Posts tagged ‘Testing’

‘Just weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it’ — Obama hint on testing

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PRESIDENT Obama spoke, briefly, at his June 11 Green Bay town hall meeting on education as well as health… and gave a hint of some hope and change that may not be as bad as many educators feared when he announced the appointment of the militaristic, test tsar Arne Duncan as his education secretary.

Local teacher Matt Stein of 20 years challenged the president: “One of the things that I’ve learned in education in the last 20 years is that the system is not broken. And it bothers me when I hear politicians, and even my President, say that our educational system is broken.

“This system works in cases. There are great things happening in Green Bay and Appleton and all over the UP. And there are things that can be reproduced. My question is: When will the focus be on reproducing those things — smaller classrooms, creating communities in your classrooms — and moving the focus away from single-day testing and test-driven outcomes?”

The president responded:

“So here’s the bottom line. We’ve got to improve, we’ve got to step up our game — which brings me to the next point in your question, which is, how do we do that? I agree with you that if all we’re doing is spreading around a lot of standardized tests and teaching to the test, that’s not improving our education system.

“There’s a saying in Illinois I learned when I was down in a lot of rural communities. They said, ‘Just weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.’ You can weigh it all the time, but it’s not making the hog fatter.

“So the point being, if all we’re doing is testing and then teaching to the test, that doesn’t assure that we’re actually improving educational outcomes.

“We do need to have accountability, however. We do need to measure progress with our kids.

“Maybe it’s just one standardized test, plus portfolios of work that kids are doing, plus observing the classroom.

“There can be a whole range of assessments, but we do have to have some kind of accountability, number one.”

Obama’s remarks heavily focused on the need for a change in health care in the US. They were reported as such.

But as the town hall was held in a school — SouthWest High School — a likely question on education was predictable. Obama’s remarks may have been less off the cuff than appears. Buried and almost lost in the extensive arguments on health care, the remarks on education could be seen as an early precursor of things to come.

Arne Duncan is at present on a “listening tour”.

When Arne Duncan was first appointed as education secretary there were fears across the education community, based on his draconian approach to bringing change to education in inner-Chicago — see Hope and change in my classroom.

But balancing Duncan, Obama also appointed the much more radical Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford, as head of his education policy transition team, a champion of constructivism and reduced testing. She was the choice of those who understand how children learn as Alfie Kohn put it.

Could it be that we’re going to see Duncan as the hard cop in the public eye, while some of the soft cop’s more thoughtful and intelligent policies make it into the classroom?

Stanford’s teacher training program now includes on its reading lists for aspiring teachers the radical (for the US) pamphlets and research of Kings College London’s Prof Paul Black and friends.

The record of the president’s remarks can be read at: http://www.whitehouse.gov

Below are the president’s remarks in full on education:

Well, let me — first of all, thank you for teaching. My sister is a teacher, and I think there is no more noble a profession than helping to train the next generation of Americans. (Applause.)

I completely agree with you that there is a lot of good stuff going on in American education. The problem is, is that it’s uneven. (Applause.) Well, let me put it this way. There are actually two problems. In some places it is completely broken. In some urban communities where you’ve got 50 percent of the kids dropping out, you only have one out of every 10 children who are graduating at grade level — this system is broken for them.

Q Crime — (inaudible).

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’m going to get to that. We can’t have too big of a debate here. You got your question. (Laughter.) Don’t worry, though, I’m going to answer your question.

So there are some places where it really is completely broken. And there, yes, a lot of it has to do with poverty and families that are in bad shape. There are all kinds of reasons. And yet, even there, there are schools that work. So the question is, why is it that some schools are working and some schools aren’t, and even in the worst circumstances, and why don’t we duplicate what works in those schools so that all kids have a chance?

Now, in other places, Green Bay and Appleton and many communities throughout Wisconsin and Michigan, the average public school is actually doing a reasonably good job — but can I still say that even if you factor out the urban schools, we are falling behind when it comes to math; our kids are falling behind when it comes to science. We have kind of settled into mediocrity when we compare ourselves to other advanced countries and wealthy countries. That’s a problem because the reason that America over the last hundred years has consistently been the wealthiest nation is because we’ve also been the most educated nation.

It used to be by a pretty sizable factor we had the highest high school graduation rates, we had the highest college graduation rates, we had the highest number of Ph.D.s, the highest number of engineers and scientists. We used to be head and shoulders above other countries when it came to education. We aren’t anymore. We’re sort of in the middle of the pack now among wealthy, advanced, industrialized countries.

