5 Minute University

Saw this on Twitter…. too funny. Things haven’t changed much in the 30-odd years since Father Guido Sarducci blessed us with his wisdom.

Best quote:

It don’t matter how long you can remember anything as long as you can parrot it back for the test

The Straight “A” Leader

Doug Johnson is always a source of excellent blog posts. However, this one about straight-A students is particularly spectacular.

Academia rewards the straight-A student. They are those that get the scholarships, the Latin honors, the Ivy League colleges. I’m not taking away from their achievements – they’ve worked hard.

Johnson asks — are these students learning to question and to be original thinkers? Or are they really good at the establishment of education? (Of course, this is not to downplay anyone’s achievement.) The ultimate question: ”

what happens when our straight-A students become educational leaders – principals, directors, even superintendents?

Are the kids who succeeded at an established structure the ones who can be rethinking how students learn? Can they think outside the box and create an educational system that meets the needs of the 21st century when we’re not creating factory workers?

I can relate. I was one of those straight-A students. I’m not proud of it. I was really good at school – but not sure I was good at all at asking questions. I was good at learning and spitting back on a test. To this day, I bet I could take a standardized test about just about anything and do ok. Learning how to take a test is not a life skill. When I was teaching, the system at which I excelled was the one I wanted to recreate. It wasn’t a good fit for the kids I was teaching. It was a reflection of a different era and didn’t necessarily meet the kids where they were.

It took raising two kids who are not traditional straight-A students to be able to peek outside my box. Why is testing the most valued assessment? Why is the 5-paragraph essay the goal?

Johnson says it best:

Or perhaps we should start giving A’s for something other than good test performance. What a concept.

Theater Major: An Excellent Choice

Interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why Theater Majors are Vital in the Digital Age.

I wholeheartedly agree…  but perhaps for additional reasons.

The author puts for this argument:

Solving a STEM equation is important, but discoveries in the sciences will occur only when people know how to be alone with their thoughts. Who is teaching that?

In acting classes, students grapple with the effects of technology on their brains, bodies, and social selves. Cellphones must be turned off and put away. The goal is to disconnect with technology and to connect with one another and themselves.

….From 2011 to 2014, the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation worked with theater artistsin Chicago through an online survey and a battery of aptitude tests to determine whether there are innate skills shared among theater workers. The aptitude called “foresight,” which is the talent to envision many possible outcomes or possibilities, was present in all theater workers (playwrights, directors, designers, actors). When actors try out various line readings or interpretations of a scene, when they improvise or create backstory, they are using foresight.

But foresight would be impossible without empathy. The actor’s ability to envision multiple outcomes or motivations in a play must be based on the character’s circumstances, not the actor’s. That requires a kind of stepping into another person’s shoes that social scientists say is dwindling among college-age students.

I love these arguments. Theater makes one more away of the human centered skills. Theater is a true cross disciplinary subject, as well. Theater teaches the soft skills that are hard to measure. In this world of STEM focus, these soft skills from theater are also as important.

Theater majors work in English (script analysis), history (theater history), sociology/diversity (theater from different communities), communications (writing and oral skills), business (marketing, sales), project management (schedules, building), art (design). I’d hire a theater major any day!

Homework was a Cold War fad

I love Cold War history. It’s probably my favorite period of American history. Going to Los Alamos was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done – it’s a whacky place.

This article, How Sputnik Created Homework and Hurt American Kids, by Ryan Klein, just makes me love the Cold War even more.

…homework was a Cold War fad. Before then, Americans had always thought of homework as a bad idea because it distracted kids from families and chores. Many schools banned it altogether. But during the Cold War, Americans were desperate to get ahead, and a “we’ll try anything” mentality led to a new idea: Maybe homework does distract kids from good things, but if it makes them smarter—smart enough to beat the Russians—then we’re all for it!

 

Motivation

I have read a number of articles about student motivation. I may have blogged about them once or twice… This post, “5 Questions to Ask Yourself about Your Unmotivated Students” is one of the first to admit it might be the design of the school that is contributing to lack of motivation. I love it!

There’s a very good chance that the technology, the parents, or the entitlement are playing a role in what we perceive to be reduced student motivation. But there’s a very good chance that our instructional decisions play a role as well.

The author outlines a  number of questions to ask (I have paraphrased):

  1. Relationship: what is the teacher’s relationship to the student?
  2. How much choice do students have in their work?
  3. Do you reward with candy?
  4. Do you have a growth or fixed mindset?
  5. How do you make the content relevant to the student?

This is a wonderful set of questions. The author admits things she’s done wrong in the past, but isn’t accusatory about teachers. Just really pushes her fellow teachers to think about their approach.

