Friday, December 9, 2011

Improving Assessment and Evaluation Practice....One Department at a Time

Recently I've been having informal discussions with members of our ESL Department about rethinking their assessment practices and implementing a more "progressive" approach.  We're looking at a system based on competencies, a key component of BC's new Education Plan, rather than grades, with the culmination being a simple pass or fail upon completion of the course.

This all stems from the ongoing issue that I blogged about here.  Our teachers are getting frustrated with students using their smart phones for legitimate study purposes, but then furtively using them on other tasks after having being asked specifically to put them away.  This practice is counterproductive on every level, and it's up to us to get that point across to the students.  For instance, forgetting completely the moral imperative not to cheat, lower level ESL students who use a translator on a simple vocabulary assignment end up giving the teacher a completely erroneous impression of how much they know.  The teacher, after assessing the work, will assume that the students know the material and will move on.  And though this last point is true in ALL classes, students' other incentive to cheat, "We need the grade to get into university!" has no validity in ESL classes.  Post secondary institutions pay no attention to student achievement in these courses.

To combat this misuse we looked at motivation and incentives.  Students are motivated to cheat because they have too much invested, emotionally, on "getting a good mark".  As long as we offer a "mark", say a number out of 10, then getting 8/10 will always be more desirable than getting 4 or 5/10.  But as educators, we know that the value of assessment does not lie in these these marks, it lies in the formative feedback we give the kids and, more importantly, how the students use that feedback to improve their own learning.

The long and short of it is that there really are no valid reasons for ESL students to continue this practice.  But they do, simply because we attach an extrinsic value to the work.  If we remove this incentive, then students are genuinely left with no reason whatsoever to continue cheating.

Removing extrinsic incentives and implementing more pedagogically sound assessment practices should be the goal in all our classrooms, but given these circumstances, I believe that ESL Departments are an ideal place to start a systemic implementation of these assessment for and as learning practices.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Media and Messages

Everyone (at least everyone over the age of 40) is familiar with Marshall McLuhan's famous quip "The medium is the message".  I'd like to use it as an analysis point for what's probably going to turn into a bit of a ramble.  Here goes;

With technological change moving at such a frenetic pace, McLuhan's observation has never been more true.  That's neither a good thing nor a bad thing, or it can be both.  As we all struggle to implement technology in our schools we must keep in mind that the technology itself is merely a set of tools to facilitate quality teaching and learning.  In this respect, as educators part of our responsibility is to ensure that the medium does not become the primary message.  That is, if we get too wrapped up in always implementing the newest/greatest/"coolest" thing to come around, we risk losing our focus on the real reason we do what we do, helping kids achieve success.  Every teacher I've talked to recognizes this.

On the other hand however, if we don't at least make an effort to keep abreast of developing communication technologies (whether we choose to use them or not) our messages, whatever they may be, may end up falling on deaf ears.  It has been said that as educators we have to "engage the students where they are".  Our kids are communicating with each other and the world primarily through electronic media.  If we insist on ignoring this, sticking stubbornly with "what worked in the past" (sometimes the rather distant past) then we risk our students disengaging from whatever it is we're trying to communicate.  I cringe when I periodically run across a sheet that looks exactly like what it is; a typewritten page with whiteout marks.  In this respect, the medium is at least part of the message.  Or more precisely, the outdated medium is the negation of the intended message.

Modern information technology has greatly decreased the length, and increased the number of "messages" that each of us receives in a day.  Again, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how we use the "messages" that we receive; and this is what we have to teach kids.  The same technologies that have reduced communications to tweets, memes and banners also allow the user to dig deeper and access a far broader range of knowledge than at any time in history.  In the past we taught students the differences between reading a novel and reading a science text and how to filter the salient points out of each.  We now have to ensure that students have the same abilities with modern communication devices.  They need to know how to filter the steady stream of sound bite information they receive to discern the meaningful from the inconsequential and legitimate sources of information from those with a hidden agenda (usually profit driven).

The medium may not necessarily be message, but they're closely related.  If the 140 characters of a tweet constitute the whole message, or the banner headline becomes the extent of the story, then we've wasted the medium.  But if they lead the reader to another link, or in some other way spur the reader to further thought or research, then in a way, the medium is no longer the message but has become the messenger.

(Anyone reading please respond, I'd like some help in tying these thoughts together and extending them)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What to do about 'grades'?

