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The Teachers We Need Now

What’s the difference between teaching a student and training a parrot?

This isn’t the setup for a joke but actually a very serious question. To train a parrot you need to repeat a word or phrase that you want the bird to imitate, over and over again until it starts to articulate what sounds close to what you’re saying. With persistent repetition the parrot might eventually sound just like you, to the point of fooling someone listening in another room.

Even then we wouldn’t say that the parrot has learned how to talk or is ready to hold a lengthy conversation on a topic of interest, would we? That’s because merely repeating what you hear isn’t the same as understanding what it means or being able to think critically about something.

Once upon a time a curriculum committee got together and asked, “What do third graders need to know in order to move on to fourth grade?” This content knowledge was identified and then standardized across the public school curriculum, stacking up from one grade to the next. Lesson plans were designed around these learning objectives and assessment measures were defined that would let schools know whether students were ready to progress.

Eventually classroom instruction would get focused on “teaching to the test,” where this grade-level knowledge was repeated over and over until students could choose the right answers most of the time. By devoting a large amount of instructional time to preparing students for tests, teachers could improve passing rates and schools could attract higher enrollments, thereby showing themselves worthy of more funding for the resources they needed.

The acquisition of knowledge is a crucial first step toward understanding and meaning-making – what education is really all about. A full account of what I call “the learning ladder,” however, necessarily goes beyond instructing students in what they need to know in order to complete an assignment, pass a test, or move on to the next grade.

If it’s only a matter of being able to repeat what they hear in a lecture or read in a textbook, then teaching students is not essentially different than training parrots.

Beyond knowledge acquisition, genuine learning must involve students in a process of assimilating new knowledge into what they already know or think they know. Obviously, this kind of intellectual activity requires more from the student than just a talent for memorization and recall. To effectively assimilate new knowledge and then apply it to the work of solving problems and making meaning depends on the higher skills of critical thinking.

In How Schools Make the Problem Worse I pointed out that critical thinking, which should be the gold standard of education, is a skill-set that relies on executive brain functions located in the prefrontal cortex. To support the work of critical thinking, a student needs a good working memory, strong mental focus, and an ability to inhibit impulses that might otherwise distract attention away from the object of study. These brain functions which underlie the higher cognitive skills of learning are themselves a symptom of brain and body health – how rested, well-nourished, aerobically active, and internally centered a student is.

Schools that ignore this crucial factor of health in their students, or actually undermine it by generating unnecessary “test stress” and stocking vending machines with “fake foods” that impair healthy brain function, truly are making the problem worse.

The “problem” is that students are deficient in the critical thinking skills required in higher learning. In reality, the education system is making the problem worse in two ways: (1) by ignoring or compromising the health of student brains and bodies, and (2), reaching back to my earlier point, by devoting itself to teaching students only what they need to know in order to pass tests and get through to the next grade, not how to think critically for themselves.

It’s true that critical thinking demands more of students and their brains than does memorizing and repeating what they hear in class or read in textbooks. But there’s a nasty trap here: Memorizing and repeating information is inherently uninteresting – we can even say it’s boring if it has no relevance to a student’s personal experience and quality world. See my post The Relevancy Gap in Education for more on this.

Because schools have to rely on assessments to prove themselves worthy of support to state legislatures and external funders, it seems their only recourse is to push harder on students to “succeed” – which only makes the problem worse.

What schools have done by way of adapting to this cut-score culture of education today is increasingly to accommodate students’ lack of interest and effort by lowering the challenge gradient, essentially making it easier for them to pass and less likely to fail. If that’s unfortunate for the students, what’s doubly unfortunate for the schools themselves is how this over-accommodation has made it necessary to impose more and more interventions designed to stop the downward slide. Consequently the cost of getting students through the system has steadily increased over the past couple decades.

In an education system that is more about training parrots than teaching students, instructors who teach to the test most successfully – i.e., have higher passing rates than their colleagues – are those who get recognized and rewarded. This isn’t surprising, since every club or culture tends to elevate those members who exemplify its core values. If test scores are the metric of success in today’s culture of education, then teachers who produce better results are naturally regarded as more gifted, more dedicated, and presumed better at teaching.

But if teaching students is more about activating and shaping their critical thinking skills than getting them to repeat back on a test what they need to know before moving on, then the best teachers are those who demonstrate for students how to engage their topic as critical thinkers.

