Tag Archives: assessment

The only answer to the best questions is another question – Michael Wesch

Photo source: Jesse Stommel

The only answer to the best questions is another question – Michael Wesch expressed this in his article Anti-teaching: confronting the crisis of significance (2008).

Michael goes on to say ‘Great questions are rarely asked by students in an education system facing a crisis of significance. Much more common are administrative questions: “How long does this paper need to be?” “Is attendance mandatory?” Or the worst (and most common) of all: “What do we need to know for this test?”

Assuming that we all agree that the above-mentioned questions are a symptom of an education system that has failed our students, what kinds of questions should we ask to propel us into a direction which engages students in learning that is not aimed at marks?

When marks are the most important goal of education, it follows that there is a right and wrong answer, or at least the answer teachers favour – which is the best way to stand in the way of genuine questioning and meaningful learning.

As a teacher librarian, one of my roles is to support students in the research process. What I don’t think works is presenting the research process as formulaic, a process that is sure to work if you follow the given prompts. Research is more like the behaviour of a detective uncovering truths when following clues. It is a thinking and reasoning path which leads anywhere and everywhere. There is no single path.

Today I was helping several students who were researching an ‘Old Boy’ who fought and died in the First World War. As one of the tasks within the Civics and Citizenship curriculum, students are given a list of questions to answer about the veteran: What is his name? his rank? When was he born? Where was he buried? and other questions. Sometimes there is no easy way to find the answers to these questions; you have to persevere and think about piecing together what you have found, making connections and intelligent guesses.

What kind of questions did these students ask me?

“I’m finding conflicting information – what should I do?” “What is the right answer?” What do you think I should write?”

The learning here is not just about the veterans and the war, it is also about the nature of research, it is about the critical process in discovering information. It’s about developing the confidence to make conclusions based on the collected data, and it’s about understanding what you need to find out, and finding the language to express your uncertainty when you ask for help.

I’m completely comfortable admitting I don’t know the right answers with certainty. I usually tell the students that I trust their instincts and that they’re heading in the right direction, that there are many questions that lead the research. In preparing our students for tertiary study, we need to remind them that research will always be difficult, and that it’s okay to feel confused and disheartened when facing a great unknown. Learning is process; let’s not forget the process.

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We are not where we need to be for what we want to happen

Still following the mental thread from my last post. I’m feeling restless in my professional position at the moment, a mini crisis which is usually a part of preventing stagnation and breaking through to a better flow. I’m not sure if I can adequately explain it (feeling unwell) so what I’ll do instead is share talks and articles which have resonated.

First off, I revisited Charles Leadbeater’s old TED talk. This article reminded me of this.

And Charles’ more recent TED talk. The man can talk. If only I could communicate so well.

The piece by Richard Elmore has a standout phrase for me which is that ‘a progressive dissociation between learning and schooling’. This is very disturbing, particularly if you believe it. It makes me question everything we do in school. It makes me think that whatever assessment we have for teaching is ineffective. Do our compulsory self-evaluations for renewed registration mean anything? Isn’t it relatively easy to justify what we do using the relevant terminology? Isn’t it really about the students? When are we going to assess our teaching based on what our students really need in life? I can’t recall that conversation in any staff meeting or curriculum day program.

A ship in the harbour is safe but that’s not what ships are for – photo by Joel Robinson

You might think I’m being negative but I’m just breaking things up a little, thinking about what I could do, in my free space as teacher librarian, unfettered by marking and curriculum guidelines, to create wonderful, surprising, fun learning opportunities. Anyone join me?

I leave you with this.

Wait, another one. Many voices and much sense here.

 

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Naplan our benchmark? Why not “The Horizon Report?”

Our school is in the process of an external review. As learning enhancement coordinator, I was reviewed as part of a small group which included the learning support and transition coordinators.  During our meeting the reviewers focused on the NAPLAN results, and asked us how we used this data. We were encouraged to drill down into specific data which would allow us to address the specific issues. For example, if our students’ weaknesses were revealed in the area of writing, we would make it our business to find out if the weakness resided in the mechanics of writing, the critical thinking component, etc.

At some point during the meeting I started thinking about how we came to put so much emphasis on NAPLAN testing, and if we had any other criteria with which to evaluate our teaching. Surely there were more contemporary skills to base our assessment on – beyond spelling, grammar, numeracy, reading and writing? It’s pretty obvious that, although all these things are important, we’ve come a long way in terms of essential skills in the last few years.