There's a very thought provoking article by Alfie Kohn in the latest edition of Educational Leadership.  The Case Against Grades makes a very strong argument for moving away from any and all systems that attach a value to the work of students.  Kohn cites findings from as far back as 1933 that putting a 'grade' on students' work has almost no positive effect and numerous negative effects.  Grades have been shown, among other things, to diminish student interest and limit student achievement in a number of ways.  Essentially the argument against grades can be boiled down to this (and I'm pretty sure I'm not the first to say this); When people are given extrinsic rewards for any work that they do, the intrinsic value of that work is inevitably diminished.  Many kids in our system (and some parents) are so strongly focused on the extrinsic rewards available; grades and, by extension, university entrance, scholarships etc. that they completely lose track of what education is supposed to be about in the first place.  Even "standards based" grading, according to Kohn, is just another way of quantifying and labeling.  He even pokes holes in the argument that students "need" grades to get into university, citing examples of broad based admission policies.

So, how do we work toward a grade free world?  Well, let's start with a realistic assessment of what can and can't be done in the near term.  First, though more post secondary institutions are indeed moving to more broad based admission criteria, achieving a mark of x% over y number of courses is still the primary determinant of who gets coveted spots at most large universities.  In Richmond that's no small issue.  Interested parties, primarily government, need to put pressure on these schools to change admission criteria to make broad based admission policies the norm.  However, as a school system, collectively letting universities dictate how we do our job is letting the tail wag the dog.  If secondary schools across the province, perhaps as part of the new Education Plan, were encouraged to move toward grade free environments then universities would quickly find ways to continue to attract the best and brightest.  After all, universities are in competition for the best students just as much as those students are in competition for limited spots.

What can be done on a school level?  My feeling is that there's an appetite amongst teachers to find more productive alternatives for student assessment (see my post FromGoodtoBetter: Rethinking the Currency of Marks).  But they need encouragement, they need some guidance and, perhaps most importantly, they need 'permission' (note the quotes).  That is, they need to feel a true sense of permission from the system as a whole, from the ministry right on down to the school level and perhaps even from parents, to radically change what they've been doing their whole career.  Such a transformation would take time and resources, but I believe that this is one educational reform that would have the backing of most teachers if done properly.

Here's one suggestion for moving this along.  Now that the number of ministry exams has been drastically curtailed, secondary schools will be left with even more unstructured time at the end of semester or the end of the school year. This time could well be used by teachers for things like summative meetings or interviews with students, or other assessments where kids would leave a course with a genuine knowledge of what they'd done well, what still needed a little work, and what their next academic step may be given their current accomplishments.

In short, the old arguments for grading students are sounding to me increasingly like "We do this because that's the way ________ wants it done."  That refrain is getting old, as educators why are we letting ______ tell us what's best for students?  I'm under no illusion that we'll be moving to a grade free system anytime soon, but if we hold a vision in our collective consciousness of what a grade free environment might look like, incremental steps in that direction can be implemented.

NOTE: As I write this post, this is in today's Vancouver Sun "Entrance GPA Reliable Predictor of School Performance: study"

"Interviews and supplementary application materials such as reference letters, resumes and essays, add little value when it comes to predicting how well students do - mark-wise - in nursing school."

In other words, students who did well in the "marks as currency" system which is predominant in most high schools continued to do well in post secondary, where the "marks as currency" system is even more predominant.  The frustration is that studies like this make meaningful change even more difficult.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

...More Technology in the ESL Classroom

One of our ESL teachers is incorporating the use of wikis into her teaching practice.  This strikes me as an outstanding example of how to use one of the many powerful communication tools that have emerged over the past decade.  The premise is simple, for individual work, students post their writing to the wiki and the teacher, along with classmates, can read the writing and make corrections.  For group work, students can work together to write pieces, all the while collectively correcting and editing their work.  I even suggested that given some topics germane to the average teenager, the results of such a process might yield work that could go into the school newspaper or the school newsletter.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The fine line between learning and cheating.

An interesting thought came to me the other day as I was dealing with a minor "cheating" incident.  A student in an ESL class had typed a phrase, in Mandarin, into a website for translation.  And though the student was clearly in the wrong (he had specifically been told that he could not use his cell phone or the site in question) it got me thinking about the nature and use of technology in our classrooms.  More specifically, it raised the question in my mind "where does 'translation' end and 'copying' or 'cheating' begin?"  In the days of paper, when students used translation dictionaries, they had to piece things together one word at a time.  It was a labourious process that often ended up with some awkward sounding (or downright funny) results.  And sometimes, especially when homonyms were involved, the meaning of the phrase was lost altogether.  The first generations of electronic translators worked in a similar fashion.  But the teacher was sure that the work had been done one word at a time and that the student had spent some time working with English.

However, with the advent of powerful handheld devices and much more sophisticated translation technology, the process of translation within ESL classes has changed dramatically.  Students can now type phrases in Mandarin and the technology will translate the whole thing (though not always terribly well).  As software and algorithms evolve, these translations will become increasingly accurate encompassing things like idiomatic expressions and nuances. To add another dimension to this conversation, iPhones now have an app that will translate verbal communication on the fly.

