One Size Fits None- Why Educational Standardization Doesn’t Fit and What We Should Do About It

Little Business WomanTrends, by definition, come and go.  While the world of fashion revolves around this premise, the world of education needs a different foundation.  For the last several decades, the valid push for accountability in schools has led to an unintentional disaster regarding student learning outcomes.  Beginning in the 1990s, some very smart people with very good intentions made two very big mistakes.  These mistakes, in the educational realm,  rank about where polyester, leg warmers, and shoulder pads do in the fashion industry, but with obviously more serious fallout.  What were these mistakes?  Mistake number one: thinking a standardized test can measure anything meaningful; and, mistake number two: implementing a lower level, standardized curriculum to solve poor results from mistake number one.

Since their inception, standardized tests have not improved learning outcomes.  Award winning educational reporter, Peg Tyre,  has researched the the testing trend, noting, 

“In addition to the amount of time given over to tests, schools were dumbing down what was taught so more kids would pass. As structured, standardized tests don’t include questions that demand complex analysis, synthesis, or higher order thinking. Instead, the questions are pulled from the bottom third of the curriculum.  http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/06/25/standardized-testing-culture-america-how-did-we-get-here.

Since standardized tests aren’t the accountability answer, how else can we measure whether our schools are effective? In order to shift our focus, we need to revisit basic questions about education and its purpose.

Most cultures create educational systems to prepare youth for adult lives.  The assumptions therein imply that there are certain things every adult in a society should know, and this remains true.  What is unclear, however, in our more complex world, is exactly what our children’s adult lives will look like.

 Across the globe and across time, it is undisputed that our children must understand what they read, express thoughts in written and artistic forms, calculate, produce solutions, create, and collaborate.  What remains disputed are the specifics regarding what they should read, write, express, calculate, produce and create.  Attempts to standardize this process are ludicrous. Measuring  mastery of complex skills is best done by demonstration and cannot be done at all in en mass.

Therefore, if we agree that accountability is important, and we also agree that meaningful large-scale standardized assessment isn’t possible, what are we left with?

The call to action is threefold:

  1. Rethink basic assumptions. Accountability = Good.  Standardized testing as the primary tool = Bad.
  2. Re-imagine accountability.  Let’s ask ourselves who and how.  Regarding Who: Since most standardized testing was created for political purposes as a data source, let’s examine this practice as related to it’s origin.  Who should be evaluating the effectiveness of our schools? National Politicians? Local politicians? Educators? Employers? Parents? Students? All or some of the Above? Regarding How: If standardized tests can’t keep us accountable, what can? In the pre-testing era, accountability measures seemed to be tied to real-world indicators such as employment rates, graduation rates, industry success etc.  An alignment between what our society needs and what our kids produce seems more important than disconnected data.
  3. Reinvent assessment. Learning demonstrations are far more accurate measures than grades or test scores.  With the tools available to us today, we can actually record evidence of whether a child can read, express herself, calculate, collaborate, solve problems and create.  If the assessment issue revolves around seeking to create a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mass data driven assessment tool, isn’t it time to realize we are barking up the wrong tree? Learning outcomes are as individual as our learners.  Thought leaders in education have long since seen this as an essential shift for 21st Century schools.  One such leader, Pat Bassett, former President of NAIS, stated in 2009,  “It makes one wonder if all the emphasis on standardized testing shouldn’t be moderated significantly with much more emphasis on demonstrations of learning, tangible “output” that can be collected and in each student’s lifelong digital portfolio. It also makes one wonder what assessments for the 21st century might look like in general.” – See more at: http://www.nais.org/Magazines-Newsletters/ISMagazine/Pages/Demonstrations-of-Learning-for-21st-Century-Schools.aspx#sthash.HVBBWwff.dpuf

As we bravely look toward educational transformation, we need to be prepared to let go of practices that do not serve the end to which they were created.  After all, we were willing to let go of shoulder pads and leisure suits in the name of better fashion- why would we force our children to endure the perpetual educational equivalent of  polyester?  Let’s place those tests in a glass museum, right next to John Travolta’s famous white suit.  

