May 2008’s Think-About: Teaching to the Test

My friend, Tony Vincent, sent me this link today-

As an educator- and a former music educator- this really hit home with me. While I agree that schools should be accountable for ensuring that every child learns the skills necessary to be successful, I don’t agree that testing them ad nauseum is the way to prove they’re learning. The result, as most of you know, is that schools and teachers feel they need to teach to the test. Creativity is not only sapped out of the students, but from the teachers and their art of teaching as well.

A lot of classroom teachers and support staff resent the stipulations in NCLB. I guess my questions are:

1) In order to prove AYP, are we required to subject our students to a litany of tests? Are there other acceptable methods to show progress? Is this a case of misinterpreting requirements?

2) Critical thinking, creativity, learning to express oneself in an intelligent and responsible manner… aren’t these important life skills? Ah, but how does one test and prove that a student has learned these things? Too many times, we ignore content and skill that can’t be tested objectively.

3) There is research that shows students who are asked to use higher levels of thinking, not just comprehension and regurgitation of facts, perform at higher levels on standardized tests (anyone have any good examples to share?). Since this is the case, wouldn’t it make more sense to prepare students to do more than just excel on a test?

I can’t stop thinking about this today. Kids are dropping out of school at record paces- 1 in 4, according to a University of Minnesota study. 1 in 4! We need to keep them engaged and involved in school… help them learn the skills that are relevant to their world.

Pulling students out of Art, Music, PE, or worse yet, eliminating those programs in order to concentrate on the “core” subjects is unthinkable to me. For many students, the only reason they stay in school is because of a music program, or athletics, or a talent for painting. Reading, writing, math, science… they are essential. I won’t argue that; however, research about good Physical Education programs, music programs, and art programs have shown time and time again that kids perform better overall when involved in any of these programs.

Weaving Digital Literacy and 21st Century skills into the mix… it sometimes looks as if we have all these extras to teach. If we could simply learn to teach DIFFERENTLY… it could work. It does work. There are teachers right now who are successfully implementing these skills into their curriculum, and the students reap the benefits. These same students are outperforming their peers on standardized tests. In the next month, I’m going to be posting as many of these examples as I can find. If you have some you would like to share, please add to the comments!

A final thought, from Mr. Holland’s Opus:

Vice Principal Wolters: I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I’m forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division.
Glenn Holland: Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t
going to have anything to read or write about. [my emphasis]

quote found at

If You Can’t Imagine It, You Can’t Make It Happen

I sat through a meeting the other day, listening to educators discuss the merits of not accepting zeros on missing or late assignments vs. “it’s too much work to follow up with kids, so I’m giving zeros anyway. Plus, I have to teach them to be accountable.”

Regardless of how you feel about this “hot topic” or any of Ken O’Connor’s work, I think it’s important to look more carefully at WHY kids aren’t doing their work in or out of the classroom. Personally, I feel a lot of kids aren’t just behavior problems. I think they’re bored. Bored out of their ever-living minds.

When they walk in the door of their school, they are required to “unplug.” How many classrooms still look like the straight, orderly rows that existed 10, 20, 30 years ago? Even if the classrooms aren’t orderly, how many teachers are willing to give up their role as “knowledge provider” and become the guide that assists the students in their self-directed learning? As soon as those kids walk out the door of their school and go home, they plug back in. They become creators. They become developers. And they learn in spite of what happens at school.

I’m not saying that all schools are like this… or even every classroom. But I do think there’s a huge dilemma in American education where the almighty test score reigns, and teaching to the test has become the rule. Kids who know how to play the “game of school” will perform adequately, but imagine what they could do if given a chance to move outside that game. And those kids who don’t play that game very well could wake up to a whole new world of learning. That’s really exciting!

Will Richardson just posted “Waking Up With a ‘Cognitive Surplus.'” Read it. Then go read Clay Shirky‘s book and book blog. Everything my measly little brain has tried to express in the last two years is right there.