With all this change comes an interesting dilemma.  Is use of this technology "cheating"?  Or is this just a different way for students to acquire a more clear and comprehensive understanding of the language as a whole?

As mentioned above, translations done one word at a time often distort, or even lose the meaning of a phrase.  But if students simply have to type a phrase into a translator, or dictate into their iPhone, and out comes the polished English version, will they learn the language effectively or will they just rely on the software at hand?

I'm sure the answer lies somewhere in the middle and is heavily dependent on both the context and how the teacher chooses to use or not use these technological tools.  But two things are for sure.  The days of the  "____________ (fill in the blank) to English" dictionary are numbered, and we ignore this software, (and dilemmas like this) at our peril.

Monday, May 16, 2011

One Sign of a Good School

One of the most vexing problems facing modern public schools and those with a vested interest therein is deciding what evidence of a ‘good school’ looks like.  At one end of the spectrum there are those who swear by statistical results on standardized tests.  In fact much of what passes for ‘educational reform’ is based on various sets and interpretations of numbers. (Though I’ll never for the life of me figure out how the designers of NCLB decided that  ‘punishing’ low performing schools by reducing funding was a good idea!)  Others look at graduation rates.  Our own government uses “satisfaction surveys” to garner opinion around BCs public education.

But anyone who is involved in education will tell you that most of these indicators are blunt instruments at best.  Completely misleading at worst.  Wandering around our school at lunch I was struck by what I would consider as genuine signs of a ‘good school’.  There was intramural ball hockey in the gym refereed by a teacher.  There were students eating lunch with teachers in various classrooms.  There were teachers and students playing pickup basketball together in the gym.  There were students working on various projects in the art rooms.  There was a group of teachers meeting to discuss student excellence in order to award scholarships at valedictory….and the staffrooms were all but empty.

The common theme in all of these was teachers volunteering their own time in order to enrich the lives of their students, in most cases, by simply being there as a responsible and caring adult.  These casual adult/adolescent interactions are what differentiates a true education from simply going to school.  Unfortunately for those intent on putting numbers and values on everything, measuring the value or the outcomes of such interactions is impossible.  The good news for the bean counters however is that fostering a culture where these interactions are the norm doesn’t cost anything.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Training our Brains for the Future

In a previous incarnation as a math teacher I would often be faced with the age old question, “But when are we gonna use this?”.  The more advanced the course, the tougher and more legitimate this question became.  When asked this question by grade 11 or 12 math students, my initial, somewhat glib (but nonetheless true) answer would be “For most of you, never.”  After getting over the initial shock that their hunches had been right and that someone was finally willing to admit it, I went on to explain why we had students doing abstract mathematics in the first place.  I usually used the following analogy; after asking the class how many students lifted weights (most of the boys would put up a hand whether it was true or not) I would ask the following question, “So, how many of you weightlifters are ever going to lie on your back and press a hundred pounds into the air?” (Nobody)  I’d continue “Thinking through and solving abstract math problems does the same thing for your brain that lifting weights does for your body.  Most of you will never use the actual concepts and mathematical tools that we’re learning here, but the problem solving steps and just the exercise for your mind, will help you in other endeavours down the road.”

As it turns out, I was bang on.  I’m currently reading a fascinating book by Rebecca Costa entitled “The Watchman’s Rattle” the main premise of which is that the complexity of most systems in the modern world has increased to such an extent that our caveman brains are just not up to the task of comprehending, much less solving, some of the problems we know are in our future.  She goes on to talk about how we may (must?) change our patterns of thought and behaviour if we are to avoid possible extinction. (Did I mention that the book is also rather sobering!?).  One of the big hopes that she discusses at length is the recent quantum leaps we’ve made in understanding brain function, and how we can use that knowledge to train ourselves, essentially, to “do better” than we have in the past at sorting out complex issues. Part of this process includes considerations of brain health, and more specifically the use of ‘brain training’.

Through the use of MRI scans, along with findings in psychological and cognitive research, neuroscience is finding that brains that are regularly exercised are much healthier and function better, particularly later in life.    The more accurate and detailed MRI scans become, the more information we gather as to exactly which parts of the brain perform which functions.   They’ve also discovered that, contrary to popular belief, neural connections can be formed at any age.  It would seem that you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks!

A quick search on the web uncovers a treasure trove of sites specifically dedicated to brain training, click here for an example. Brain training is fairly simple, doesn’t take a lot of time and best of all, it’s fun.  Try this one for example. Most brain training exercises are akin to video games, puzzles, memory exercises and riddles.

