Yong Zhao’s Conclusion: U.S. Doesn’t Produce Compliant, Homogenous Employees

Multiple studies and organizations have been saying this for years!  Yong Zhao puts it succinctly in his conclusion to this essay.

The only reason to boost standardized testing is to standardize our kids in preparation for a workforce run by Wall Street, who wishes to pay as little and with as few benefits as possible.  Think that’s a conspiracy theory?  Keep watching.  It’ll start to come out.

Here’s the conclusion that Yong Zhao puts forth.  Our economic future depends on it.  Funny how South Korea realizes it now better than we do.

“So far all international test scores measure the extent to which an education system effectively transmits prescribed content.

In this regard, the U.S. education system is a failure and has been one for a long time.

But the successful transmission of prescribed content contributes little to economies that require creative and entrepreneurial individual talents and in fact can damage the creative and entrepreneurial spirit. Thus high test scores of a nation can come at the cost of entrepreneurial and creative capacity.

While the U.S. has failed to produce homogenous, compliant, and standardized employees, it has preserved a certain level of creativity and entrepreneurship. In other words, while the U.S. is still pursuing an employee-oriented education model, it is much less successful in stifling creativity and suppressing entrepreneurship.”

The Right Answer

Tonight, I had a driven discussion with my daughter about her high school classes (she would replace the word “driven” with “frustrating”).  Her assignment was to take the role of president for a day and give relatively quick solutions to complex issues and problems facing our country today–with some exaggerations.  The discussion started when she asked me about money, the economy, the best educational system in the world, and some other opinions.  She then took out the paper on which the assignment was printed and read off no fewer than 8 very complex issues that she was being asked to solve, more or less, in about 2 hours.

I asked when it was due.

She said tomorrow.

My eyes widened.

Hers rolled.

My daughter is an overachiever–big time!  Her understanding of the assignment was to research as much as possible about each of those issues and what has been done so far to tackle them, and then write a well-studied and correct paper.  In other words, she was looking for the right answer.  I told her that I don’t think that was what her teacher had in mind.  If he gave one night to complete this assignment, then I was sure he was asking for ideas based on background knowledge, not a full analysis, followed by drafts of legislation.  My daughter, being a teenager, argued with me for a little while (about 45 minutes), and then came to agree with me.

Her problem? She doesn’t “work that way.”

I know she doesn’t.  Neither have many of the students I’ve taught over the years.  Why? Because they are trained to either know or find the right answer.  This is a little frustrating for me, because in the 21st century world, there often isn’t a right answer.

I muttered that she wouldn’t have this problem if high schools ran under my rules.  She had to ask, so I told her.

The culture of standardized testing requires correct answers.  In mathematics, that’s fine (although there is always room for creativity there, too), but in every other core subject, training students to seek “correct answers” is not only boring and stifling to student creativity, it’s also dangerous.

Every time Arne Duncan touts his Race to the Top grants as a way to boost innovation, I feel a little nauseated.  There is no way that prepping students for standardized tests, pigeonholing students by ability, and focusing on the Common Core at the expense of arts, humanities, and sports is boosting innovation.  Duncan’s program is crushing that innovation under the weight of one-size-fits-all curriculum and single-minded progress metrics.

If her high school courses ran the way I would want to see, the assignment would start with a complex question which had a complex answer.  No, several complex answers.  That’s the way the world works.  You can’t ask high school students to solve the healthcare issues in this country by finding the right answer, but most of them will try to and will want to know if they did find it.  Those several complex answers would be the basis for discussion and debate.  Then, further research.  Then, more discussion and debate.  Then, a final proposal and presentation…and maybe even a blog post, which is way more telling than a stupid multiple-choice test!

I strongly believe that one of the reasons that high school students either drop out or aren’t “career and college ready” is because they are so worried about finding the right answers.  And when they don’t get the right answer after a certain number of tries?  Screw it; I quit.

I also strongly believe that standardized testing and the culture of being right all the time (the American way!) needs to change if we plan to stay competitive in this global knowledge economy.  There’s too much information, there are too many potentially “right” answers.  We don’t need to learn how to find the right answer; we need to learn how to find new answers, ways to communicate civilly about them, and how to evaluate their efficacy.