In How Schools Make the Problem Worse I analyzed critical thinking into eight logical operations whereby concepts are formed, factored, and reconstructed by the mind in the process of learning. In modeling the skills of critical thinking for students, good teachers demonstrate

  1. Analysis: by breaking a topic down to its elements or basic components
  2. Synthesis: by putting elements into patterns of higher relationship
  3. Induction: by moving from specific cases to more general principles
  4. Deduction: by deriving conclusions from broader generalizations or premises
  5. Abstraction: by constructing an overarching idea from diverse items or individuals
  6. Concretion: by condensing an abstract idea into its concrete examples
  7. Inference: by drawing reasonable conjectures from what is already known or given
  8. Prediction: by tracing a line of causality to the most probable or near-certain outcome

It’s essential for us to distinguish between what might be called the “catalog of knowledge” or what is currently known about a subject, and the critical thinking skills of which the catalog itself is a product. Students in a Biology class, for instance, might be taught the catalog of present-day biological science, and then tested for their ability to recall and repeat this information on tests.

Or they could be taught how to think critically about their subject (i.e., how to “think like a biologist”) using the eight logical operations of critical thinking. Teachers who can model critical thinking for their students and actually bring them into the activity of constructing meaning around a subject and deepening their understanding of it – opening their minds, igniting curiosity, and making it personal – are the teachers we need now, more than ever.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2019 in Education, Timely and Random

 

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The Relevancy Gap in Education

In other posts I have bemoaned the trend in education today where its primary value is judged by whether it prepares a student adequately for gainful employment after graduation. Instead of opening minds, constructing meaning, and creating worlds, education has gotten reduced to little more than job training. As this happens, students stop caring and surrender responsibility for their learning, relying on the system to tell them what they need to know and what they’re supposed to do with it.

If you ask students what action new knowledge is for, the first answer of many is that it’s for passing tests, which in turn is for graduating and getting a job. Will the new knowledge be useful in their job some day? Maybe, but probably not. The classroom question, “Will this be on the test?” is eventually followed by the workplace question, “Is this necessary for me to do my job?” If so, then effort will be made to retain it. If not, it gets tossed on the scrap pile of useless information.

A quick and dirty summary of what’s wrong with education today sees it as “teaching to the test,” by which is meant not only progress assessments along the path of mastery, but standardized tests that serve as gateways for students to next-level instruction, graduation, or professional certification. The goal in each case is to pass the test with a grade that meets or exceeds the cut-score for moving on.

Teachers teach to the test by focusing instruction only on what will be tested. Passing grades mean good success data that schools can report to their funding sources and accreditation associations. In order to improve their numbers, schools have accommodated student underachievement with shortcuts and allowances, effectively lowering the challenge gradient for students to climb.

It’s not long, however, before interventions must be introduced in order to build up the deficiencies that such accommodations worked around or even fostered over time.

Soon enough education has become an expensive process of instructors teaching to the test, students dreading the test, accommodations to help them make it through one test, and interventions to get them ready for the test next in line. The expense is measured not only in terms of the billions of dollars required to keep this gauntlet in operation, but in the toll it is taking on the confidence, self-respect, creativity, and passion in nearly everyone involved, which is a cost much more tragic and devastating. We might hail the commitment to lifelong learning, but who wants to prolong the agony of education beyond the goal of getting a job?

As I pointed out The Paradox of Education and the Search for Its Soul, the roots of our words educate and instruct set them in very different value systems. Educare means “to lead out,” which might be nothing more than leading a youngster out into the adult world. But more likely it has to do with leading the creative intelligence and talent of students out into the constructive discourse of world-building known as culture. Instruct, on the other hand, means to “to put in,” and is about downloading knowledge and skills into one regarded as naive, incompetent, or untrained.

In the second perspective, students are ignorant of the sophisticated things they need to know in order to make it in the world. But according to the first, in the spirit of educare – and it’s helpful that “care” is right there in the word itself – they are crackling with potential, and all a teacher really needs to do is light a match and show the way.

As illustrated in my diagram above, there is a serious relevancy gap in education today. To fix the problem of poor student performance, accommodations and interventions are introduced early, but somewhere farther down the line students are stressing out, burning out, and dropping out in record numbers. Even “getting a job” – while it might be the reason a greater percentage of them give for being in college – is not enough to keep students engaged anymore. The real problem is not that students are stupid, lazy, or unable to learn, but that passing tests and getting a job doesn’t inspire them to learn.

Effective teachers know the importance of helping students make connections between new information and what they love. The heart is the center of our personal experience and includes what we are curious about and interested in, what we desire and what currently holds our emotional investment – all frequencies of passion that inspire our construction of meaning.

Unless students can connect new information to their personal lives, it may be retained for the goal of passing the test, but it won’t be incorporated into their worldview or enrich their perspective on reality.

Obviously the better teachers know their students by taking the time to discover what they love. The wise proverb, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” speaks to this relevancy gap in education today. Students can feel the difference when teachers are teaching to the test, or instead are teaching to help them learn, personalize new information, and construct meaning.

 

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