Posts Tagged ‘evaluation’

As has always been the case, schools in the early 21st century are trying to reinvent themselves.  The model is broken. Modern times calls for something new. Achievement is not what it could be.  And so on.

Today we read about flipped classrooms, tablet/tech support for learning, blended learning, amongst other fads.  I mean “fads” seriously.  These ideas will not fix the problem with traditional education because they are more superficial solutions.  “Playing around at the edges” as I call it.  These are not educational innovations that cut to the core assumptions of education.  What are those core assumptions?

  • that learning means remembering
  • that learning can be measured by test taking
  • that learning is about “pouring knowledge into the learner”
  • learning can be packaged in a one size fits all approach

That’s enough to get going.

Until traditional education is willing to look at its soul, to see that its very identity is rotten, it will not be able to remake itself into anything truly valuable to all children, learners, students.  Learning is not about “acquiring”, it is about “becoming” and “constructing”.  Each of us is in a process of becoming from the day of our birth.  We construct ourselves out of our experiences in our environment, equipped with the DNA package we carry.  Education needs to focus on what that environment needs to offer the individual learner, so that s/he can have access to the necessary “stuff of becoming”. Provide a person with the raw material to build themself up from, then stand aside and let them do so.  Learning is an active process for the learner.  If they are not the active one, then the path to actual learning is closed.

Flip your classrooms, incorporate technology, and otherwise tinker with the model all you want.  In five or ten years you’ll be reaching for some other idea that will change education and truly make it effective, and it will always be a distant goal… just out of reach… if only….


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In a valiant effort to make the case for better homework, Annie Murphy Paul in her recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times simply fails to grasp the immensity of what she’s up against.  She truly can’t see the forest for the trees.

Paul goes on about how the better way to approach homework can be found in some studies that show how to improve test scores and retention via some “new methods”.  Those would be “trees”.  The forest is a real education, real learning.  Paul has no idea that better test scores are not an indication of better, or actual, learning, just as better retention (recall) is also not an indication of learning.  Learning is most emphatically NOT remembering. That’s been addressed here before, so let’s not go there.

Great that she sees that most homework out there is busywork and of little value, but unfortunate that the solution is focused on improving test scores.  Why is it so darn difficult to understand that learning is something different from retention as evidenced on a test?  Is this such a radical idea? So thoroughly on the educational margin that it’s out of focus to most –  strike that, it’s not out of focus, it’s out of sight.  Sadly, some educators will jump on this latest “fix”, change-up their approach to homework, have a parent night about how this will repair things and “boy, have we got a great solution for your kids”…. and in 3-5 years they’ll move on to something else, having forgotten that THIS was supposed to be the fix.  What a system: conceive, apply,  fail, repeat.

However, those marginalia ideas are out there, and slowly, in little blips, they  are making headway.

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A recent NY Times book review (of Steven Brill’s Class Warfare) discusses the author’s claim that “truly effective teaching… can overcome student indifference, parental disengagement and poverty” – because these things have been shown to act against student achievement in conventional schools.  Making the case that “good teachers” can overcome these would be a good argument for having more of these quality teachers as well as pointing to a possible solution other than the more complicated solution of fixing those things in our culture that leads to these kinds of things in the first place.

All very interesting, but completely beside the point.  What the author, Brill, is looking at is test scores as a measure of student achievement and how “effective teaching” can overcome some of the very obstacles that many teachers argue stand in their way of making progress.  What Brill is missing is the fact that (i) it’s not effective teaching that will solve these problems, it’s a NEW APPROACH to education, and (ii) test scores don’t measure “learning”.

Simply getting better test results in a “content delivery system” model is a low goal, and one that truly lacks an understanding of what an education is supposed to do for a person.  A new approach, a new paradigm, that fully recasts what education is and how it takes place is what can address ALL of the kinds of issues that Brill raises.  The results are in and it’s demonstrable  that a better fundamental approach can correct for all of the factors that Brill identifies.  AND, it doesn’t require parents to become super-parents.

Have a look at the results that have been logged at the East Dallas Community School.  They adopted a new education paradigm – not some window dressing new reading program, not longer school days, not more technology – they  simply  sis one thing: throw away the conventional content delivery model and adopt one that actually works on all levels… they became a Montessori school.


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If we’d like a culture of poorly motivated and critically-thinking impaired people then- sure, let’s emulate China’s education system.

Wait!  Don’t they “perform” really well by international standards?  Aren’t they the ones we’re chasing on math and science tests?  Don’t they win most of the competitions in US schools and always “do well”.. why wouldn’t we want to emulate the system that gave rise to this?  Because our world will fail if we do.

To begin, regular readers of this blog do not need a reminder of why “doing well on tests” doesn’t matter (you can search for that content on this blog).  “Performing” is not living, and no indicator that you’re ready to live or succeed in the world.  But the biggest reason why Chinese education should be shunned is because it kills creativity and stifles innovation – the motors of development and growth.  That’s why even the Chinese are making serious efforts to  change their education system.  Chinese author Yong Zhao has written about this very subject in his book Catching Up.  He describes China’s desire to undo the damages of testing and standardization; and he accurately notes that “Innovative people cannot come from schools that force students to memorize correct answers on standardized tests or reward students  who excel at regurgitating dictated spoon-fed knowledge”.

