Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Impact of Standardized Testing

Another week of school and for some students, this week is just like the last; an extremely regimented school schedule dictated by district-mandated standardized testing.  Generally speaking, the impact of standardized testing is widespread across school districts and, more importantly, the awareness of effects like student pressure, teacher anxiety, testing cost, and technical requirements are increasingly known by the average educator and American citizen.  How educators, families, and children prepare for these tests varies from school to school but here are the ways some people prepare.  The debate surrounding student performance data and teacher evaluation/compensation models is a whole other discussion that I am choosing to omit in this post.

The recent push for technology (mainly computers and iPads) in schools has forced testing and publishing companies to create assessments that can be administered via a screen, which leaves children as young as seven staring at a screen for an hour or more each time they test.  The new PARCC assessment is almost completed, flooding literally hundreds of millions of dollars into technology infrastructure and assessment creation.  Someone like me gets excited about this only because it puts many modern learning tools, mainly wireless internet and web-connected devices, in the hands of teachers and students, albeit with a different intent than one might like.  If these assets were made readily available for learning projects, leveraged as creativity tools, and used for student research and collaboration, then the investment would prove worthwhile.  Reality is, current teaching practices and the implementation of Common Core standards are continuing the lock-step movement through lessons, units and tests instead of inspiring creative learning projects, empowering students to create authentic artifacts of learning like models, sketches, plays, media productions and more.  All of which can be easily done with the same computers children are required to use for standardized assessments.

Let's be clear, I'm not opposed to evaluating student progress with various formalized assessments but the discussion I like to engage is the purpose, audience and value of assessments.  Too often assessments are given to students for all the wrong reasons.  I've been reading the Kindle version of Invent to Learn by Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez which overviews very clearly many kinds of learning opportunities that empower the natural curiosity and creativity inside children.  All of these learning experiences lead to the creation of tangible projects and constructions that demonstrate student understanding and document learning.  Sometimes the learning process is messy and needs refining, but that kind of reworking experience is drastically different than having a child fix mistakes on a grammar or vocabulary worksheet.  I encourage all teachers to make time for children to explore the construction and creation of a something that will compliment a novel study or math concept.  Two students I had a couple years ago built Sunset Towers to go along with our reading of a novel titled The Westing Game.  All I had to do was give them time, resources and encouragement for this design and construction to take place in the classroom.  Even the final video was their work, completed with an inexpensive digital camera, school computer, and Movie Maker software!

And, yes, I am writing this because standardized testing has a tremendous impact on district personnel, like me.  Four times a year, for a minimum of two calendar weeks, I am responsible for scheduling and administering all standardized assessments in my school building.  This is a responsibility of my position and similar positions in schools across my district.  During testing periods, I am not collaborating with our teachers on curriculum development, project planning, technology integration, supporting behavioral needs and all the other things I do on a daily basis.  I can hear the argument already, "But what about the data that these tests produce?"  I'll give you some data.  Our school annually spends eight weeks in the process of standardized testing and over the course of the academic year I total somewhere in the ballpark of another ten days scheduling tests, sorting materials, and analyzing data.  That totals 50 out of my 180 contracted days devoted to the process of standardized testing; 27.8% of my time to be exact(rounded to the nearest tenth of a percent).  But if I really wanted to manipulate the data to emphasize my point, I'd round to the nearest precent, 28%, or just say roughly 30% of my time.  How's that for base-10 knowledge?  And I didn't acquire my math skills in the Common Core era nor did I receive lengthy "training" to learn how to proctor these tests or crunch the numbers.  I figured out how to do it on my own and with the help of my colleagues.  I have also learned, and still practice, my data-analysis skills by sifting through gobs of baseball statistics and other [seemingly meaningless] fantasy sports statistics.  Analyzing data isn't rocket science (though it can be) and doesn't take a genius to do.  Collect and organize the right data for your purpose, and you can make any argument seem convincing.  Our students do this all the time.  Has a student ever tried to persuade you to not give them homework, skip a spelling test, or reject some trivial vocabulary assignment?

I write all of this because I see the investment of resources (time, money, technology, energy) into standardized testing as an example of what educational stakeholders can do when they combine their efforts.  It's just too bad our collective energy is focused on standardizing the learning process in a way that is always lagging behind and driving away from best practices.  It could just as easily be focused on empowering our students to create writing projects, build city maps, design prototypes and build off what they already know.  We as their teachers just need to give them time, space, and encouragement!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Letter To Young Scholars

I was recently invited to write a letter to a group of aspiring young teachers.  This was for the Golden Apple, an outstanding teacher preparation and recognition organization in Illinois.  Here's what came out.

