Friday, February 22, 2013

Reflection on teaching and teachers

How hard is teaching?

Lee Shulman described teaching this way:

"Classroom teaching is the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented. The only time a physician could possible encounter a situation of such complexity would be in the emergency room after a natural disaster."

We live in a time when teachers are put under a microscope.

Students aren't learning the critics say.

Teachers are overpaid the critics say.

Teaching isn't all that hard the critics say.

The critics have never been in a classroom looking into the faces of twenty-five young people who are looking back into your eyes.

Those young people are at times eager, surly, curious, engaged, bored, disappointed, frustrated, sleepy, excited, distracted, anxious, happy, focused.

And the expectation is that the teacher can keep all of them pointed in the same direction.

I understand that at times teachers do not live up to the expectations that we have of them. We have all been disappointed by a teacher.

But let's agree that teaching is difficult and teachers, the vast majority of the time, do wonderful things.

Teaching is not for the faint-hearted. Let us continue to support the great work they do to help our students every day.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Start the day in the ball pit

What happens when two strangers sit together in a ball pit?

It reminds us that if we are willing to talk and listen we will remember what's important in life.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What does community mean today?

There was a fascinating report on NPR today on the future of news.

It appears that anyone, with the help of various smartphone and web-based apps, can create personalized news and information experiences. The CEO of Thirst Anuj Verma said, "People shouldn't be reading the same thing even if they go to the same platform. Having a personalized experience with what you are reading, is, I think, the future of consumption."

While I applaud this move toward helping me find information that I personally find interesting and enjoyable, I wonder how this will affect building community through a common set of knowledge and experiences.

If we become a nation where there is no common experience will it erode our ability to speak and listen to one another? 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Perspective on assessment

What if one moment defined who you were?

I stuck my tongue to the metal ice tray when I was six. 

I tried to throw a golf ball over my house when I was nine and threw it right through the front window instead. 

I drove down a dirt road in Iowa right after a rainstorm even though my girlfriend, who is now my wife, said, “I don’t think you should do that.” I am glad that farmer came along to help pull us out. 

I tried to fix our kitchen faucet on New Year’s Eve and we were without running water for two full days.

Then there was the time that I was trying to put up paneling in the bathroom. It evidently never occurred to me that I might need to be careful. Shortly after I started my project I was running to find the water shut off because I had put a nail right through one of the water pipes.

If anyone used those moments to define me, I would probably not be sitting where I am right now. Taking one moment to define anyone is not very wise. I have had many moments in my life that I wish I could do over. I am certainly glad that my life was not defined by those moments.

MEAP test scores were released by the state yesterday. I hope that the students in my district don't think that those scores define who they are and who they can become. Regardless of the score, the results give us perspective, they do not give us definition, of these young people. 

All of us have taken a test and received a score that we hope does not define us. In our district I hope that we take the long view. I want our teachers to know and understand the curriculum. Then I want our teachers to use the best instructional strategies they know to teach our students. We assess our students to identify strengths and weaknesses and then we create a plan to address the weaknesses and strengthen the strengths.

Our test scores give us a snapshot of where our students are at one point in time. Our teachers and administrators have the responsibility to take those scores, interpret them, and then to create a plan that will help every student make progress every year. The goal is to ensure that every student is prepared upon graduation to be successful. 

One test score does not define who we are. It is a tool that we can use to help us get better. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Stress, performance, and schooling

Pressure and stress can impact performance. Some of us handle stress well and it improves performance. Others of us become consumed by stress and it negatively affects performance.

An article in the New York Times magazine explores this topic and presents some arguments that explain from a biological, genetic point of view the differences that can be found in people and why some thrive in a stressful situation and others fall.

As I read this article from my "educators" worldview, I could see how some would argue that is why the results of school assessments that may create stress should either be eliminated or viewed cautiously.

But stress is a part of life. Jobs are stressful. Deadlines, expectations, assignments all can create stress.

I do not believe that we can, nor should we, eliminate all the stress that is inherent in education.

Don't get me wrong. I do not believe that we should create stressful situations. I am not in favor of having teachers create classroom environments where students are afraid of making mistakes or trying new things or thinking out loud.

Let me emphasize, I am in favor of classrooms and schools that encourage creativity and exploration. I want our teachers and students to wrestle with questions and explore, to experiment and expand their range.

But at some point there comes a time when a student needs to be able to demonstrate that they have learned something. Whether it is through a standardized assessment, a performance based assessment, or some other tool for evaluation, there will be a time when I need to know as the teacher if a student has the skills to do certain things.

That can be stressful!

Knowing that there will be stressful moments in education, can I do things that will help students manage stress in a positive manner?

The good news is there are things that can and should be done.

For example, the article in the New York Times magazine noted this experiment:

The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”
Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. 
Another blog post I read quoted from the book Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to, which said:
“Let’s take a moment to reflect on what happens when students arrive to take a standardized test such as the SAT. One of the first things test takers do is to check off boxes to indicate their race, their sex, GPA in school, and even their families’ income levels. Providing this information can undermine the students’ self-confidence, especially if they feel pigeonholed into a group that is stereotyped as academically challenged or unsuccessful.
The consequences of filling out this information for test performance can be dire. Indeed, psychologists Kelly Danaher and Christian Crandall at the University of Kansas found that simply moving the standard background questions about sexual identity from the beginning to the end of the test led to significantly higher performance by women on the AP calculus test.
Extrapolating from these AP calculus test findings alone, the researchers estimate that, each year, an additional 4,700 female students would receive AP credit that could advance their standing in college math classes if questions about test takers’ sex always came at the end.”
Educators can help students learn to deal with stress in positive ways. 
Because stress is a factor in performance does not mean we should eliminate the stress but we should help our students learn to handle the stress. We prepare students for life when we do that. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Is there ever one right answer?

Lately I've noticed the nature of assessment has received a bit of attention in newspapers, blogs, and editorials.

Recent posts like this say things like this:

So let us look at multiple-choice questions in this light. More than anything else, when a multiple-choice question is given to a student in hopes of measuring how well he or she understands something, it manufacturers the illusion of right and wrong, a binary condition that ignores the endlessly fluid nature of information.

It alters the tone of learning, shifting it away from a constant process of reconciling old thinking with new data, and toward something of a pitch-and-fetch scenario. One question, four answers, and only one of them is right.

So what am I to make of these conversations?

Is there no "right answer" ever to a test?

Is every answer "right" based on a person's own perceptions and logic?

I think there are right answers. I think that to suggest to students that in a person's professional life there will never come a time when you have to decide between choice A and choice B is the wrong message to give.

Learning is a constant process of balancing new and old information. But at some point a decision is made, an answer is chosen.

Having said that I want to emphasize that standardized tests should not be the only way we evaluate student achievement. I am not advocating for a "standardized test only" policy for measuring student achievement. Teacher input is critical. Performance based measures should be used. To use testing jargon - formative assessments need to be part of the mix.

However, tests that focus on one right answer should not be eliminated. These tests need to be understood in context. They should be one part of a larger tapestry when we discuss student achievement.