

❏ The data it provides are less reliable than they are generally thought to be. For example it has been estimated that the key stage (KS) tests in England result in the wrong levels for at least a third of pupils at the end of KS2 and up to 40 per cent at the end of KS3.

❏ The weak reliability of tests means that unfair and incorrect decisions will be made about some pupils, affecting their progress both within and between schools and beyond school.

❏ There is no firm evidence to support the claims that testing boosts standards of achievement.

❏ It reduces some pupils’motivation for learning.

❏ It imposes stressful conditions that prevent some children from performing as well as they can.

❏ It encourages methods of teaching that promote shallow and superficial learning rather than deep conceptual understanding.

The authors also add the use of test results, from league tables to target setting, is “too simplistic”.

Much summative assessment restricts the range of learning outcomes that can be assessed and excludes many of the higher-level cognitive and communication skills and the ability to learn both independently and collaboratively. The high stakes attached to the results encourage teaching to the test and excessive practising of test-taking.

This can result in pupils being taught to pass tests even when they do not have the skills that are supposedly being tested.

A study commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) concluded that while drilling 11-year-olds to pass national tests is likely to boost results it may not help pupils’longer-term learning. The narrow range of learning outcomes assessed by tests contrasts with the broad view of learning goals reflected in the DfES Every Child Matters policy document.

The authors argue, it is crucial that assessment covers the learning that will be essential for young people who will live and work in a rapidly shrinking world and changing society. Two key sets of goals in any subject are:

❏ learning with understanding;
and

❏ understanding learning.

The first refers to the development of “big ideas” — concepts that can be applied in different contexts, enabling learners to understand a wide range of phenomena by identifying the essential links between different situations. Merely memorising facts or a fixed set of procedures does not help or a fixed set of procedures does not help young people to apply learning to a range of contexts.

The second set of goals relates to the development of awareness of the process of learning. It is widely recognised that ‘students cannot learn in school everything they will need to know in adult life’. School must therefore provide the skills, understanding and desire needed for lifelong learning. “Since what is assessed has a strong influence on what is taught and how it is taught, we must look critically at what is assessed. If the required outcomes are not included, then alternative methods of assessment are needed.”

❏ Testing can reduce the self-esteem of lower-achieving pupils and can make it harder to convince them that they can succeed in other tasks;

❏ Constant failure in practice tests demoralises some pupils and increases the gap between higher and lower achieving pupils;

❏ Test anxiety affects girls more than boys;

❏ Teaching methods may be restricted to what is necessary for passing tests (eg neglect of practical work).

Instead “the negative consequences of summative assessments may be minimized by giving teachers a greater role in assessing individual pupils” concludes the report.

Reports from the Assessment System for the Future project seminars can be found at: www.assessment-reform-group.org/ASF.html

A PiFactory review of the ARG’s earlier review of research on testing, Testing, Motivation and Learning is at The research gives testing an F.

February 16, 2009 at 8:47 am Leave a comment

Hope and change in my classroom

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AS A HIGH-SCHOOL teacher I’m hoping that the election of Barrack Obama will bring hope and change to my classroom. Even a couple of quite simple changes could make a huge difference.

So, I’ve been surfing and listening to the pundits to try to glean a clue as to what might be coming post 20 January. It’s been a bit up and down.

It was an up that in November President-elect Obama appointed Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford’s School of Education, to head his education policy transition team.

Her title is Policy Working Group Leader for Education, and, unlike some of the other Obama working groups, her’s is not a shared post. Her brief is “to develop the priority policy proposals and plans from the Obama Campaign for action during the Obama-Biden Administration”.

Many hoped she would go on to be the pick for Education Secretary.

Alfie Kohn, writing in The Nation, said Darling-Hammond “tends to be the choice of people who understand how children learn.

“Darling-Hammond knows how all the talk of ‘rigor’ and ‘raising the bar’ has produced sterile, scripted curriculums that have been imposed disproportionately on children of color. Her viewpoint is that of an educator, not a corporate manager.”

