“Good. Now fail again.”

Don’t know how many “Game of Thrones” fans are out there, but a quote really grabbed my attention. Responding to someone who said they failed, a character says “Good. Now fail again.”

 

Although I am not trained as an educator, I have picked up a bit of the jargon and I recognize a new trend among those that want to reform education. One of the trends, which I think is a good idea, is to recharacterize what “failure” actually is, or at least, take away its sting and transform it into a “learning opportunity.” A number of authors I have read talk about the iterations of WD-40 or quote Thomas Edison.

 

In terms of schools and schooling, the grading system has become more and more of a mystery to me. Even growing up, the ever present fear of the dreaded big fat F seem to always crush the human spirit. Throughout my own school experience, and well into college, I was taught there was one way to do it, and by golly, if I did not do it that one way, I was wrong and “failed.” Wow, what a way to make sure a student doesn’t like school.

 

Allow me to switch gears a little bit and talk computer science, specifically artificial intelligence and something called “genetic algorithms.” To over-simplify, the whole point of a genetic algorithm is basically “try it and see.” For instance, say you have a maze with multiple paths and your objective is to find the shortest path. A genetic algorithm might try every single possibility and report back the length of each path, ultimately finding the shortest one. That could be tens, hundreds, or millions of “wrong” (or “bad”, “incorrect”, “not shortest”, “longer”) solutions to try. The ratio of “good” to “bad” would be 1 to something larger. It’s like Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”

But that, my friend, is learning.

Heck, lets get philosophical – that’s life. Know any people who are absolutely perfect in every single way?

 

The narrative these days is not so much that children need to be coddled (although some seem to make that argument), but rather that we want our children (and all learners) to figure out how to explore. Or essentially, learn on their own. Sure, there is still room for direction – certainly, it is not helpful to allow a child who is learning numbers and basic arithmetic to think that 2 + 2 = 7 just because they feel like it (if they have some reasoning, I would love to hear it *grin*). I think the point is that instead of hitting that dehumanizing buzzer of shame, address the pathway first – is it an issue of not understanding the numbers, not able to visualize, not understanding the operation? Or perhaps the student thinks it is art and 7 seems like a perfect number.

 

But the way our system is set up now, we simply cannot take this approach for each child. Instead, we give them lots of tests, and then we compare our children to some abstract “average.” (Little Susie scored about the same as the other 4 million students taking this test.) Our way of testing these days is an “efficient” method of stripping away all humanity from the student and turning them into some kind of performance metric. Furthermore, this approach over-emphasizes test mastery versus content mastery, and we 1) don’t have enough teachers, and 2) don’t have enough teachers who have enough time to figure out what encourages each child.

 

Lastly, we need learning environments where children are encouraged and inspired to grow. “Now fail again” is not meant as a whip, but rather a comforting “I’m right here with you and it’s ok to try again.” If you teach students to fail, they will. Is that a good thing?

Teardown of PARCC via TestNav

I recently had an opportunity to watch a class of 4th graders attempt to take a PARCC test via the TestNav website. I was disappointed by the interface, let alone how the content failed to keep some students on task. Later I googled a sample test to try it out for myself, and was absolutely HORRIFIED at what I was witnessing. Following is a page-by-page report of the TestNav PARCC test, specifically 4th grade ELA (English Language Arts).

tl;dr – TestNav sucks

Starting point: http://parcc.pearson.com/practice-tests/english/

The very fact that Pearson is behind this raises serious red flags for me. My professional experience with Pearson is that they are in it solely to make money. They don’t give a crap about content and/or actual assessments. Again, this is my own take, others may differ.

pearson_testnav_page1

Page (or screen) 1. The very first sentence does a great job at setting the scene and describing the overall objective of this test. So I read the story and moved on to the question. Or thought I had read the story. Paragraph 18? I only see three paragraphs. Oh, there are 22 “paragraphs” altogether, wow! A bit more reading to do. This is problem #1. How is a child supposed to know there is more to read “below the fold”? There are no instructions to scroll down, and the interface blankly assumes that the user inherently knows how to interpret the scrollbar near the text. Minus one point for Pearson. Problem number two; I spent about 5 minutes or so reading through this story, and this first page is asking two questions about a single word in the entire thing. So now my mind is all caught up about the definition of a single word, and the rest of the story gets flushed out of my short term memory.

