Saturday, April 30, 2016

Robbing our kids of their futures

Today I want to end my blog posts about the book I've been reading, Most Likely To Succeed, with 2 quotations that come directly from the final few pages that focus on the future.  The heading for this section is Innovation -v- Education.  I'm actually posting these quotes in reverse order as I think they make sense in this way.  Bear in mind that the book is focused on the system of education in the USA.  It's less relevant in international schools - but these quotations still ring true.
Today, our education system has become the American Nightmare.  It saps the joy of learning from every child and teacher.  Classrooms jump through endless hoops that have nothing to do with life skills.
So as you can see here the focus of the system is on content - and then assessing the recall of that content.  Here's the second quote:
We have an education system that would make perfect sense in the 1970s U.S.S.R. but is completely out of step with America's core values and strengths.  We invest on top-down command-and-control.  We micromanage every minute of every lesson plan.  Instead of letting a thousand flowers bloom, we replace all flowers with the same lifeless, overtested weed.  We take every ounce of bold creativity out of the classroom, replacing it with a soulless march through dull curriculum and test prep decoupled from life skills. We prioritize standardization and accountability, and don't seem to notice or care that students lack engagement and purpose.  We rob our kids of their futures.
 I saw this video on Facebook earlier this week.  I'm posting it because I think the comparison is interesting.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Google knows everything

If you've been reading my last few posts, you'll know I've been reading Most Likely to Succeed by Ted Dintersmith.  At the same time, you'll also be aware that for the past few months I've been working with a colleague at ASB on micro-schools (more about this in an upcoming post since we presented our final ideas at our last R&D meeting).  As we thought about reimagining education, I kept coming back to what will essentially help our students to thrive as adults.  It won't be what they know, since that has little value when "Google knows everything", but it will be what they can do with their knowledge.  As Dintersmith writes, "content knowledge has become a free commodity - like air or water .... available on every Internet connected device."    And yet .... we continue to measure this content knowledge.  Yes, I know I've got a bit of a bee in my bonnet at the moment.  My discussions about standards have quite literally been preying on my mind and keeping me awake at night.  If we have a standard then we need to assess it.  If we have too many standards then we spend hours of valuable time assessing those standards, which means we spend less time on the actual learning.  Perhaps Dintersmith has the answer:
If we're committed to meaningful student progress, we need to accept that an entirely different assessment model is required - one that is more qualitative than quantitative ... Our choice is stark.  We can focus classrooms either on what's easy to measure or on what's important to learn.  But we can't do both well.
And the choice goes on.  Dintersmith questions, "Do we want students' learning to be shallow or deep?  And do we want their primary focus to be subject content or critical skills?"

I was really interested to read that as long ago as 2009 Denmark announced that all students would have access to the Internet during national exams.  The reason for this is that exams need to reflect life in society, and the implications of this are that the tests are not on content knowledge, which can be remembered or Googled, but on deeper learning - on application.

Finland is another country that always does well on international tests such as the PISA.  The differences between Finland's education system and the US's, for example, is that in Finland "students are innovative, teachers are respected and fulfilled in their jobs, and learning in schools is effective and student-driven."  And yet Finland has virtually no homework, no testing, no extended school days.  I think the respect teachers have is crucial.  In Finland teachers do not teach to the test, and so are not lambasted as ineffective if students don't "meet the standards".  Maybe we should all learn from this - maybe it's time to "call off the dogs".

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An unconditional offer

I was having a conversation with a colleague yesterday about unconditional university offers and how in my experience of being an IB DP teacher this led to students "slowing down" and getting poorer final grades than they would have got if they had been given an offer to "reach" for.  And this led onto a bigger discussion about how students applying to American universities, whose offers are based on SATS and who are mostly are told to maintain their school grades (and so where the IB exam scores are not an entry requirement) tend to do poorer than those students who are applying to universities in countries like the UK where their place is dependent on getting a particular IB score.  And then this led onto a big picture discussion about IB scores in schools where the majority of students go to American universities when compared to schools where the majority of students do not.  I wanted to do a bit of research on this and so found an article in The Guardian from January this year about UK universities.  Apparently only 2.5% of all UK university offers are unconditional, the rest require a final score, or sometimes are specific about needing certain scores in certain subjects.