Darling-Hammond is a favorite of teachers as the unusual petition which called on President-elect Obama to appoint her to the Secretary of Education post attested with some 2,000 signatures. “Schools are not, and cannot be run as businesses and that’s where public ed. is headed. Linda Darling-Hammond represents true reform,” wrote Bonnie Demerjian from Wrangell, AK.

However, Obama has not appointed Darling-Hammond his Secretary of Education. That honor has gone to Chicago school chief Arne Duncan, who is not an educator and who, many argue, very much sees schools as businesses. On the eve of his appointment, Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spelling hailed Duncan “a visionary leader. He’s a guy who looks at results.

“He’s a terrific school leader. I consider him a fellow reformer and someone who cares deeply about students. He’d be a great choice,” she said at a ceremony to help Chicago’s mayor Daley and Duncan give out $350,000 in merit pay to some of Chicago’s teachers and school employees.

Time-CNN reported: “He’s considered by most to be a quiet consensus builder. In Chicago, his knack for forging alliances can be seen in his strong relationship with the local teachers’ union despite his embrace of reforms the union is leery of, including school choice, pay for performance and a willingness to close down failing schools.”

Introducing his new Education Secretary Obama said: “For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book, it’s the cause of his life.” Obama specifically mentioned pay-for-performance teacher salaries and charter-schools development as strategies with strong potential noted Edutopia.

In a video interview with Edutopia, Duncan said, “quality public education is the civil rights issue of our generation”.

(Edutopia also has a video interview with Linda Darling-Hammond on social and emotional learning to help develop the whole child inside the collaborative classroom.)

But the editor of Substance, “the newspaper of public education in Chicago”, George Schmidt says, “to portray Arne Duncan as anything other than a privatizer, union buster, and corporate stooge is to simply lie.”

Commenting on the Schools Matter blog Schmidt details some of Duncan’s policy actions:

❏ No bid crony contracts

❏ Militarization of Chicago’s high schools

❏ Opposition to continued court monitoring of meager desegregation plan

❏ Opposition to Federal oversight of special education progams

❏ Charter schools segregation

Sam Smith, who has covered Washington for 40+ years and has seen nine presidents, writing at Undernews also takes Duncan’s reputation to task: “If we’re going to insist on judging our children primarily by how well they score on tests, we should probably do the same for education secretary nominees. The problem is that it spoils the fantasy that the major media has been creating around Arne Duncan.”

Under the headline “Flunkin’ Duncan”, Smith examines Chicago’s test scores since Duncan took over in 2001: “To summarize what has happened in Chicago schools: not much. Bear in mind, that even where there has been improvement, it has amounted to less than a 1% increase in test scores over a five year period.”

“Duncan — like DC’s school chancellor Michelle Rhee — has fostered a dysfunctional rightwing, corporatized system of education that not only isn’t working, it is damaging our children as it trains them to be obedient worker-drones incapable of analyzing or understanding what is really going on about them.”

Smith lists the following dangers:

❏ Teaching our children only to give the right answers and not to ask the right questions.

❏ Grossly limiting education to fact accumulation and basic manipulation of data, leaving little time for analysis, creativity, judgment, philosophy, gaining social intelligence, as well as learning about, and participating in, the non-mechanical aspects of life such as art, theater and music. This system deliberately teaches our children not to think.

❏ Through the use of charter schools, turning public education into what was known in earlier times as pauper schools.

❏ Damaging communities by destroying schools, institutions that not only served students but their parents and provided commonality in ever more atomized urban areas.

Kenneth Saltman, associate professor in the department of Educational Policy Studies and Research at DePaul University in Chicago, and Henry A. Giroux of McMaster University in Canada, write on Truthout that “Duncan largely defines schools within a market-based and penal model of pedagogy… he does not have the slightest understanding of schools as something other than adjuncts of the corporation at best or the prison at worse.”

They place Duncan’s tenure in Chicago as serving the Bush agenda of destroying public education: “The hidden curriculum is that testing be used as a ploy to de-skill teachers by reducing them to mere technicians, that students be similarly reduced to customers in the marketplace rather than as engaged, critical learners and that always underfunded public schools fail so that they can eventually be privatized.”

