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Archive for August, 2010

It still goes on.  In most traditional schools, it goes on.  We still feel the need to measure human development, progress in the development of a person, by putting a number to it.  What are we really measuring?  What does it tell us?

As I’ve said to some, “testing only reveals (i) weather you know the answer to the questions being asked and (ii) doesn’t measure understanding (only retention)”.  If you are given a geography test it won’t tell us what you know about geography, only if you know the answers we’re looking for on certain questions, and then we won’t know whether any of it means anything to you: just that you recall a data points.

We know that this approach is of little value for all kinds of reasons: students promptly forget what they “learned”, they can’t apply the “knowledge” to unique problems or situations, and plenty of people who succeed either didn’t do well in school or didn’t stay in it very long.

We need to move beyond grading and testing.  What is so difficult about just following a student’s progress?  You look at their work and see how they’re doing, you talk with them.  It helps if the approach engages the learner more than just making them a passive recipient of “information”.  This will ensure actual learning – what I call meaning making (if you’re not making meaning for yourself, you’re not learning).

Take away the pressure and stress.  Take away the “wrong answer” syndrome.  Let’s focus on constructing meaning and knowledge and the exploration and inquiry that is essential in this process, and forget about measuring it every inch of the way.  I’m convinced that relentless measuring of people in the process of learning is harmful.  Feedback is critical, yes, but that’s different from measuring and grading.  Feedback is natural: either you’re being successful at the endeavor or you’re not.  When I’m hammering nails I don’t need a final: “oh, 82%, not bad”.  I know two nails were bent in the process, etc.  What good does it do to put a grade on my work?

Yet, this is just what goes on. Still.  And to make matters worse, all of the calls for reform of  education center around making better test-takers!  We’ve no idea!  Higher grades?  Really, that’s the goal?  A long way to go still… we need every one of you to pitch in here… to change the conversation in education today.

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It’s that old line about coming to the end of your life and being able to say that you “never worked a day in your life” because you loved what you did – so you simply played every day.  In another spin on this, Thoreau spoke of not wanting to come to the twilight of his life and see that he “had not truly lived”.

Play is good.  Work is good.  If we can find work that feeds our souls like play does then life is good (and maybe you won’t need a t-shirt to feel it).  Ken Robinson (great site here) talks about finding work where two things intersect: competence and passion.  You may be good at something but not passionate about it, and the reverse is true as well.  Finding the activity where both peak is the key to successful, enriched living.

Why don’t schools concern themselves with this?  This is nowhere in traditional schools.  We need to allow students to explore their interests and talents in search of a life.  By letting them self-direct we can do this, we can keep alive a flame of life in them and by DOING this they will learn what it feels like.  It’s creating a culture that is important, a culture of creative exploration.  You can only achieve this by doing it, by having regular time to explore, investigate, try things on, etc.  Then you get in the groove and it becomes a mode of operating.  This is contrasted to the “show up, sit down, listen” mode of most schools today.

As we set off into yet another year of “educating” children, let’s think about what we’re educating them about – what’s behind the model?  What culture are we presenting and creating… and will it serve life?

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Lest anyone interpret all my recent pradling on about “student interest” and “learning at one’s own pace” as suggesting that these “soft” and perhaps even “new age-inspired” educational values should replace the need for “academic excellence”, let me spill a few words about that.

Academic understanding simply means that a student grasps what is being presented.  Nothing wrong with that, it’s desirable even.  The point I’ve tried to make here is that our schools have focused exclusively on academics, on test scores, and two things have been made victim in this pursuit.  The first is that test scores – the only measure of “excellence” used – focus on right answers and not on understanding or meaning-making (more here).  Answers that one knows but which are not understood fully are empty- devoid of value for the “knower”.  We need an approach that builds meaning and understanding for  students, that’s a real measure of academic excellence.  Remembering data, answers, is not a measure of much, surely not of excellence.  The present belief that academic learning can be measured by tests and their scores is the first victim of this narrow concern.

The second victim is “all the rest”.  Ask an adult what makes people successful.  Ask them to describe people who “generally get along well in life” and what you’ll find is a lovely list of characteristics that actually make a difference in one;s life: perseverance, critical thinking, responsibility, compassion, leadership, self-discipline, and the like.  With the narrow pursuit of “excellent test scores” we’ve left behind all that really makes a difference.  As all the dislexic entrepreneurs how they got to where they are.  Similarly, it turns out that SAT scores are a terrible predictor (The SAT is a flawed predictor) of how someone will perform in college (yet it’s still a huge factor in who gets in and where).

Standards are huge, but let’s have standards for things that matter.  If an education is a process that helps you to be prepared to live your life fully and successfully, then much more will be required than the ability to take a test- and indeed, THAT will not prepare you for anything other than “test taking” which bears little resemblance to life.

Time to change the education conversation?  Let’s talk about standards for what?

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Slowly, as we look at how learning takes place – what the nature of learning is, we see a new model emerging.  As we follow the principles that are becoming clear – allowing student interest to determine work, allowing students to move forward when they are ready to – we see that the traditional classroom of yesterday and today does not allow for these things.  We see that what makes sense based on how learning happens is not what our schools weer modeled on.  This is why we’re changing the education conversation.

Recently I presented a small glimpse into how some of this might work (see post here) .  There’s much to be said to make clear how a classroom would work and the retraining that will be required in order for teachers to learn how to facilitate this new arrangement.  Fortunately much of this is already being done at some schools around the world. Following a different model of education, these environments have been emerging in rich and poor countries and have been shown to be successful across cultures.  They allow for student-lead interest (and still get all the work done!), they follow each student’s pace of learning so as to maximize the “fit” of learning and they reveal high student satisfaction.  I’m speaking of the Montessori schools.