I really think that we, as educators, are smack dab in the most exciting and phenomenal of times. Think about the possibilities! Imagine where you might be able to lead kids… or even better… where they might be able to lead you! If you’re not excited about this, I’ll be blunt. Maybe it’s time to consider another career. Our kids can’t wait for you to catch up or buy into what they are doing. They need our guidance. They need boundaries. They need to know how to be safe. But that other stuff we think we need to teach them? They can find that in about 10 seconds. Help them analyze, evaluate, synthesize it. And then allow them to grow with it. Can you imagine it???

I hope so.

March Think-About

It’s been almost a month since I last posted. I know there are only about two of you reading this blog right now, so I should apologize to just you.

What’s concerning me today is what I see… or rather DON’T see… happening in classrooms. There are great educators out there doing great things in their classrooms. We’re having truly meaningful discussions about the tools we use to facilitate communication and gather information. BUT– of course there is a “but”– I don’t think we’re incorporating our discussion topics into the classroom practices. In simpler terms, we’re not changing the way we teach to accommodate what students need to learn.

One example: I still see many teachers use computers as a reward and not an everyday necessity with kids. I hear, “If you finish your classroom assignment, you can then work on the computer.” The students in these types of classrooms don’t see the computer as a tool; they see it as an object where games are played.

Funny, but I’m guessing they don’t view computers at home the same as they do at school…

… which brings me to yet ANOTHER point. In many of my in-services we discuss the Digital Divide, or at least the topics that people associate with the term. Let me set this up–

  • Some teachers have explained to me that they can’t use “technology” in their assignments, because not all students have access to computers at home.
  • Many of these same teachers use computers or other technologies as rewards in the classroom for those students who either finish classwork early or who have done well on particular assignments. In essence, the computer has become an enrichment tool– or on the worst level, a distractor– so that the teacher has time to work with the students who need more help finishing classwork, mastering a topic, etc.
  • When we study which students have computer/internet access at home, we also find that these tend to be the students who finish their classwork on time and are understanding the concepts. It’s not a direct correlation, but the odds are better than average that those who “have” continue to get more time with technology than those who “don’t have.”

By continuing to use classroom technologies as games or rewards, we’re not helping the kids who need help most. If a child has limited or no computer/internet access at home, he or she should be able to learn those digital skills at school. Isn’t that the most natural conclusion? Or are we assuming that these same students need more important skills before focusing on digital literacy? Couldn’t we do both at the same time?

Digital Divide links you might read:

The Digital Divide Network

Digital Divide on Edutopia

Bridge the Digital Divide

Many of the articles and information you’ll find in the above links will focus mainly around the “access” issue. However, it’s not just about limited access. I can donate computers to schools, homes, etc.; but if I don’t provide the “how” and the “why,” those tools aren’t going to help bridge any gap.  Digital literacy skills don’t simply appear on their own. They must be taught.  More on this in my next post…

Engaging 21st Century Learners

As noted in the previous post, I often work with educators who feel that the things that interest their students (blogging, gaming, IMing, social profiles, etc.) are not worthy of adults’ attention. These students are “wasting” time or “need to get a life.”

Marc Prensky is an educator who has the vision to see past the typical brush-off that most adults give kids today. He’s been added to the blogroll, but please check out these two articles Marc wrote:

“Engage Me or Enrage Me”Educause
“Today’s kids with computers in their homes sit there with scores of windows open, IMing all their friends. Today’s kids without computers typically have a video game console or a GameBoy. Life for today’s kids may be a lot of things—including stressful— but it’s certainly not unengaging.
Except in school.
And there it is so boring that the kids, used to this other life, just can’t stand it. “

“BackTalk/On Being Disrespected” – in ASCD’s Educational Leadership
“…how do we inject mutual respect—rather than mutual disrespect—into our classrooms? We must foster the important message that each of us, whether adult or kid, teacher or student, is every day a learner in some areas and a teacher in others.”

Our “Tech-Savvy” Students aren’t as savvy as we thought

From eSchool News, Justin Appel, Assistant Editor, says,

“Despite the assumption that today’s students are tech-savvy, many fall short in demonstrating the information literacy skills necessary for success in college and the workforce, a new report says. The report comes from an evaluation of responses from students nationwide to an information-literacy assessment tool developed by the nonprofit ETS.” (November 2006)