Thursday, January 24, 2008

“How far is the moon from the Earth?”

Today a colleague whom I have come to regard very highly told me a story. They spoke of a friend who, upon interviewing for a position in a District Attorney’s Office, was asked the question, “How far is the moon from the Earth?”

What skill would an aspiring assistant district attorney need to answer this question?

Those of you who know me are well aware of my feelings toward the NYS REGENTS exams. The best argument I have heard defending the test is that its not a test of content but of basic skills.

With this in mind I entertained the idea that I may be wrong. So I now look at the test as on of basic skills. Skills these students will need to be successful.

On the global history exam students were asked to analyze a political cartoon depicting the cultural reform of Peter the Great. Is it more likely for our students to be asked to analyze a political cartoon or to create and edit a video using movie maker? Is the skill of writing a thematic essay more highly regarded in our society or are creations like collaborative web 2.0 or a more valuable asset to have? Should students be able to explain the difference between relative and exact location or should we teach them how to use "Google Earth", or program a "Magellan".

Having a test of skills isn't a bad idea, but our current exam system might be obsolete, giving false hope to those who "do well" and discouraging our future leaders with low standardized test grades.

I overheard a teacher comment, “They make these tests easier and easier, but the kids keep getting dumber and dumber.” Is this true? Or are the skills being tested further and further from those valued by our students and society?

The answer the interviewers for the assistant district attorney’s position were looking for wasn’t, “Gosh I don’t know.” It was, “Can you give me a minute?”, as they pulled out their Blackberry. (which teachers confiscate upon entry into exams).


-eddelson said...

Great piece, Brown. Couldn't agree more.

For example, believe it or not I came up with the idea of a few years back and like many budding entrepreneurs I lacked the skillset, which requires knowing the right people (networking) etc, to ever get it off the ground. Perhaps these are the skills we should be teaching our students. I wonder if I was brought up in a school where in lieu of the Regents exams there was, I don't know maybe I'm "crazy" to even think this, a preparatory for students to master the world of capitalism they will be entering upon graduation. Perhaps I too would have had the necessary talents to execute my ideas and compete in the marketplace if I were placed in such a place. Instead I am stuck with dreams that might never come to fruition simply because I don’t know how to mobilize, create a business plan, yada yada yada. And though I try to steer clear of teaching for the test, and think I am successful at times, I can’t help to notice that monstrosity of an R staring me in the face at the end of the year. So, as many professionals do, we juggle our instruction to also teach how to take such an exam fully cognizant that these methods will NEVER be re-dramatized anywhere beyond senior year. Our hopes we are that we prepare the youth to regurgitate facts laden with dates so that 1 of these kids somehow finds themselves on Jeopardy where they can put them to use. How about the other 99% that happen not to exchange pleasantries with Trebek? How are we sharpening their skillsets for the realities of an ever increasingly competitive capitalist world? Yes students should, should being the operative word, know their humanities and sciences, but lets be real - when students ask "why?" we teachers often respond something like - "because it's good for you." - as if they were forced to finish their vegetables. Yes all this content is healthy for the mind but how good is it for the spirit? Perhaps we should examine a new approach. Distributing content with the aim to simply make money in the world. I know “NUTTY!” Students should master networking, interviewing, fundraising, marketing, designing, presenting, etc. in conjunction with liberal arts and sciences BUT only apply the academics to their ideas in order to help make it a success. What I mean is, students should use what they learned in the classroom to sell and refine their idea(s) in order to make them profitable and attractive. This will give students a clear purpose and demonstrate how all this information, what often would otherwise seem needless, a vital commodity. This will not only satisfy their entrepreneur spirit but will truly show how knowledge is power. I tell my students in the beginning of each year, I can not remember one iota of information from my Regents exams but I do recall extracting facts from school in order to impress others and further an ulterior motive. If that's not a skill, I don't know what is. Should our students alone know how to write essays and solve quadratic equations - no. They should do more. They should be shown how these skills could be applied to the workforce and make good ideas better. That is the world they are entering. An economy that seeks scarcity and we should be molding students who understand how to make themselves stand out amongst the rest. Millions know how to write essays and solve quadratic equations...what separates the puppets from the puppetmasters are those who know how to apply these academic skills to a vision. That’s how you stay out of the cubicle and ride the company limo.

Janine W said...