Just look at The Horizon Report. Its discussion of technology adoption highlights critical challenges, and these include digital media literacy, new scholarly forms of authoring, publishing and researching (eg blogs and networked presentations). These trends and challenges are indicative of ‘the changing nature of the way we communicate, access information, connect with peers and colleagues, learn and even socialise’.

And yet how many schools are engaging in conversation about these challenges? Or are they still looking at spelling, reading and writing. During our meeting I was disturbed to hear educators blame the introduction of one-to-one notebook computers for the decline in writing standards. Don’t get me started on that.

Back to my original point – who looks at the Horizon Report in schools? At best it’s read as an interesting or challenging extra piece of information. Is it too challenging? Considered irrelevant? Too far from what we are doing so we just put it away since it isn’t seen as crucial to learning and teaching? Or is it that we refuse to acknowledge how ubiquitous technology has become and think we can prevent the adoption of things like mobile phones? And yet, The Horizon Report states: “Mobiles enable ubiquitous access to information, social networks, tools for learning and productivity, and much more”.

We are still focusing on the problematic nature of digital and mobile technologies – problematic because they disrupt our orderly, nineteenth century classroom. They create chaos. But we need that chaos, we need to shake up the traditional lessons to re-engage students and help them connect to and take ownership of their learning.

I see the problem residing in the disconnect between school and life. How can students be engaged in an artificial construct which separates knowledge into rigid compartments, knowledge which is delivered in a way which students find foreign and unengaging. Shouldn’t we look at how our students find what they need to know, how they create things, how they organise events within their networks? We still see this as separate from learning. We are convinced that young people’s online socialising is superficial, a waste of valuable time.

Howard Rheingold’s post, How does digital media impact youth political and civic engagement?says otherwise. Rheingold points toJoseph Kahne‘s very important empirical study about young people’s use of digital media and how it impacts their engagement — or lack of engagement — in civic affairs and politics.

That research, Kahne says in an interview, punctures some core myths about online activism, and strongly indicates that the virtual world nourishes youth engagement in real-world issues.

What we found is that young people were more likely to volunteer offline when they were part of online networks.

The question becomes, how can youth’s embrace of digital media and enthusiasm for the Internet be leveraged for social enterprise and civic engagement?

And I would add, how can youth’s embrace of digital media and enthusiasm for the Internet be leveraged for what happens in terms of teaching and learning at school?

Online, young people are gaining skills … how to work in a group, how to negotiate things, how to get organized, how to organize other people… We also found that their online participation increased their exposure to diverse viewpoints… 

How diverse are the viewpoints students are exposed to in the classroom? I really think, not diverse enough. Rather than shut down possibilities for our students to connect outside the classroom out of fear, we could enable connections and guide our students to behave responsibly and maturely. I would even go so far as to suggest that we encourage young people to join specific online groups to broaden their range of experiences. If we take students out on excursions then we could do the same online.

Does anyone teach in a school which formulates its strategic plan while looking at The Horizon Report?  

Here’s the full interview with Joseph Kahne taken from Howard Rheingold’s post.

Does social media and the Internet fuel youth political engagement? from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.

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What have I learned from VCE?

This article in The Age resounded with me – Surely there’s a better test was written by Alexandra Adornetto, Year 12 VCE student at Eltham College and, at 17, already an author of a popular children’s trilogy starting with The shadow thief.

Of Alexandra’s initial questions,

How have I been shaped by my learning experiences? What skills have I developed that are valuable and transferable in the workplace? What lessons have I learned about the value of education?

– I wonder most about the last one: What lessons have I learned about the value of education? Or even, what have I learned about learning?

Alexandra’s answer is negative; she sees students having to work

within a system that reduces achievement to a game where strategies are more important than ideas.

Her cynicism flows from the fact that

the sum total of my education will soon amount to nothing more than a figure — an ENTER score that will determine which percentile I fall into statewide and which courses I will be eligible to apply for.

I agree with Alexandra when she says that

the system fails to recognise the diversity of skills and most subjects do not allow students to demonstrate skills in a form other than a written exam.

I’ve started reading Rethinking rubrics in writing assessment by Maja Wilson, which, at one point, talks about decontextualised teaching of literacy through ‘separate literature, speech, and composition courses’. In the past ‘Reading, speaking, and writing were simply a means to dialogue with professors, peers, and the community at large about matters of public interest.’

Andrea Lunsford (1986) describes an integrated, language-rich environment that supported powerful literacy.