Final problem; so I answer two questions. What next. Ahh, yes, the right arrow button, like a web browser. Good thing there are instructions for that (/sarcasm).

 

Read on to see the other 22 pages and my conclusion…

Read the rest of this entry »

ISATs

Next week Unit 4 enters testing hell. After talking to several teachers and building administrators, I have not heard anyone use favorable words on this subject. So my internet ears perked up when I read about a possible boycott in Chicago backed by the Chicago’s Teacher Union:

http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2014/02/chicago_test_boycott_second_sc.html

 

Make sure you watch the embedded video – the president of the Chicago Teacher’s Union has some VERY STRONG words to say about the ISAT and offers strong support for any teacher/school that wishes to not administer the ISAT. And she makes a really good point – what good or benefit comes out of the ISAT? How are children being served by this? How does this advance education and address the achievement gap?

They have also created a petition and their current goal is 2000 signatures (1447 obtained at this moment).

To me, I am very impressed that this is not a mere knee-jerk reaction, but a deliberated, debated, even a contested decision. I don’t think Champaign would be in a position to follow suit simply because we have not had the months of conversation and wrapping our head around these things. I applaud those in Chicago who are taking their education seriously and are actively pursuing what is best for their children.

I am no fan of the ISAT or any standardized test. Ironically, as I stated in that post, the minimum pass rate should be 100% if they mean business, and this year, the final year of NCLB, the targeted goal is to get all schools to 100% AYP. The prediction is that exactly ZERO schools will meet 100% AYP. Keep your eyes open.

 

I told my daughter to get every question wrong. I don’t know if she will follow my advice – there is a crazy ton of pressure to get answers “right”. I am tempted to tell her to choose “A” for every multiple-choice as a “Plan B”.

Education lowlights in the US

Just saw the following article on slashdot:

http://www.ocregister.com/news/students-353581-state-scores.html

 

What really caught my eye was “The state ranked 47th, only above Mississippi, Alabama and the District of Columbia, in a tie with Hawaii.” The District of Columbia. Think about that for a moment. Then think about where the US Department of Education is.

 

It would be easy to hop on the bandwagon and cry out about the sorry state of “education” across the US. For me personally, it is the tests themselves, and the metrics we hold up as “standards”, that are sorry. Yes, no doubt, there are issues in all our schools, issues with pedagogy, issues with curriculum, issues with tradition and practices – I do not argue against that. And to that end, Common Core sounds like a good leveler, a true standard if you will.

 

And yet I ask, “Is that really the biggest problem we have?”

 

“We are looking at a lot of different ways to carry students forward into the 21st century,” said Allen. “Science, technology, engineering and math are where most of the jobs will be in the future. We don’t want every child to become a scientist, but we want them to be prepared to make that choice if they want.”

 

I have a different opinion. I continue to assert that we need to focus on relationships, on conflict resolution, on giving a crap for our fellow humans. STEM is nice if you want to specialize in something (and sure sounds as sexy as all get out for the geeks of the world – and yes, I call myself a geek). But STEM does not stop white collar crime, nor do much about overpopulated jails or keeping kids off streets. Heck, for that matter, STEM has made the TSA go from bad to horrible and our social lives are run amok with “technological advancements” like facebook + iPhone and other always-plugged-in devices. We have overdosed. STEM is like bringing Patrón to an AA meeting – good stuff, bad context.

