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Posts Tagged ‘reform’

What keeps me up at night.

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009
This misses the point entirely.

This misses the point entirely.

Assessment is the part of my job that I enjoy the least.

By a wide margin.

I’ve taught math in the past. Presently, I teach I.T. and History. All three are completely different animals when it comes to assessment, and each poses a unique set of problems that manages to keep me awake at night.

You can be ruthlessly objective when grading a math test or homework assignment: the requirements are clear, and there is (generally) only one right answer. Your numeric grade in math represents the extent to which you measure up to perfection. Plain and simple. Cold and calculating. Not particularly friendly. 1

Try throwing around a word like ‘perfection’ in a history class and you lose your credibility in an instant. In a course designed to teach students that there ultimately IS no ‘right answer’, you can’t take the mathematical approach. So how do you assess? What does that magic number represent? The extent to which you demonstrate reasoning and critical thinking skills? Well, yes. But good luck determining that objectively.

Take a moment and give your own reasoning skills a grade from 0 to 100.

… See what I mean?

What does assessment mean when it comes to  I.T.? The canned answer is “problem solving skills, naturally.” But are problem solving skills any easier to assess than reasoning skills, or critical thinking skills?

Skills are at the heart of assessment, but most assessment instruments do a poor job assessing skills. Unless you intend to measure content retention as a ’skill’, there’s really no point in giving closed-book, timed history tests. The same goes for math tests that don’t ask you to show your work. And the idea of a written I.T. exam is just laughable.

If you want to measure reasoning skills, assess the questions your students ask. If you want to measure critical thinking skills, give your students the tools and watch what they do with them. If you want to measure problem solving skills, pose a real problem, step back and watch. It’s fun.

Now, give your problem solving skills a mark out of 100.

Annoyed yet?

  1. I’m aware this is a contentious statement. In reality things are much more complicated, and good math teachers do what they can to employ alternative assessments. Collaborative work, portfolios, and independent study projects are great tools to this end. But how often do you see them stand in place of quizzes and tests?

Classrooms in the Future

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

It’s no secret – I don’t write enough on my own. Someday I’ll overcome my perfectionism and take a more relaxed, casual attitude towards writing. Hopefully soon.

For now, here’s something I wrote for my technology methods class, in response to the following discussion question:

Technology has had a tremendous impact on the educational environment in recent years. It has changed the way that teachers teach and students learn. What will a classroom look like ten years from now? What about 50 years from now?    

*     *     *   

We are moving towards a society that values information and innovation over specific skills. I believe that as we move into this future, our focus in the classroom will shift from content to process. What I mean by this is, the content we teach will gradually matter less than the process whereby students learn (reflexively).

    We are at the brink of an age of unimaginable scientific and cultural self-realization. The keys to unlocking this age are innovation, creativity and forward-thinking. If we force our future students to learn at a pace slower than that of technological advancement, we will never unlock this future.

    I will be disappointed if, in fifty years, students are still learning mathematical computation skills like long division in math class, or learning orthography and grammar in language arts. I will be disappointed, because it is unnecessary. We have moved to a point in history where we can trust technology to do the grunt work, and focus on higher-order concepts at an earlier stage in our development. If every cohort of students has to re-invent the wheel (learn long division, worry about grammar and spelling), future generations will be doomed to stagnation.

    In ten years, I would hope that 3rd or 4th grade students are learning algebra and computer programming in their classrooms. With the help of technology, these students will be able to make connections that would take years to make otherwise. I would hope that, in the future, high school students learn what today’s students learn in university. Imagine what higher education could yeild if students - going in - already knew first or second-year chemistry, biology and applied sciences.

    In another half-century, I hope that the keyboard and mouse are abandoned as anachronistic. I hope great strides are taken to facilitate written communication in English (or whatever language becomes the lingua franca of the future). I want to see technology facilitate the arduous process of articulating, communicating and translating a great idea across the world.

    I am convinced, as my colleagues are, that the classroom of the future will not change in the most fundamental way. It will still be an environment that provides students with the tools of discovery and innovation. And like most future-minded thinkers, I care less about the content than the process. What the classroom of the future will look like is of secondary importance to how it will function.

    If we want to solve the world’s problems, we can’t afford to spend a quarter of our lives learning to do what a machine can do faster and better. We need to stand on the shoulders of giants, and trust them to help us reach those heretofore unattainable heights.

Reflections from a forum on post-secondary education

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

I went to a forum on post-secondary education this evening, hosted by the King’s Day Students’ Society on my campus. The guests were Darrell Dexter, Francis Mackenzie and Jamie Muir. The structure was as such: each official gave a five-minute opening remark, followed by two minutes rebuttal, followed by 90 minutes of questions from the floor (mainly King’s students). I was somewhat disappointed that Dexter didn’t manage to engage the crowd, though it was ironically amusing that the Liberal premier – forbidden from speaking about his party’s platform – came across as the best speaker. 

Anyway, what I found particularly interesting about the evening was the question period that followed the half-hour of embarrassing squabbling between the Tory Minister of Education and the NDP’s premier. The themes ranged from hypothetical and historical tuition freezes to the feasibility of their outright abolition; from federal and provincial government funding models for universities, to known issues of deficiency in social welfare and student loan models; even to such trivial issues as taxation on textbooks and sources of funding for infrastructure maintenance. Though I learned quite a bit from the questions and answers themselves, what I found most startling was what wasn’t asked. 

It seemed that both the students and the officials had an unspoken understanding of the postsecondary institution funding model as a strictly-government enterprise: universities get funding from the province, the provinces get equalization grants from Ottawa, etc. However, the federal government and provinces also run the student loan programs, and they do so with public money only. If I had the time to stand in line by a microphone, I wish I had the chance to ask this in front of a room full of students that really didn’t seem to realize that nothing should be taken for granted: 

“When I graduate this year, I will have spent in excess of $35,000 on tuition and books alone. Though I’m lucky that not all of it was borrowed funding, I will have amassed a considerable debt. Now, from my perspective, it’s obvious that this debt will be paid off by the money I make from my employer. What doesn’t make sense to me is, if we’re such a socialist democracy, and if we openly admit that our educational policies are made based on the notion of education as training for work, why don’t government officials make the link between private enterprise and student funding? If private enterprise is the institution that benefits the most from our education, why don’t we see more investment in students on their part? It seems to me that the most logical, practical step to take would be to have the funding for student loans come from a pot to which private enterprise is forced to contribute as a gesture of faith in its investment. I invite the three officials at the podium to tell me how this proposal is flawed, and defend the sanctity of big business in the face of the painfully-clear relationships between enterprise and education that I’ve just underscored.” 

Of course, it wouldn’t have come out so articulate. Shame.

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