Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Month: March 2010 (page 2 of 2)

Does testing students harm their learning?

So I had an interesting thought today.  I think that testing students, just to see what they know, can actually harm their learning.  Here’s my argument.

Let’s start by assuming that we would like students to be responsible able adults. This is not an unreasonable assumption, I’m sure that all parents want this to be true for their children, although we may disagree about the methods to achieve this end.  

Embedded in the meaning of the word "able" is the ability to learn new stuff.  Without this, students will not be able to succeed in a new global economy.  There is lots of evidence which shows that the rate at which knowledge is currently expanding, what is useful to know today, will not necessarily be useful tomorrow.  Changes in the world will require adults to be able to process and digest new information, perhaps even to reinvent themselves.

The word "responsible" in the context of our implies a certain sense of moral reasoning ability but also the ability to take care of one’s self.  In this second context, we can assume that part of taking care of one’s self is ensuring that the skills and things we have learned are relevant because if they are irrelevant, it will be difficult to maintain a decent standard of living.  In order to ensure we have relevant skills, one would have to be in charge of one’s own learning.

So as educators then, as proxies for the parents of the children in our care, as fulfilling our primary responsibility of helping students become responsible able adults, we must provide them opportunities both to learn how to learn and also how to best manage their own learning. We can easily give them many learning experiences, and teach them how to reflect upon their learning so that they are able to learn on their own.  In fact, I would think that schools which are successful do just this, and that many students come out of high school with some ability to master new material on their own.

However, teaching the ability to take responsibility for one’s own learning is not happening at many schools.  How many young adults are able to take mastery of their own learning?  One of the reasons that this happens, I argue, is that students are very rarely, if ever, put in charge of assessing what they know.  This responsibility is the prerogative of the teacher, and the teacher alone.

One of the ways in which we, as teachers, exercise our right to assess students is by giving them tests.  Perhaps students in some courses don’t do tests, maybe they do some other form of assessment, but because they are not in charge of what assessments they do, students will likely fail to learn how to take personal responsibility for their learning.  Every assessment teachers create without student input is a failed opportunity for that student to learn how to assess their own learning.

Another way in which we fail to give students the opportunity to be in charge of their own learning is choosing the curriculum they should be covering for them.  As educators, we self-select what we want to learn in many ways.  For example, we choose our professional development sessions, we decide to which conferences we want to go, and we select which books we want to read.  We even decide with which other professionals we want to collaborate.  In fact, if we weren’t allowed to do these things for ourselves, we would (and do) complain bitterly and feel as if our professional judgement was in question.

Students need to be given some of the same freedoms as educators to choose what they learn.  Perhaps initially educators would have a lot of the say in the lower age groups and could model ways in which learning opportunities can be selected, but as children get older they must have more choice about what they learn. Most schools already include some freedom of choice in terms of course selection, but rare is the school that gives complete choice over what students learn to the students.

Both assessing students and choosing curriculum for them create arbitrary boundaries on what students are expected to know and people who are given boundaries will tend to stop at them.  How often have you heard that a student has forgotten what they learned because "they didn’t need to know it anymore"?  Have you had many students come to you after a unit is complete with more questions about that topic, perhaps at a more advanced stage? Why have the students stopped being interested in your unit? The unit is over, so the need and desire to learn more about it is gone.

How can we do our secondary job, which is to ensure that our students learn the skills and content that we want them to learn?  We can start by teaching kids how to assess their learning, how to create rubrics that will demonstrate understanding, how to grade their own assignments, and how to construct assignments, tests, and other assessments, for themselves.  We can model how to construct assessments by giving some of our own we have generated.  We do not have to stop assessing our students, we just need to gradually shift this responsibility from ourselves to them, so that by the time they are ready to leave high school, they are able to reliably determine for themselves if they have learned.

Our Glocal Food day game

This coming Friday we are planning on running a game as part of our Glocal food day.  Our objective of this game was to show students that the choices they make in terms of food have an effect on everyone else in the world.