American “reformers” who think that the ANSWERS to our current “testing” crisis lie within the model of Chinese/Asian education are just plain mistaken.  Well, let’s correct  that.  The answer to our testing crisis may very well be in that model – the problem is that our crisis in NOT one of testing – it’s much worse, much more fundamental.

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So I’ve spoken quite a bit in this space about how testing doesn’t lead to, or reveal, learning.  I’ve argued that a test will not tell you what a student has learned, only what they’ve remembered.  Recently I’ve also mentioned how the Chinese are turning their backs on standardization and testing because they are realizing that they can produce “grade-A” test takers, but that these same people are no good at “life”.  “Ultimate Prep” – remember?

Since I don’t make this stuff up, really, here’s some interesting information.

In 2008 the National Science Foundation conducted research which was reported in their “Science and Engineering Indicators” which measures science literacy – i.e., one’s understanding of science and engineering. One of their questions asked “Is the center of the earth very hot?”  88% of Americans answered correctly (“yes”), while only 39% of Chinese said “yes”.  One summary of the report, presented in the style of the Olympic games with medals awarded, showed the US at the top of the many countries involved, with 8 total medals, while China had 1 and India had 2.

This phenomenon of “high scores and low ability” is beginning to get some attention. Testing well is not worth very much, in the end.  What matters is what you “know”, and what you know is what you understand.  It is understanding that leads to thinking about a subject and to being able to be creative and innovative within it.

There is more support for this finding.  The 2007 book Collateral Damage reveals how high-stakes testing destroys ingenuity and education.  A survey of multinational corporations showed that  Chinese workers lacked ability as well as commitment to and passion for their work.  This held true even for engineers who had graduated from the best engineering schools.

The Chinese are reevaluating their schools because they are witnessing a growing creativity gap between their students and US students.  Our system leaves much to be desired, but chasing the Asian model should not be part of our “fix”.  (Will someone please tell the authorities – we need to repeal NCLB.)

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Really?  Is it truly possible that 50% of Harvard undergrads are “excellent”.  That’s what the grades say.  Today half or more of Harvard undergrads receive a grade of “A”, while fifty years ago that figure was closer to 30%.

Harvard prof Harvey Mansfield spoke about this not long ago.  He describes grade inflation within Ivy League schools a a real problem.  Some are beginning to attempt to address it, but it’s not gone away and not going away any time soon.

So we graduate “excellent” students from “excellent” schools who we routinely hear cannot get the job done, can’t think or write thoroughly or succinctly.

Whether it’s due to post-modernist ideas of “well who are you to judge me?” attitudes, or lingering 1960s era notions of it being “oppressive” for “powerful” college profs to evaluate students, or entitled students of this modern day feeling like the world “owes” them (what, just for existing?)… whatever the explanation, it’s simply another symptom of a system that is broken and beyond mere “fixing” or “reform”.

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In The Social Network then-Harvard President, Larry Summers, tells the twin students who are complaining about having their million-dollar idea stolen: “every Harvard undergrad thinks that he’ll make his own job, not get one – so come up with another idea”.

This echoes what Dan Pink relates in A Whole New Mind – that today, and tomorrow, the “successful” in life will be those who can make something for themselves.  This is why Pink focuses so much on creativity as divergent thinking and on being able to take charge of your self, your  life (esp in his follow-up book Drive – about intrinsic motivation).

How is it the students are to be prepared for this?  They need it today and most have been failed by the system of traditional education which has not developed in them intrinsic motivation (by turning them  into “grade-chasers” and test takers…. which are extrinsic “rewards”).  They also have no idea.. well, that’s it.  No idea(s) about how to do much, how to figure, solve problems, innovate, etc.  You can’t “think of a new idea”, let alone have the perseverance and determination to see it through, if you haven’t been prepared.

As someone commented on a recent post here, I paraphrase, “how do you account for the fact that there ARE innovators in our midst and what about the fact that not everyone can be “great” or “in the top percentile” of idea-generation?”  There are two answers here.  On the last question, it’s true that not every one of us has the potential to be “the best” or the most creative, etc.  Not all are visionaries.  I get that.  BUT, if we have an educational experience that develops is each of us the full potential that we have, we raise the bar (or bell curve) for all.  Imagine a culture where today’s “8” is tomorrow’s “5”- meaning that what we receive today from the “8s” (out of  10) amongst us we then receive from all the “5s”…. what will the 8s give us then?  That’s a culture I wish to live  in.

The first question has two parts to the answer: sure, there will always be those who rise up, who naturally find a way to create, to find themselves, to  propel humanity forward- there always have been.  But do we wish to rely on these?  This takes us to the answer to the second question, above.  Also, I’ve been paying attention to information that shows a trend amongst some innovators (here and here) and successful entrepreneurs (Harvard Bus Review story here here, other links here and here and here) who share a similar education background in alternative independent schools which they attribute to their success because those experiences allowed them to “problem-solve” and “self-direct” by not being “fed” information but rather were provide with opportunities to explore, discover – think.

This quote from Roger Levin sums it up “too  often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve”.

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