And after reading their long and detailed description of Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 project, it is hard to give Mr Duncan the benefit of the doubt.

Arne Duncan’s appointment was a bit of a downer.

So, Obama has brought on board educator and former teacher Prof Linda Darling-Hammond and CEO Arne Duncan to be the team of rivals that will oversee public education for the next four, possibly eight years.

What will it mean?

Prof Darling-Hammond met with the Council of Chief State School Officers in November in a closed meeting to brief them on the likely Obama education themes. According to Education Week Prof Darling-Hammond outlined the Obama philosophy as…

❏ Teacher quality, early education, and innovation.

❏ Mend, not bend, No Child Left Behind

❏ No cuts in education funding

Well, President-elect Obama has already pledged $10 billion for early school education.

But will teacher quality be Duncan-style sackings if test scores are not met? Or Darling-Hammond collaboration in the classroom?

Or, do they have more in common than revealed in the blogs and articles? Both have talked of mentoring for teachers, for instance. Prof Darling-Hammond’s call for a Marshall Plan for Teaching sounds as dramatic and urgent as Duncan’s talk of education as the civil rights issue of our generation.

Well, I don’t pretend to know or be able to predict. I just remain hopeful, and frankly, for the moment I’m hoping for more Darling-Hammond change and less Duncan change.

I suspect that Prof Darling-Hammond is more likely to be sympathetic to making the few small changes I need in my classroom… ending the emphasis and priority given to alpha-numeric grading and frequent testing in favor of creating a collaborative classroom where students are free to develop the essential life skill of becoming critical and creative thinkers.

December 21, 2008 at 3:16 am Leave a comment

Assessment… a new sort of gradebook

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WHAT could authentic assessment look like in the classroom?

For four years I have been experimenting in my math classroom to replace percentage and letter grades with much more meaningful descriptive feedback.

There’s no shortage of percentage-based grade books for teachers. Punch in the numbers and out come the letter grades.assess_screen_02
Assignments built from learning targets with student self-assessmentassess_screen_04 They don’t tell the student what they need to do to improve… they don’t even tell the student what it is they have achieved.

They just divert the student’s attention with a meaningless letter grade from the essential tasks of learning. The frustrated and anxious student is left vainly to plead for extra credit in a bid to get more nonsense points.

The challenge is to create a gradebook that is not based on numbers and letters, but records descriptive progress and gives the student the sort of valuable feedback that describes just what it is they need to do to improve their learning.

Well, take a look at this powerpoint and let me know what you think.

The system is based on student-friendly learning targets. Assignments and questions are all linked to a learning target.

Against each assignment and learning target the teacher can record and feedback to the student a description — ranging from Starting through Getting it to Got it — and add a suggested revision learning target plus a customized study skill tip.

It also records the student’s own self-assessment of progress.

And rather than add up meaningless percentages, the system summarizes to what extent the teacher and student agree on their assessment of progress.

It can show a matrix of an individual student’s progress. Or, it can show, color-coded, the progress of an entire class.

Input screens allow the teacher to add questions (+ pictures, diagrams and equations), new targets, target notes and assignments — and link them together in a host of assignment designs.

December 14, 2008 at 11:14 pm 1 comment

Working inside the black box

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YET MORE research is now available to confirm that alpha-numeric grading and traditional testing not only do nothing to promote learning… but actually lower achievement.

Since the late ’90s the team assembled around Prof Paul Black at King’s College, London, has steadily chipped away at the traditionalist approaches to assessment with their Inside the Black Box series.

“In terms of systems engineering, present policies in the US and in many other countries seem to treat the classroom as a black box,” Black and Dylan Wiliam argued a decade ago. “Certain inputs from the outside — pupils, teachers, other resources, management rules and requirements, parental anxieties, standards, tests with high stakes, and so on — are fed into the box.

“Some outputs are supposed to follow: pupils who are more knowledgeable and competent, better test results, teachers who are reasonably satisfied, and so on.

“But what is happening inside the box?” they asked.(October 1998 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 80, No. 2.)

