Thursday, September 27, 2012

There is More than One Way to Climb a Tree

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” - Albert Einstein

Students come into school each day equip with different abilities, ethnicity, backgrounds, experiences, demographics, learning styles, interests, talents, passions, strengths and weakness.  How can we as educators expect all students to perform the same task, at the same level, at the same time, when all of our students are at different readiness levels?

Assessment is still a problem for most public education systems in the United States.  There is way too much pressure for students to perform well on state standardized tests, especially when these tests are not an accurate reflection of student potential, nor success. The excerpt below is from the Innovative Educator and I could not agree more with Lisa Nielsen on this subject matter.

The "drill, kill, bubble fill" culture that is being rewarded today does not prepare our students for the 21st century workplace. There has been little emphasis to foster the ability of young people to discover a livelihood best suited to their unique strengths, talents, and passions. [1]  This is because every single kid is grouped by date of manufacture and expected to meet the same learning goals at the same time and pop out the same way at the other end with little to no attention focused on customizing a program to unique individuals. [1]  At the end of the K-12 tunnel every kid emerges supposedly ready for college and career, but rarely have they had a chance to spend time focusing on what it is that "they" are passionate about. Instead they focus on earning the magic carrot of a grade and diploma rewarded to students who are best at memorization, regurgitation, and compliance along with following orders that we all know often are not in the best interest of children. [1]

Lisa Nielsen also proposes a solution to this problem.  Why not assess a collection of work produced by students to demonstrate content mastery, rather then having students take tests? Nielsen writes, "Students can be assessed in a standardized way by authentically demonstrating how standards have been met. This could be captured in an ePortfolio or some other system which could be created on a national level. Students could meet standards at their own pace, in their own way and learning could be differentiated and aligned to each child’s talents, passions, interests, and abilities." [2]

This type of assessment closely resembles project-based learning.  Project-based learning promotes inquiry and exploration, emphasizing creative thinking skills by allowing students to find that there are many ways to solve a problem. This instructional strategy provides students with the opportunity to create their own projects using their preferred learning style and interest, which allows for natural differentiation to occur.

I personally believe all students can learn.  Moreover, I believe that students can continue to learn and grow their entire lives.  I believe that effort and hard work is more of an indicator of success, than intelligence. If students believe in themselves, they can do anything that they put their mind to.

“How we learn shapes what we know and what we can do,” writes author Annie Murphy Paul in a recent Time column. “Our knowledge and our abilities are largely determined not by our IQ or some other fixed measure of intelligence, but by the effectiveness of our learning process: call it our learning quotient.”  This idea supports that anyone can learn, regardless of their inherent IQ, with emphasis on the process, the work and effort. [3]

Final Thought

We as educators need to be providing our students with authentic opportunities for them to demonstrate their learning and understanding.  And the assessments that we use to measure their learning and understanding should accommodate and celebrate the diversity of our students.  So the next time you have your students "climb a tree", be sure that they have all the tools and the support that they will need to get to the top.  And be sure to remind them that there is more than one way to climb a tree!

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I think we have education backwards ... don't you?

Let's take a second to think about how we learn best as human beings.   We naturally prefer learning via authentic, self-directed, customized, first-handed, curiosity-driven, trial and error approaches. [1]

So ... if we naturally prefer to learn this way, why has school been the complete opposite?

What if education was shifted  ...