Though there’s not yet a lot of ‘hard evidence’ regarding results of brain training (due to the relative newness of the field) if anecdotal evidence and preliminary results are any indication, it may eventually become an integral part of school life.  Spending a few minutes each day playing games that involve memory, reflexive decision making, spatial thinking, and problem solving, exercises the different parts of the brain associated with the various functions.  A short daily regimen of these exercises would both 'warm up' students' brains for the day, as well as providing the long term benefits associated with a more complex set of neural connections.  With the advent of cheap and plentiful communication devices, having a school full of students doing brain exercises for a few minutes each morning seems like (pardon the pun) a no brainer.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hey Kids, Do as We Say, Not as We Do.

a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.

We, in education, are always being asked to prevent bullying and to teach kids why bullying behaviour is wrong.  Though this is certainly a laudable goal, I shake my head at the shear hypocrisy these exhortations demonstrate about much of the society around us.

As teachers, one of the first things we learn is that the most powerful teaching tool we have by far is to model the skills and behaviours that we are hoping to teach.  Telling doesn’t work.  So in the schools we do our best to model things like sharing, compassion, cooperation and encouragement.  In short, we try to demonstrate all the opposite traits of bullying.  But then students leave the school each day (and eventually graduate).  Then what do they see?

They see things like our prime minister running a whole series of ad hominem attack adds.  They see parents at sporting events belittling referees and opposing players and coaches.  They see companies like Wal-Mart demanding that suppliers cut costs while turning a blind eye to the working conditions those suppliers must perpetuate to stay competitive.  They see governments unilaterally stripping workers of the right to collective bargaining. They see people like Rush Limbaugh mocking the Japanese earthquake survivors.  In other words, our society is rife with bullying behaviour, especially amongst our “leaders”, you know, the ones telling the schools that they should be preventing bullying!

The political and corporate worlds have always had a “bullying” element to them.  In recent times however, bullying tactics seem to have become the dominant model in both the political and corporate cultures.  We seem to accept it to such a degree that in many circumstances it’s become “the new normal”.

What’s worse is that this has happened because these strategies work.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be used.  So, the big question becomes, “Why are we so susceptible to, and willing to accept, bullying in so many of society’s institutions?”  Behaviour that we actively discourage on a personal level seems endemic to our political, corporate and media institutions, and we accept it.

We at the schools will continue to decry and work against bullying in all its forms.  But paradigm shifts need to take place across our society as a whole if we are serious about eliminating bullying.  After all, modeling is the best form of teaching.  Until we refuse to accept the exercise of power through intimidation, belittling and humiliation that we see daily on an institutional level, we can’t expect kids to take us seriously as we tell them that bullying is wrong.  Luckily, the vast majority of students at most of our schools understand this concept, perhaps they should be the ones teaching us?!

Monday, February 28, 2011

There was an interesting article in the Globe and Mail on Saturday (Feb. 26th) regarding a new, and controversial, school in St. Catherines Ontario.  As with most controversies in education, no matter which side of the issue you find yourself drawn to, many valuable ideas, and some troubling concerns, are raised.  The school in question, which isn’t even slated to open until September of 2011, is a public school, (DSBN Academy) which is geared specifically to low-income students and their families.

“The academy promises extra supports, tutors, mentors and a golden ticket to university for low-income students in a region with withered roots in the manufacturing industry.”

Proponents of the model argue that an environment such as this is exactly what is needed to provide low income students the extra academic and social supports they need to have a closer to equal chance of moving on successfully to post secondary education.  While critics argue that such an environment is just one more way in which poor kids get stigmatized and ghettoized.  Both sides are correct.

Parents whose children would qualify for the school, but are nevertheless wary of the negative impacts, hit the nail on the head when they demanded of trustees why these kinds of supports are not available at their kids’ current schools.  The simple answer is that it is expensive to implement these kinds of supports at all schools, it is far cheaper, or more “cost effective” (depending on your political bent) for schools to specialize in dealing with various populations with different needs.  The article mentioned Toronto’s Africentric School as another example of a school catering specifically to the needs of the local community.

It’s true that different populations have different needs when it comes to schooling.  All kids need structure, support and opportunities for engagement in their lives.  For low-income kids, especially those with single parents, these kinds of supports are often not available at home.  A single parent (often working two jobs) simply does not have the resources (time, financial, material etc.) that middle and upper income families can provide.  If these can’t be provided at home then we, as a community and a civil society, must help provide them at school.  This is what is being proposed for DSBN Academy.

What many find troubling is that in order to give these low-income students extra support, should it really be necessary to move them into a school of their own?  If we’ve decided that ‘inclusion’ (in any of its many forms) is what we believe in as a model for schooling, isn’t this a step in the wrong direction?  After all, opening up a string of ‘specialized’ schools is essentially saying that inclusion does NOT work and that students do better in more homogeneous populations.  The school is being modeled after a similar school in California.  This in itself is a red flag for many.  After all, given the current state of public education in the US, do we really want to start modeling schools after a system that is in such great turmoil?