As a group, we were assigned the task of finding a way of representing the economic costs of both globally shipped food, and locally grown food.  What was interesting for me was the way that we worked.  We basically met in person to define our goals, and decided to create a game, then we collaborated (over a 2 week break from school, as we had a chance) in a Google doc on the specific rules for the game.  At the end of the two weeks, we met up again, redefined our goals, and created a few new documents to work with.

We created a gigantic spreadsheet for the event cards for our game.  Our objective was to come up with some ideas for different events which happen in people’s lives. We created the following resources for the game:

$50, $100, $500, $1000 bills

Food choices

Event cards

Score card

Commodities choices

The game works as follows. Each student gets a predetermined amount of money (I think we chose $1500 a month). At the beginning of each turn, they choose what kind of food they want to eat, and purchase it. Next they buy any commodities that they want (which include things like a goat, or a diamond ring, etc…). At the end of their turn they tally the total of all of the effects of what they purchased (which is labelled in icons on each card). Finally they took their total of mood plus health plus environment and multiplied it by 100 to determine the change in their wages for next month. Quite often, especially with students who purchased fast food, their monthly wages went down (because some of the cards have an overall negative effect).

When we actually played the game, we wanted the students to learn two things: first that the choices they made had an impact on their lives, and that some choices of food are better than others.

Unfortunately we failed to impart choice number two very well. We made the fast food too cheap and it had too little of an effect on their health, so they discovered that it was really worth buying fast food all the time, but then perhaps balancing it with luxury items they didn’t need. Sigh.

If we were to play the game again, we would play-test it a lot more, and we would make sure that the different foods were a bit more balanced. Playing a game like this with our students was totally worth it though and fun to create.

Conference feedback for the ASCD

Okay so after attending the ASCD conference this year I have a number of recommendations that I have for holding future conferences.  I don’t know if anyone will listen to these ideas, but there must be a better way to run these sessions.  Near the end of the conference, I got the chance to meet Cate Brubaker and Shane Krukowski who are very interesting people and seem like they are excellent educators.  We had a great discussion about how to run a conference, so a lot of these ideas we came up with in collaboration.

The first thing we talked about is the fact that ASCD should have had more space for collaboration and guided meetings between professionals.  Our thought was, why not an unconference?  Of course I very much doubt you could run an entire conference the size of the ASCD using the unconference model, but surely it would be possible to have a few sessions which were run in this style.  For reference an unconference is essentially a structured conversation about a topic.  Typically people show up with a facilitator, they brainstorm some topics, form groups based on the topics, and spend most of the time discussing issues about which they have a common interest.  Ideally at the end of the session, there is time to come back together to share what was discussed.

Actually this collaboration could easily happen before the sessions as well.  If each conference had a Ning site, and each session had its own group, people could be in communication and download information related to sessions before they happened. It might also help with follow up if people have a space available to ask follow up questions and share ideas related to the implementation of the professional development.  We all know that follow up is key in PD, and happens so rarely.

Another point we thought of is that some of the topics, particularly in technology, were out of date by the time the conference finished.  So we thought that there should be some reserved for technology sessions which are more current.  Technology especially is changing at quite a rapid rate that although this particular conference may not have especially benefited from this process, for future sessions it will be important.  Imagine the tools that have been created this past year alone which would be useful to share with participants.

We each went to at least one session on technology where we quickly realized that the session was at a level appropriate for a beginner, and this area at least we didn’t consider ourselves inexperienced.  So our next recommendation was that every session should have information about what audience the session is intended for, beginner or expert.

Pass along important information, like sessions being cancelled, in multiple ways.  ASCD had 3 people whose job it was to pass along information via Twitter yet I didn’t see a single tweet about cancelled sessions.  Don’t get me wrong the work they did was great, but trying to inform a group of five or six thousand teachers by using a printed newspaper is just not going to work, not to mention the fact it’s a huge waste of paper.  Another possible recommendation here is to do what the airlines do, and use a giant screen to post updates to session availability in the information area.

