Why?

I was in the superintendent’s office last week refining a plan for technology and media in our schools. We had a complicated diagram with circles and arrows and boxes all over it. It started with the district’s strategic vision, and specifically the goals of promoting next generation skills, integrating state of the art technology, and offering quality program options that include STEM. It included the technology plan, which is focused on technology infrastructure, ubiquitous access to technology for students and teachers, and appropriate levels of support for both the operational and instructional needs of the district. It addressed student technology needs (both resources and instruction) at various levels, and the plans for meeting those needs. It tied in our teacher leaders, media specialists, and other professional staff who are responsible for various aspects of the plan.

4603106405_0d83269a23_zAfter working through the diagram for about half an hour, the superintendent took the paper. At the bottom of the diagram, in large block letters, he wrote this:

WHY?

We need technology to do more than test kids. Sure, testing is important. For all of the resources that we devote to public education, for the millions upon millions of dollars spent in schools all across the country, year after year, we should be able to prove that we’re not wasting everyone’s time and money. We should be able to articulate what the learning outcomes should be in each subject at each grade level, and we should be able to demonstrate our effectiveness at getting students to reach those outcomes. Technology plays an important role in the management, instruction, intervention, and assessment of that system.

But it has to go beyond that. Students need to know much more about the technology landscape than their parents do. They have to understand what information literacy looks like in an age of information abundance. It’s not about finding the information anymore. It’s about filtering and evaluating and selecting from multiple sources. It’s about evaluating credibility and giving credit to those whose work you’re building on. Not only are those complicated skills, they’re skills that our students need to be learning in elementary school.

As they learn to navigate in a connected world, our students must embrace the powerful resources of communication and collaboration that have permeated all aspects of their culture. Publication — the sharing of ideas and work with a global audience — is as easy now as consumption. Our students can share their ideas with the world just as easily as they find the ideas of others. They can work together on documents and projects, participate in conversations with full audio and video, and publish their work online in less time than it takes to draw a timeline on poster board.

America’s history is one of innovation. It was our rejection of the rules of war (along with some dumb luck and help from the French) that won our independence. In the 20th century, we innovated our way to victory through the use of air power in the first world war, and the use of nuclear weapons in the second war. The industrial revolution made the American dream a reality for millions of our families. Post-war advances in chemistry, medicine, and technology ensured our status as the last standing superpower for the remainder of the century. As other countries caught up in manufacturing and industry, we innovated by moving to service and technology sectors.

We are facing huge challenges in the decades to come. In many respects, we have been over-spending our resources to maintain our standard of living for quite a while now, and the short-sighted economic decisions of our parents are coming back to haunt us. At the same time, the aging boomers’ need for health care and the rising costs of that care are unprecedented. In the last years of her life, my grandmother paid more per month for her assisted living than she paid for her house. Climate change is very real, and the shortcuts we’ve taken in the name of progress are starting to have disastrous and irreversible impacts on the global environment. Job prospects for today’s youth are unclear, as many of the jobs of my parents’ generation have been eliminated by automation and cheaper labor forces overseas.

Our kids have a lot of work to do. They need to leave school prepared to meet these challenges. And the challenges are much more complicated than answering multiple choice questions that measure their ability to recall information. Education isn’t just about knowing anymore. It’s about applying the “know” to challenges in the “now.”

 

Photo credit: Veerle Pieters, photo by Marc Thiele on Flickr.

 

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Checking Out in the Middle Grades

It was fifth grade when my daughter decided that she didn’t like school. It was her first year in an intermediate school. In our community, learners go to the same primary school for grades K-4, and then switch to an intermediate school for 5-6 before moving on to middle school (7-8) and high school (9-12). It’s the intermediate school where things tend to change. We have similar challenges in the school district in which I work, where students attend intermediate school in grades 4-5. Both students and parents tend to experience a sense of disillusionment at this level. 9557767183_fd5cc9fb1b_zIt’s an age where students are becoming increasingly independent. In many schools, they switch classes for the first time. They’re expected to keep track of assignments and due dates more than they did in the past. They have lockers and study hall and more freedom and more accountability. But at the same time, they’re all still in the same classes. Everyone has math and language arts and science and social studies, just like they did in elementary school. But by fifth grade, the gap between the highest performing kids and the lowest performing kids in the same class can be staggering. My daughter, for example, was reading at a tenth grade level in fifth grade. Though these were the days before the third grade reading guarantee, there were certainly students in her class who were two years below their grade level.

