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.

Advertisements

Different Enough

Would you ride in a driverless car?

Let’s say you’re in Pittsburgh or Phoenix and you call for an Uber. The car rolls up, and there’s no one inside. Do you get in?

04-research-vehicle-f-015-luxury-in-motion-mercedes-benz-680x379-deYour answer might depend on how the car is configured. If there is no driver, there is no need for a driver’s seat. If the car itself has no steering wheel, pedals, or other controls, does that make a difference? Actually, if no one is driving, it’s not even necessary for everyone to face the direction of travel. What if the seats inside were configured like a train or a limo, where they face each other? Does that make you more likely or less likely to get in?

On the other hand, maybe that’s too radical. Would you feel better if there were a robotic driver: a human-like machine that mimics the actions of a human driver? While it wouldn’t actually be necessary to make the car work, it would give the car a sense of familiarity that might make you more comfortable.

We like innovation. We want to use products and adopt ideas that show that we’re making progress. My new phone needs to be better than my old phone. New appliances have fancy features that outpace their predecessors. Cars have their steady march toward increased safety and comfort that make them more attractive than their predecessors. The new products have to be new enough that we get a sense that we’re not just throwing our money away on the same old thing.

But when manufacturers innovate too much, they lose the market. Many people wouldn’t consider the early smartphones that didn’t have physical keyboards. Tankless hot water systems haven’t caught on, despite their energy efficiency and convenient size. There’s little difference in driving performance between my current hybrid car and the gas one that it replaced, but the new one has has 50% better fuel economy. Still, you don’t see many of them on the road. They’re not quite familiar enough to gain traction.

Innovation has a sweet spot. If a new product is not different enough from what we already have, it is rejected for its banality. At the same time, if it’s too different, it’s rejected as too radical.

In social psychology, this idea is called optimal distinctiveness. In social groups, we want to be alike enough to be accepted as part of the group, but we also have a need for differentiation and individuality within the group and between different groups. Jonah Berger discussed this on a recent episode of Hidden Brain. The theory also explains why, for example, teens moved away from Facebook when their parents started signing up.

But looking at this through an institutional lens, it suggests that we can’t just scrap the cultural tradition of public education and start over. Imagine for a moment that we could reach some consensus on what it is that schools should be doing. There’s a magic list of, say, ten outcomes that students should have when they complete their schooling. We have a reasonable way of measuring those outcomes, and we can all more-or-less agree that successful schools are the ones whose students consistently meet those goals. (I know. We’re somewhere over in that ill-defined area between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Don’t worry. We’re about to ride the teacups into Wonderland.)

Now further imagine that we know how to accomplish those goals. We have a defined strategy with predictable outcomes. We know how to most efficiently provide instruction to meet the defined goals, and we have proven intervention strategies that determine when students are struggling and provide the support they need to succeed.

The problem has been defined, and its solution has been articulated. But we still can’t do it. Whatever solution we come up with has to be optimally distinct. If we have a teacher standing at the front of the room delivering content to students, and the student answering questions and doing practice problems for homework, and a test every two weeks to determine what they’ve learned, then we aren’t being very groundbreaking. (I would also argue that we’re not getting beyond the recall and skill Depth of Knowledge levels). But if we throw out the idea that we’re working with 25 students in 45 minute blocks of time, then we are accused of adopting untested new education fads and using our children as guinea pigs.

So we’re walking this line of innovation. We’re keeping traditional classes, school calendars, and bell schedules. But teachers are leveraging technology to extend and expand learning beyond what can be accomplished in a 45 minute class period. We could provide wholly online courses, but our staff, students, parents, and school community are more comfortable with classes that meet face to face. We use short formative assessments to gauge student learning and adapt instruction to meet each student’s needs. In some cases, this process could be automated. But that pushes too hard on questioning the role of the teacher, and we have no intention of doing away with teachers.

I once proposed an idea for middle school where each team had a different focus. There would be an arts team and a STEM team. Both take the same core classes. Both have project-based curricula that focus on inquiry. The arts team would incorporate an emphasis on visual and performing arts, and would consider the academic subjects from that perspective. The stem team would focus on process, scientific method, and innovative design. The teams would always have some exposure to the other perspective, but the concentration would follow the passions of the student. Families would be able to pick which team best suits the student entering in sixth grade, and they’d follow that path for three years until going to high school.