Their books and articles have since influenced tens of thousands of teachers and educational professionals around the world. But while their reasoning has changed both thinking and practice in the UK and Europe, it has yet to take a hold in US public schools which remain fettered by traditionalist, formulaic practice and teaching children to collect points.

Now Black, Wiliam and colleagues have produced a new series of slim pamphlets taking the argument further and giving specific advice and a wealth of teaching points tailored to key subject areas, with an overall summary Working Inside the Black Box.

The pamphlets, published by GL Assessment, focus on maths, english and science.

Working inside the black box means focussing on assessment inside the classroom with the priority of serving student learning: “It thus differs from assessment designed primarily to serve the purposes of accountability, or of ranking, or of certifying competence.

“An assessment activity can help learning if it provides information to be used as feedback, by teachers, and by their pupils, in assessing themselves and each other, to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged.

“Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet learning needs.”

Research experiments have established that, whilst pupils’ learning can be advanced by feedback through comments, the giving of marks — or grades — has a negative effect in that pupils ignore comments when marks are also given (Butler, 1988).

“These results often surprise teachers, but those who have abandoned the giving of marks find that their experience confirms the findings: pupils do engage more productively in improving their work,” says the Black team.

“The central point here is that, to be effective, feedback should cause thinking to take place… the assessment of pupils’ work will be seen less as a competitive and summative judgement and more as a distinctive step in the process of learning.

“The key to effective learning is to then find ways to help pupils restructure their knowledge to build in new and more powerful ideas… that learning was not a process of passive reception of knowledge, but one in which the learners were active in creating their own understandings. Put simply, it became clear that, no matter what the pressure to achieve good test and examination scores, learning cannot be done for the pupil; it has to be done by the pupil.”

Teachers in the UK involved in a two-year experiment demanded to learn more about the psychology of learning after working on such formative assessment practice in the classroom:”Learning is not just a cognitive exercise: it involves the whole person. The need to motivate pupils is evident, but it is often assumed that this is best done by offering such extrinsic rewards s merits, grades, gold stars and prizes. There is ample evidence that challenges this assumption.

“Pupils will only invest effort in a task if they believe that they can achieve something. If a learning exercise is seen as a competition, then everyone is aware that there will be losers as well as winners: those who have a track record as losers will see little point in trying.

“Thus, the problem is to motivate everyone, even though some are bound to achieve less than others. In tackling this problem, the type of feedback given is very important.

“Feedback given as rewards or grades enhances ego — rather than task — involvement. It can focus pupils’ attention on their ‘ability’ rather than on the importance of effort, damaging the self-esteem of low attainers and leading to problems of ‘learned helplessness’ (Dweck 1986).

“Feedback that focusses on the needs to be done can encourage all to believe that they can improve. Such feedback can enhance learning, both directly through the effort that can ensue, and indirectly by supporting the motivation to invest such effort.

“When feedback focusses on the student as a good or bad achiever, emphasising overall judgement by marks, grades or rank order lists, it focusses attention on the self (what researchers have called ego-involvement).

“A synthesis of 131 rigorous scientific studies showed this kind of feedback actually lowered performance (Kluger + DeNisi 1996). In other words, performance would have been higher if no feedback had been given.

“This is because such feedback discourages the low attainers, but also makes high attainers avoid tasks if they cannot see their way to success, for failure would be seen as bad news about themselves rather than an opportunity to learn.

“In contrast, when feedback focuses not on the person but on the strengths and weaknesses of the particular piece or work (task-involving feedback) and what needs to be done to improve, performance is enhanced, especially when feedback focuses not only what is to be done but also on how to go about it.

“Such feedback encourages all students, whatever their past achievements, that they can do better by trying, and that they can learn from mistakes and failures (see Dweck 1999).”

Quotes taken from:

Working Inside the Black Box, Dept of Education + Professional Studies, King’s College London by Paul Black, Christine Harrison, Clare Lee, Bethan Marshall and Dylan Wiliam

Mathematics Inside the Black Box, Dept of Education + Professional Studies, King’s College London, by Jeremy Hodgen and Dylan Wiliam.

