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Monday, September 19, 2011

Put Your Students to the Test??

The English language is not helpful when we look at the word test.  Typically, we have too narrow a view of the word.  Our first impulse is to understand the word as an examination. Examinations are not to be eschewed.  Our Learning Communities are infused with the creation of goals and students and our own relative attainment through the use of formative and summative assessments.  These are essential tools that need to be used to assess the growth of students and inform our teaching.  They are essential ingredients to the recipe of student learning.

But other languages actually use at least two words for test.  One word means examination the other means to probe or to put through a trial.  It is the latter that we need to consider to a greater extent in our educational lives.

As long as we began using a cooking metaphor of a recipe let’s extend it. I want to submit on often misquoted phrase:  “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” to illustrate this idea.

This is good imagery for us to consider. What I  mean is that the true value or quality of something can only be judged when it is put to use.  As educators, we spend an incredible amount of time with the ingredients of student learning or the ingredients of science, language arts, math or social studies but do we spend enough time actually reflecting and considering how “tasty” the results are.

Have you ever watched a true chef (or perhaps your mother or father) work in a kitchen?  They don’t stand around reading recipes for every dish they make.  They know food, they know their ingredients and they put that knowledge to use in every dish.  And if you have ever watched Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen or Kitchen Nightmares you know that one of his cardinal sins is not tasting the food that goes out to the customers.

But how does this apply to us?  I believe we need to put our students through more difficult trials that compel them, at every age, to apply what they have learned in new situations. We need to put them into experiences that allow them to transfer the knowledge skills and strategies that we have taught them and see what happens.  Not an examination but a trial. 

Consider your own personal experiences. If you have been through any trial, any suffering, any difficult or really-stressful experience most of you would say that while you would not have chosen to go through that experience if you had the choice, you emerged from your trial a different person.  Often because of the trial you were more appreciative, more sensitive, more insightful, more compassionate and more understanding than before.  You might see the world with different eyes.

French novelist Marcel Proust wrote:
"The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes, in seeing the universe with the eyes of another, of hundreds of others, in seeing the hundreds of universes that each of them sees.

Educationally, our students need those experiences to build their confidence, develop their world-view and to see the world with new eyes.    

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Residue of Learning

At one of my son's freshmen orientation sessions, there was collection of professors, including the college president, who were talking about the vision of the school and what parents could expect from the institution.  Like any good educator, I took lots of notes, and looked  for tips and strategies that I could steal and share with others! 

What I found most remarkable about the presentation was that it didn’t focus on  academics as much as I would have anticipated.  Instead, what the professors talked about was the residue of learning …or the stuff that was left behind after all of the teaching and testing was over.

One philosophy professor stated that over 85% of the information that the students would learn in the four years that he/she would be present at this well-respected higher institution of education would be either forgotten, irrelevant or just plain wrong by the time that the students might actually begin to use it in a future career.  But, let’s just say the professor is wrong, and that number is only 50%.  That number still should send shockwaves through education systems around the country. It certainly has gotten me to think and I hope you will consider it too. A few thoughts haunted me.

We must construct teaching and learning around the ideas that last.

To do this we must consider a student's personal formation and his/her developing world-view.  I think that this is a too often overlooked part of our profession.  Very often we look at education as a list of dos and don’ts. At the very least, teaching becomes a checklist list of standards that  can  be knocked off.  either physically, or mentally, allowing us to move onto the next standard or teaching point.

All of the recent studies of past standards have shown that those standards, forged out of the good intentions of well-meaning people,  have, rather than helped most educators, harmed the education of students in America. And we have all been duped and have all played a role and a part. Mind you I am not saying that standards are unimportant, they are, but perhaps not the ones we have used in the past. The new Common Core standards are measurably better than the standards of the last 20 years.   I am also not saying that content is unimportant, it is very important.  However,

Content and knowledge is not the end of education, it is the means by which we educate.   

I want to propose to you that one of the biggest education issues that we have today in America is that we have a muddled sense of why we are all here.  We do not have a good narrative to follow. We often have many well-meaning, confused educators following many different narratives. Do we teach to create good citizens?  Or perhaps teach for an educated workforce?  Is technology the silver bullet to solve our educational woes?   How about environmentalism?  Multiculturalism? All of those ideas are relevant and important, but if any of those are to have any true lasting meaning we must transform the culture of why our students sit day after day in the classroom.  There must be a higher calling to their education.

In the journey of personal formation and the development of our student’s world-view what can we consider?  There are many ways to go about this.  However, to get started  I think we need to go back to Aristotle and other western and eastern philosophers and consider virtue.

If our students are going to experience a higher end to their education, we must infuse the education of our young people with virtues like justice, character, wisdom, honesty, self-restraint, and civic virtues like listening, civil discourse and being informed. 

As a teacher,  when you consider your first grade lesson, your read-aloud, your classroom management, your fourth grade science lesson, your eighth grade history class could you consider these virtues?  Please, be amazing, remarkable and spectacular at teaching the content but don’t forget the bigger lasting, transferable ideas as well.    

Remember,  while 85% of all content and knowledge that kids learn will be forgotten, irrelevant or wrong in the future, there is no expiration date on virtues.