College Ready

As the father of a high school senior, I’ve spent some time on college campuses over the last several months. We’ve visited elite private schools, small liberal arts colleges, and large state institutions. We’ve talked to admissions counselors, students, professors, and department heads. We have toured campuses, attended classes, listened to the promotional talks, and asked a lot of questions.

The goal of this, of course, is to find the right fit for my daughter. But along the way, the educational technologist in me has noticed some things.

dok_chartOver the last ten years, we have changed the way teaching and learning happens at the K-12 level. We work hard to get beyond the knowledge level. Education used to be about imparting knowledge. Teachers and textbooks provide content to students. They take tests to show that they have “learned” that content. We called that education. Now, we spend more time on strategic and extended thinking. Having the facts is important, but it’s not enough. We’re asking students to analyze and synthesize the knowledge. We want them to apply their learning to new challenges.

Technology plays an important role in all of this. Of course it’s an information resource. We do spend a lot of time teaching students how to find, filter, assess, and cite online resources. But technology also allows students to collaborate and communicate in unprecedented ways. It allows teachers to differentiate, tailoring instruction to meet the individual needs of each student. And technology is also a platform of creation, where students can make something new that demonstrates their learning.

These are the things we’re doing with middle school students. But at the undergrad level, most of what we’re seeing is a reversion to knowledge dissemination. Classes may be lecture halls of 300, but honestly, in most of the schools we’re looking at, those mega-courses are rare. Still, the classes are set up to have an expert standing at the front of the room talking for an hour while everyone else writes down what she says. Students will do some reading, and they’ll write some essays. They’ll sit for a few exams that will act as summative measures of what has been learned. Maybe there will be a project, and in some rare cases that project might have some real world relevance. But the bottom line is that we’re going to spend $100 an hour for my daughter to sit in a room and listen to a professor talk.

28488183456_f55c47232f_zThe role of technology in these schools is tangential at best. Granted, we have not visited a lot of them, and we have not seen every program. But we have been to 8-10 colleges and universities this year. At those schools, students use computers to take notes and write papers. They probably use the Internet to do some research. That’s about it. No one talks about blended learning. While many of these schools have online courses, they treat them like they’re a separate branch campus. They’re not using the online tools to help with the face to face courses. No one considers technology to be an indispensable part of learning. They still have computer labs. While many students have laptops, it’s not a requirement or even an expectation that students will bring their technology. Unless specifically asked about it, no one at any of the schools even mentioned technology or how it’s used for classes.

The question, then, is what do we do about high school? Our teachers make the very valid point that their job is to prepare students for college. In the school where I work, almost all of the students choose to continue their education at the university level, and we should do everything we can to prepare them to be successful in that environment.

28520201495_a99a7d0599_zAs these middle schoolers grow up, are they going to lose the sense of inquiry that we’re trying to foster? Will high school become a time when they unlearn how to ask questions and simply give the teacher what he wants to get the grade and be a “successful” student? Or, if we advocate for increased rigor at the high school level, do we endanger our students’ success at the college level, where they’re expected to be very good at digesting and recalling information?

If we teach the students to adapt, they’ll be fine. If we focus on problem solving and innovation and application, they’re not going to have any trouble with defining and categorizing and recalling. They may be frustrated with college being too easy, but that’s a great problem to have.

On the other hand, if the goal is “college and career ready,” and almost all of our students are going to college, we may be making K-12 education a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

Image sources:
DOK Chart: Jason Singer, Curriculet
Rows sign and Miami Seal: me

A More Perfect History

Last week, the College Board released a new version of the AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description. This document, last revised in 2014, outlines the content that should constitute an Advanced Placement American History course. Ideally, students taking this course pass the exam at the end of the year that entitles them to college credit for their achievement.

7522707282_46e00dc43e_zThe United States does not have a national curriculum for American History. The Common Core standards, an effort to unify the curriculum taught in American schools, only cover reading and math. The AP guidelines are the closest thing we have to a national standard for how this subject should be approached in high school.

