Since it is difficult for us to measure what is truly valuable, do we have to value that which is easier to measure?
We need to be very careful about our priorities when it comes to “high stakes” testing. With national and international pressure to weigh in with a norm-referenced score to prove where our schools fall on the big sliding scale of standardized test scores, it is quite possible that many smart, ethical, passionate educators are forced to place too much value on students’ acquisition of the skills and knowledge bytes that make for successful test-taking. While some of these tools for achievement are important to have and to hone, others are becoming archaic while the ink dries on the new test bubble sheets … and even the most important and relevant items are still really just tools. It is much easier to assess that a mechanic does, indeed, have a wrench in his hand than it is to determine whether or not he can fix your engine properly. We can’t necessarily judge the seaworthiness of a boat based on the fact that it appears to have a rudder and a fog horn, and we wouldn’t recommend a brain surgeon just because she owns a scalpel and can define several neurological terms.
When schools and teachers are publicly judged (and compensated/penalized) based largely on their ability to get students to demonstrate skills and information outside of authentic contexts, we are giving priority to the wrong things. When teachers are busy preparing students for standardized tests, they have little time left over to provide the sort of instruction that fosters necessary 21st Century capabilities.
Recent research on brain development and learning practically insists that we engage students in complex, loosely-defined challenges and activities that require them to struggle through ambiguity, ask questions, and work together to find innovative solutions. Project Based Learning, Service Learning, and Design Thinking all help to support development of synaptic connections for improved learning. This type of instructional practice also fosters important executive functioning skills – the ability to plan, prioritize, delay gratification, predict consequences and outcomes, engage in abstract thinking, and interact in positive, productive ways with others.
It is possible to measure student achievement through authentic assessments. Rubrics, portfolios, and actual performance tasks can all contribute to a system that gauges truly important outcomes like critical thinking and collaborative skills, interpersonal communication, creative innovation, entrepreneurial risk taking, flexibility and adaptability under conditions that fluctuate, and other necessary competencies for success in the fast-changing present and future world. The Authentic Assessment Toolbox offers excellent rationale for authentic, performance based assessment AND practical ideas and strategies for implementing these assessments.
Since there is national interest in revisiting the NCLB rules these days, it might be the perfect time to reconsider what it is we really want for our students, figure out how to measure that, and make sure that classroom time and energy are devoted what is truly important.
Here are some thoughts on the interactions between teachers and students .. Most of us can remember how we felt at some point when a teacher either ignited a fire inside of us or made us feel inept.
Adults in the classroom never have the luxury of being neutral. Everything you say or do is either building a bridge or building a wall. Seems like a lot of pressure, I know – but teachers (by which I mean all adults in a classroom, since the kids are learning from all of the adults) are the most powerful people in the room.
Sometimes teachers can feel powerless when faced with apathy, disrespect, and other assorted expressions of negativity in the classroom – but it is really important to remember that you hold at least 2 types of power at all times: “official power”, because you ultimately have the final say on what happens in the classroom (how rules are enforced, who sits where, who gets to talk, what lessons and activities will happen, etc) and “perceived” power, because most of the students are under the general assumption that you are in charge here (if you don’t believe this – watch their eyes when something goes wrong – they all will look to you to see how you react and to find out if everything will be OK). You can also develop “social” power when the students see you as the person who makes sure that everyone feels respected, safe, and cared about.
All this rambling about power is just a reminder that – even on the toughest day – you have what it takes to make or break a student’s experience at school. They watch your face and your body language, they hear every twinge in your voice, and they look to you to provide an example of how a smart, capable adult handles stress and surprise and joy and etc….
Here are some strategies (habits of heart and mind) to help build bridges:
1. Speak to students as though their parents are in the room with you.
2. Notice something great about an angry disaffected student and bring it to his or her attention in a meaningful way.
3. “Creative Visualization” to help create compassion when you can’t feel it in the moment: Picture a big, angry student as the 3-year-old he once was … picture him “playing school”, watching the school bus go by, and getting excited about someday going to big-kid school. Then picture him in Kindergarten – running open-heartedly into the classroom, only to learn very quickly that he didn’t fit in there (his “walking feet” were “running feet”, for instance, and his “listening ears” didn’t work well; his circles were not round and didn’t sit well on the line).
4. Learn the secret language of the disaffected learner: “This is stupid” means “I don’t understand this”. “I don’t care what you say” means “I still have to figure out if you’re for real or not”. “I can’t do this” means “I feel like I can’t do anything, so why bother trying and looking stupid again?” “No” means “Not until I get some need met”. “You can’t make me!” means “I need to feel in control of something because I feel powerless.”
5. Remember that when students exhibit challenging behaviors, they are usually trying to mask their fear of rejection or of looking / feeling inept.