Classroom activity… was built around “oral disputation.” One  student chose and presented a thesis, often taken from reading or class discussion, and defended it against counterarguments offered by other students and the teacher. In addition, students regularly gave public speeches on matters of importance to society, in forums open to the entire college and the surrounding community… the students learned more from their peers than from their teachers … this model of oral evaluation and the form of student speaking societies provided an audience, a full rhetorical context, and motivation for discourse, features woefully lacking in later “set” essays and written examinations.

Maja Wilson goes on to imagine how ideal this kind of learning would be. This would be the antithesis of the VCE as we know it, and as described by Alexandra. Instead of receiving ‘a static score from faceless evaluators’, a student could receive a type of assessment ‘not to rank’ the written content, but purely as feedback to aid learning and develop abilities.

Assessment would be free to interact positively with learning since ranking … was not its main objective.

In her article, Alexandra goes on to point out the many skills students possess in activities they do outside of school which are not taken into consideration in the VCE assessment.

Life skills, innovative ideas and community involvement — what intelligent nation needs these? It’s obviously much safer to work towards the goal of conformity. Here is just the beginning of a list of skills that exam results cannot possibly hope to reflect: interpersonal skills, the ability to entertain, how articulate we are as speakers, our ability to work as part of a team, the ability to deal with challenges and invention.

I’ve often thought the same, and when I see the curriculum packed to bursting with content that teachers struggle to cover, I’m not surprised that they often lament the lack of time to develop important skills.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that our current system does not reward creativity or cater to the diversity of skills and abilities possessed by students. What it does reward are formulaic learners and those with a good memory.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I noticed a difference between, for example, the Psychology course offered within the VCE  and that within the International Baccalaureate. VCE Psychology seemed to be largely a matter of content memorisation, whereas IB Psychology involved higher order thinking.

Alexandra comments:

Other knowledge-based subjects such as legal studies, psychology and history ask us not to apply knowledge but simply to recall and regurgitate the contents of our hefty textbooks.

It’s interesting how Alexandra’s suggested solutions harken back to the older system of assessment described by Wilson in her book:

Clearly an overhaul of the current system with a review of its goals and objectives is in order. Until universities take a radical look at their selection procedures, nothing is likely to change. How much more sensible would it be to include an oral exam (where you might talk through your ideas or your achievements) as a percentage of our final assessment?

I like the way Alexandra thinks, I like her suggested alternatives:

Perhaps the presentation of a folio of achievements would go a long way in presenting us as individuals with a unique contribution to make. Perhaps a hands-on project in a preferred area of study should be a compulsory assessment task.

Yes, Alexandra is cynical about the merits of VCE, and grim in her description of the final exams:

As for us, we will be writing furiously for three hours, surfacing only to check the clock and take periodic sips from our water bottles from which we have assiduously removed the labels in compliance with yet another inane regulation, designed to eliminate cheating.

What do you think? Is she being too harsh?

As for me, I hope that this year’s VCE students will at least be able to demonstrate the extent of their study efforts, not like the poor girl during this year’s English exam whose watch stopped, freakishly, at the same time as the wall clock, and was caught out at the end with only two thirds of her examination paper completed. So much frustration and upset – two years of effort spoiled by a fateful turn of events.

I recommend The English Companion ning which has a rich discussion between Maja Wilson and educators of her book.

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TED Q & A with Ken Robinson

KenRobinsonTED-reddit

The TED blog describes an interesting Q&A session with creativity expert, Sir Ken Robinson, author of The element. Reddit gave TED fans the opportunity to submit questions for Ken, with the 10 most voted questions being answered.

Here are the 10 questions Ken answered. Many of these are long, and I’ve tried to select the main part of the question, but you’ll have to go to the post to read the rest:

1. What specific actions do you recommend taking to overhaul, say, public education to maximize how we identify and nurture creativity? And what place do you think things like critical thinking and logic (also noticeably absent) have in basic education?

2. …why do we make these distinctions between “math”, “biology”, “history”, and “art”, when they are all linked, and when the interconnections so often make them meaningful? Is it OK if children are not “well-rounded,” as long as they are following their curiosities, or does a lack of “well-roundedness” mean we are not exposing them to enough bridges to new interests?

3. What do you think is the correct way to grade/rank/assess an individual’s academic performance? And what do you think should & should not be included in standardized entrance exams like SAT?

4. … some would advocate that video games are in fact best preparing kids for 21st century life. What’s your opinion on this, and of the place of video games in education?

5. There are so many individual teachers and librarians out there who GET IT, who want to help their students stop “playing school” and start having authentic learning experiences. How do they build critical mass to change our bureaucratic, cookie-cutter approach to educating children?