In other words, we need to be more flexible and analytical.  Do you “work that way?”

Clean Slate: Before

To get into the mood for back-to-school time, I thought I’d share what I saw walking into my new classroom for the first time.  Everyone loves a clean slate, even if it is a lot of work.  These will be the “before” photos, which I will supplement with “after” photos when I’m finished making it what I want it to be.  Of course, I will continuously post new photos throughout the year, since a dynamic learning environment never stays the same.

Here’s the view from the back of the room:

 

And the view from the front door, walking in:

 

The furniture and the technology are brand new.  This is a 1:1 district, also, so this is going to be an awesome year full of learning (for me), success, and achievement!  I can’t wait!

Notice that there is plenty of room to cut a large, rectangular opening in the ceiling from which I can lower the metal slab after lightning has reanimated my monster! It will be ALIVE!  Because you can’t have a functioning science lab without that. (My dad’s idea.)

No Objectives; No Standards

I’ve been taking a lot of brain trips through lesson planning and trying to visualize what certain things might look like before I start jumping into them next year.  As a simple example, how do I want to introduce myself to my students?  How do I want them to introduce each other?  Just running through the logistics in my head.  You all do that, too, right?

Here’s a tougher example–one that I’ve really been wrestling with this summer.  Follow standards, or follow competencies?  Guide students with objectives, or let them reach their own goals?  It’s so tough because I’ve heard lots of brave teachers and principals discussing project-based learning and authentic assessment, which are (at best) loosely aligned to state standards and are never planned around a specific and thoroughly thought-out objective.  And it hurts a little to deviate from the way that I was brainwa– er, trained to teach.

My best evaluations from administrators came when I had the day’s objective conspicuously posted somewhere in the room and I continuously referred to it throughout the lesson.  I even had a little strip with each standard written on it, so I could post the standards we were learning that day, and they fit right next to the objective.  I would give little informal quizzes at the end of the period to help me gauge mastery and the need for further learning of that objective.  It was all very classic, very textbook, and administration just loved it.

There was one person in the room who didn’t like the way it felt–me!  Sure, the accolades were nice and the pats on the back were reassuring, but my reflections made me feel like I had missed an opportunity.  There are so many times I have cut off a curious child who wanted to dig a little deeper into something; and there are many times when I really wanted to go in that direction.  But then I would look at the objective posted on my wall, which would remind me that we had to get on task.  We had an objective to accomplish!  So I became, at that moment, a cog in the wheel that Line Dalile described in her recent blog post, where she suggests that schools are actively killing curiosity in kids, right?

Now, I look back and I wish I had given all of my students the opportunity to go in a new direction.  I’ve had so many of those moments come up, where I wanted the students to think about something individually, talk about it as a group, and see where it all ends up.  No coaching, just a little bit of guidance to stay in the general field of the discussion.  But then I was stopped and reined back in by the objective on the wall.

Tell me some stories–both supporting and negating the idea of throwing objectives and standards in a desk drawer and letting the students’ competencies and curiosities take over.  Can’t we make the objectives much less specific and see how many different answers come from the same question?  Is there solid research here?  Let’s talk.

Statistics For All!

As a good introduction to this post, watch the following three-minute snippet from TED, featuring Arthur Benjamin.

In that short clip, Dr. Benjamin (yes, he really is a Ph.D., I looked it up this time) suggests that we wouldn’t be in the economic mess we’re in now if more American adults had a basic understanding of statistics.  Then, this article came out recently asking if algebra is necessary, which struck a nerve with many, many people from all walks of life.  One commenter on the article stated something (in an angrier tone than I will) that I agreed with: how can students appreciate statistics without a basic understanding of algebra?  And then, I’ll add a word: linear.

What this is really about is the lack of differentiation we offer to students.  Math is a notoriously cookie-cutter subject, with teachers, parents, and politicians chanting that all students must have calculus by their senior year in high school.  My question is: Why?