I watched a highly motivated student turn into one that probably looks like one that couldn’t care less. But guess what – she does care. She cares deeply. But, over the years, she learned that it didn’t matter how much work she did. Traditional school/testing is not how she thinks. She shut down. But, she still cares. A few teachers were able to get good stuff from her — and those were the ones who made things relevant, had an honest and caring relationship, gave students choice.

I bet even the most unmotivated student cares….

History Case Studies

How do you make learning history dull, boring, monotonous and tedious? Teach broad survey classes with lots of multiple choice questions!!!

Sound familiar? Yup – that’s how most of us learned history and how most history courses are taught now, sadly.

Not this class! The article, “A Better Way to Teach History,” by Christine Gross-Loh outlines a college history course modeled on the Harvard Business School pedagogy of teaching through case studies. Professor David Moss gives students the arguments on both sides of a controversy. Students read, discuss, argue and make a decision. Only then does he tell students what actually happened. This method uses critical thinking, primary source analysis, decision making skills and communication skills.

Traditional history teaching values facts over skills, something that has long been debated. I fall strongly on the side of teaching skills over content. Even back in the early 1990s, pre-internet, I taught students that it was the process of finding information and analyzing it that was important. I gave only open book assessments – rarely, if ever, did I give “tests.” Today, it’s even more useless to memorize tons of facts. It’s not possible. It is possible to teach students to find information. Do students need a minimal amount of historical content in order to analyze? Of course. But that can be learned in the process of analyzing and doesn’t require excessive rote memorization.

Multiple choice tests definitely favor facts over process. As the article states, there is little context to facts in a multiple choice test. This article promotes the use of narrative over fact – one I wholly support. Narrative gives context, reason, rational, instead of random, disconnected facts. “…the narrative provides context and a more effective way to learn and remember.”

Love this quote:

The argument I make all the time is, it’s like if I were to ask someone to assemble a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without the box-top picture of it. You could of course eventually put it together but the effort to match shapes and colors on each piece would be monumental, and you’d likely give up quite quickly. Such is what happens to many kids in school

 

Influencing Young Minds

I read other blogs because they make me think. Also because most bloggers are really good writers and they can often put into words what I am thinking but haven’t expressed – or don’t feel I can express because I’m not a teacher. Blogging allows a conversation when it’s not possible to have a real life conversation.

One of my favorite bloggers is a former high school teacher. He has left the world of K12 for the hallowed halls of higher education. I hope his philosophy can benefit many new teachers going into the world. Instead of directly impacting students, he can benefit more students by teaching new teachers to question the current state of education.

Snippets in today’s post were perfect reminders of why he is an excellent teacher – and why the current public school system drove him away.

Standardized tests are silly and do not account for real teaching. I am referring to the complex work of mentoring young people as they grow up in an infinitely complex, unsafe universe. Story is a better way to represent that work than test scores.

Seriously, how wonderfully insightful is this? Truly, does it matter if a student can remember the street some character in a book lived on, what year a battle occurred, or what equation you need to find the area of a parallelogram? Yes – a professor of literature, history or math might need these pieces of information at their fingertips, but not the majority of us. Do we need to be exposed to many types of information, ways of thinking and problem solving? Yes. Do we need to memorize all this stuff. No way.

A more important piece of a teacher’s job seems to be just what Sam says: mentoring people to grow into healthy adults. He was a creative teacher that did not rely on tests, extraordinary amounts of outside work or reciting facts. He asked students to think, apply knowledge to other situations, consolidate information and use their own experience. But he got a ton of flack for it. Personally, I am grateful my kid had a chance to be in his class. I know she got more out of that class — he made her think, he challenged her — than she did from those “advanced” classes that were crammed full of content.

I particularly like this quote:

First, I think teachers should not pretend to be transmitters of ultimate truths. Our truths might not work for somebody else.

Agreed. This respects diversity of thought, of opinion, of belief. Let’s encourage students to develop a belief system of their own instead of forcing them to swallow someone else’s. This does not mean students don’t work with content – it means truly there is too much content in the world to know it all. Learn to work well with smaller amounts so you are better equipped to work with it all.

How can teachers empathize with students and help them adapt to their circumstances with the understanding that realities are diverse, dissimilar, and require nuance to navigate? Throw out the tests. Most tests assume an arbitrary truth and then impose that truth at the expense of questioning.

This statement I find sums up the problem with standardized testing in a nutshell. There is no room for critical thinking or creativity in these tests. There is only room for spitting back material. What do we value more?

Way back a hundred years ago when I was teaching, I told my students (7/8th graders) flat out that I didn’t want them memorizing dates. I never used tests. All assessment was done using projects, often of their own choosing. Projects had to show an understanding of the issues and how it applied. It wasn’t a spitting back of dates. This was in the years before the rise of standardized tests and in an “open” school that left teachers a ton of flexibility. It was awesome….

I hope Sam’s current work in higher education teaching teachers allows him to plant this seed of thought in all these young people going into education. Maybe that’s how we start moving in this direction.