❏ If this article was of interest, try… No prizes in points

❏ PiFactory’s descriptive grading rubrics can be found at: pifactory.net/catalog/assess_page_one.html

October 18, 2008 at 9:23 pm 1 comment

Rigorously challenged

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I WAS never clear what the word “rigor” meant. Mostly, it seemed to be used either by school administrators or by those teachers who seem to take pride in how hard their courses are. The no-pain-no-gain school of education.

A college professor teaching a math course I took last summer mused that he was also unsure what rigor meant, adding, “I think it means we write things down”.

Alfie Kohn tells, in his The Homework Myth, the story of a principal who was asked by a parent if his school provided a “rigorous” education. He hesitated, and added he was unsure until he’d consulted a dictionary. He returned and declared, “Good Lord, No!”

Inspired by this, I too consulted the definition of rigor even in that most traditional and quintessential US dictionary, Webster’s.

Ask me now whether or not my classes are rigorous and I would declare, “I hope not!”

Rigor dates from the early 1300s, the time of The Inquisition.

The Inquisition ruthlessly suppressed any creative or free thought, under the label of “heresy”, as well as the likes of a Galileo. Rigor in education seems to simply equate difficulty with quality. Difficulty for the sake of difficulty doesn’t seem to promote the enjoyment of free or creative inquiry.

I know teachers who boast of rigor in their courses. Some refer to other teachers as “the slacker teachers”. For them learning is about hard work, the harder the work, the better the learning. Kids get off too easy. The way to improve learning is to make it harder and then do repeatedly more of it. They point to their successes with pride but somehow seem to forget those who don’t make the grade. After all they didn’t work hard enough.

In this harder-is-better world, late or poor homework means an invitation to a mis-named after-school homework “party”. Failure to accept the invitation means a referral, detention.

It conjures up visions not so much of the 19th century sadism of Wackford Squeers and the crushing of the pathetic Smike in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, but certainly the pompous Blimber and his academy of Dombey and Son — “a great hothouse, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work.”

In the Dickensian Mr Feeder’s class, “they knew no rest from the pursuit of strong-hearted verbs, savage noun-substantives, inflexible syntactic passages, and ghosts of exercises that appeared to them in their dreams”.

Before that at Mrs Pipchin’s, Dickens describes the pedagogy as “not to encourage a child’s mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster”.

Difficult does not equal better. Difficult is a relative term. What is difficult for one student may not be so for another. What is difficult for a student this year, may not be 12-months down the line after the brain has gone through another year of development.

The question in the classroom should not be about difficult versus easy, it should be about finding what the Soviet educational psychologist Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development — that place between the actual development achieved by a child on their own and the potential development that they can achieve with the mediation of an adult or other students.

“The trick,” said Jerome Bruner (quoted by Kohn in The Schools our Children Deserve), “is to find the medium questions that can be answered and take you somewhere.”

Maximum difficulty isn’t the same as optimal difficulty adds Kohn.

Too easy and the student feels belittled, too difficult and the student feels stupid, alienated and likely to lose all interest in the subject.

Kohn adds this footnote: “One technique for finding just the right level of challenge for each student is so simple that few of us think of it: let the student choose. As long as the classroom doesn’t overemphasize performance, doesn’t lead student to think mostly about getting good grades or doing better than others, children will generally seek out tasks that are just beyond what they’re able to do easily.”

But in the rigorous classroom grades and sorting and ranking students are fetishes. Students who suffer the rigorists are never allowed to forget the grade, that’s the point. The percentages and grades are supposed to motivate, when in fact they do exactly the opposite.

Key to finding Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is collaboration with other students or the mediation of an adult in a cultural context. This clashes with another rigorist article of faith, that a child should prove ability in the isolation of high-stakes tests, based on lessons that are taught outside of a cultural context.

Kohn quotes educationist, reformer and philosopher John Dewey; the value of what students do “resides in its connection with a stimulation of greater thoughtfulness, not in the strain it imposes.”

Parents would be better served by asking not whether a course is rigorous, but whether or not it is engaging and meaningful.

April 26, 2008 at 5:45 pm Leave a comment

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