  • from a focus on teaching ... to a focus on learning?
  • from knowledge ... to how to learn?
  • from teacher-centered ... to student-centered?
  • from an emphasis on what was taught ... to an emphasis on what students learned?
  • from assessing the ability to answer questions ... to assessing the ability to ask questions?
  • from coverage of content ... to demonstration of mastery?
  • from what students know ... to what students can do with what they know?
  • from a top down approach ... to a bottom up approach?
  • from power over ... to power with?
  • from resisting change ... to embracing change?
  • from teachers doing the teaching ... to students doing the teaching?
  • from standardized testing ... to authentic assessment?
  • from one size fits all ... to multiple size, shape, and color preferences for each?
  • from stand and deliver ... to inquiry and research?
  • from mandatory standards ... to authentic and customized standards?
  • from differentiated instruction ... to differentiated learning?
  • from data-driven ... to data informed?
  • from competition ... to collaboration, cooperation, and sharing what works?
  • from teaching the arts ... to arts integration?
  • from textbooks ... to researching free, primary documents on the web?
  • from the teacher as the audience, to the world as the audience?
  • from everything is forbidden unless it is permitted ... to everything is permitted unless it is forbidden? [2]
  • from "we know what's best" ... to "you know what's best"? [2]

What if students had the ability to learn about whatever they wanted, whenever and wherever they wanted, and to contribute to this learning environment for the benefit of others? [3]

Wouldn’t the possibilities for learning and teaching in this kind of education be both amazing and nearly limitless? If this type of education existed, wouldn’t we as educators and parents and policymakers do everything we could to help students and schools take full advantage of these learning opportunities? If we actually had access to this type of education, wouldn’t we be chomping at the bit to get everyone to shift to this type or learning? [3]

Oh wait ... we do have access to this type of education! So what are we waiting for?

I think we have education backwards ... don't you?

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  4. Cultural Shifts in a Profesional Learning Community. Learning by Doing. 2006, 2010. Solution Tree Press.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What Data Should Drive "Data-Driven Decision Making"?

As I was working on my Needs Assessment project today, I started reflecting about the topic of "data-driven" decision making. From my experience, I personally disagree with being "data-driven". It is my understanding that being "data-driven" involves looking specifically at State Standard Test results and making decisions based on these results. In my opinion, there are so many other areas that are equally as important, if not more important when completing a proper needs assessment of a school or a district.  I personally feel that qualitative data is almost more important than quantitative data, even though it might be more difficult to measure.

I feel that in order to accurately perform a proper needs assessment, we have to not only look at Standardized State Test data, but to investigate and include qualitative data found in school culture.  I just personally feel that only looking at SOL data does any school a disservice.

The analogy that I always use to help make my point is comparing school data to football data. Looking only at student test scores to assess a school is like only looking at football statistics to assess a football team. For example, just because a football team might have the most overall touchdowns and most overall total yardage, doesn't mean that they are the best football team. A football team could potentially have the most touchdowns and most total yardage in the division and not be in first place. First place depends on overall wins (which is ultimately the big picture of success in football). This directly relates to student test scores. A school might have the highest test scores, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they are a "winning" school by doing whats best for kids ... and vice versa. A school could have lower test scores and have a much better school culture and provide better instruction that will help prepare students for the 21st century challenges.

I have included one of my favorite blog posts regarding the topic of "data-driven".

"If schools are data-driven, they might make decisions like keeping students who are “borderline” between algebra and a higher-level of math in algebra so that they do well in the algebra state test. Or, in English, teachers might focus a lot of energy on teaching a “strand” that is heavy on the tests — even though it might not help the student become a life-long reader. In other words, the school can tend to focus on its institutional self-interest instead of what’s best for the students."

Unfortunately, these types of decisions are made every day in our public schools, due to the amount of pressure that we have to continue to increase our SOL test scores.

My driving question: How can we as public educators best prepare our students for the world that they will emerge into AND achieve high test scores so that our learning institutions continue to thrive?

Preparing our students for the 21st century involves them excelling in workplace readiness skills such as inquiry, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, etc. Preparing our students to reach high test scores involves having students excel in content knowledge and lower Bloom's levels such as remembering, understanding and minimal application. These are two very different approaches to teaching. How can we effectively do both?

Is teaching our students what they should know on these test most important? Or is teaching them how to become lifelong learners and problem solvers most important? I just often find myself in a moral dilemma when teaching, because preparing my students to excel in the state tests, is often not preparing them for a successful future.