So even with the good schools, we’ve got to pick up the pace, because the world has gotten competitive. The Chinese, the Indians, they’re coming at us and they’re coming at us hard, and they’re hungry, and they’re really buckling down. And they watch — their kids watch a lot less TV than our kids do, play a lot fewer video games, they’re in the classroom a lot longer. (Applause.)

So here’s the bottom line. We’ve got to improve, we’ve got to step up our game — which brings me to the next point in your question, which is, how do we do that? I agree with you that if all we’re doing is spreading around a lot of standardized tests and teaching to the test, that’s not improving our education system. (Applause.)

There’s a saying in Illinois I learned when I was down in a lot of rural communities. They said, “Just weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.” (Applause.) You can weigh it all the time, but it’s not making the hog fatter. So the point being, if we’re all we’re doing is testing and then teaching to the test, that doesn’t assure that we’re actually improving educational outcomes.

We do need to have accountability, however. We do need to measure progress with our kids. Maybe it’s just one standardized test, plus portfolios of work that kids are doing, plus observing the classroom. There can be a whole range of assessments, but we do have to have some kind of accountability, number one.

Number two, we do have to upgrade the professional development for our teachers. (Applause.) I mean, we still have a lot of teachers who are — we’ve got a lot of teachers who are well-meaning, but they’re teaching science and they didn’t major in science and they don’t necessarily know science that well. And they certainly don’t know how to make science interesting. So we’ve got to give them the chance to train and become better teachers. We’ve got to recruit more teachers, train them better, retain them better, match them up with master teachers who are doing excellent work so that they are upgrading their skills.

If after all that training, the teacher is still not very good, we’ve got to ask that teacher, probably, there are a lot of other professions out there; you should try one. (Applause.) I mean, I’m just being blunt, but we’re going to have to pick up the pace.

Now, the key point I want to make is this: We should focus on what works, based on good data. And Arne Duncan, my Secretary of Education, this guy is just obsessed with improving our education system. He is focused a hundred percent on it, and he is completely committed to teachers. We think that teachers are the most important ingredient in good schools. We’re going to do whatever works to help teachers do a better job — (applause) — we’re going to eliminate those thing that don’t help teachers do a good job. Some of it is going to require more money, so in our Recovery Act, we have more money for improving curriculums, teacher training, recruitment, a lot of these things. But you can’t just put more money without reform, and so some of it is demanding more accountability and more reform.

There’s one other ingredient, though, and that is parents. (Applause.) We’ve got to have parents putting more emphasis on education with our kids. That’s how we’re all going to be able to pick up our game. (Applause.)

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June 16, 2009 at 7:00 pm 1 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

Competitive grading still sabotages good teaching

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TWELVE years ago a professor and a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford wrote a paper entitled Competitive Grading Sabotages Good Teaching. I found the paper this weekend and read a depressingly accurate description of how my school works today.

Assigning competitive grades “skews teachers’ values” and affects teachers’ behavior in five basic ways argued Prof John Krumboltz and Christine Yeh in their 1996 paper:

❏ it turns teachers into students’ opponents,

❏ it justifies inadequate teaching methods and styles,

❏ it trivializes course content,

❏ it encourages methods of evaluation that misdirect and inhibit student learning, and

❏ it rewards teachers for punishing students.

Below are some quotes from their damning indictment:

Teachers become opponents

“To assign grades, teachers must become critics whose focus is negative, always seeking errors and finding fault with students’ work. Moreover, students must be compared with one another, because there is no accepted standard for a given letter grade. A performance that earns an A in one classroom could earn a C in another classroom because of differences in the teachers’ standards or in the composition of the two classes.

“When judging the relative merit of students’ performances takes precedence over improving their skills, few students can feel good about their accomplishments. Only one student can be the best; the rest are clearly identified as less able. Comparative grading ensures that, unlike children in Lake Wobegon, half of the students will be below average.”

Grading justifies inadequate methods of teaching

“When students fail to achieve course objectives, whose responsibility is it – the teachers’ or the students’? Current grading practices put the onus squarely on the students. Teachers can use the most slipshod of teaching methods, discover that many students do not understand the material, and then assign grades accordingly.

“Current grading practices do not encourage teachers to help students improve, because only the students are blamed when they fail to learn.