While Walter and Brian's comments make a world of sense, what puzzles me is the direction in which many high-achieving, high-income school districts are moving. Shouldn't these districts with all their social (and, of course, real) capital be the bellwethers in the movement toward quality educational experiences as described and advocated for so eloquently by Walter and Brian?

A case in point appears in today's NY Times (page 1) which featured an article entitled "Students Click, and a Quiz Becomes a Game." Great Neck South High School has made an investment in high tech "clickers" or audience response systems similar to what contestants use on Jeopardy! (in between "exchanging pleasantries with Trebek" to quote Brian.) In a nutshell, students compete to see who can come up with the "right" answer in the shortest amount of time. The full-color photo depicts students sitting in rows staring at these gadgets with looks of, well, blitheness on their faces. The principal of the prestigious school, who is an amateur puzzle-maker, feels that the 18K investment was worth it because "it's good mental gymnastics."

As another case in point, I did a rather short stint as an administrator in a Westchester district (Scarsdale's lesser known sibling). Smartboards abounded and were used like thousand dollar white boards. Students drove new Explorers and Audis into the lot. Parents poured money into SAT prep classes and negotiated like seasoned attorneys to get their kids into honors and A.P. (You get the picture.) There were, however, a few intrepid teachers who knew not only what good teaching looked like, but what smart, conscientious citizens of the world looked like. One of my friends--the social studies supervisor--was one of these individuals. She taught her A.P. World History through a human rights lens. She galvanized the students into action. They invited a survivor from Rwanda whose entire family had been wiped out by the Hutus to speak to the student body. Her students became organized fundraisers for the Darfur cause and spent hours on issues that they learned to care deeply about. There were no "clickers" or, for that matter, right answers in her class. Unfortunately, she is a very rare commodity there and, quite frankly, I don't know how long she'll last. Most others teach their students in rows, write on the board and do a lot of talking.

Granted, the business-as-usual, daily learning experiences in two high income areas cannot be generalized as the norm. But something tells me it is more the rule than the exception. If this is the case then, are these students learning the skills they will need to compete in a global market place, where team work and problem solving are necessary for their success and maybe even their very survival as professionals? These are students who will go on to Dartmouth, BC, MIT and Notre Dame. Will they be prepared for these institutions? Something tells me most of them will be just fine, one way or another.

Here's where it breaks down for me: I agree wholeheartedly that teaching around authentic, meaningful questions and creating real-world projects that have implications outside the classroom is the right thing to do. But if this is the key to success in college and beyond, then why haven't those with the social capital and the most to lose caught on?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Janine.
And welcome.
It's good to have a new voice on the blog.

I think (as a parent of kids that go to a high school where kids drive Audis and sit in rows) that schools in high income areas operate on an "if it ain't broke don't fix it" m.o. And, yes, these kids will succeed either way because of all the research that points to socioeconomic status as the indicator for academic success. They may not do group work, but they learn how to work in groups on athletic teams or in the orchestra or in some social activities. And what they don’t know about working in groups when they get to Dartmouth, they’ll figure out quickly.

There is a lot of pressure from parents in these districts to do things same old, same old. If we think that Nigel gets calls about a lack of homework assigned or few exams, we can only imagine what it is in rich suburban districts. I used to go to my kids’ elementary school PTA meetings just to defend the principal’s whole language approach when the parents were up in arms that the kids were getting books instead of phonics worksheets. These people don’t care what educational theory says; if it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for their kids. And it is good enough. Because they took their kids (okay, Brown, “we” took our kids) to gymboree when they were three months old and have been reading to them and providing them with museum trips and summer camp and constant exposure to other people that are educated and on and on. So phonics or whole language doesn’t really matter; most of these kids will learn either way.

That said, my kids have both text messaged me during their school days hundreds of times to say how bored they are. Now, I know I can be boring in the classroom, and I’m sure a few kids have text messaged when I wasn’t looking, but…I think there is less boredom when you’re participating in a Socratic Seminar then when you’re sitting in a row listening to a lecture. I think there is less text messaging when you’re pouring your heart out in a memoir than when you’re writing an AP Literature essay.

There is value in a rich education that may not translate into success the way being born into a white, upper-middle class family can. And I think we give our kids a better chance of getting excited by education this way than we would by traditional methods.

Back to what Walter and Brian were saying…yes, we still have a long way to go. And it’s going to take time, and we’ll never catch up to where we should be.


Anonymous said...

And another thing...

as far as the human rights lens and Rwanda and Darfur and all-- that is our job as much as college prep-- to prepare kids to be thoughtful citizens of the world.