To back up a bit, let’s look at a little bit of general history. Keep in mind, the public education system has historically educated our people to the extent of the technological needs. For example, in the agrarian societies of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was only necessary to learn the basic arithmetic that would help a farmer geometrically plan and maintain crops, be able to deduce and predict output from what he planted or grew, and be able to calculate in terms of decimals and money. In other words, the mathematical needs for the average 18th and 19th century citizen were, at most, roughly equivalent to the middle-level math we teach today.

As the Industrial Revolution began transforming our country (and the world), there was an obvious need for a more mathematical society. With the growing technological needs of the nation, the education system found a need to educate its citizens up to a (current) high school level. Engineering and manufacturing proficiencies became the new standards by which to match math education. Therefore, the studies of motion and forces—and therefore algebra and eventually calculus—became the pedagogical goal of the public school systems.

Calculus!

CALCULUS!!

The Cold War boosted this need even further, as America strived to maintain competitiveness within an increasingly technological and scientific rival. It was calculus that got us to the Moon, the planets, and beyond (and created methods for launching fiery death around the globe). Thank goodness for calculus!

But it wasn’t for everyone. Not everyone had a hand in the travels among the stars or the planned annihilation of enemies, and those who didn’t still typically only achieved a 9th or 10th grade math education. In order to be part of an economy based on financial growth for the middle class, the skills needed were vastly differentiated, but they didn’t include calculus for much of the population. Those who did use algebra and calculus became proficient in using prescribed algorithms to reach a desired solution to a problem (or creating new ones for Wall Street hedge funds companies).

Which brings us to the present. We no longer live in a manufacturing or industrial world—to clarify, most citizens will not be working in the manufacturing or industry sectors. Calculus is still widely used in the scientific, engineering, and financial sectors. But most citizens in the 21st century now live in what the researchers call a “knowledge economy,” where a citizen’s worth is based on what that citizen can understand, analyze, predict, and conclude about a problem—and then solve that problem. This set of skills is becoming increasingly reliant on the tools and processes that citizens should learn in their K-12 and postsecondary education.  Included in that skill set, as Dr. Benjamin asserts, is the ability to think digitally.

The digital world runs on data.  Data is analyzed using probability and statistics.  Every citizen should know how this works and, vastly more important, how to make sense of it.  So the culminating event in a typical high school senior’s mathematical career should not be calculus; it should be a deep understanding of statistics.  If a student is on track to enter a STEM field requiring calculus, then by all means, offer that student high school AP courses in calculus.  For the rest of us, it’s essential that we not waste time (or students) on trying to force something that cannot be and should not be forced.

However, I also believe that basic linear algebra is essential.  Understanding how data behaves against a line of regression and calculating changes in that data is important.  If we teach Algebra I (or its equivalent) by 9th grade, then there is no reason our 21st century goals can’t be met.

Teachers Are Unsupported Consumers of Technology Learning

The following is a response to Dr. Tom Whitby’s recent blog post, “Teachers Are Poor Consumers of Learning.”  I enjoyed the post and, at first, totally agreed.  Then, I slept on it.  Check out Dr. Whitby’s blog here!

A while ago, I wrote a piece about the utility of the SMART Board in classrooms and, more specifically, the fact that teachers were given shiny new toys, told to use them, and left with no training or explanation.  The public relations effort seemed to trump any professional development priorities that may have existed.  Perhaps there was no money left to pay for training.  Perhaps there was no desire.  Hopefully, the reason for the absence of PD wasn’t lack of knowledge among district staff, although I have seen that too.

Either way, many teachers were left to their own devices when it came to using interactive whiteboards effectively.  Some were up to the challenge and developed amazing things.  Some were equal to the task, but got stuck along the way.  Many still use the high-tech board as a low-tech board (Post-Its, anyone?).  And a few have chosen to ignore that they have those boards in their classrooms at all.

Learning how to use technology is not that difficult, and is often really fun.  As blogger Tom Whitby points out, there really is no excuse for teachers to put off learning how to use technology when we all know that it makes huge differences in student engagement, performance assessment, project-based learning, connecting globally–the list goes on and on.  I’ve also (in agreement with Dr. Whitby) advocated that teachers be the learners that they want their students to be.  We should be learning.  All the time.

