Standardised testing – Who’s at fault? System, teacher or student? Pt 2 Teacher/Student

” And something else that matters more, we’ve taught you how to think!”

Wise words from Miss Bonkers from the pages of “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!”, Dr Seuss'(with help from Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith) tribute to creativity in schools over standardisation. I open with this YouTube reading of this terrific story as I present my stance on the impact Teachers and their students have on the issue of Standardised testing. This is a follow up post to my take on the System’s successes and failures regarding this concern in education.

As teachers, we work our fingers to the bone to teach our children in the most creative and engaging ways possible. We spend hours each week resourcing quality materials, planning great lessons to get the most out of our students. Then state/national standardised testing time comes around and we completely change our teaching style and focus.

From teaching multiple strategies in Mathematics that will enable our students to be independent, ‘mental calculating’ problem solvers, we suddenly shift back to algorithms and arithmetic drills to prepare them for those quick response multiple choice tests that come by once a year. After months of sharing in the joys of literature and expressing creativity through so many media forms, we cram blocks of texts and lists of question and answer practice sessions into 3 weeks of preparation before the big Literacy test. Five months later when the results finally show up, we sit dismayed that all that effort we put in practising for the test led to little or no change in the previous years’ score. What we don’t get is that, despite the old saying, practice doesn’t make perfect.

If all we do is teach our students how to take a test by giving them superficial tips like ” two of the answers don’t make sense so it really just comes down to a couple of choices” ( not realising that we might sense that there are two stupid choices in the multiple choice options but a 9 year old doesn’t), little will be achieved for those who need to improve. If we think pointing out some key words and phrases that will probably come up in the test next week will make a difference when we can’t possibly predict every word that may appear, children will continue to stress and panic, selecting the first response that includes something they are familiar with. Why else would a child select the “Dogs chase cats” option after reading text that mentions animals of different sizes ( including dogs and cats) and the correct answer is obvious to us ” Animals come in different shapes and sizes?” What’s missing here is a lack of logic from the child…..and this is key to the problem we are perpetuating too often as teachers. We are not teaching the students to THINK.

Before a child can read a book, he can THINK about the book’s meaning, events and characters in conversation with their teacher or parents. Before a child understands what + and ÷ means she can THINK about what happens when you put two groups together or share lollies with your friends and families. Before a child can sort out the difference between isosceles and equilateral triangles, she can THINK about how to put blocks together to build a toy house. THINK about how Lego blocks can teach children about arrays and counting patterns. THINK about how we can argue about issues in their lives before a child knows how to construct a persuasive essay with paragraphs for each argument or even spell or write. As schools and Education departments, let’s start THINKING about a THINKING curriculum.

Phonics is important. Word recognition is vital. Being Level 28 by the end of Grade 2 is a must. It’s all pointless, though, if we have achieved all this without emphasising the importance of THINKING along the way. No Thinking equals no comprehension equals failed reading test. Rote counting is needed but not if the counter isn’t THINKING about what he is counting, why he is counting and is actually counting something. Any skill isolated from THINKING is not helping a child grow as a rational, problem solving student.

Dangerously Irrelevant’s Scott MacLeod, referencing a blogpost by Kevin ‘Doc’ Dougherty reflects on the importance of teaching above the test, not to the test. We need to get our students to struggle. Struggle leads to THINKING. THINKING leads to the ability to look at a question in a standardised test and logically work through a process that leads to a correct answer. I’ve been doing lots of focused standardised tests lately, not in preparation for the upcoming NAPLAN tests in May, but to identify student skill levels so we can plan differentiated programs for them. In watching the students, the number of times they are making irrational choices for answers is astounding. They’re not THINKING.

Yes, there is unfamiliar but relevant vocabulary in these tests that we have disregarded in the past. We are addressing that and exposing the students to a more sophisticated and varied language, struggle and all.As observing teachers, we are beginning to recognise that we are not presenting problems in our day to day teaching ( not test preparation ) in the variety of ways problems are presented in these tests. We are teaching down, dumbing down, teaching to the lower end of the scale, call it what you like. If we force feed every step of the process, explain every instruction without letting children struggle to work out what the instructions or questions mean, always present mathematical problems as numbers rather than written or visual problems, we let them down. We fail to teach them to THINK. So we are now making sure our presentation of problems, information and texts in general are varied and challenging.

So while it is an exaggerated work of fiction, lets look to Miss Bonkers and the school in Diffendoofer for guidance. Yes we need standardised testing to check progress and assess learning. Yes we need to see if our students are performing to a standard that is accepted across the country. But we do not have to teach the content of a test or how to take a test. We need to teach them how to THINK.