Illinois drops writing from standardized exam

re: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/education/2011-07-06/illinois-drops-writing-standardized-exam.html

re: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/education/ct-met-no-writing-test-20110706,0,4488733.story

 

I have been way behind on writing anything, so on a whim and out of intrigue, this very short article caught my eye. Trying to find the original Trib article, I came up with another interesting hit:

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-07-18/news/ct-met-writing-test-suspended-20100716_1_exam-matt-vanover-reading-and-math

 

 

But back to the original article. One quote I have to focus on is:

Writing tests are neither required nor funded under federal education law. Without a state assessment, advocates worry educators may shift the focus instead to high-stakes reading and math exams — the two subjects by which public schools are measured under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

 

The Feds fund tests and education??!? I must have missed that. Last I heard, the State was woefully behind on payments to the education system.

 

The irony is very thick here. At least in my opinion. We have this “No Child Left Behind” purple elephant still doing its dance in the china shop – I know there are good intentions buried in there, but the implementation has left a majority of those I talk to with a bitter aftertaste. But I digress. Under NCLB, we have a ton of testing and tracking going on. How has that helped us? Where is the concrete proof that NCLB has made progress on its goals? From what little I know, it seems NCLB has buried us under a mountain of politics and deficits. Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of this brouhaha is what we gain from hindsight, learning what NOT to do.

 

Being a not-fan of standardized testing, I am quite curious what new sort of standardized tests they have in mind:

Education officials expect to revive writing assessments in 2014, when the state debuts its new standardized testing plan that calls for students to take online tests periodically through the academic year, Koch said.

 

Because I hate to cast stones and not offer an alternative, here is my naive stab in that direction. Instead of concentrating so heavily on being “academically competitive” (my phrase) and trying to “keep up” with international neighbors, why not focus on life-skills? Can we not get back to teaching our young children about conflict resolution, the value of setting and pursuing goals, the importance of community? Our teachers try hard to squeeze these valuable lessons into an already packed schedule as they prepare students on how to fill in little ovals with #2 pencils. Surely filling in ovals is very important.

 

Applications for Real Life Role Models are accepted within.

 

 

 

 

STEM: the new not-new "is this really education?"

re: http://partialobjects.com/2011/04/405/

I am really torn about how we do education in our modern day. On the one hand, there is all this global pressure to prove to the world that the USA can produce top engineers and scientists. On the other hand, science can be downright boring, both in the classroom and in the Real World™. There are some really awesome projects you can do with all branches of science. Yet so often we dumb it down to having to memorize and regurgitate the Periodic Table or the Family and Genus of the “common dog”. History is the same way, spitting back a bunch of dates and alleged important events. We have these standardized tests that we use to measure our academic yearly average progress, and we end up “teaching to the test”.

I mentor a kid at Edison, and I have asked him a few times what he wants to do when he grows up. By now, he is tired of adults asking this question. He simply does not do. I told him what I do, and I could not keep his attention for 10 seconds. He wants to do something with sports. That’s great – he is a very athletic, competitive and driven young fellow. But the line between learning about music, math, english, history, drama and science and a career in athletics is very ill-defined. Basically, if you get “good” grades you can ignore education altogether. Or can you?

On the flip side, I can look at the current job market and see where the big bucks are. Or I can even find where the hot jobs are. Google and Microsoft are currently having a war to see who can hire the most people in one year. Do you really want to program your child’s learning such that you funnel them into this kind of career? Will your child even want to follow that lead once they can make their own choices?

I want an education, and an educational system, that puts on emphasis on learning how to live. I would love to see kids excited about school. Kids who are so into the science projects, kids who are loving band, kids who think their teachers are the next best thing since hot pizza! Our modern school has become boring, and our school districts have become rigid businesses who function it is to have the highest percentage of their students take a test well.

Last, I need to shout out to our teachers. They are doing an awesome job! (at least the ones I know of) Keep it up! And I am sorry for all the crap you have to put up with.