To me this whole issue boils down to realism vs idealism.   Given neo-conservative pressures from governments over the past 20 or 30 years, is opening up schools like the DSBN Academy just one more in a limitless series of small steps in nickel and diming to death the public school systems we’ve spent so many years building?  Or are current economic realities such that we should ignore idealistic goals and create schools that do the best job for students academically, despite possible long-term divisions and social stigmatization? 

Deep down I’m an idealist, so my vote would be with the former.  After all, specialization of schools is just what any acolyte of Frederick W. Taylor would recommend for purposes of efficiency.  But one thing more people need to accept is that education should not be a matter of efficiency, it should be a matter of efficacy, and efficacy may cost a little more.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Reason for Teaching HOTS Demonstrated

Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) are becoming a hot topic in education reform, and that’s a good thing.  The trouble is that some people misconstrue the idea of teaching HOTS as a replacement for establishing a wide (and deep) knowledge base rather than a vital complement to a wide knowledge base.  This misconception, and other false dichotomies, are often put forth by people or institutions with a vested interest in the status quo.  One component of HOTS is the ability to recognize this, and figure out what’s really being “sold”.

In an article that appeared recently in the Vancouver Sun (Purdue University Study Confronts Edu-babble) Michael Zwaagstra makes a number of spurious points, and misleading claims.   For instance, when he says;  “Over the last decade, Manitoba eliminated most provincial standards tests, while at the school level, many administrators expect teachers to reduce their use of tests in the classroom. These administrators claim that students benefit more from hands-on activities than from memorizing items scheduled to appear on the next test.”  He is purposely misleading the reader into conflating tests with assessment.  And that if  “tests” are eliminated they will simply be replaced by “hands-on activities.” Surely the elimination of standardized tests does not mean that students will no longer be assessed on their work using other means?

Though Mr. Zwaagstra goes on to make some valid points regarding the value of memorization, the whole premise of his article is based on the false assumptions that a) teachers and administrators universally agree that all memorization is bad (they don’t) b) that teachers and administrators don’t understand the necessity of a solid knowledge base upon which to build HOTS (they do).

Mr. Zwaagstra quotes the author of the study (Professor Jeffrey Karpicke) as saying "But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practising retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy."   Mr. Zwaagstra, however, then goes on to conclude that,  “However, we must ensure that testing remains a central component of what happens in school.”  This conclusion does not follow from the results of this study.  The conclusion of Professor Karpicke’s study is that traditional memorization, combined with continuous self-testing, often leads to better recall (or retrieval) than does other methods of studying.  In other words, traditional memorization and retrieval exercises lead to improved memorization and retrieval.  His study makes absolutely no claim whatsoever about keeping testing as a “central component of what happens in school”.

The biggest irony here is that without HOTS, readers of this article may accept the false dichotomies and contrived logic of Mr. Zwaagstra’s argument.  Without the ability to analyze and think critically, they may also miss the fact that Mr. Zwaagstra is a ‘research fellow’ with the Frontier Centre, a “conservative/libertarian non-profit think tank,” whose radio commentaries include such titles as “The Deception of Human Caused Global Warming”.  It’s no wonder then that writers of Mr. Zwaagstra’s ilk emphasize the value of rote learning, and downplay the necessity of teaching critical thinking and other HOTS.  After all, a paucity of critical thought is what allows ultra-conservative thought to thrive in North America.

Educators everywhere would agree with the necessity of teaching (among other things) factual knowledge, working knowledge and HOTS.  And given the rate at which much of our “working knowledge” and even some of our “factual knowledge” is changing, teaching HOTS is becoming an ever more important component of what we do as educators.  Critical thinking, problem solving, logical reasoning and other HOTS will always be useful and necessary skills, knowing the exact dates of the Winnipeg General Strike?…not so much.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Multi-....wait I've gotta take a call...Tasking

The current edition of Educational Leadership magazine is dedicated to “Teaching Screenagers”.  As one might guess there are articles related to cyber-bullying and what educational technology leaders are using in their classrooms.  But the content that I found most engaging were the ideas of current students and recent graduates around the use of technology in high school.  A few interesting opinions emerged as I read through their comments.  One topic of discussion was the increasing prevalence of multi-tasking.

For young people today multi-tasking is the norm.  Some even commented that they feel they have to do more than one thing at a time.  As one young person commented, “It’s not like we’re so distracted that we can’t accomplish anything.  It’s more that we’ve gotten into the habit of doing a couple of things at the same time and being able to function adequately in both areas.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”  What struck me immediately was the use of the word ‘adequately’.  This person was obviously aware, at least subconsciously, that while trying to accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously, a lack of focus would actually hinder the outcomes.  After all, most of us don’t shoot for “adequate”.  So given that multi-tasking seems to be the new norm, I think it’s important that we make all students more aware of how the brain works and what the implications of multi-tasking really are, both positive and negative.