"Teaching is an art.  It takes time to learn, practice, and craft like anything else.  Becoming a great teacher means you know how to learn and guide the process for yourself and others.  You must know how to make decisions, find answers, use common sense, and explore new ideas.  You can’t be a great teacher unless you are an active learner with a proactive spirit and optimistic mindset.  

Teaching is much like learning.  You have to take risks and be prepared to learn from failure.  You have to collaborate with others to share resources while thinking and learning together.  You have to be courageous enough to inspire learners to learn without you.  

Use your talents.  If you are a singer, find a way to bring your voice to life.  If you are an athlete, incorporate your athletic abilities in your instruction and lessons.  If you are a writer, use your words to influence your students.  Be proud of who you are, the talents you have and use them in your school.    

Observer other artists in their natural habitat.  See a concert, play or professional sporting event on a semi-regular basis and admire the passion, talent, and work ethic that qualifies those individuals and teams as professionals.  Greatness doesn’t just happen, it is made.  

Embrace technology.  At one point in time, the abacus and slide rule were cutting edge mathematical tools.   Today we are inundated with smart phones, tablets and gaming devices.  Embrace the technological tools that tomorrow brings and learn how they work.  The iPhone didn’t make itself.

Innovate.  Infuse life with your own twist.  You are unique in your knowledge and perception so use that to your advantage.  You’ll understand more when you tinker with things around you.  

Engage in your surroundings.  Your brain is a social organ and flourishes when it engages in discussion, thinks through problems, and tries new things.  Ask a friend to go for a walk or bike ride in a nearby park.  Enjoy nature and their company.  You’ll be better for it.  

Experience and question everything.  Our country truly is a land of incredible opportunity and endless possibilities.  But what really makes it so great?  It is what you make it.    

Find a moral compass and control your digital footprint.  The Internet doesn’t need to see that party you went to last night but it does want to know who you are.  Use what you believe to make our world a better place and share it with us!

You are never alone.  Connect with others and learn together.  There are literally millions of educators around the globe that are networking, sharing resources, and learning together.  Be an active member of our growing global community and help shape our world with others.  If you don’t know where to start, search #edchat on Twitter.

“I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger” only grows more true with time.  As you grow, let your knowledge and wisdom grow too.  

Learn to be a better teacher.  Teach to be a better learner.  Reflect in an attempt to grow."

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Art of Creating

One of my favorite guides for learning in the classroom is Bloom's Digital Taxonomy.  It's a clear and simple guide that shows how learners can demonstrate what they've learned.  This post from Edudemic quickly explains how digital tools can help bring this to life in your classroom right now.  There are many digital tools that can help students acquire knowledge, organize understanding, apply thinking in different contexts, analyze the work of others, evaluate content, and create something that demonstrates their learning.  The most comprehensive guide I found is available on a wiki titled "Educational Oragami." It offers a wealth of links and documents that will help you with a single lesson or guide your planning of a more elaborate learning project.

The beauty lies in creation.  Think of something that fascinated you recently.  Maybe it was a video, song, building, website, article or new business in your local community.  The final product was a collection of work that demonstrated that person's thinking and expressed a learning outcome that could be dissected using Blooms Taxonomy.  Some fascinating things are happy accidents and fortunate mistakes but there remains a lesson to be learned.  Creation is the the apex of learning because it requires a strong foundation.

Here's an example.  I watched a remixed video of Bob Ross (on PBS Digital Studios Youtube channel) and thought about what it would take to create something like this.  It requires all levels of Bloom's Digital Taxonomy.  For me, it starts with remembering information about Bob Ross and his show, The Joys of Painting.  Then, I must understand the most important parts (themes) of his painting process; for this I chose his idea of an open canvas being anything you can imagine and the beauty of his "happy accidents."  Applying this understanding into a timeline or sequencing map will encourage my analysis of multiple episodes while I evaluate what clips will ultimately be most helpful in my final product.  Creating is engaging activity that requires all kinds of applied thinking.  And look at what Mr. Ross is creating in the process!

Here is an alternate way to view the taxonomy.  It flips the model and begins with creating and although I don't think creating is the best way to start, I like it because I think it operates under the assumption that learners possess the skills necessary to create, which includes prior knowledge and previous experiences.  If you choose to begin a project or activity with creating, then you should have a pretty good idea of the kind of thing you want to create.  Check out this post on Mind/Shift to see how the flipped taxonomy can work.

However you choose to guide the creation process in your classroom, you should consider some method to channel thinking in a purposeful manner toward the desired outcome.  Need an idea for something to design?  PBS Kids has quickly become my current favorite idea generator site.  Check it out.  Happy building!