My Internal Conflict with Education

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As an Instructional Technology Coach who is passionate about teaching and learning, I keep trying to inspire, motivate and support my teachers to engage in best and next practice teaching strategies.  However, I often find myself running into the same problem—teachers are hungry for it, but they end up starving themselves.

By way of introduction, this is my internal conflict with education that I share with so many other teachers:

 "Do I teach in a way that will maximize my students' success on standardized test scores, or do I teach in a way that will maximize my students' success in life?  I wish I could do both, but I feel like I can't."

The Situation

The Accountability Movement [No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Teacher Evaluations] is heavily influencing our decision-making in the classroom.

If one were to look at our current state and national standards, one would notice that they are predominantly content-based.  This means that our education system values "knowledge" more than any other aspect of learning in terms of achievement and success.  The fact that our education system values "knowledge" over all else, is a bit scary, because most of the information that students are required to know on standardized test can easily be found by performing a simple Google Search in a matter of seconds.  This can't be the key to a successful future for our students.

Let's take a look at the International Baccalaureate's Learner Profile:

  • Inquirers
  • Knowledgeable
  • Thinkers
  • Communicators
  • Principled
  • Open-Minded
  • Caring
  • Risk-Takers
  • Balanced
  • Reflective

Nowhere in our state and national standards are any of these other learner traits mentioned, valued, or assessed.  The "Knowledgeable" trait seems to be the our only concern.  Some might argue that "Thinkers" might be valued and assessed, but only minimally in my opinion.  Furthermore, not only is the content that we are teaching Google-able, but we are only using the lowest level of Blooms Taxonomy in order to assess our students learning and understanding of this content.

For example, think about the types of questions on a typical standardized test.  Too often are students asked to regurgitate facts such as who, what, when, and where.  These questions ask students to recall information, which is categorized in the "Remembering" level of Bloom's Taxonomy.  Sometimes, students are asked questions such as "Why?" which is the next level, "Understanding".  Rarely, are students ever tasked with application questions where they have to take what they have learned and apply it to a new problem, situation, or context.  And "Application" is only the third level of Blooms Taxonomy out of a total of six where each level becomes more challenging than the former. The other three levels are rarely touched in standardized tests.  Why?  Because those types of questions are far more difficult to assess and are extremely time consuming.

The Problem

The real challenge is to implement best-practice teaching, while yielding high test scores.  This is essentially what all teachers want to do.  However, this is a double-standard, because the theoretical does not match up with the practical.  For example, today's best-practice instruction mostly includes nonroutine tasks—creative, conceptual, innovative, collaborative right-brain tasks—whereas yielding high test scores today includes routine tasks—sequential, analytic, algorithmic, rule-based, left-brain tasks. [1]  The problem with routine tasks, is that this type of work has become easier and cheaper to send offshore or to automate from advances in computer technology.  Therefore, routine work has become less valuable and less important in advanced economies like the United States. [1]

So, teachers are continually faced with an internal conflict: "Do I teach in a way that will maximize my students' success on standardized test scores, or do I teach in a way that will maximize my students' success in life?"

From my experience, I have found that teachers naturally want to do what is best for kids.  Teachers crave the autonomy to be creative, but they feel like they can't because of the overwhelming pressure that they feel to "cover" all of the content that their students will need to know for the tests.  Being creative and innovative requires risk-taking, subjecting oneself to vulnerability, and flexibility of time and resources.  All of these things create a level of uncertainty that is uncomfortable and intimidating for teachers.  So, what usually happens is we default back to "safe" teaching that is consistent with the practices of our colleagues and the alignment of our pacing guides.

We say we don't teach to the tests, but ask anyone what their school's goals are.  I bet they will tell you that their school's goals are to raise test scores to meet Annual Measurable Objectives (APO), or Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), particularly in specific "under-achieving" subgroups.  These goals influence our daily decisions in the classroom.  Especially, since teachers are evaluated based on their students' scores on standardized tests.

So, when teachers want to try something new, to be creative, or to simply do what is best for students, they will often choose do what is best for themselves, and what is ultimately best for their learning institution.  This action solidifies their job security and their school's reputation.  However, it's not our teachers' fault ... it's the system's fault.  Our teachers are merely victim's of the system, which consequently underserves our students.

My Action Plan

The reality is that we can't make standardized tests go away.  Not yet anyway.  So, my goal is to implement or develop a method of instruction that satisfies my internal conflict.  An innovative approach to teaching that will foster both student success on standardized tests, and student success in life.

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  1. Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.


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