“If every student achieved all the objectives of a given course, every student would earn an A – an unacceptable state of affairs in the current view. Thus teachers are reinforced for using methods that ensure that some students will not succeed.”

Grades trivialize course content

Which of the following questions is more challenging to a student?

❏ When was the Declaration of Independence signed?

❏ Would you have signed the Declaration of Independence if you had lived in 1776? Why or why not?

“The answer seems clear. The first question requires students to memorize a date. The second question requires them to think — to imagine themselves in another time and place and then to justify an action that would profoundly affect their own lives and the lives of others. However, many teachers might hesitate to include such thought-provoking questions on a test.

“If assigning grades were not required, teachers might opt for the second question. Thus course content is determined, at least partly, by the need to grade students. Teachers would be liberated to teach toward more consequential goals if they were not obligated to assign grades.”

Grading inhibits constructive evaluation

“Ideally, the evaluation process would help students discover how to improve their achievement of important goals. Grading defeats this purpose by discouraging the vast majority of students, who receive below-average grades, and by not challenging students who could improve on what they have already learned.

“Pressure to perform well often causes students to attend only to ‘material that will be on the final’.

“Students develop learning styles that they expect to yield good grades. They quickly learn that the operational definition of a course objective is ‘what appears on the final exam’.”

Teachers can take pride in failure

“Some teachers feel proud when a high percentage of their students fail. They want others to believe that a high failure rate signifies a difficult course and an intelligent teacher. To a large extent, they succeed.

“There is a common assumption that taking a ‘tough’ course is more prestigious than taking a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course. Some teachers believe that giving students low grades adds luster to their own reputations. Such teachers may choose to include excessively difficult material in their courses simply to enhance their own self-importance.

“One way of guaranteeing a high failure rate is to present material that is too difficult for most of the class to comprehend. But the inclusion of material for this purpose stands education on its head. Teachers deserve shame, not praise, if their students fail to achieve.

“Teachers who take pride in giving low grades blame the students, not themselves, when course material is not mastered as quickly as it is presented.

“The students who fail are blamed undeservedly, and the teachers who fail them are esteemed undeservedly — but the real culprit is the grading system.

“Competitive grades turn educational priorities on their head. Classes in which most of the students master the material are perceived as unchallenging. High grades are often dismissed as “grade inflation,” not as a sign that the teacher and the students have successfully achieved their mutual objectives. Meanwhile, prestige is accorded to teachers who are unable to help most of their students learn the material.

“The situation is ridiculous.”

And in conclusion they added “…under the competitive grading system, teachers are not required to help every student learn, but they are required to judge every student. Judgment is mandatory; improvement is optional.

“Competitive grading de-emphasizes learning in favor of judging. Learning becomes a secondary goal of education. Clearly, then, the need to grade students undermines the motive — to help students learn — that brought most of us into the profession.”

Click to read the full article by Prof John Krumboltz and Christine Yeh.

Similar points were also made in From Degrading to De-grading by Alfie Kohn… nine years ago.

December 4, 2008 at 7:27 pm Leave a 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

Testing… a teachable moment

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TESTING can provide some teachable moments.

Imagine. The desks are in rows. One child per desk or sitting alternately on opposite sides. Different colored tests. “No talking,” written on the board. Adults think kids cheat is the message.

And then one student, child, asks something along the lines of I-don’t-get-this-can-you-help-me? The answer? Well, in the traditional classroom it’ll be something along the lines of No-this-is-a-test.

Let’s look at this.

If the purpose of a test is to find out if a student, child, understands an idea… then the question I-don’t-get-this-can-you-help-me? seems to provide the answer with little doubt. Incontrovertible. So, why the No? In any other lesson the same question from the same student would be seized upon, or, one would hope.

Imagine you’re the hapless student. You don’t understand, you ask for help and the teacher says No. You then have to sit there, in silence unable to do the natural thing — ask your neighbor if they can help. Children are hard-wired to talk, ask questions, communicate. That’s how it works in the real adult world too. But not in a test. Ask your neighbor, and you’re a cheat. So much for teaching co-operation, social skills and collaboration.

As the student sits there, confused as well as stuck, what does that do for their self-esteem?

Personally, I agree with the research that is conclusive — testing reveals little about a child’s knowledge and mostly does harm to the learning process. But the US education system seems wedded to testing and not to the conclusions of contemporary research data. And in my school it’s on the up-and-up. Testing is becoming an obsesssion.