For instance, research has shown that our brains are not really made for true multi-tasking.  What we actually do is shift focus from one thing to another and then back again quickly and repeatedly, but we can really only focus on one thing at a time, especially men (insert snide comment here ladies). And with evolutionary biology being what it is, despite what the current generation of young people might believe, the human brain of today is not vastly different from human brains of the past; we just have more things competing for our attention.  If true multi-tasking were a forte of the human mind then cell phone use, and texting while driving wouldn’t be a problem.

Another interesting point of note was how social etiquette is being redefined in the age of iPods, cell phones and texting.  As one of these young people pointed out, it’s no longer considered rude (by some) to be receiving and sending texts while conversing with a friend or colleague.  Well, though others may not consider unsolicited impositions on their time rude, I certainly do.  And given what I’ve pointed out above, I defy anyone to fully engage in a conversation while texting such that the length and depth of the conversation is unaffected.

As technology continues to change the way we communicate and interact with each other, we need to make students mindful of the less obvious repercussions.  Students need to know that doing numerous things at once will indeed affect the outcome of each of the tasks.  And though social mores change with the times, and fatuous customs may fall by the wayside, (“Hats off inside boys!”) impositions on the time of other people will continue to be considered “rude”. As information technology facilitates communication, it also facilitates distraction.  In her book The Cult of Efficiency, Janice Gross Stein makes clear the difference between efficiency and efficacy.  We must ensure that as information technology becomes more ubiquitous, we teach students not to sacrifice the latter in a quest for the former.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Keeping Up With Technology

I was just informed that a number of our computers were being read their last rites and sent to the recycler.  To sate our need to anthropomorphize things maybe it’s time to start counting “computer years” like we count “dog years” ( 1 actual year=10 computer years ?).  These machines were coming up on 80 years old, ‘they’d had a good life’.  The trouble is we have 20 or 30 more just like them in the school.  They’re in our well used general purpose lab, and scattered in classes throughout the building. The obsolescence and dying of computers is no surprise to anyone.  The problem is that there is no plan, nor budget to replace them.  That’s not an over sight, our Tech Services team does a great job of planning for the future…as best they can.  The problem is simply that there is no more money in the budget to replace these machines.  This is symptomatic of a lack of foresight on behalf of government bean counters.

There’s a lot of talk about “teaching for the future, not the past” and we hear plenty of things like “…the top 10 jobs of 2010 didn’t exist 6 years ago” and other hard to prove or disprove factoids.  But the gist is clear, the world is moving forward in leaps and bounds, technologically speaking.   As educators we hear about and imagine some of the possibilities around blogging, skyping and tweeting, not to mention the simple fact that given some relatively simple equipment, the student of today has access to virtually everything that’s known to humankind.  We read stories about wonderful new software and hardware designed to get students out of the classroom, virtually if not literally.  Increasingly, teachers are genuinely interested in learning and teaching with these exciting new technologies, here's just one example.   Yet the hardware and software infrastructure of our public school system is at best inadequate.   And rumour has it that we here in Richmond are relatively advanced technologically speaking!  The simple question is this, “How can we teach for the future when we simply don’t have the necessary tools to do so?”

From my observations, the situation is not yet dire.  But the harbinger of the dying computer stock does not bode well at all for helping our system get better.   Many students in our system already have an attitude that can best be described as ‘bemused’ when faced with the prospect of using some of the school’s technology.  If the march of obsolescence continues, bemusement will develop into disdain, disinterest and disrespect for what they’re being asked to do, or at least for the equipment and the manner in which they’re asked to do it.  And they’d have a point.

We don’t need the latest and best of everything, outfitting education systems with technology is a multi-billion dollar undertaking.  But we do need a long term vision and a plan to achieve that vision.  We also need to be able to rely on the fact that funding will be available to support the learners of the future on the technology of the future.  Hoping to maintain the status quo is a mug’s game when it comes to hardware and software.

Our district plans for replacement and upgrading of equipment and software as best it can.  But without stable and reliable funding from the government, perhaps even targeted at technological maintenance and advancement, school systems in general risk ending up at a distinct technological disadvantage in numerous ways.  There are some truly amazing things being done these days with technology.  Let’s ensure that we make the necessary investments of both money and time so that educators can incorporate some of these new resources.  Having students engaged with modern technology at school is a far more productive situation than having them snicker at the obsolescence of the hardware and the frustration of the teacher trying to use it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Viable Improvement Policies Don't Include Merit Pay

One of the prospective replacements for Gordon Campbell as leader of the BC Liberal Party (and also therefore the Premier’s job) has proposed a system of merit pay for teachers.  Of course this prospective Premier has not given any details as to how such a scheme might work, he couldn’t, because nobody has yet come up with a truly effective model for such a scheme.  More than any actual policy statement, the pronouncement was clearly just political blustering.  But now that the subject has moved into the spotlight, let’s take a closer look at it.

