Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ready for the Real World Yet?

This week I've been privileged to be part of two wonderful twitter chats.  The first was on Teachers Throwing out Grades (#TTOG) and the second was Middle School Chat ( #mschat.)

Being the time of year it is, the conversations revolved around testing: is it good for students and/or for districts? Does it give good information? How should we prepare students for tests?

During the chats, I got into discussions with two different people, both passionate educators as well, and I'm sure both very good at their job.  Both conversations came back to two central themes.

First was the theme of competition in the classroom.  I am a competitive person.  I play team sports to this day.  I was in little league way before the whole 'everyone gets a trophy' mantra.  I have run track, played hockey, coached and played soccer, and even was on the high school bowling team.  I find value in competition both in building character as well as a tool for building relationships.  There is definitely places for competition in schools - I just don't believe learning is one of those places.

This is not a philosophy for a classroom setting

Education is not and should not be competition.   Learning is not a zero sum (or negative sum) game.  There should not be 'winners' and 'losers'.  If one student succeeds, it shouldn't mean another can not or did not.   Your success shouldn't be based on others' failures.

Those that know me know that I am not a fluffy, cuddly teacher.  I don't give out candy for right answers.  I have a high level of expectations and demand students reach them.  However, I do it with a blanket of emotional safety.  They quickly learn that saying a wrong answer in class will never cause a problem, but laughing at someone for saying a wrong answer will.  We play games in our room, often competitive ones, but the end game is not to find out 'who is the smartest.'  It is to find out 'what do you know?'

My philosophy doesn't revolve around the belief that all students can learn - I have the expectation that all students will learn - and it is my job to make sure it happens.

And there lies the antithesis of the zero-sum philosophy.  Everyone can get an A.  If you don't do an assignment correctly the first time, you have to reflect on what went wrong, re-learn the material, and have another go at it.  Assignments are not one-and-done.  This is how I get them ready for life.

This leads to the other major theme: getting students ready 'for the real world.'  There is competition in real life.  However, in nearly any real life situation the competitor chooses to compete.  Athletes choose to be on a team, employees choose to compete for a higher position.  Students have no choice to compete in the classroom if that is the culture the teacher creates.

True, not all competitors have a choice.

The other situation school needs to get them ready for are real world tests.  They need to have this awareness.  Telling them that they will have to take tests to get a license, get into college, or even qualify for certain jobs and careers is a good thing.  However, I know of no entrance test that is completed over the course of six two-hour periods. I know of no test or assessment that prevents applicants from re-taking it should they not pass the first time.  And yet we put a 12-year-old child through a multi-day test one-shot assessments which could extend two hours (or more with the right IEP accommodations) and under the premise of getting them ready for 'real world' situations?

Are any of these 'real world' skills? Do you want your employee to possess any of them?

Treating a 12-year-old student with the same (or even similar) expectations we have of a 22 year old college graduate, or a 16-year-old young adult,  is not only poor pedagogy, it is downright unjust.

Also , we can't hide behind 'school gets children ready for the real world' and then excuse ourselves out of it when it suits us; never in the "real world" have I ever

  • gotten a detention for chewing gum
  • had to raise my hand to go to the bathroom
  • gotten in trouble for doodling during a meeting

Maybe I'm just not in the real world yet.  

Those are my thoughts - slightly more rant style than I usually blog, but there it is none the less.  I'm hoping to hear from others - with any view points.  I truly value hearing all the arguments. No two schools or classrooms are the same - it takes all types of teachers - and I'm glad there are a diverse pool out there!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Time to put a round fish through a square triangle.

Here we are yet again!  It's February, which of course means a month of "Get ready for that oh-so-important-standardized-test!"  Classrooms all across the nation are sending home 'test prep' and adjusting schedules to help 'bubble students' succeed.  Here in Ohio we have the honor of breaking out a brand new version of this ritual: the PARCC Assessment.

PARCC, for those that don't know, stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Wait - a test that assesses readiness for college and careers?  Finally something that will decide if my students will have a successful life!

This week I was part of a fantastic twitter chat on #tlap which revolved around the topic "What is Smart."  How do you define smart?  What is intelligence?  Are there smarts besides 'book smart?'  So many fantastic ideas were shared and I really got to focus on my own thinking on this word "smart."

Go ahead and google search the images for smart kids.  See anything?  What about smart student? Notice any patterns? Not that google is the expert in 'smart' but you sure better know higher level calculus to qualify as a smart person.

Ironically "smart teacher" put you at elementary school math.

Like Google, I'm hardly an end-all expert on the topic either, but I really feel the word "smart" is an antiquated term.  There are so many aspects of "smart" in today's world.

Being a College and Career focus test, I assumed this is the type of thing that employers would want to see students ace.  After all, employers want smart students to build their smart work force, and this test is designed on college and career readiness.

But what do employers mean by smart?  Ask around.  Generally employers want people that have the ability to come up with a proposal, organize it, and then execute the plan.  They want people that can solve problems with the resources available to them, or think "outside the box" to make more options feasible.  They want people that can make common sense decisions and persevere through the day-to-day challenges that any work place encounters.  And they want people that can ask intelligent questions.  Questions that help the company or organization move forward and stay at the forefront of their sector.  

On top of intelligence, they are looking for people with integrity.  People that can be trusted to handle large sums of money, be left alone with someone that may be vulnerable, or to close a sale.  

Looking over those skills, how many are measured on a typical standardized test?  Of course the PARCC isn't a typical test - it's a college and career readiness test!   And to see how ready your child is for college it comes complete with questions such as:

The average distance from Earth to the Moon is approximately 384,400,000 meters. What is the average distance, in kilometers, from Earth to the Moon written in scientific notation? 
(actual practice test question available from The PARCC resource page)

That is a real practice multiple choice question from the real practice 8th grade math exam.  Look at the skills it involves:  First - can you write in scientific notation (a clear math skill), but also can you figure the TRICK of "hey we changed units in the middle of a problem just because we could - AND we put the change in a small prepositional phrase in the middle of the sentence, even though no math person in their right mind would EVER change units in the middle of a problem let alone in the middle of a sentence!"  

Unless, that is, your future profession is proofreading.
Also, what's up with all the cat memes this week?

As teachers want innovative, creative, dynamic, curious children. We want courageous students that are able to take risks. We want children that help each other and use all the resources available to them. We want them to have skills such as communication and a growth mindset. We tell them that these are the skills needed to succeed in today's world.

And then we sit them in rows and columns and give them a standardized test because... yeah...

So, to my students and my own two children... I am sorry.  You will see these test questions and you may cry.  Literally cry.  Other teachers reading this probably are thinking of students that will as well.  You aren't alone.  Just remember, this test doesn't define how "smart" you are.  You have plenty of ways to show that off.  We see them. We brag about them.  Hopefully we're letting you know this every day.

Good luck on your exams. Your teachers are preparing you as well as they can.   Go into the tests with an attitude.  Send THEM home screaming and crying.  Then, when they are done, continue being the amazing human you truly are.  Our future is counting on it.