That’s an enormous gap. If we have students reading on a third grade level in the same class with students reading on a 10th grade level, how do we teach to that kind of academic diversity? In my daughter’s fifth grade class, they taught at a fifth grade level. Some students struggled, and I’m assuming that there were intervention strategies in place for them. Most of the students were more-or-less with the class. Some students, my daughter among them, were bored.

In grades 5 and 6, all of her teachers were entirely focused on acquisition of content. They were scared to death of the high stakes end-of year tests. They were worried about the new science test. Students were not performing up to expectations on the math test. And language arts is always the highest priority in elementary school. In every class, the entire focus of the curriculum was on making sure the students could answer as many test questions as possible. They even went as far as “borrowing” time from non-tested subjects, like social studies, to spend more time on test prep in the subjects that “counted.”

If getting students to answer multiple choice questions is the entire focus of your educational philosophy, what’s the best way to accomplish that goal? Direct instruction. Practice. Repeat. If you want students to be able to recognize a word by its definition, or add two fractions together, or list the planets in order by size, this is the most efficient way to get the job done. So there were endless worksheets. There was a lot of copying of definitions out of textbooks. There were word searches and crossword puzzles. Every day in math, they were shown a new kind of problem, the process for solving that kind of problem, and 20 practice problems for homework.

What does this do to the student who comes in already having most of the knowledge? I’m not saying my daughter is a genius. But we did spend a LOT of time in science museums and historical sites and zoos and concert halls. We asked a lot more questions than we answered. We taught our children to love books. We encouraged them to ask questions and work hard to understand the world around them. They didn’t just go into Kindergarten knowing that the poster on the wall listing Pluto as a planet was wrong. They knew why it was wrong, and why scientists changed their thinking about it.

This child can do the worksheets. But she doesn’t see any point in doing them. And when her intrinsic love of learning is diminished by a need to proceed in lock step with the class, she learns to play the school game. Do what you have to do to get the grade, and don’t worry so much about learning. School is now about fulfilling requirements. It’s not fun anymore. After two years of treading water, we pulled her out. She attended an online charter for seventh and eighth grades before returning to the traditional public high school. The online charter wasn’t much better academically:  it, too, was focused on test prep. But at least she could work more efficiently, check off the required work, and then spend more time on her passions. She could dive more deeply into topics that interested her, and spend more time where she wanted. She could focus more on visual arts, including several hours of painting every week. For her, learning and school became two separate things. But that worked for her.

My other daughter is taking a different path to the same place. For her, grades 5-8 are being spent in a performing arts middle school. Academically, it’s a very traditional school, with many of the shortcomings I’ve already described. She has certainly learned to play the school game, giving the teachers what they want, without worrying so much about the learning. But she gets to do drama and orchestra in school. So rather than wasting the middle school years, she can focus on the arts. I have no doubt that she will be ready for high school next year when she joins her sister.

High school is a very different animal. The capacity for diversifying academic experiences in high school is much higher than it is in middle school. There are honors and AP classes. There are electives and extracurriculars. There are plenty of opportunities to engage academically, culturally, socially, and athletically. As a Freshman, my daughter took Sophomore English, science, and math. If she runs out of courses to take in a couple years, she’ll enroll in a post-secondary program and earn college credit for high school classes. She’s over the hump now, and she’s much happier about school. But those middle grades were tough.

I can’t help but think that the new academic standards are going to improve the middle grades experience.  Both the Common Core standards and the new Ohio standards for science and social studies have an emphasis on increasing academic rigor. That means that we’re finally moving beyond simply remembering and understanding facts. Students will need to analyze, synthesize, and apply their knowledge to new situations. They will have to combine their knowledge from different domains in new ways to create something new. That kind of thinking requires an entirely different approach to teaching and learning. It’s no longer possible to anticipate every kind of problem students will be asked to solve. We’ll need to teach them to think for themselves.