However, I have issues with some of the ideas in Dr. Whitby’s article for a variety of reasons.  In italics, you will find statements from Dr. Whitby’s post.  Underneath will be my rebuttal.  I have great respect for Dr. Whitby, although he doesn’t know me from Adam, so I hope that my rebuttals show him that due respect and professionalism.

“The problem is that the customer more often than not cannot articulate what the real objection is.”

Teachers don’t generally have this problem, especially if everything else is in place.  If a teacher is well-trained in instructional practices and can comfortably consider himself a specialist of learning and content, then that teacher will be able to articulate what their objections are.  I, too, have heard the “I have no time” excuse.  But one objection I hear even more often is, “I’m not quite sure how to integrate this into my practice.”  This is an important difference.

While being too busy is understandable, it may not be valid if the priority of tech integration is obvious. Being untrained or unsure how to use technology as an instructional aid, however, is valid.  From the stories that I’ve heard and the people I’ve talked to, this is a serious problem and the blame is not on the teacher.  Districts have long had a habit of showing the public that technology is here.  Make it visible.  What the public doesn’t usually see is the teacher who is left to his own devices when integrating it.

“…all along the reason for the objection is that they don’t understand how to use the product. The product is too complicated and they fear that they will fail at learning how to use it effectively, as well as looking foolish for all to see.”

I think that Dr. Whitby and I agree here.  When the teacher evaluations look for technology use, as well as effective teaching practices, and student achievement, this is scary.  I have had teachers come to me in near panic, asking me to show them how to run a lesson on an IWB, a document camera, Prezi–anything–that will help them look accomplished in the eyes of an administrator.  I don’t think of these teachers as those who should’ve been using their time to learn these things, mostly because they have!  They’ve tried to learn it, and may have even mastered the platform, they just don’t know how to launch it.  There are no models, there is no training, there is no systematic professional development.  Teachers do fear the idea of looking foolish and failing.

And when they do fail, Dr. Whitby suggests that they do what other tech customers do: they set the tech aside and ignore it.  The difference, of course, is that private consumers have access to tech support when they need it.  Do all teachers have this?

“As educators, do we throw up our hands and say that this is all too much, and there is not enough time for our students to learn all of the stuff that is out there? I think not!”

Again, Dr. Whitby and I agree one-hundred percent!  Of course we don’t behave this way.  However, students have an important asset that most educators don’t: teachers.  They have teachers who model the skills they need to learn, who mentor them, who offer advice, who track progress, who train them in the use of tools and resources necessary for their success.  This is a luxury for teachers–one which most don’t have.  There are still too few school districts who have mentorships for even their new teachers, much less teachers who are exposed to new technology.

I maintain that every time a new piece of educational technology is put into classrooms, there should be a team of mentors responsible (and accountable) for making sure that all teachers are accomplished in using that technology.  I’ve seen building technology committees put together for this purpose, with very limited success.  Perhaps this is because asking already busy teachers to account for the development of several other teachers is unrealistic.  The district (or building) needs to find effective, sustainable ways to make this work.

“Why don’t educators learn from their own teaching? Break things down into small bites of information.”

I think most of us do.  I also think that this is only the beginning.  There is a wealth of information out there about how to use technology.  There is relatively little (but increasingly more) information about using technology in our own classrooms.  And, as I pointed out above, the availability of ongoing training is almost non-existent.  I don’t think that breaking things into smaller bites is the real issue, or the overall fix.  I think this problem will endure until teachers feel supported and trained.

“As a teacher’s knowledge of technology increases, so do the skills of learning more, as well as the ability to teach more.”

Exactly!  Which is why the training, development, and mentoring I described is such an important, long-term investment that promises great returns.  Once teachers have become comfortable with the basics of the technology (platforms, devices, apps) and the basics of educational integration (research, collaboration, global communication, etc.), they will become the independent researchers and learners that Dr. Whitby describes.

