Cheating

There was a social studies test coming up in seventh grade.

Jimmy is a conscientious student. He works hard, tries to please his parents and his teachers, and is helpful to others. Jimmy is a 21st century kid. He uses his Chromebook in most of his classes. He’s a self-directed learner. He has experience working collaboratively with his peers. He uses his information literacy skills to get factual information from multiple sources. He has learned to articulate and demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.

But Jimmy also knows that his social studies teacher pretty much follows the textbook. They’re studying chapter 14, so he looks online for tools to help him study for the chapter 14 test in his social studies book. He finds lots of resources, shared online by lots of teachers for their students. There are Quizlet flash cards, Kahoot quizzes, online study guides, and many other resources to help him prepare for the test.

Jimmy starts collecting these resources into a Google doc that he shares with some of his fellow students as a study guide. They work together to prepare for the test. It is unclear whether Jimmy realized that he had the actual test questions in his study guide, because his teacher’s test and the online study guides are both based on the tests that come with the textbook. Since they’re now 14 chapters into the school year, there’s a pretty good chance that he knew exactly which questions would be on the test.


David and Sarah are high school students taking an AP science class. With a couple weeks to go until the AP test, their teacher gives them a take-home practice test to help them prepare. The practice test comes with a scantron sheet where they bubble in their answers to the multiple choice questions.

Sarah knows that David is one of the smartest students in the class. She texts him and asks him to send her his answers to the practice test, presumably so she could compare them with her own answers. He takes a picture of his scantron sheet and sends it to her. He also sends it to a third student, Michael.

What Sarah didn’t know was that she and David had different tests. So when she blindly changed her answers to match his, she ended up with a score of 22%. Michael, on the other hand, didn’t change his answers and ended up doing better on the practice test than David did. All three students received failing grades and disciplinary action, including possible removal from National Honor Society.


An anonymous student sent a high school government teacher some photos of the final exam that is coming up in a few weeks. The photos of the test were clearly taken in the teacher’s classroom. The student was identified from other evidence in the photos and confessed to copying and sharing the test. But it is unclear how many students now have access to the test, or how many other tests are circulating among students who aren’t emailing them back to their teachers.


All of these are (mostly) real, and they’ve all happened within the last month. I changed some names and minor details. We are clearly seeing some growing pains as we come to terms with next generation learning and its relationship to traditional assessments.

Education used to be about knowledge and skills. We went to school to learn content and processes. And those things are still important. Our students need to know how Ohio’s state government compares with the federal government. It’s helpful for them to have some context of West African culture. There’s still a place in our society for legible handwriting and spelling and even multiplication facts, if we don’t go overboard with it.

But the reality is that our students are carrying around devices with them that have all of the answers, and those devices are not going away. So if our assessment of learning is limited to recall, we are really only testing their ability to Google and memorize.

So maybe it’s time to assess differently. We can use these recall types of tests as formative assessments. They give the teacher an idea of where the student is academically. They’re a progress report. They might provide information about how instruction needs to be adjusted to meet the student’s needs. But they’re not the final product of learning.

What is it that the student can DO with the knowledge and skills? Can they solve a unique problem? Can they combine information from different contexts in innovative ways? Can they recognize patterns and provide analysis and draw conclusions? What can they produce that demonstrates their learning?

Do we even have to have exams? One of the biggest criticisms of the current trends in education is that we over-test our students. This spring, we have 52 state-mandated test sessions, which average 90 minutes each. On average, every student will spend six hours testing (and there are several grade levels that don’t have any testing). That’s not counting testing for special education, gifted, English language learners, college entrance exams, or AP tests. It also doesn’t include the diagnostic tests that are used to help students prepare for the state tests. When we add to that the idea that our students should take summative final exams, and that we have large unit tests in many classes every few weeks, we have strengthened the argument that the most important thing we teach students is how to take a test.

These middle schoolers are different. The current sixth and seventh graders are not playing the school game the same way that the sophomores and juniors do. It’s going to be interesting to see whether the school adapts to the students or the students conform to the more traditional approaches of the older grades. In the meantime, we’re going to see a lot more friction as next generation learning comes into conflict with traditional teaching practices.

Photo credit: Hariadhi on Wikimedia Commons.

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What Do You Know?

When my kids were learning to talk, they would often make up words to overcome shortcomings in their vocabularies. They knew, for example, that baby dogs were called “puppies.” But since they didn’t yet know “foal,” a baby horse was called a “horse puppy.” Similarly, when my wife needed an oil change, she would go to the “car doctor.” It didn’t bother them that no one else used these terms. They described the places and things that they needed to using the words they had. Looking back on it, it reminds me of Randall Munroe’s  Up Goer Five, in which the XKCD author explains how the Saturn V rocket worked, using only the 1000 most-used words in the English language.

Cognitively, the children were taking new ideas (there’s a place where we go to get the car fixed) and attaching it to what they already know (when I get sick, I go to the doctor). Later, they refined their understanding. Doctors are only for things that are alive. Cars are not alive. A car doctor is called a mechanic. Each of these pieces of information allowed them to augment their understanding. The result was learning.

In order to develop understanding, we have to find ways to connect new information to things we already know. For example, let’s say that I know that high blood pressure can increase my risk of developing diabetes. My doctor tells me that sodium intake affects blood pressure. So I can reasonably conclude that reducing my salt intake can lower my risk of developing diabetes. Maybe I reduce the amount of salt in my diet, and my blood pressure does go down. So I’ve instilled a belief now. I’m healthier because I’ve made that one dietary change, and I’m less likely to develop diabetes.