6. How do I get involved to make this change happen?

7. … What are your thoughts on the future of distance learning, and have you seen any signs of a breakthrough that will replace the status quo, while delivering interactive, powerful, social and visually simulating learning?

8. What is your opinion of the Summerhill School?

9.  I’m a maths teacher, in England, in a forward-thinking school (the head showed your TED talk to the whole school a couple of years ago at a staff meeting) and I believe in what you say about creativity passionately. So what three things should I do in September to foster creativity? I’m talking about definite, in-the-one-hour-lesson things I can do to my classes to change their experience.

10. … We all know you can find your element at any time in life but what more can I do to find out what MY element is?

 It’s definitely worth reading in full. I won’t summarise but I’ll pull out sections which resonated with me.

 The basis of my argument is: creativity isn’t a specific activity; it’s a quality of things we do. You can be creative in anything — in math, science, engineering, philosophy — as much as you can in music or in painting or in dance. And you can certainly be involved in the arts in ways that are especially creative. And so it’s important to emphasize that it’s not about creating some small space in schools where people can be creative, and particularly not if that means just tacking on some art programs on a Friday afternoon. It’s about the way we do things.

Ken talks about a ‘grammar of creativity’:

You can help them think productively, generate ideas effectively, help them to think of alternative approaches to issues and questions.

It’s a series of processes, not an event. And helping people understand how that works is an important part of being creative. You wouldn’t expect people to become literate just by hoping it’d happen.

And I think subjects is a poor idea, really, for the kind of work I’m interested to promote, because it suggests that the world is definable into entirely different sorts of content or subject matter…. So now, we live in an age where there are multiple variations of different disciplines — the merging of physics and chemistry and of engineering and genetics. And the problem is that schools and institutions are often slow to keep up with these changes.

It’s not that I am against standardized testing. What I’ve personally got a rant about is the extent to which standardized testing, firstly, has become a massive commercial industry which is detached, in most cases, from the real purpose of education. And secondly, the extent to which we’ve come to associate standardizing with raising standards. Now, everybody agrees we should raise standards in schools. Of course you should. But, the primary instrument that’s being used is standardized testing. And the problem with it is that it fails to do the one thing we know works if we want to improve standards in schools, which is to address personal development… It’s not there to identify what individuals can do. It’s there to look at things to which they conform.

So, my argument is that instead of standardizing everything in schools we should be going in the opposite direction…. I think we should be personalizing everything in schools. We should be looking at ways of making education relevant to each individual child. And there’s no other way of improving standards. Actually, there’s no other way of doing it on the grand scale.

 On the whole, people in education get this as much as anyone else. And they don’t like it. They know there’s a big problem in the system, and they want to change it…. 

The real place to focus, initially, is on the work you do yourself. I’m always keen to say this: Education doesn’t happen in the committee rooms of Washington, or London, or Paris or Berlin. It doesn’t happen in government buildings. It happens in the minds of students and learners. It happens in the classroom… So what I would say to teachers is: Change your own practice, today. The education your children are getting is a result of what you’re doing with them.

Don’t wait for the government to change things; get on and do it yourself. But also, if you’re in a position to do it, you should try and influence policy. There’s an opportunity to do that in many countries. It depends on your position.

Just dumping stuff online isn’t the answer to it. But there’s a massive thirst for ideas, for this sort of content, as illustrated by the mushrooming of social networking and user-generated content… Because we now have the ability to put the best thinking, materials, pedagogy, resources in front of everybody. This should be seen by schools as a massive opportunity to — not to replace what they do, not to replace their own teachers and curriculum, but to enrich and enhance it.

But there are some characteristics of good teaching which are concerned with promoting creativity. One of them is to engage children’s curiosity to get their imaginations fired up. I was saying earlier that the fundamental capacity is imagination. Well, what I mean by that is you can’t be creative if your imagination is not engaged.

If you want to promote creativity, you need, firstly, to stimulate kids minds with puzzles and questions which will intrigue them. Often that’s best done by giving them problems, rather than just solutions. What often happens in classrooms is, kids sit there trying to learn in a drone-like way things of not much interest that have already been figured out.

I talked about, in the All Our Futures report, two things, one of which was “teaching creatively”: teachers finding interesting ways into material. Presenting unusual points of entry or interesting angles or perspectives, and enjoying the process of finding them. So, that’s important. Teachers themselves should try to evolve their own creative capacities and enjoy what they do, creatively. Standardized testing has taken the joy of teaching away from them.

