Thursday, February 25, 2010
I remember when I was a child carrying rocks in a bucket. My friends and I were building a dirt and stone city for our matchbox cars to drive in and I was carrying away some of the rubble from our construction. I was swinging the bucket back and forth and felt that the dirt was pulling away from my hand as I swung the bucket. Fascinated by this, I swung the bucket faster and higher until I could swing the bucket around in circles without any rocks falling out, even when the bucket was upside down and over my head.
As soon as I got home, I showed my dad my great discovery. While my physicist father knew that centrifugal force had been discovered long before I was born, he also knew that in my limited experience, this was a new discovery. All my father did was beam with pride and pleasure that his son had made a discovery and was in awe of the world around him.
Imagine the different experience I would have had if my father had sat me down for a lecture about centrifugal force instead of experiencing my discovery.
Traditional classrooms operate under a broadcast paradigm. The assumed expert (the teacher, book, film, etc…) imparts information that the student-consumer is supposed to absorb. Periodically, the route is reversed and the student must broadcast her information back to the teacher for evaluation. The more the two broadcasts match, the higher the grade.
Unlike Boomers and Gen X'ers, children born into a digital world are not passive consumers of broadcasts. They may still listen to music or watch television, but they spend far more time than any previous generation interacting with the media they consume. They don’t listen to the Top-10 on a radio; they create their own custom play list on their iPod. They don’t channel surf, they surf the Internet.
Classroom 2.0 should focus on interaction and discovery and forgo broadcast. In my social studies class, we are beginning to make this change. Instead of listening to lectures about ancient China, Mesopotamia, Rome, or Egypt, my students interact with primary source documents. They read Suetonius’s description of the water projects undertaken by Emperor Claudius and the Code of Hammurabi. They look at aerial photographs of drainage ditches in Italy and satellite images of ancient levees in Mesopotamia. They do this in order to write an essay that answers the question, “How did the need for water effect the technological, political, economic, and legal development of the world’s first civilizations?”
They struggle mightily with these documents. They ask lots of questions of me and of their teams. I have heard, “I don’t get it” countless times. They have gotten frustrated with me because I wont “just tell [them] the answer.” There have even been a few tears. However, when we hit that moment of discovery; when my students get, really get, that they can see the political and economic cooperation among the city-states of Mesopotamia because the levees are vast and intersect with each other; that moment is indescribable. They don’t need me to tell them that I am proud of them, because they are proud of themselves. They don’t need me to be proud of them, but I am. All I can do is beam with pride and pleasure at my students who have made a discovery and are in awe of the world around them.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Tests are supposed to be a sampling. The idea is this: Because it is impractical to test the whole domain of knowledge and skills that we hope a child will learn this year, we will pick a random sub-set of the domain of all skills and knowledge and test the child on those. If the child does well on the sub-set, then we hope to be able to infer that she would have done roughly as well on learning the whole domain.
One can think about this as sipping the soup. Because it is impractical to eat all of the soup to see if all of it is good, we stir the soup and taste just a spoonful. We infer that the flavor of the spoonful is a good representation for the rest of the soup.
Extending this analogy, a good test is the spoon and the domain of all of the skills and knowledge taught in the class is the soup. When we attach high-stakes to the test; when we teach to the test; when we designate the standards that are tested to be PowerStandards then we are, in effect, spending our time worrying about the spoonful and neglecting the soup.
In Oakland Unified School District, we have an exam that does just that. It is the 10th and 11th grade History Writing Assessment. The district expects that every sophomore and junior learn how to interpret primary source documents and create and argument answering a deep question on a topic in history. The topic is randomly selected from the body of topics that students study. In the summer, teachers organize the document set and write the question. Our idea is that the job students doing analyzing the documents and writing the essay will be representative of the job they would have done on any topic from their class given an appropriate set of documents.
Not only does this assessment pass my spoon test – it really does give us a representative sample by which we can infer the performance of a student about any topic covered in the class – it also is authentic. It is the work that real historians do. Real historians don’t read chapter 5 section 3 of a textbook. Real historians do not take quizzes on Friday nor do they take test at the end of a unit. On the contrary, real historians search for primary sources, they read and interpret them, create an argument, and they write.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
I can't stop wondering what a classroom will look like in 2030. When schools stop thinking about Googling facts and information as cheating, how will technology like smartphones and iPad's be used in classrooms? What will this mean for libraries and textbooks? What will quiz and test questions ask if memorizing facts and information is no longer a valued skill?
I keep thinking about the book Ender's Game. In this novel by Orson Scott Card, the title character is attending a military academy. What is occupying my thoughts right now is the electronic slate on which Ender completes his assignments and plays a strategic, fantasy game. The Ender slate is similar to Apple's new iPad, which has me thinking...