Wikipedia – what are we afraid of?

WikipediaVia: Open-Site.org

I’m one of the 23% who don’t ban Wikipedia.

I don’t understand the concept of banning an information resource. I get the criticism of Wikipedia. I understand the limitations of Wikipedia. For the life of me, though, I don’t understand banning its use. Why are we in the Educational World so fearful of this Wikipedia thing that 73% of teachers according to this infographic still prevent its use?

We all want our students to be good researchers. Part of this desire, I assume, has led us to develop programs in our classrooms that help to improve our students’ Web Search skills. I mention that because perhaps one of our problems with children and Wikipedia is that 99% of its articles end up on the first page of any Google Search. Are we banning Google Search? No. Well then, instead of banning Wikipedia, let’s look at whether we are educating our students in how to disseminate accurate information from the garbage. Why? – because the other 9 sites sharing the Top 10 Search page are just as likely to be as potentially unreliable as a source of information as the Wikipedia article, sometimes more so. So let’s work out how to support our students in learning good research skills through accessing the tool, instead of avoiding it.

Wikipedia references its sources of information.

Go to any article of useful length on Wikipedia and you will find linked references or quoted text sources. WIkipedia is often a summative recount of all those sources of information. It’s why students go there. It does a lot of the hard work for them. Now, if you want them to do the work, require them to seek out some of those sources and check the accuracy of that information. What is the reliability of the source site? What bias might this source have? What type of website is it? ( you can discuss the merit of .com v .org. v .edu or newspaper articles vs blogs or discussions) If we use textbooks instead of Wikipedia, isn’t this what we would be doing – comparing and cross-referencing for accuracy? Surely it is an easier learning task to check out 10 sources online than trying to flick between 10 different books and random pages within it? Technology isn’t about making it easier so that we don’t have to think. It’s about making it more effective so we do the job more quickly while still learning the same amount or possibly more. If we teach effective use of Wikipedia, this should be the result.

Wikipedia is no more or less biased than any other source of information.

One of the big bugbears with Wikipedia is that it can be contributed to by anyone. This can definitely result in biased, unsubstantiated garbage that needs to be filtered out. Any Obama/Bush/Gillard/Abbott/Lady Gaga/David Beckham/Charlie Sheen (etc, etc) hater can freely post hate speech on a wiki article. Eventually, though, it is found by Wiki editors and removed, but yes, by then it has already spread to the ill informed. But guess what?  This same overheated, one way stream of half truths can be spread by every other form of media from both sides of the political, ideological or religious spectra. We don’t ban our Left wing or Right Wing shock jocks from spouting their diatribes of exaggeration on a daily basis. So why ban Wikipedia? Again, let’s use it along with the extreme views of other media sources to educate our students about fact and opinion, checking out both sides of the debate, fact checking your information. This is of far more educational value than banning a resource that has much to offer, despite its limitations.

Wikipedia is about as accurate as any other resource. Check the stats.

Look at the above infographic. We’re quibbling over 0.94 mistakes per article when comparing Britannica to Wikipedia; 2% accuracy differential when comparing textbooks to Wikipedia. Are those numbers a reason to brand it unreliable and ban it? When any school library would be full of books about the Solar System that still list Pluto as a planet and have atlases without East Timor on the map as a nation? There is no such thing as 100% accuracy. All surveys come with that +/-2% disclaimer. In the 21st Century Curriculum, in which critical thinking is one of the key skills, we should be embracing resources that encourage challenging their reliability and allowing us to edit for accuracy.

Make the students part of the solution, not restricted from the problem

Wikipedia is open source. If we find mistakes, we can fix it. An error in a textbook stays there. A misquote in a news program remains said. If we want to engage our students in truly useful research, then get them involved in editing Wikipedia. Make them check their sources. Get them to be the information creators, not the takers(plagiarisers). That’s real learning. And it’s far more useful than banning.

Throughout history, banning has never worked. Cigarettes and Drugs are still around. Inappropriate websites find ways to be accessed. Hey, Nazis and KKK members are still out there in numbers. Banning the use of Wikipedia is not going to stop us from using it. Just look at the stats above. So let’s get serious in Education and embrace this information provider, using it as a teaching tool for critical thinking. That’s my take. What about you? Does your school ban Wikipedia? Do you agree or disagree? How do you encourage good research in your students? Join in the conversation.