Posts Tagged ‘testing’

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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Education talk is so frustrating.  Especially those who wear the self-appointed label of “reformer”.  The frustration comes from their having misnamed themselves- they are no more calling for meaningful reform than would be the case if “Oreo reform” was a call for red cookies on the outside instead of black.

Now what’s being discussed is the collective reference to the “school reformer movement” that has groups (Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, StudentsFirst) pushing against the status quo and teachers unions.  It’s supposed to be about these groups wanting something better, etc.  BUT all they call for is “value added” assessment of teachers’ performance, measured by test scores.  really??  We think we can assess teachers by how much stuff their students “retain” (let’s not bother calling it “learning” – see elsewhere on this site for that discussion).

Why is it so hard to get the point across? Is this going to  reform anything of substance?  If you keep standardized tests and add measuring teachers by the progress made on them, don’t we see the writing on the wall: motivation to cheat, to be easy graders, teaching EVEN more to the test and other forms of dysfunction and mismanagement?  Do we really think that teachers will “teach more or better”?  And with what methods? The same old ones that have failed for generations, focused on the wrong things, etc.  THIS is where the reform is needed- why is this so hard to see?  What are we looking for? “the king is dead, long live the king”? new paradigm same as old paradigm?

When will the meaningful talk of TRUE reform come to the forefront?  What will that take?

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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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And now, a re-post from a brilliant education scholar who understands what matters in education and what needs to be changed.  Yong Zhao recently moved to Oregon to become the Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education, College of Education at the University of Oregon, Eugene.

You can read his recent post here.

His recent book Catching Up is also a gem.

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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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Some parents do a very good job of messing up their children’s lives.

Some fail to prepare their children for their futures. Some think they are preparing them and are in fact doing harmful and destructive things.  In the latter category you can squarely place the recently published law prof-cum-author Amy Chua.  Her recent memoir, as she presents it, tells of her successful efforts to see to it that her two daughters turn out to be perfect, or just shy of it.  That’s right, she wants to “see to it” (my words) that her daughters turn out “just so”.   She will stop at nothing to get her girls to reach perfection: only As, top of all their classes, top musical performances, and so on.  She resorts to threats, punishments, insults – all are fair tools in Chua’s mind to get her girls to turn out as she has planned.  You can read the N.Y. Times article.

Is this what parenting is?  Are children clay in the hands of parents, to mold as they see fit?  I thought parenting was about child-rearing: fostering independence and health and preparing children to live in the world.  Is it the role or responsibility of parents to shape their children’s lives? to select careers? Do parents  have this right even?  Is it a crazy new-age, “soft” idea to allow children to “discover themselves” or make of their lives what they would like? Chua’s approach is controlling and totalitarian: she sees her children as tools for her to manipulate for her own ends. Like a benevolent dictator she claims to know what’s best and they’ll become that, like it or not.

Chua doesn’t allow sleep-overs, parties, or after school activities. “No time”, she says, must practice!. They need 2-4 hours a day to practice piano and violin.   And she stands over them, literally, seeing that they put their all into it.

What are these children learning in the process?  To not love learning or making an effort.  To not care about things. To feel like your life is not yours to direct. How is that going to help them in life?  It’s the very opposite outcome that we’d want.  We want children to become able thinkers who enjoy putting forth all the effort that it takes to work hard, practice and persevere.  When you force people to do this they do not learn how to do it, i.e. make the effort, for themselves because you’re the one doing the doing. Just as traditional schools do too much for students- scheduling their time, controlling when they do their work, focusing on remembering instead of understanding, this approach of forcing children to “work hard” will not teach them to work hard but to hate work.

Has Chua been successful?  If by this we mean “did she achieve what she set out to do?”, then yes.  Her girls have performed beautifully in all areas.  So what?  Who are they as people?  Are they happy? Will they contribute to the world anything meaningful?  Or will they be two more frustrated adults who don’t know what they want and don’t have a sense of personal accomplishment?

The end does not justify the means. Punishing children is highly effective to get them to do what you want – just keep increasing the punishment as they get older and they’ll acquiesce.  It works as a form of discipline.  But it’s wrong. It’s a horrible way to treat children- all people for that matter.  Punishment works in the short-term, but in the long term the recipient has not learned how to be self-disciplined because someone else, the one holding the punishment over their head, did the doing.  You only learn to be self-disciplined when you have to control yourself- make the effort.  This is a huge area in developmental psychology these days (often called self-regulation or executive functions).

Parenting plays a HUGE role in how and what children learn.  If we’re sending them off to school every day fearful of the next test score and stressed out about always having to “be the best”, what are we doing to them? What are we saying life is about? Has Amy Chua not seen the recent film Race to Nowhere?

Here’s a quote from Chua about her own experience as a student in law school, where she didn’t really care, she admits, about the rights of criminals and never wanted to be called on in class: “I also wasn’t naturally skeptical or questioning: I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it”.  There you go, nothing’s hidden.  All that mattered to her was “pass the test”.  Learn something?  Care about what you’re learning or doing?  Who has time to care?  This is who she’d like to populate the world with.  You want to live in that world?

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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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