Testing is what teachers talk about daily — planning the test, reviewing for the test, putting off the test and then, heads wagging in disbelief, incomprehension as to the results… they-just-don’t-get-it.

Apart from abandoning testing, is there an alternative that meets the needs of those who believe in testing and, more importantly, the confused child who needs help?

This is what I tried this week.

I took the departmentally-agreed questions and buried them inside three half-page assignments each on different colored paper. The green sheet with the word question had two other word questions — not identical questions or the same question with the numbers changed, but questions around the same idea.

The other calculation test questions on the pink and blue sheets were buried in groups of similar questions exploring much the same ideas.

Students were told to bring their working and their answers to me as they completed each question or group of questions. OK, a bit of queue formed, but I was able quickly to spot what was going on with each student and give instant feedback accordingly.

I was also able to build up a list of common mistakes, misconceptions and approaches. I was able to mark some answers to share with colleageues later. I was also able to note the inadequacies of our commonly-decided questions, the ambiguous wording, how students interpreted our questions.

The only questions on which students received no immediate feedback were the magic test questions. Those I just noted, right or wrong. No student noticed as we discussed the surrounding questions.

I didn’t need to shift the desks into rows. There was no big sign saying No Talking. The students go to socialize. Each got individual and immediate feedback without having to ask for it. I got a detailed formative assessment as to the thinking, approach and understanding of each student to guide the next lesson. No one risked being accused of cheating.

And whoever is interested in the test statistics got what they need too.

Testing with teachable moments. Everybody happy.

April 14, 2008 at 1:58 am Leave a comment

No prizes in points

Sierpinski triangle tee-shirt
WHEN I was training to be a math teacher in Britain some years ago there was a popular satirical BBC radio program called I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, presented by legendary jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton.

Humph arbitrarily awarded points for no apparent reason. The rules of the games were far from clear.

And although the audience shouted “points mean prizes…” on cue, no one ever knew what the prizes were. The only real prize for all concerned being an addictive dose of hilarious nonsense that was also a biting weekly commentary on current events.

Reflecting on the issue of grading, I’m reminded of this farce.

Three years ago I decided to completely abandon all grading based on points, marks, percentages or letters. The only numbers in my classroom would be in the math my students and I were working on, and not in any assessment. I felt naked.

But since then, this simple decision has lead me radically to re-assess everything that goes on in our classroom — from testing, homework policies, seating plans, late work, make-up work, behavior management to the really important question… the very essence of what it is my students and I are trying to achieve in our thinking laboratory.

Now my assessment focuses on observation, listening, discussion, collaboration and increasingly on students’ own assessment of progress. I hope the result is a focus on what we’re trying to think about in the classroom, free of the diversion of worrying about some ill-defined percentage.

The prize is the achievement of just trying to get it.

Feedback is verbal and descriptive, striving to help the student find some way of constructing their own meaning and paths to mathematical thinking.

I changed career to be a math teacher at the age of 50. UK educationists were encouraging new math teachers to abandon the traditional mark-book full of numbers. Numbers have no place in assessment and feedback in the math classroom was the argument.

It was summed up: Students who get nines and tens out of ten, nearly always get nines and tens. It may make them — and their parents — happy, but the points don’t motivate them to seek out new challenges or how to improve. They coast, complacently.

Those who get sevens or sixes… well, they’re passing. They just need to survive the you-could-try-harder talk. But how to try harder? To do what, exactly?

Those with the fives, fours, threes… confused, disappointed, frightened, feeling an inexplicable shame, they give up and cover-up as best they can. I was given a class into which such kids had been herded: “Hi,” they said, “we’re the dumb class.” I felt ashamed.

Numbers in assessment de-motivate, set student against student and encourage assessment as a process of ranking and sorting.

Adding some words of encouragement to the numbers also seems to make little difference. Students still focus on the numbers, despite their lack of any real meaning. Changing the numbers to letter-grades, doesn’t shift the focus to learning either.

Only when you take away the numbers, and letter grades, and replace them with phrases such as, “well done, now you need to work on… the distributive property” does motivation get turned round.

A target, a goal, something to focus on finally clears the clouds of confusion for the student. Now the student can see just what to do to improve. With student self-esteem no longer punctured by the stark moral judgement of a number or letter dripping with blood-red ink, students are free to focus on what they need to do to improve… and work cooperatively together to collaborate and help each other.

April 6, 2008 at 4:40 pm Leave a comment

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