As a teacher it's always disheartening to see students "taking their foot off the pedal" when they know their grades don't matter, kicking back and going for the easy life in the crucial months before their exams.  This is especially true in schools where teachers are seen as "good" or "bad" depending on the scores their students achieve in their final exams.  In my case it was also a bit more personal.  The students I taught in my IB Geography class were my son's friends.  As a parent I wanted them to do their best, to get a score that was a reflection of their 12 years of schooling, that was a credit to all the hard work they had put in over the years.  I remember hounding a couple of students that year who were given unconditional offers and who by February of their final year appeared to have stopped working.  When I was applying for my job at ASB, one of these students wrote me an open reference.  In that she wrote that I almost single-handedly saved her grade.  She ended up with a 7 in Geography, the top score.  She's still a friend of mine on Facebook.

An unconditional offer can take the pressure off in the short-term, by giving you security of a university place.  It can also mean that your attitude is "stuff the exams" and that you slack off and don't get the best results you are capable of.  Some schools proudly publish their IB scores on their website; for others, even among the staff who teach there, they remain a secret.  I guess there is no way of getting accurate data on what is simply a hunch, and my own experience in the schools where I have worked in Europe and Asia might not be typical.  What do you think?  Do unconditional offers help or hinder our students?

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Monday, April 25, 2016

The opportunity costs of education

I had to look up the term "opportunity cost" today.  I remember learning it when I did A Level Economics, but many years later it wasn't a term that had stuck.  I guess it was something I'd put in temporary storage until I took my exams, and then promptly dumped out.  The reason I thought about it today was because I read a section in Ted Dintersmith's Most Likely To Succeed, and because I had a conversation with a couple of colleagues about having to push somewhat irrelevant standards into our curriculum.

Dintersmith's chapter on K-12 education contains the following paragraph:
Our choice is stark.  We can continue training kids to be proficient at low-level routine tasks and to memorize content they won't remember on topics they'll never use.  Or we can embrace the reality that much of what school is about today can be "outsourced" to a smartphone, freeing up time for kids to immerse themselves in challenges.
The conversation I was having today was about the necessity of pushing a science standard about stars into the first grade programme of inquiry.  Nowhere in first grade to do we currently do anything about the stars.  Interestingly enough, a couple of weeks ago I was in Goa with my daughter.  It was a clear night and sitting on the beach we could see the constellation Orion right above us.  I knew it was Orion, because when I was a child one of my brothers was very interested in astronomy.  He had a telescope, and I remember we used to lie out on the lawn in the back garden and look at the stars through it.  Any knowledge I have of the stars today comes from that time.  I can recognize a handful of constellations - those that were in the sky over the UK during the part of the year where it's possible to lie on the grass outside (probably summer and early autumn).  I was probably about 11, and he would have been 10.  I never learned about the stars at school, and to be honest today I asked myself how relevant this knowledge might be to a 6 year old, living in Mumbai, who can't see the sky at night in a big city.  The quotation above really struck me.

When I lived in Switzerland I didn't know the names of any mountains.  Yet I had an app on my iPhone called Swiss Peaks which, when I pointed it at a mountain, would tell me its name and information about it.  I thought about whether our first graders really needed to know about the stars, or whether in fact there were apps that they could use - if they were interested - to identify stars and constellations.  In fact I found one called SkyView which is free.  You simply point your iPhone or iPad at the sky and it will identify stars, constellations, satellites and more.  Whereas when we were children, we had a cardboard Star Map that we rotated around to let us know which constellations would be visible in the night sky, now we have an app that will do the same thing - and will also let us identify the International Space Station and Hubble passing overhead.  I thought a little more about the opportunity cost of teaching students about stars, as opposed to simply teaching them how to use an app, and I thought a lot about Dintersmith's quote.  So these, according to Dintersmith, could be the opportunity costs of shoving a load of irrelevant facts and standards at students and assessing them on "one specific answer" to ensure they have mastered the standards.  Here is what they could be missing out on:

  • learning how to learn - he argues this is the simple most important skill that a student can develop
  • learning how to communicate effectively - which includes speaking, making a video, writing a blog and so on
  • learning how to collaborate productively and effectively with others
  • learning how to problem solve creatively
  • learning how to manage failure, cope with setbacks and handle the criticism of others (when there is just one right answer teachers and students are often discouraged from trying anything that might not work)
  • learning how to effect change
  • learning how to make sound decisions
  • learning how to manage projects and achieve goals
  • learning how to build perseverance and determination (attributes that are more important than IQ in determining adult success and well-being)
  • discovering what their passions are and using them to make the world a better place
What do you think is more important?  What are the opportunity costs of your education system?

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