The new standards come a year after strong opposition to the 2014 version. That revision emphasized comprehension, interpretation , and synthesis of history instead of merely recalling the names and dates of important milestones. Critics claimed that it undermined the idea of American exceptionalism, and fostered a view of American history that is too negative and political. Several states moved to ban the course from being taught in their schools.

In academic circles, we call this shift toward analysis, synthesis, and application an increase in academic rigor. As we continue to move into the age of information abundance, it becomes increasingly important for students to evaluate the information they’re getting, make connections among content from diverse sources, assess bias and frame of reference, and draw their own conclusions. They apply this deeper understanding  of history in new contexts, ostensibly to keep from repeating it.

Unfortunately, some of those conclusions don’t necessarily paint the United States in a positive light. After looking at the facts, one might conclude, for example, that the Boston Tea Party was actually an act of terrorism. Or, maybe, the strained relations between Europeans and native tribes had more to do with the Europeans dismissing them as savages, taking and destroying their resources, and constantly breaking treaties than with the natives acting unreasonably hostile toward white settlers. It’s quite possible that rounding up Japanese Americans, most of whom were United States citizens, and locking them up in interment camps after confiscating their homes and property was a heinous violation of their civil and human rights. One might conclude that detaining 780 people in the aftermath of 9/11 without charge or trial, and then systematically torturing them  over the course of a decade poses a stark contrast to the certain inalienable rights endowed to them by their creator.

Fortunately, the new version of the course re-instills those patriotic American ideals that make our citizens believe that this is the greatest country in the history of the world. Our nation is founded on the ideals of liberty, citizenship, and self-governance. Just don’t get too caught up in that definition of “liberty,” and be careful about that “self-governance” thing if you’re black or female or poor. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are fearless leaders to be revered, and have more than earned their places on our currency. Let’s set aside Washington’s blundering that would have lost the revolutionary war if the French hadn’t conveniently saved the day, Franklin’s inability to keep his hands to himself, and Jefferson’s substantial bi-racial posterity. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution should be revered as sacred documents, unless you take that bit about being created equal too seriously, or unless the unelected Supreme Court issues a ruling you don’t agree with. We were certainly the determining factors in ending both world wars, and the U.S. is the only country who realized that the cold war could be ended by simply telling Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Let’s conveniently omit the fact that the United States, 70 years later, is still the only country to have actually used a nuclear weapon. Don’t get too caught up in the details. We’re awesome, and we know it.

A generation ago, I took this AP American History course. We skipped most of the dates and facts. The textbook spent most of the year in the bottom of my locker. The units focused on essential questions that were primarily answered through the examination of primary sources. We learned to interpret history for ourselves. We learned to assess bias. We learned about different kinds of oral and written accounts, and how to determine why they were created, by whom, and when. One of the units focused on the cause of the civil war. Slavery was a contributing factor. But it wasn’t the only factor, and it probably wasn’t the driving force. Slavery as a human rights issue was certainly not as important as slavery as an economic issue. But we didn’t blindly read an over-processed, committee-driven, negotiated account in a textbook about why there was a civil war. We explored the topic ourselves.

We didn’t cover most of the course. We glossed over almost all of the dates and names. I don’t think the teacher was overly concerned with our exam scores. In fact, we didn’t have any assessments or grading at all, apart from the final exam. We were intrinsically motivated, and the subject was made interesting by the approach taken by the teacher. It was certainly a time before high-stakes accountability.

I scored well enough to earn six college credits and was exempted from taking Western Civilization as a college Freshman. I don’t remember much about the exam, except that in the essay, I argued that affirmative action programs were discriminatory. I’m pretty sure I criticized Lincoln in the same essay.

I love my country. There’s video and photos all over the Internet of me waving flags and singing patriotic songs. I know most of the words to the Pledge of Allegiance (even though I think it’s a really creepy nod to fascism). I sing the words to the Armed Forces Medley and Stars and Stripes Forever every time I hear them. But I think our country can be better. There’s lots of room for improvement. And we don’t get better by ignoring the inconvenient misdeeds of our past.  Our students need to study all of American history, not just the parts that make us look good. They need to draw conclusions, identify and acknowledge misdeeds, and resolve to prevent their leaders from walking down those same paths.

Maybe that’s what the critics are afraid of.


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.