The second big part of this is asking open questions as much as we ask closed questions. Giving people questions they can explore, rather than ones to which they have to find answers that have already been given. That, to me, is the fundamental piece of all creative processes. Giving area for exploration.

One thing I didn’t touch on earlier is, the creative process is a bit like a DNA strand. There are a lot of things weaving through it. One task being creative is to hypothesize and think of possibilities and look at alternatives ideas — to speculate. To be imaginative. But an equally important part for every creative process is to act critically on the ideas you’re coming up with. To evaluate them.

… group work. An awful lot of creative work doesn’t happen individually. It happens with people interacting with other people. The most powerful engines of creative thinking are groups. And the reason that’s true is because a great group models the human mind: it’s diverse, it’s dynamic, it’s distinctive. So, knowing how to form groups, how to get groups to work, how long to leave them doing it is a core skill of good teachers.

So I think its three things: it’s stimulating imagination, it’s telling them problems with open questions, and knowing how to organize groups. And I think in there are the answers to things we can all start doing tomorrow.

Fertile ground for personal and professional discussion, don’t you think?

 

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Teach the child

Today I read Steve Shann’s recent blog post which I won’t try and fail to summarise.  I welcomed the introspective, quiet depth of his post. After my recent focus on the promotion of technology – always as a way to enhance learning and teaching – Steve’s anecdotal reflection led me back to the business of teaching young people, which is always about relating to them, and understanding them, awakening their understanding and wonderment. Sometimes we might get lost in perfecting rubrics, we might get stuck on assessment, ticking off technology skills – and then I always feel like something isn’t right, until I come back to what is essential – the kids.

In his post, Steve mentions how he feels about

some of what goes on in our classrooms, with children being made to perform unchildlike tasks, often to please a teacher, parroting back information for which they can see no use and to which they feel no connection.

Then he shows this video

I don’t know about you, but this was one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in a while.  Steve wrote:

I found it deeply moving. As I watched those little faces live the song, I was catapulted back in time over 55 years ago when, as a very young child, the world was a place of heart-quickening wonder.

It’s good to see something like that and be reminded that we are teaching young people, not curriculum, not to the test or the marks. I’d like to believe that if we hold onto that, and when we inspire learning in our students, that they’ll follow through with the rest.

Steve’s post was about much more than this, and I recommend you read the whole thing.

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We want dot-points

dotpointgrave

Thanks to cogdogblog for the photo.

My older son has started university this year. His core subjects are Psychology and Politics, and Logic is one of his breadth subjects. Today he was telling me that some of the students in one of his Psychology classes were complaining about a particular lecturer. They thought he was too vague. What did they mean by ‘too vague’? The lecturer gave them material to read, but he didn’t specify what exactly they were supposed to learn, he didn’t give them dot points, and he didn’t make it clear what they needed for the assessment task or exam.

In other words, he expected them to read and think for themselves, to learn instead of just memorising dot points to satisfy exam criteria. According to my son, his lectures were more about making students think about things. eg. in a lecture about sensation and perception he might present an example that encouraged students to reconsider the way they perceived things, to deconstruct how they perceived reality.

What is going on in our education system that produces such an attitude to learning ?

Of course, this is a complex question which cannot be answered simply but, in my opinion, this is the result of teaching to the test, of putting all the pressure onto a final mark, an ENTER, which will allow access into a university course, which, in turn, will provide students with a job. Nothing wrong with employment. Nothing wrong with wanting further education. What is wrong, then?

The lamentable thing here is that academic success is based on performance which is made up of mastering discrete chunks of information. Why? In order to pass the assessment task or test. What is missing here is the desire to learn something because it’s interesting, because a deeper understanding enriches your life. What is also missing is the thinking behind the learning, the ability to independently read and understand, construct meaning, evaluate information, solve problems and construct creative solutions.

If students at tertiary level claim they cannot learn without the summaries or the dot points, then shouldn’t we reassess what we are teaching them? Shouldn’t we consider which skills are most important to them in their lives?

These students compared two lecturers: the one who frustrated them with the open-ended teaching method, and the one they preferred, who provided dot-point summaries, and provided notes, telling them that this was all they needed to know for the exam, and anything else they didn’t need to worry about.

My son liked the unpopular lecturer’s teaching style because it was more philosophical, more interesting because it required higher order thinking.  He said that it wasn’t the case that this lecturer would include in the exam things they hadn’t covered, it’s just that he didn’t present his information in pre-digested chunks.

What do other educators think about this? Do you see this as an isolated or general problem? What do you think are the most important skills students should leave school with? Are we preparing our students for their future world?

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