The conversations about this idea are always good ones, but it’s really too different from our current approach to be practical. To get there, we need to focus on the smaller pieces first. Let’s spend some time trying to emphasize inquiry in some units in some courses. Let’s do some authentic project-based learning at each grade level, without totally transforming our school into a project-based learning center. We have to embrace the arts, and acknowledge the importance of stem. We have to make things different enough to be making real progress, but not so different that we don’t recognize our schools anymore.

Just different enough.

Photo credit: Mercedes F 015 concept car

Do We Need Teachers?

A couple months ago, I surveyed the teachers in my district about classroom technology. Over the last few years, we have focused a lot on improving student access to technology. While this has meant unprecedented growth in tech resources available to students, it also means we haven’t devoted much time or resources on the technology that our teachers use.

Edsger Dijkstra, 1994 in Zurich
Edsger Dijkstra, 1994 in Zurich

One problem with surveys like this is that you can’t really ask people what they want. The answer to “Would _____ help improve student learning in your classroom?” is “YES!”. It doesn’t really matter what goes in the blank.

The other problem with surveying staff is that they generally want what they already have. Educational technology is always about MORE stuff. We don’t want to talk about taking things away, even if they’re no longer useful.

With this in mind, I asked a lot of questions about teachers’ attitudes toward technology. If I know how they see the role of tech in their classroom, I can better look for solutions that foster that role. So I asked questions like this (all of these are rated on a “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” scale):

Technology helps students become more independent learners.
Technology helps personalize learning for students.

Technology helps students develop a deeper understanding of course content.
Technology helps students demonstrate their learning in innovative ways. Technology improves students’ ability to collaborate.
Technology improves students’ access to course content.
Technology could be used to replace teachers someday.

Many of these are questions I asked sixth grade students and parents earlier in the spring, as they came to the end of the first year of our 1:1 program. The teachers, like the students and the parents, are right where we would hope they would be. For the most part, they genuinely believe that technology fosters independent, personalized learning. It helps engage students and gives them ways to express their creativity and collaborate to deepen their understanding of the topics studied in school, and to demonstrate that learning in unique ways. Yay us! We’re on the right track.

It’s that last item that got me in trouble.

In all fairness, I knew it would. I shared the survey with several people before sending it, and they all pointed it out. Nobody actually contacted me in protest about the question, but I heard through the grapevine that several teachers were insulted and upset that I would even ask such a thing.

replace teachersBut my point is this: we’ve been asking why students still come to school for almost a decade now. When my parents went to school, it was because that’s where the knowledge was. The teachers were the experts on every subject, and the textbooks were the ultimate authority. Any question that the teachers couldn’t answer and that wasn’t in the book wasn’t worth knowing.

That world is gone. Our students have all of the information in their pockets. School has to be more than just delivering content. They need to find, filter, evaluate, analyze, synthesize, and apply that knowledge. They need to combine ideas from different domains and use it in creative ways to solve challenging, real problems. They have to think critically and work collaboratively to face the unprecedented challenges of their generation.

That’s good news. If school WERE just about delivering content, we could easily automate it, and we would all be looking for jobs. We might still need adults to monitor student progress through prescribed online curricula, but they certainly wouldn’t need teaching degrees. Fortunately for all of us, school is more than that.

So in the classroom, the technology has to do more than deliver content. We have to get away from the idea that we’re doing whole group instruction most of the time. We have to eschew the concept of “school” as a model where 20 children sit in rows and face a teacher who stands by the board and talks for an hour at a time. We have to embrace the idea that teachers are regularly using formative assessments to adapt instruction to the needs of each learner. We have to acknowledge that students in a single class may be doing four or five different things. We need to be aware that it’s not enough to just know the facts. There has to be an application or reflection component to learning.

For the most part, our teachers seem to know that. But I needed them to use that lens when thinking about the technology needs for their classrooms. Maybe it’s not all about projectors and interactive whiteboards and using document cameras to share workbook pages. We need to re-tool to design our classrooms for more than simple content delivery. I’m not sure yet exactly what those needs are going to be moving forward. But I’m pretty sure it will be different from what we’ve had the last ten years.

And despite their concerns about being replaced by robots, our teachers know that too.

 

Photo Credit: :Edsger Dijkstra, from Wikipedia.