Sunday, September 22, 2013

please take a number......

For two weeks I’ve been watching my kids, waiting for the day when I see that glimmer that I can grab onto and run with.  Run to begin inquiry based learning.  So, I wait.  Please take a number. . . . 

After talking with a special area colleague about my observations and curiosities, which she is sharing as well, I’ve begun to consider things more closely.  In the past few years I’ve noticed changes in kids.  One thing I’ve seen is what appears to be a significant challenge in not only working with others toward a common goal/interest, but in being able to cooperatively produce a learning outcome.  Mrs. S. and I debated the causes; society has changed, community sports are more often encouraging elite performance, cuts in school-wide programs and health classes have minimized practice in collaborative teamwork.  I’m not so sure it’s any of those, but what if, instead, it’s right before our own eyes?  What if it’s education itself?  What if the cause is right in our own classrooms?

My nine year old niece has asked many times what she needs to do to move into my classroom because she’s going to lose her mind with the worksheets they have to do (ie: test prep).  Lola is one smart cookie and casually mentioned over the summer “I hate school and I hate to read”   W-H-O-A. . . . Houston?   This kid has always LOVED school, is incredibly bright, and now the sudden shift?                                                On our first PD day back, a colleague told me that her daughter spent weeks last year being “prepped”.  She felt that it may have produced better numbers, but lost her daughter significant “real” learning time, caused incredible stress for her and their family, increased illness, & sleepless nights for her child; none of which were worth the price said eight year old paid. 

I know I’m “odd man out” and the things I do in my classroom raise eyebrows, but as I’ve said before I’m NOT a test prep girl and no matter what the pressure or the potential cost it has on my career, I won’t do it.  I have heard of a huge increase in teachers spending weeks (and in some cases, the year!) on test prep, although they likely don’t realize how much they do.  What if teachers, subconsciously, are fostering and possibly encouraging the mindset of independent, scores driven, superficial learning? 
The other day I asked my kids to look at our tub (yes, THE bathtub that has a prominent place in our class Living Room!) and asked what they wondered.  <<insert cricket chirping>>  They s-a-t there.  You know that “dead” wait time?  Eternity?  After about 5 minutes one of the kids finally broke out with, “I wonder if Dr. D knows that’s in here?”  (Great job kiddo – make this about me!).  Thankfully, that question was the platform that others needed, although guardedly, to begin to wonder, but in the way they thought was “right”:  How heavy it is?  When did it get in here?  Did it fit through the door?   And finally, slowly, they moved toward “bigger” questions:  How big was the factory it was made in?  Was it made in this country? What kinds of tools did they use to make it? What type of metal was used to make it?

After cancelling out the dead noise of uncertainty with such great questions, I gave them a new task.  In a learning journal I showed them how they could draw a bag, rather large, in the center of a blank page.  I then placed a paper bag that was clipped shut in front of 7 different learning teams and asked them to record everything they wondered about it.  I didn’t keep track so I can’t tell you how long it took them to come up with something – wiggling, looking, searching.  Watching each face I could tell this was painful.  They wanted an answer, wanted me to tell them what to do, afraid of a blank journal page.  They - just - wanted – me – to – give – them – a - paper to fill in the right answer.  When I heard some questions from a few teams I stopped everyone, asked them to share “sample questions” from their teams, and returned them to their task.......and then, new questions began;  Can I write it here?  Does my answer have to go in a certain place?  Where do you want me to put it?  How should I write this?   I came to a sad realization:  these kids truly have lost the art of wonder, the art of questioning and discovering, the art of safely taking a risk of new thinking, the art of learning  independently.  An even bigger realization for me?  The fear of not gaining an “effective score” or the fear of not having a clear majority of class proficiency on a high stakes test may be to blame. 

In an article published by Alfie Kohn, he gives 8 facts about “Standardized Tests and Its Victims” (well THAT’S a hard title to swallow!!!).  It amazes me that this article was published thirteen years ago and yet the fight is a much larger battle now and it’s obvious that not many listened to him.  I’m not sure which one of his facts that I love most, but #4 is incredibly thought provoking:
“Fact 4. Standardized-test scores often measure superficial thinking. In a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, elementary school students were classified as "actively" engaged in learning if they asked questions of themselves while they read and tried to connect what they were doing to past learning; and as "superficially" engaged if they just copied down answers, guessed a lot, and skipped the hard parts. It turned out that high scores on both the CTBS and the MAT were more likely to be found among students who exhibited the superficial approach to learning. …. But, as a rule, it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.Kohn, Education Week Sept. 27,2000

Kohn goes on to say that he knows he’ll be challenged on his research by defenders of high stakes standardized tests and adds five more points, including this one:

Far from improving education, high-stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality, and from equity." Here's why.    “*…Standardized tests tend to measure the temporary acquisition of facts and skills, including the skill of test-taking itself, more than genuine understanding”.  Kohn, Education Week Sept. 27,2000 

This reaffirmed my core beliefs of leading with inquiry, discovery, and reigniting that fire of intrinsic motivation to learn.  There’s NO WAY I can motivate ANY child to learn through test prep.  To acknowledge and affirm every child’s natural ability to learn I HAVE TO use active, student centered learning.  Yes, I’m still addressing the standards and am assessing along the way, but I’m doing it with the role of “lead learner”.  It’s a different role, it was uncomfortable at first, but I am RARELY at the center of the stage.  As one of my kids put it the other day, “So, you’re telling us you’re just like a chaperone along for the ride?”  Yes, my lil dear, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.

Imagine if we all held tight to the Kohn philosophy. 

Imagine if more people pushed back and teachers refused to “test prep”, but instead did “lifelong learning prep”.

Imagine if more parents pushed back and demanded an end to this nonsense and opted out, refusing to allow their children to be abused through these high stakes standardized tests.


Please excuse me, I think my kids are about to call my number . . .

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