There were lots of good things about the conference.  The ability to see which ticketed sessions still had room was very cool.  Meeting up with fellow Twitterers in the three Tweetup sessions was awesome.  Having a humongous selection of sessions we could go to made finding things we would find interesting easier.  Being able to listen to amazing keynote speakers and actually follow along with their presentations with the giant projection screens was excellent.

All told, I enjoyed the ASCD conference, but we found these small things they could do to make the sessions run a bit smoother.

Radically reform schools

Personally I believe schools are in need of deeper reforms than simply changing the pedagogy a bit can resolve.  Here are some suggestions I’ve been exposed to over the past few weeks, which could be considered radical, but might really improve schools.  I’d like to provide references for where I learned about this information, but to be honest I’m not really sure who exactly suggested what, I’ve been processing a lot of information recently.  I’m pretty sure some of this is from Don Tapscott,Gary Stager, Alfie Kohn and Joe Bower.

  1. Get rid of end of year percentage grades.

    They don’t measure what we want them to measure to measure.  Students can easily have good grades and not really get what’s going on, and similarly students who really get it might not have good grades.  Somehow we’ve managed to convert grades from a measuring tool of what the student has learned (which in my opinion should always be related to what they knew before) to a mixed measure of their work habits and ability.  Work habits are strongly related to socioeconomic status because of the difficulty poor students have in finding the space and time to complete their homework.  Ability is related to how much your personal needs are being met, and again this is strongly related to socioeconomic status.  So in other words, grades might be a better measure of how much money a student’s parents make than their true latent ability to learn your course material.

    Instead of grading students, have them produce a portfolio of tasks each year which proves they have learned something valuable.  Such portfolio pieces could be rigorous and the decision about whether they are "complete" should be a joint one between the head of school, the teachers, the student, and their parents.

  2. Stop grouping students by age and start grouping them by interests.

    This one is simple.  We group adults by interests (or jobs if you prefer) all the time.  How many places can you think of outside of school where human beings are sorted by age?  Doug Stager brought this point up in a presentation at the 2010 ASCD conference and I agree with him, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  With multi-age groups we can now suddenly have authentic apprenticeships occur where children who have expertise can train children who are beginning.  Imagine how much the learning in schools would be amplified if instead of every 30 students having 1 teacher to every student having 1 teacher?

    If students move onto new material by demonstrating mastery of the current material, then this system makes sense, because people can take much different amounts of time to demonstrate mastery.

  3. Get rid of national standards and benchmarks for success.

    All national standards do is assume that every child is the same.  By subjecting every student to the exact same set of rules, we end up failing all of the students who do not meet the narrow definition of success embedded within the standards. If our graduation rates are too low, it is because we are unable to recognize the strengths of the children who do not fit into our neat system.

    Let’s not forget the argument, brought up by Yong Zhao, which suggests that 2nd and 3rd world nations are trying to overhaul their standards based systems and emulate our older education systems because they believe that their national standards have left them out of the running in the global economy.  Why are we trying to move toward systems we know don’t work?

    It is also possible that at the current rate that total human knowledge is expanding, it is not possible to capture all of the important parts of it which a curriculum which rarely changes.  Removing the performance standards and focusing on learning what is happening now, or what is critical to understanding the human condition, might make it easier to keep up in our rapidly changing world.

  4. Provide way more options for students.

    One of the major differences I have noticed between private schools and public schools is the amazing amount of course choices offered in private schools.  The top schools offer a wide variety of course choices because they know that this selection appeals to both parents and students.  I recommend doing away with the traditional concept of a year or semester long course completely and focus on providing individualized selection of modules students can take.  For example, Cesar wants to learn how to make an electronic generator.  The teacher and Cesar look up what is needed to be able to do this and Cesar completes those modules.  He can see that anything he is learning is going to be directly necessary for understanding how his electronic generator works, and understanding the value of the importance of learning something is more than half the battle in terms of motivation.

  5. Turn schools into places students want to go.

    When I lived in New York city, I was horrified by the appearance of the public schools and complete lack of creativity those goes into equipping the inside of many of them.  They look like gigantic prisons, with bars on the windows, and the interiors are devoid of any useful places for students to collaborate outside of class.