Dr. Whitby is asking teachers to learn from their own teaching, which will lead them to success.  I agree, but for a different reason.  We teach our students to learn from each other and to collaborate with the assistance of a facilitator (their teacher).  Teachers must be supported and aided along the way, too.  This new century is about sharing and collaborating–isn’t that what we tell our students?

Can You Teach Anything?

I remember working through my third year of teaching school at New Mexico Highlands University when I encountered a philosophy, which haunts me to this day.  After running a lesson for a middle school math class, with my supervisor and the regular teacher observing, I had a short feedback conference with both.  After our short conversation, the regular math teacher offered her background.  Out of nowhere.

She explained that she was actually qualified in science and computers, but taught math because this class–the one I had just taught–was an extra class that no one else wanted.  She said that even though she wasn’t qualified in math, she strongly believed that “any good teacher can teach any subject, even one that you know nothing about.”

“So you can teach advanced photonics, too?”

A little shaken up, I went to class that evening (I don’t remember which one) and asked my instructor about this.  She said, “Sure, you can teach anything with a textbook, worksheets, some videos…you know what I mean?”  I guessed I did.  It still smelled funny to me, though.  For instance, I hate Shakespeare.  I really do.  I’ve never made it through reading any of his work without falling asleep, and I find it all dreadfully outdated and totally unnecessary*.  Yet, according to the logic put forth that day, I could totally teach a whole semester of Shakespeare!  All I would I need are a bunch of Shakespeare books and to borrow some worksheets and tests from teachers who actually like that stuff.

Right?

*Maybe he just needs a little bit of modern flair.

So, anyway, I didn’t buy it.  And as I’ve gone through the school years teaching and learning, I’ve decided that there is a balance that must be met to be successful at making your students successful.  I’m assuming that by “good teacher,” my colleagues actually meant that if you are a “learning specialist,” you can get kids to learn just about anything.  I’m also assuming that they were trying to say that being a “content specialist” is mostly meaningless.  Needless to say, I disagree with what they said.

A couple of years ago, I was chosen from a candidate pool of middle school math teachers that was 83 people strong.  I was the only one chosen for the position because of one thing (and I quote my principal): I “showed great passion for making math accessible and fun and achievable.”  I think you have to be both a learning specialist and a content specialist to be able to accomplish fun, accessible, and achievable lessons.

My interview attire

To be a learning specialist, you have to have more than the materials necessary to learn–you have to understand how your students learn.  If my colleagues believe (and practice) what they said, then they were, by no means, learning specialists.  Middle school students are social animals.  Most of them (but not all) hate sitting alone and learning stuff from an adult (or textbook, worksheet, or video).  Give them the choice to learn from each other, and almost all of them will pick that over loner-learning any day of the week–and it will work, too!  They will learn, and most of the time, they’ll be happy about it!  Textbooks, worksheets, videos, and individual practice don’t work for these kids.  They want to collaborate and they want to do it all the time.

It’s important to be a content specialist, too.  Without the deep knowledge of the subject, how can you possibly tell when your students are reaching their achievement goals?  How can you possibly tell when they’re learning?  Besides, sometimes, it’s just fun to show off how smart you are in front of them.  It’s fun for me and mind-boggling for them.  There’s nothing wrong with showing off once in a while.  I do it to show them that the really hard and confusing stuff is fun for me, and more often than you’d think, they tell me later that they can’t wait to be able to do that stuff.

No, a “good teacher” can’t teach any subject.  In my individually-formed definition, a good teacher is a true learning specialist, who knows how his students learn and use new information, as well as a content specialist, who has deep knowledge and love for the subject.

I’ll never teach a Shakespeare course, because I’m not a content specialist.  Personally, I’d rather undergo an appendectomy a day.  The important thing is to recognize that I could never teach Shakespeare, not because of the pain it would cause me, but because of the pain it would cause my students.

“Friends, countrymen, etc., etc., lend me your ears, for parting is such sweet sorrow. Was that the bell?”

I sincerely hope that the colleges and universities around this nation aren’t spreading this terrible idea anymore.  For the sake of the kids.

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