These, it turns out, are not just “pre-schools” but extend into and through the elementary years, all the way to high school in some areas.  There’s much to be said here, but suffice it to say that a model already exists that incorporates the “how” of human learning.

With the rage that’s only growing about traditional schools, as depicted in a number of recent and soon-to-be released documentaries (Race to NowhereWaiting for Superman, The Cartel ) it is abundantly clear to a growing number of people that the “system” is broken and flawed.  We owe our children something better, something real, something based on the nature of learning and the nature of humanity.  Let’s put aside our special interests and pet projects and pursue what is actually, demonstrably, best for children (NOT for test scores, but for children).

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As we continue to explore and define what a school should look like (\”education needs to be…\”) let’s look at how the pace of learning is determined: how fast or slow one moves through the material in question.  After “interest” this is a pretty significant topic.

Again, the intuitive approach is to start at the beginning and to move along as you are able to, right?  Once I grasp the first things I’m ready for the following steps or whatever comes next.  To not take this approach would mean either lingering with something that I’ve already taken in, mastered or grasped (and then to risk having interest drop) or to move along before I’m actually ready to, to take on the next step before I’ve really taken in the present one.

This is quite basic- when you teach a child how to ride a bike you don’t move them on to turning and riding in circles when they are barely able to manage “balance” by riding ten feet.

But what is the model of a traditional school?  Once again, we find that the design here has little to do with how people actually learn.  This model attaches a set of content, the curriculum, to a time line.  It has been determined in advance how long it takes to master the material.  One size fits all.  Sounds incredible doesn’t it?  Does it really take every student the same amount of time to learn how to read, to grasp the first principles of geometry or how to play a scale on the recorder?  Of course not.

We need  a model that allows for the unique learning pace of every student.  If we want to maximize interest we need to make sure that we’re not losing students due to being left behind or being asked to languish with material they are ready to move beyond… stalled in the middle ground.

So next let’s look at how we can accommodate this very basic and obvious necessary component of learning environments.

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So I’m researching something else today (STEM programs) and I come across this report talking about “reinventing schools for the 21st century”.

Guess what you find in that report?   “Educators can’t truly deliver 21st-century instruction in schools that reflect Industrial-Age designs, with rigid schedules…. and fixed boundaries between grades, disciplines, and classrooms…”

I’m thinking “this sounds familiar”.  Maybe the ideas written about in this space aren’t so foreign.  Wouldn’t that be nice.

The report goes on: “measures of learning must include thoughtful assessments of a student’s ability to apply and demonstrate knowledge in complex situations”.  INDEED!  One of the parents in my office last week, a high school math/science teacher, was bemoaning the lack of thought, creativity and ability to apply concepts to a new situation.  Moving beyond memorization and regurgitation.. there’s a goal.

Mirroring my comments yesterday about having long, open time periods for student-lead interest-based work, this report notes that ““it is even more important that class time be elastic. Instead of assigning a certain amount of time for teaching one subject per day, teachers need the flexibility of bigger and more adjustable time slots to truly impact learning.”  This is wonderful. The sad reality, though, is that the time lag to get quality ideas into real classrooms is FOREVER, and further, once you take a good idea and pass it through the sieve of collective thinking (various departments, committees and other sundry groups) you end up with something to put into application that hardly resembles the original fine idea.  The result is that the shabby approximation that is put into practice won;t actually work well, because it’s a watered down approximation, and so it gets tossed out as a silly idea to begin with and we go back to what we were doing.

Here’s hoping that the voices calling for fundamental change ( see this: fundamental change ) will grow loud enough and big enough that maybe the good ideas will actually make it through with enough of their substance that goodness will emerge.

(The study also talked about integrating technology into the classroom even more and of blurring the lines of the “classroom” so much that virtual learning spaces be integrated.  This is fine at some levels, surely not at the elementary and middle school levels.  The report can be found here: reinvent schools)

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So, we have an elementary class with children who are given the freedom to work on that which interests them.  And a rush of questions came to the fore as a result.  How do they know what to do?  Who’s teaching them? What work are they doing?

Okay, breathe.. slowly now.

If this model is going to take shape, it;s clear that the teacher can’t be teaching all these children at the same time, which means that there has to be work that they can chose to do which doesn’t require the teacher to be there beside them.  They need to be able to work with independence. I’m loving this.

So, we’ll need work that is somehow self-contained, somewhat self-guided, and allows for independent work.  There could be instruction cards.  Some work could simply be clear about what you need to do, like research: you get books, read, make notes, etc. Maybe there’s musical work to do and other forms of art… those don’t need constant teacher direction, plus, there’s something to be said for explorative learning. (why doesn’t anyone talk about that?)

This is suddenly seeming like not quite the impossible task it was looking like.  If the teacher can sit with 3-5 students at a time, say, while the rest of the class works independently on work of their own choosing, maybe this could work.  We take the power/control away from the teacher ( I know, crazy right?)…. we allow the students to self-govern.. trust me, I’ve seen this.. they actually rise to the occasion very nicely when you stop playing the authoritarian card and make them responsible and accountable.

The teacher moves round through the day, checking in, giving lessons, helping where necessary.  Suddenly what you have is a small community at work.  Decentralized.  Wait! It looks like a small office.. people doing the work they need to do, being accountable, self-directing… the manager available and there to guide and support… I’m liking this.  This sounds like real preparation for life (the “ultimate prep school” – like it?).

More to come.

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