First (and only) question, “How would you decide which teachers deserve merit pay?”  There are a few options here, but all of them open up some pretty wriggly cans of worms.  However, the most common answer we hear is some variation on the theme, “We’ll base merit pay on how students in each teacher’s class perform on standardized tests, and look at those results year over year.”  Such models, often dubbed “value added models” (VAM) appeal to those who see all education as something that can be quantified, tested and reported on.  This, of course, is simplistic and flawed thinking.  But apparently behaviourism is alive and well amongst a significant portion of the population!  What about the teacher who each year volunteers to teach “at risk” students?  Most people would agree that helping a class full of these students simply to graduate is far more challenging (and possibly rewarding) than helping a class full of academic students to improve their “A”s to higher “A”s.  VAM models can’t effectively take this into account.  Another problem with these models is that it’s notoriously difficult to test higher order thinking skills with standardized tests, so students who do well on standardized tests may well have missed out on learning higher order skills.  A close analysis of the Gates Foundation’s “Measures of Effective Teaching” (MET) Project shows that there is at best a weak correlation between a teacher’s VAM score and her student’s results on higher order thinking assessments.

This leads us to possibly the strongest argument against VAM merit pay schemes.  If we start rewarding teachers according to how their students do on tests, teachers will inevitably start “teaching to the test”.  Indeed, such a system would encourage it.  But this reductionist definition of teaching and learning is antithetical to what the vast majority of educators in BC know to be true.  This is why the majority of teachers themselves, even many of those who would qualify for merit pay, reject the idea.  The idea of merit pay for teachers has been around forever, or at least since 1908, but the elephant in the room is, and always has been how to quantify efficacy in teaching.  Basing merit pay on standardized test results, or improved overall averages, risks moving the whole system in the wrong direction.

The idea of merit pay is raised, mostly by economists and politicians, as a relatively simple way to improve education.  Or at least that’s the theory anyway.  Would merit pay for politicians and economists get us more effective policies and more sound economics?  If only it were so easy.  There are far more cost effective ways to improve education, the simplest being to start funding our system as it should be funded.

There’s currently a lot of talk around the Richmond District of how the latest “budget crisis” has affected life at the schools.  The consensus seems to be that this year’s shortfall has left us with no choice but to do less.  But no one thing can be completely dropped; those things all disappeared a while back.  Instead we’re just doing some things less well.  Any way you slice it, it’s death by a thousand cuts (morbid pun intended).  It becomes an even more daunting task to get from good to better when we’re perpetually fighting just to maintain what we have.

Finally, here’s a straightforward question to ponder, “Why, in one of the richest provinces, in one of the richest countries in the world are we, as a society, underfunding our public education system?”  If asked to list areas where judicious funding would help improve our system, any teacher or administrator that I know would have a plethora of great ideas.  Merit pay would not be among them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rethinking the Currency of Marks

In a recent conversation with one of our teachers I was inquiring into our science department’s use of “Essential Learning Outcomes” or ELOs (not to be confused with the cheesy 70’s synth pop band).  Without going into too much detail, the ELO model is based on “mastery learning” with the assessment focus being formative rather than summative and anecdotal rather than numerical/alphabetic.

The conversation moved to where we were discussing how “marks” are too often used a sort of currency to be bartered, with the culmination being that the more of this currency you have upon graduation, the better the spot that you can “purchase” in a post secondary institution.  Part of this conversation was talking about assignments handed in late, and how many teachers still deduct “20% per day” for late assignments.   Such practices break down as non-sensical and even counterproductive under even the simplest analysis. (“If this assignment is worth a mark of 80, meaning supposedly that I know 80% of the material, then how could I only know 60% if I handed it in tomorrow?”).  The teacher with whom I was conversing said simply that he doesn’t accept or assess any late work.  Get it in on time or don’t get it in.  At first blush I imagined this to be the most extreme (and rather draconian) example of the logic I explained above.  Of course I was thinking in the “marks as currency” paradigm.  But when analyzed through a more progressive lens, the lens through which our science teachers see all their ELO based courses, this response made perfect sense.  Rather than seeing “marks” as something to barter, his view was that any missed assessment is actually just a missed opportunity for the student to receive feedback.  Students missing assignments can still get the ‘P’ (for pass) for any given ELO as long as they demonstrate somehow that they know the material.  But too many missed opportunities may well result in failure to master the essential outcomes.