    Instead of this, provide spaces for students which are more organic, give them more ability to communicate with each other, and provide access to the tools students need to be successful.  Our schools, like our other important institutions, should be places full of innovative technology.  The US, for example, will lose about $3 trillion combined in taxes and expenses on medicare, unemployment premiums, etc… for the students who drop out over the next ten years.

Maybe these ideas are too radical for the current school system, and I suspect that some of them would lead to revolt from our parents, not because I don’t think they would work, but I recognize that they are very different from what most of experienced when we went through school.  However, if we all look back at our own schooling, I’m sure we remember hardly any times when we really enjoyed what we did in class, but we can all remember those courses we took which did nothing for us.  Why are we subjecting our students to an even worse experience than we had?

Reflection on Creating a District Podcast

This is essentially a summary of Ben Grey’s and Jeff Arnett’s session on podcasting from ASCD 2010.  Pretty useful session, I liked the summary of why students should be podcasting.

Podcasting is a great way to give a voice to your students.  Students are often connected digitally at home for most of the day, but "[w]hen they come to school they have to power down their devices" (Ben Grey, 2010, ASCD).  They come to school and shut themselves off because they do not have any motivation to learn in an environment that doesn’t respect their opinions.  Giving students a voice through podcasting, or really any other kind of media, will help them build a connection to your school and feel like they belong.  Students need ownership of the process for it to be authentic.

Another really important aspect that podcasting adds to your school is the element of audience.  When students create an assignment and give it to their teacher, they spend a lot of time and effort to create an artifact which is only going to be seen by an audience of one, this is very frustrating for students (Ben Grey, 2010, ASCD).  If you allow students to podcast their learning, suddenly they have potentially the whole world as their audience.  Imagine how a student feels if they learn that their work has been viewed by thousands of people!

It is incredibly easy to create a podcast today.  For a school, one can either use some free or cheap online services, or use your local web server to serve the podcast files.  The distribution of the podcast feeds can be done through iTunes.  There are many, many tutorials on how to create a podcast, so once you understand WHY podcasting is useful, getting started for yourself should be fairly easy.

The important part of the podcasting process is the process itself.  Although the end product should be polished and sound (or look in the case of video podcasting) professional, from a learning perspective what the students go through to create their podcasts is most important.  Podcasting involves outlining, processing, editing, reviewing, all of these are part of the writing process.  As students learn how to create high quality podcasts, they will see their personal literacy increase.  Instead of students being completely stuck at the writing stage of literacy, students can learn the other important literacy skills they need.

Podcasting allows your school to build a stronger and wider community.  Many initiatives today are talking about how important a school is within the context of the surrounding local community.  Having an entire community working on creating a podcast means that everyone is involved in the process, and everyone feels ownership for the material.  Although you might wonder if there is greater danger in allowing students to post information through podcasts, one needs to remember that students already have access to these tools! They already have the ability to post information to a wider community, it is much better that they learn how to do this responsibly through your school.

Consider setting up a podcast for your school today, and make sure that students have ownership of the process. You won’t regret the results.

1 to 1 computing in the classroom

Gary Stager has presented some ideas in his presentation on 1 to 1 computing devices.  Rather than focusing explicitly on the uses of the devices, he focuses on the big picture that computers are imagination devices, and should be used as such.  The focus of his presentation was on how the creative use of computational devices by the students can lead to powerful learning experiences.

Here are his top 10 uses of a computer:

  1. Write a novel
    – Remember that a novel can take many forms and involve many different types of media. Graphic novels, audio podcasts, all of these are ways to involve students in the creative writing process and setting high standards helps them understand that their work needs to be edited, reviewed, and re-edited.

  2. Share knowledge
    – Students need to learn how to share with each other appropriately. Teachers should recognize that their students have useful knowledge and giving them the opportunity to share it will empower them.
    – Instead of the teacher being the only expert in the room, every kid with access to Google can be an expert on a topic area.

  3. Answer tough questions
    – Students can use technology to look at phenomena that are otherwise inaccessible.  Let them explore and find tough questions during their exploration and learn the answers to the questions.

