April 13, 2010

Why Teach That!

Several weeks ago, while “assisting” my daughter with her homework (read “sticking my nose into her business”), we had a conversation that went something like this:

ME: What is it you are learning from this worksheet?

DD: We’re supposed to read the passage then answer the questions.

ME: I know, but what are you learning from doing this exercise?

DD: I don’t know. I guess just to answer the questions?

ME: Don’t the directions tell you to do that? What did your teacher say you are supposed to learn from this exercise?

DD: She didn’t say anything about it. We’re just supposed to do it. That’s all.

ME: OK. But, what do you learn from this exercise?

After some more “I don’t knows” and “I guesses,” she admitted that the only thing she learned from this and other similar “read and respond” worksheets is that to get the “right” answer, she must find in the reading passage the same words that appear in the question prompt, then copy from the passage the text immediately following those “key words.” In other words, what she learned from the exercise was not the ability to synthesize or apply information from the reading passage (the questions following the reading passage do not require this of students), but rather she learned a test-taking strategy that will result in a “correct” answer. A handy skill if you are taking a standardized test, I suppose, but I wondered if this truly was the teacher’s intention in assigning the exercise.

After our conversation, I asked myself what I wanted my students to learn, be able to do, or experience in my courses. I quickly produced a list of information and activities that I thought my students should learn and complete. In examining the list, I noticed that my content was essentially the same as the content I taught as a graduate teaching assistant, and similar to what I experienced as an undergraduate student. And, it was very similar to content found in courses and textbooks across the country.

Because my content was consistent with that of so many, I assumed I must be on the right track. What, I failed to ask myself, however, is probably the most important question an educator can ask - "Why teach that?"

I looked again at my list of learning outcomes, asking “Why teach that?” Of what value is this content to my students, now or in the future? Am I teaching these things because they have practical application or some intrinsic value, or merely because I "think" this is what they should know? As a result, I made several immediate changes to my course content, with more changes coming next term.

In designing my courses, I never truly considered what my students might need to know or be able to do, but merely assumed that what I was teaching was correct because it was what I was taught and what is being taught elsewhere. How many other teachers make this error, too - designing their curricula based on outward perceptions and/or personal/administrative needs, rather than the short and long term educational needs of our students?

The question of "what" should be taught should be followed immediately by "why." As educators, "why" always should be at the forefront of our instructional vocabulary, challenging our students AND ourselves continually. Asking "why" makes us think. Asking "why" makes us reason and consider alternatives. Asking "why" forces us to understand before we ask our students to understand.

Because of this conversation with my daughter, I learned the importance of asking “why" in teaching. I’m so glad we had the chance to talk.

April 7, 2010

Hypocrisy in "Race to Top" Fallout

     I must admit...I laughed out loud after reading the recent New York Times article - "States Skeptical about 'Race to Top' School Aid Contest." It wasn't a "funny" laugh, but more of a "you've got to be kidding" laugh.
     The article describes the anger, frustration, and "skepticism" of governors from several states that were were not awarded "Race to the Top" funding (only two states received awards - Delaware and Tennessee) over the award selection process. These governors expressed concern that the 500-point rubric used to evaluate each state's application did not account for the effort or progress each state made toward reforming their education systems toward meeting "Race to the Top" goals, even if they came up a little "short" in garnering full support within their respective states. The ability of Delaware to win support for "Race to the Top" from its 38 school districts when compared with the 1500 school districts in California is held up as an example of this inequity, and illustrates how states should not be evaluated in the standard manner. California's undersecretary of education, Kathy Gaither, in describing the new laws California enacted toward forwarding education reform in its effort to win "Race to the Top" funding is quoted as saying, "There was just no room in the application or the scoring rubric for them."  The article concludes with Governor Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado quoted saying, "So even as I believe that school reform is important for our country, it’s also important that people in Washington understand that one size doesn’t fit all."
     Does any of this sound familiar? I find it appalling, and bordering on hypocritical, that these are the same governors and state agencies requiring school districts across their states to measure their students' achievement using a one-size-fits-all standardized testing system that focuses solely on outcomes and not what truly was "achieved." It is difficult to understand how any educator or administrator can rationalize the validity of standardized tests as an accurate measure of individual student achievement when the "individual" is removed from the equation.
     My  hope is that "Race to the Top" was all just an elaborate (and expensive) ruse staged by the Department of Education to illustrate the fundamentally flawed nature of standardized testing, and that it now will turn to the governors who applied for  funding, particularly those who are decrying the inequity of the selection process, and say, "How does it feel to have your achievement measured in a standardized manner? If you believe that evaluation should take into consideration individual differences and progress toward a goal, then you should do the same for the students in your state and immediately halt standardized student testing." 
     Now THAT would be funny!