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.