  4. Make sense of data
    – Using computers to generate iconic representations of data which the students get. 
    – Computers can also be used to generate the data the students want to look at through electronic simulations.

  5. Design a video game
    – Instead of playing a poorly designed game, students should design their own game and learn the concepts required to make their game realistic, instead of educators trying to make a game fit the kids expectations.

  6. Build a Killer Robot
    – There are lots of different robots, and many, many useful skills and pieces of information students can learn through the process of constructing a robot. One should be careful here to allow the students as much choice as possible in the construction rather than having the creation of a robot be a new part of a larger curriculum.

  7. Lose weight
    – Students should have ownership of their fitness.  Technology lets students keep track of their own performance and set realistic goals for themselves.

  8. Direct a blockbuster
    – One area students have a big weakness is in setting high standards for themselves. We should set high standards for them and make sure they understand how to make a professional quality video.

  9. Compose a symphony
    – Technology today can allow students to create an entire symphony in their laptop using either free or low cost tools.  The value of creating music is immeasurable.  Perhaps some of your students will be able to unleash their talents.  Actually chances are pretty good, your talented students are already creating their own music. I know mine are.

  10. Change the world
    – The ability to communicate with a wide variety of people, interact with media from all over the world, and learn about the problems of the world is greatly enhanced with technology. Students can help connect resources to the areas of the world that desperately need them, and take small steps toward changing this world of ours which has so many challenges.

These aren’t the only things, there are thousands of things kids can do. Computers empower kids and can give them unlimited opportunities to be successful. The objective of 1 to 1 computing devices should not be to teach the old curriculum differently, but to allow students the opportunities to be creative.  Instead of creating regimented curriculum for kids to do with the devices, educators should focus on providing the tools for the students and prompt for open ended problems.


Reflection on adult learning session

This morning I was not able to attend a session on using iPod touches in the classroom because it was cancelled, and then I missed an opportunity to learn more about Smartboards because the session was full.  I was upset but sat down and looked through the program and tried to find an alternative.  Finally I settled on a session about learning about how adults learn differently than children.

I ended up being glad I attended this session largely because I managed to find some relevance in it toward my expanded professional development role next year.  My reasoning for attending this session in the first place was that I could use some training in teaching adults.

Essentially what I learned that in terms of HOW you teach adults, pretty much the best practices that work with kids work with adults as well.  The presenter listed the top things that adults need to be able to learn properly, as she went through the list I recognized it as a list of things that work really well when teaching students. The big things on the list that I saw were that adult learners want to be comfortable when learning, may need learning accommodations, they have relevant outside experience, and that they need to be shown respect.

What I learned that was a reinforcement of something I knew, is that adults have much different motivation for being in your class or professional development session than do students.  For kids, they pretty much all have to be in your classroom for some reason and often lack much choice about which courses they take.  As a result, we spend a lot of time as educators trying to motivate students as to the relevance of our material.  While this is true to a lesser degree for adults, often even when they are forced into your session they have both extrinsic and intrinsic reasons for being in your class.

So the lesson is, focus on the way you teach, and not on the adult motivation to me, since you really lack control over motivation.  You can generally assume that the adults will participate and belong, as long as you focus on making the instruction appropriate.  You should differentiate your instruction, provide alternative assessments, be flexible, adjust your instruction for your differently abled learners, and all of the other things that we consider to be best practices in teaching.

Teaching compassion to our students

How do we teach our students to be compassionate? I’m thinking about this idea this morning because of something that happened to me that I want to share.

I arrived in San Antonio last night as I am attending the ASCD 2010 conference.  I’m pretty stoked about this conference, it is great to have a chance to meet up with a bunch of educators from all over the world.  Although I am connected to teachers globally through Twitter, long conversations there tend to be sporadic and hard to follow.  To have a really in depth conversation with a few people, you really need to meet in person.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of #edchat, but sometimes it feel a lot like having a conversation in a gigantic room with everyone shouting, and when someone retweets someone else in the conversation, it feels like an echo.