To me this outlook on assessment makes eminent sense.  Students now focus on doing their best, getting assessed and then improving their work according to the feedback rather than handing stuff in to collect enough marks to get a good grade.  It also puts more of an onus on the students to take responsibility for their work and to reflect and continually improve what they're doing.  As this teacher noted, as soon as one puts a number or a letter to anything it brings closure, like it or not.

Looking around I see that an ever increasing number of secondary school teachers are thinking of assessment in more progressive ways (elementary school teachers have been doing it for years).  There are also an increasing number of post secondary programs that are moving to mastery learning based, "pass/fail" systems, especially professional programs such as med. schools.  Yet we still have this transition between secondary and post secondary education where numerical marks tend to be the prime determinant as to who goes where.

To get from good to better we need to collectively start seeing assessment as a cyclical, ongoing dialogue between student and teacher and we need to move away from the "marks as currency" paradigm.  There are encouraging signs that this is happening to an ever greater degree, but the culmination of high school remains a set of "box tops" where the right collection will get a student in to the program of his choice.  Changing this would be a HUGE step forward.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

More Inquisitive, Less Acquisitive... or Else

Acquisitive or inquisitive?  The two are not antonyms, but if we consider these two adjectives as a sort of juxtaposition, we can open up some some very interesting lines of discussion.  Over the recent Christmas break (let’s face it, call it what you will, the break was originally decreed to celebrate that particular holiday) I was struck by how acquisitiveness seems always to be on the rise while inquisitiveness seems to wane.  Let’s be under no illusions, these two phenomena are related and neither is by happenstance.

Anyone working within the school system will tell you that teaching inquisitiveness is just “one of the things we do”, and rightly so.   I think we do quite a good job of encouraging students to explore, to inquire and in the long term, to follow a path in which they’re interested and passionate.   In other words, we try to teach kids to embrace and value inquisitiveness for purely intrinsic reasons.  But is this message getting through?  And which has a greater pull on our students, following a keen interest in music, history or literature, or getting the right math and science credits to allow entrance into commerce or engineering?  After all, that’s where society has deemed the most lucrative careers to lie.  This is not at all to say that math and science are not valuable and interesting areas of study unto themselves (I myself was a math and science teacher), but the “pull” toward math and science of the vast majority of the academically capable students is very real.  Any comparison of the number of students who sign up for science classes vs the number who study the humanities will show the disproportionality.

Of course there is plenty of opportunity to be inquisitive within the realm of the “hard sciences”.  Indeed, it’s a few centuries of true inquisition (not the ‘Spanish’ kind) that has led us to the high tech, comfortable and relatively healthy society in which we now live.  But therein also lies the problem, where we are as a society is not nearly as advanced or as beneficent as it could or should be. In fact (and here’s the rub) we continue to pour ever more resources, both human and material, into producing better, faster, cooler widgets (engineering) and then using some of the best minds around to create perceived needs by preying on insecurities (marketing) to sell these widgets.  The fact that our society as a whole is becoming ever more acquisitive is pretty much beyond question, and any who think the results of this to be relatively benign should watch this.  Many thinkers (e.g. Jane Jacobs, Gwynne Dyer, and Jared Diamond to name just three) have posited that we may well be on the verge of one or more environmental or societal ‘collapses’.  Yet as a society we seem almost willfully blind to some of these possible pending calamities.  The ‘advances’ that have given us our relatively luxuriant lifestyle are the same ones that may lead to our downfall.
But there are many powerful forces vested in keeping us producing and buying ever more.  Our current economic structure depends upon it.  But in order to keep this cycle of acquisitiveness moving, inquisitiveness into things like environmental impact, genuine need as opposed to simple desire, etc. etc. must be stifled.  So inquisitiveness is often actively discouraged to perpetuate acquisitiveness.

Our advancements in the realms of technology, marketing, and some would include media, have far outpaced our advancements in the things like ethics, morality and general “wisdom”.  We have many powerful tools and ideas that allow us to create things, but we lack the moral and political will to use these creative forces for the benefit and advancement of all.  Perhaps it’s part of human nature that short-term acquisitiveness plays a far more prominent role in our society than does long-term inquisitiveness.  After all, anthropologists have shown that as a species, our long-term planning skills are pretty weak.  Deep down we’re just slightly smarter and more self-aware than the next mammal who’s living a day-to-day existence.  We don’t naturally do “big picture” or “long-term” very well.
But in this respect we must start opposing the historical trend.  We’ve brought ourselves (and many other species on this planet) far enough down the current developmental path that any further ignorance of genuine big-picture, long-term and global thinking and action may have some pretty dire consequences.  In other words, a paradigm shift in how we think and act as a society is, arguably, a necessity.  Such shifts start with educators and what goes on within our educational institutions.  Using the idea of inquisition being far more important and beneficial than acquisition would be a great place to start.  But you already know that.