But now what happens when I encounter contrary evidence? Maybe someone tweets a link to a news story saying that the benefits of reducing salt are overstated. Or maybe there’s a doctor who writes an article about how reducing sodium tends to increase fat and sugar, which cause more harm than the sodium. Or I see a Facebook post about the restorative power of sea salt.

If my belief in the link between sodium and diabetes is strong enough, I will just reject this new information. There’s no way to fit it into my existing understanding. These people must be crazy. I start questioning their credibility. I look for ulterior motives. I start trying to find flaws in their research or reasoning.

If I’m already convinced that sodium and diabetes are linked, then I embrace evidence that supports that belief, and reject evidence the contradicts that belief. In order to change my mind, you have to find a way to attach new information to my existing understanding that doesn’t contradict everything I already know. Maybe you could point out that most people who have diabetes also have high blood pressure, but that millions of people with high blood pressure don’t develop diabetes. As it turns out, diabetes may be a contributing factor to high blood pressure, not the other way around. Or maybe you can find other examples where correlation does not imply causation, and plant a seed to restructure my understanding of diabetes and blood pressure.

But ultimately, you’re not going to be able to convince me that everything I know is wrong. That would require me to admit that I’m a fool, and I’m not willing to do that. But on the other side of the coin, I have to be aware that the lens through which I see the world is shaped by my experiences, my beliefs, and the understanding that I have built. And because my lens is different from your lens, our views of truth and belief and reality will necessarily be different.

Just knowing that, though, gives us hope. Recognizing that we have different perspectives, and that I might only be right 90% of the time instead of 100% of the time, means that there’s now room in my lens for contrary ideas.

When I was a boy, world was better spot
What was so was so, what was not was not
Now, I am a man, world have changed a lot
Some things nearly so, others nearly not

There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know
Very often find confusion
In conclusion, I concluded long ago

In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure
In my head are many facts
Of which I wish I was more certain, I was sure
Is a puzzlement

 

Image Credit: Knowledge Sharing by Ansonlobo on Wikimedia Commons
Lyrics Credit: A Puzzlement, by Oscar Hammerstein II

I should point out, by the way, that as far as I know, high blood pressure does not cause diabetes. Also, in my own experience, reducing sodium does not cause a decrease in blood pressure. Your mileage may vary.

Civil Conversations

Daryl Davis is a piano player. In 1983, he was playing country and western music in a bar in Virginia. A patron came up to him and remarked that it was the first time he had ever heard a black man play piano as well as Jerry Lee Lewis. Davis explained that Lewis had learned to play from black boogie woogie and blues piano players. The man was unconvinced. Davis explained that Jerry Lee was a friend of his, and the two had discussed his influences many times.

5159469189_c370510ed4_zThe two struck up a conversation, and the man admitted that he was a member of the KKK. Eventually, Davis met with several high-ranking klan members, and even befriended some of them. He found that many klansmen had strong, deep-seeded misconceptions about black people. By forging respectful relationships with them, he was able to counter the stereotypes. It’s harder to hate a group when you know and respect someone who is part of that group.

A few years ago, Davis told his story to Nick Van der Kolk on the excellent Love & Radio podcast.  You should invest 40 minutes and go listen to it. It’s a compelling and entertaining and amazing story. But when you’re done, come back. Because there’s more.

A couple weeks ago, Davis returned to Love & Radio. We seem to be in a world where there are more divisions among us than ever before. And he’s an expert at working to bridge those divides. So we should listen to what he has to say. Go listen to that one, too. Or, if you have to, just read my notes. These are Daryl Davis’s ideas, as told to Nick Van der Kolk, listened to by me, and summarized for you. So how do you have a civil conversation with someone you disagree with?

Do your homework. Before going in, know what their position is. Learn as much as you can about their argument, the reasons behind their beliefs. Ideally, you should be able to make their argument as well as you can make your own.

Have a conversation, not a debate. If you have a debate, it’s about convincing the other side that you’re right. It’s argumentative and confrontational , and it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be able to change their mind. Instead, invite them to have a conversation. Go in with the idea that you want to understand why they feel the way they do. Give them a safe space to explain themselves.

Look for common ground. You agree on something. You can find some area where you’re both on the same page. I was discussing the Affordable Care Act with someone a few months ago, and we were on diametrically opposite sides of the issue. Finally, I looked for common ground. “Can we agree,” I asked, “that when someone gets in a car accident and goes to the hospital, we’re not going to refuse to treat them?” He agreed. Great. All we need to do, then, is figure out how to pay for it. By finding some common ground, you start to build a connection. The more you do that, the less important the differences become.

Talking is not fighting. When you’re talking, you’re not fighting. You might become animated. There might be some yelling or fists pounding on the table. But there’s no violence. The violence doesn’t start until the talking stops. As long as you keep talking, you’re okay.

Be patient. You’re not going to convert someone overnight. Whatever the issue is, there are roots underneath it. You’re not going to spend an hour discussing abortion or immigration or social programs and convince them to change their mind. But maybe you can give them one thing that they’ll think about later. Give them one little reason to just move their position an inch. Be pro-active. Talk to people who disagree with you. Learn from them, and give them the opportunity to learn from you.

Avoid condescension. Don’t be insulting. You will hear opinions that you don’t like. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and remember that you’re giving them a safe space to express them. But everyone is not entitled to their own facts. When they say something that is untrue, call them on it. Ask for evidence of their claim. Or, if you have evidence that counters their point, share it. Correct the facts, but don’t be mean about it.

I think maybe it’s time to venture out of our bubbles and echo chambers once in a while to try to have some real conversations. I’ll close my HuffPo and Mother Jones browser tabs for a little while. Maybe you can stop listening to Breitbart and Fox News for a couple hours. And we can look for common ground.

Photo credit: Martha Soukup on Flickr.