My hotel is located right on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, which is fabulous, I highly recommend checking it out if you are ever in the area.  I went for a walk in the morning today to look for some breakfast.  After trying some searches on Yelp and Google maps, I settled on a nice Mexican restaurant and wandered over there, only to discover it was closed.  Grumbling, I looked around a bit and noticed that pretty much all of the good looking restaurants were closed.  Feeling extremely hungry at this stage, I settled for MacDonald’s.  Sigh.

As I stood in line, I noticed a man behind me was mumbling under his breath, looking at the menu, and fondling a well worn 1 dollar bill.  I glanced up at the menu, and could quickly tell that his $1 wasn’t going to buy very much, even at MacDonald’s.  I looked back at the man, and his clothing seemed like it was in okay shape, but he looked a little bit unclean, and his face looked like he was in distress.

I asked him if I could help, not specifying how I could help out of respect for his dignity, but thinking in my head that if I added $2 to his $1, he could have a meal.  He responded in a meekish voice, "Oh no, it’s okay, I’m just looking to see what I can get."  I felt bad, but having offered help and not wanting to push the issue, ordered my food.

As I waited for my food, the man slowly, and uncomfortably approached the cashier.  The cashier gave him a disapproving look and asked him in an abrupt voice, "Yeah. What do YOU want?"  The man with the $1 bill responded, almost shyly, "I’d like a lemonade please."  The cashier took the man’s dollar bill and a quarter that I hadn’t seen before and brought him a lemonade.  I felt embarrassed for the man, the cashier’s attitude was wholly unnecessary.

When I left the MacDonald’s the man was sitting on the steps looking lonely and discouraged.  I felt the same way, alone in this new city, and discouraged about human nature.

Our school systems are failing our children if they aren’t teaching the simple value of compassion.  It is so important that we respect everyone, especially people in need, while recognizing that may not want our help at that moment.  Why don’t more people see this? What can we do as educators to encourage our students to be compassionate.  I think most teachers are compassionate people, it kind of goes with the territory, but somehow this attribute isn’t always impressed upon our students.  I know that most schools are trying, all sorts of schools have community service built into their programs, but still we struggle to be a compassionate society, and I worry for our future

Recreating the physical structure of a classroom


A typical classroom might look something like this.  The problem with this arrangement that I see is that almost no one actually works under this arrangement.  Why not?  It’s distracting! this is similar to the layout in a lot of teacher staff rooms, and it is my experience that very little work happens in the staff room when it is full.  There are too many people around and too many things to see and do.

Try this an experiment for your staff.  Have everyone bring work for an hour and sit in an arrangement like this.  Have someone sit outside the room and peek in through a window and keep track of how much individual work people do, and how often it looks like people are off task.  I’m willing to bet that you will see the same thing happen under these circumstances as what happens in our classrooms.  The teachers are going to start to chat with each other.  It’s human nature.

So where do teachers go to get work done?  Well if we are lucky we go to our own office, or we wait until we are alone after school, but for the most part, we do our important work independently from each other and without distractions.  We might to discuss stuff in small groups occasionally, or chat one on one, but for the most part, we work alone.  Once in a while we’ll join up and have a full group discussion with the entire staff, but rare is the school that does this more than once or twice a week.

So I propose a different arrangement.  Here’s a possible variation that might work.  The big difference here is, students have their own workspace. They can work in their small groups with a few students working in the middle section, possibly under the guidance of the teacher.  They have much fewer distractions available to them.

As well this system preserves what I think is the best structure for when someone needs to lecture, all of the students are facing in the direction of the presenter.  Of course in an ideal classroom the students are often presenting to each other and there’s nothing that stops this from happening, it just makes sure that the conversation is generally between presenter and the members of the class.  For when you want to have classroom discussions with the whole group, you might book a different room with a better structure (I’m thinking a gigantic U shape would be good, or a large elliptical table).

This may not be the ideal classroom structure but personally, I think that it’s time to rethink what a classroom looks like.  There should be no sacred cows in our reform of education.


What we need in schools is not one learning space or another, but more options, and more flexibility on how to use them.