In the process, hopefully we’ll engage those students who have checked out of middle school.

Photo credit: Steven Depolo on Flickr.

5 Things We Don’t Agree On

One of the frustrations with the current conversation in public education is that we’re not all talking about the same thing. We’re all experts in education, because we’ve all spent thousands of hours in school. But when it comes to some of the fundamental questions surrounding education, we’re not all on the same page. Here are five things we don’t agree on:

7632212948_5a2ca26f59_n[1]What’s the purpose of education?
Some make the argument that education is all about providing a basic level of literacy to the populace. We should teach our kids to read and write and do basic math. We should give our children the basic skills they need to function in daily life. Others point to career readiness. The point of education is to prepare learners to succeed in real jobs that will give them enough income to live without being a burden on society. Others point to higher education. K-12 education prepares students for college or technical school, which in turn prepares students to get good jobs.  A few idealists point to lofty goals like passing along our culture — our civilization — to the next generation, or to creating an informed, functional citizenry. But your view of education, including the degree to which the U.S. system is successful, will depend on which lens you’re using.

What do we mean by “learning”?
When I was a kid, we were told that knowledge is power. If you have the information, and you control access to information, you’re more powerful than those who don’t. That may still be true to a degree, but for the most part, everyone has the information now. If school is all about disseminating content to children, we’re wasting our time. They already have the content. Now, what can we do with that content?

We’re moving further up the Bloom’s pyramid than we give ourselves credit for. But if we want to measure this kind of learning, we have to ask better questions. We have to challenge students to think in new ways, to combine ideas from different areas, and to create something new. If you want to measure whether students have developed their problem solving skills, you have to give them problems that they haven’t seen the solution to. I’m not sure our high-stakes testing and assessment system will let that happen.

What’s the right balance between local and centralized control of education?
Whenever we don’t like something we’re being told to do, we drag out the old “local control” argument. Traditionally, education has been a local responsibility. We decide what to teach our kids, and how to do it. The government stays out of it. At the same time, though, we seem to welcome centralized standardization when we agree with it. If you have too much local control, then you find creationism showing up in the science curriculum, global warming being taught as a debateable theory, and any novel that encourages students to think and speak for themselves being labeled as subversive trash. The common core is not a bad thing, and most people who object to it actually object to the way it’s measured more than the standards themselves. If we do have standards, we ought to be able to leverage collaboration to make implementation easier for all of us. Part of the friction here comes from fundamental disagreements on some of the questions I’ve already mentioned.

Whose responsibility is education?
This is different from the last question. In the 19th century, American communities decided that it was the responsibility of the community to create and support local schools for the education of their children. Education was entirely local and community-driven. As time has gone on, the community has assumed a smaller role. Education is the government’s responsibility. Education is the parent’s responsibility. Now we end up in all of these convoluted strategies to try to make education relevant to the community as a whole. “Why should I vote for the school levy? My children are grown. I’m on a fixed income. I can’t afford higher taxes.” We need to invest in education because it’s the right thing to do. We need to invest in education because it will benefit our society and our country in the long term. There’s no short term return on investment. Support schools for the same reason that you still plant trees, even though you may not live to see them fully grown. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, grandparent, child, or community member, education is YOUR responsibility.

How does the U.S. stack up against other countries?
Education in the United States is better now than it has ever been. That’s not news. It doesn’t generate the same response as the reports claiming our kids don’t know basic math or that Finland provides a better education at a fraction of the price. But if our schools are changing — if we really are re-examining what we mean by “education” — then the scores our students earn on traditional knowledge-based tests are not going to improve. If we look at the tests that we’re using to measure students around the world, I don’t think we’ll find that our students are doing worse than other countries on the things we actually care about. Which takes us back to the questions on purpose and learning.

We skip these questions. Even in conversations about Next Generation schools. Even in discussions about appropriate professional development programs to transform learning. Even in deep, thoughtful reflections on what we’re doing in public education. We can spin our wheels around these things for hours without getting anywhere. But until we start agreeing on the basic parameters of what we’re talking about, we’re not going to get anywhere.

Photo credit: NikitaY on Flickr.