Quo Vadimus?

When you begin to burn out on your research topic, where do you think you will move on to?

My focus is on gender and education. I am specifically focused on advocacy for boys in education because it seems to me that is where the biggest damage is being done now. However, of course, I work on gender-based issues and strategies for both sexes. I don’t think I’ll burn out on this until more attention gets focused on this subject or until it becomes clear that I’ve done all I can do. There are some very committed and capable leaders in this area and I do hope we can effect some change.

My second area of interest is expanding the acceptance of John Ratey’s research (see Spark) on exercise and learning. He has some fascinating things to say about the influence of exercise on brain functioning and some very specific suggestions and practical examples on how it can strongly influence educational outcomes. That might be my next focus.

Another subject that hovers in my peripheral vision is SES and education. This is such a very big topic. SES itself is a huge topic and one where open discussion is not very common or safe. However, it seems probable from the reading I have done that much of educational failure is actually and unavoidably caused by SES-related factors beyond the power of any educational system to fix. There is so much to this topic and it is so important because by not addressing it we are condemning millions of people to an unnecessarily difficult life. This would be a sad, dangerous, and challenging subject to pursue. However, honestly, until we stop think of poverty as something to be “prevented,” I think our society will continue to “create” poverty in the name of preventing it.

A safer subject but closer to the “darkside” is the pursuit of computer-driven learning strategies/tools. In a standards-based, standardized testing-based world, it is probably possible to largely replace teachers with very well programmed computers that drill the “essential” information in a fraction of the time. There are interesting questions about whether computers can even create the open-ended learning promoted by art and research and general inquiry. They probably can. Anyway, I am certain there are dark forces moving out there to automate our classrooms. I would be tempted to follow that fascinating train of inquiry, if only to bring “light” to the process.

To conclude, I am always drawn to areas that have big problems that have relatively simple solutions. These “80/20 Rule” situations are among the very few where, I believe, major improvement can be made in the human condition. Until very recently, I wasn’t too concerned about the human condition. Now, however, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what I can do if I put my full effort into making the world just a little bit better in areas where I have some wherewithal.

Testing as a Team Sport

Having the school declare a test score goal is a way to ensure students understand the emphasis on doing well on standardized tests.  Ideas like posting test results publicly and having students make and display “green” handprints and/or giving them out green colored t-shirts when they score proficient or better all reinforce the goal of raising test scores.  The high visibility of students who score proficient or better is great positive reinforcement and incentive.

However, all the students who are not proficient or better not only get left out but also are to some extent at risk of pressure or stigma.  This would be true normally, kids being the occasionally schoolyard meanies they can be.  But it might be particularly true when there is a stated school goal.  Kids who aren’t scoring proficient are, in one way of looking at it, pulling down the rest of the team.  I’m not saying it’s the right way, but the school I am involved with takes great care to treat as private individual results.  I do wonder at the difference in philosophies and which might be used to get students to learn more effectively and successfully. 

Clearly, posting results gives more urgency (and transparency) to success.  It also puts more demands on the school culture to support every child in their educational journey.  Also, it seems pretty logical that if a school was going this way (“green team,” et al), it might also set up study teams and remediation (perhaps students tutored by other students, as well as more conventional means) to support the effort.  Likewise, one could imagine the school being divided into teams (possibly multiage) to compete internally for best performance.  This would fit naturally and do more to achieve the goals than simply posting school goals.

I’d like to know more about the pros and cons of making results public but, in general, I like the idea of making test solid performance a school goal and supporting that goal with student-friendly learning solutions.

Test Scores

I’ve tried to liken testing in the students’ minds to a performance or a sporting event. I want them “up” and focused on outcomes but I also want them positive and aggressive, not scared. I want to create it in their minds like other things in their lives that are challenging and where success is the goal. However, I want to stay well clear of the “this determines your whole life” vibe that’s around (and not entirely inaccurate).

On that note, I wonder if test results are really that important for most students? Does plus/minus one standard deviation of the mean make any difference in a life at all? Nearly 7 in 10 kids will fall into that range, if I recall my stats class correctly. Sure, test scores are important for kids who want to get into elite and top-100 schools, but that’s probably only the top 16% of kids (to pick a number). And they’re probably important for the bottom 16%, but I’d imagine that test scores for those kids are only confirming issues already readily apparent. If this logic is right, most kids can be pretty calm about testing. Sure, it’s a big deal like a little league playoff game or whatever, but it’s just a game, just a test.

It seems like where the pressure really lies is on the schools, teachers, and administrators rather than on the kids. For those adults, every point counts. At a basic level, they’re fighting to make AYP. But even at my daughter’s school (which is ok w/ AYP), the API  is still carefully monitored. Did it go up? How does it compare to sister schools in the area? How did a particular teacher do? Maybe it’s the adults who are truly under the microscope.

Teaching to the Test

How do you relate the development of measurable goals and objectives to effective teaching?

The answer to this question entirely depends on how one defines effective teaching.  If one is a NCLB essentialist, the measurable goals and objectives are whatever the essential body of knowledge is deemed to be.  However, I am not an essentialist.

With apologies to Yeats, I believe that education is the filling of the pail and the lighting of the fire[1].  I believe the most important objective of teaching is to kindle the love of learning in each student.  This requires teaching to their souls, their passions, their interests.  That usually means finding that relevance in the required body of knowledge, but it also includes finding extra material that meets the needs of the curriculum and the students interests.

On the other hand, I know that we live in an essentialist world and to ignore the press of standards and standardized tests is of service to no one.  My intended solution is to “teach to the test” as a creative act. I will teach and drill both the test’s contents and the skill of how to take tests as a subset of the year’s learning.  Hopefully, simultaneously embracing the need for such teaching while rigorously narrowing focus of this teaching to succeeding on the tests will free considerable classroom time for lighting the students’ imaginations with learning of a more nourishing kind. 


Famous quotes by William Butler Yeats. (1998-2010). Retrieved January 26, 2010, from http://www.famous-quotes.com/author.php?aid=7889

[1] “Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of the fire” (“Famous Quotes”, 1998-2010).

Verifying Understanding

I have been thinking about verifying understanding frequently.  I have mentioned this before but, as a scuba instructor, I am very familiar with the techniques of mastery learning.  In this essentialist, assessment-based world we live in, mastery learning becomes very relevant.  Simply put, in mastery learning, you do not get to move on until you have mastered the material in front of you.  The clear implication of this is that each student will be tested until that mastery is fully demonstrated. In my class, my students will expect to be challenged daily.  They will understand that being challenged is like lifting weights, failure is precursor to success. 

Of course, one of the first things I will expect my students to master is the art of taking tests.  They will study test taking and they will practice it.  Multiple choice and composing essays on the fly are skills like any other. My tests will be as challenging and devious as any the standards boards can devise, more so because mine are teaching tools.  Challenges will not just be tests, they will come in many creative forms.  In addition to tests and quizzes, I will ask students to “teach back” what they have just learned.  Maybe that means giving a quick verbal description.  Maybe it means preparing a five-minute mock lesson.  Alternatively, maybe it means breaking up in groups to work together to achieve mastery, with individual success dependent on collective success. 

Sometimes the best path is the crooked one.  Maybe the test will be writing a poem about algebra.  Or maybe it will be “draw a map of the island in Lord of the Flies.”  Maybe the students will make a probability matrix for the American Revolution.  The best way to learn something is to take it apart completely and re-assemble it.  The other best way is practice, practice, practice. 

One final note: key concepts and facts will appear on quizzes long after the unit is done.  Anything worth learning is worth still knowing at the end of the school year.