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Key Strategies Learned as an Educational Pioneer-

Scottsbluff NebraskaBeing first isn’t always synonymous with winning, but being brave enough to follow a dream is an incredibly valuable experience.  My family founded a school in south Florida in 1997.  The most powerful lessons I’ve learned from this endeavor are worth sharing with you.  If you are an educator,  and if you are reading this, you are most likely doing something interesting at your school.

We founded our school at a time when the internet was a brand new word.  Our founding vision centered on creating a personalized educational experience for students utilizing the power of these amazing new tools and portals.  We did our homework, built our buildings, bought our computers, planned our infrastructure, designed our networks, hired our teachers, installed our video conferencing equipment, and opened our doors to 130 children.

We became a culture of builders- trying new things, implementing what worked and letting go of what didn’t.  We made mistakes, but the surprising success of it all was the connectivity of our pioneering culture.  Pioneers are trailblazers, a group of brave souls with a unique set of attributes that make the impossible possible.  They are visionaries, doers and dreamers. Speaking from the perspective of an early settler who headed west toward the ed tech horizon, these three strategies should help those of you packing your wagons right now:

  1. Invest in humans.  The only thing certain is change.  Your heaviest investments should not be in equipment, but in humans that make great use of any tools they have. All planning should center on training and outfitting your teaching staff.
  2. Accept failure as being a step closer to success.  Trial and error is the only way anything gets done.  Be patient, and embrace the sentence, ‘What can we learn from this?
  3. Remember that you are planting trees. As the adage goes, ‘ a society grows great when old men plant trees under whose shade they know they will never sit.‘.  Your gift to the world may not be the perfect educational institution, but it will most certainly be in the joy of trying to do so.

You may be familiar with the the notion that ‘you can always spot a pioneer as the one with arrows in his back lying face down in the dirt’, but our experience has been otherwise.  Today, our school is happily growing into itself, our dreams keep moving us forward, and we are forever bound by our collective efforts to build the future.  One act, one thought, one student at a time. Be brave and go west- just watch out for a few arrows.  Not many, I promise.

Carpe Diem: What is Happening at Grandview Prep Blog

 

Making Space- A Universal Educational Truth

Little girl making chestnuts creaturesThis week I had my own face to face encounter with a universal truth.  Universal truths, by and large, are everywhere, often cited and recited, but rarely actually experienced.  The truth I met this week came packaged in its usual disguise, my Twitter feed.  I have come to view this feed as the metaphoric river in Siddhartha, the constantly changing, yet timeless flow of all that is.  

Each droplet in my feed appeared, at first blush, as the infinite source of wisdom.  I could not possibly let this link flow by without reading it, in its entirety, right now.  But wait, the next one looked to be even more enlightening, no, wait, the next one… this process continued until I realized that my summertime quest for learning could not be satiated.  Certainty,  in this ever flowing stream, could not exist: certainty comes from within.

Before giving in completely to my anxieties regarding best practices for maker spaces, I took a deep breath and summoned my inner zen, thinking about Herman Hesse’s words, “One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it”.  The universal truth I met on Monday in my twitter feed is simply that knowledge cannot be poured into a full cup.  Space must be made to experience truths from where one stands.  It is not possible to chase a thought downstream and expect it to be meaningful.  Meaning regarding all knowledge comes from personal perspective.  

Making space in my mind and in my school for the right ‘maker space’ elements will be a process. There is no ‘one way fits all’ approach.  The nuggets flowing by in my twitter stream will find their way where they belong.  Some bits of wisdom will be helpful today, others helpful tomorrow.  The learning journey connects us, literally and metaphorically, through the quest itself.  Enlightenment isn’t a nugget in the flowing stream, it is a process of perspective.  It is not what we see but how we see that counts. 

 

Beyond the Moon in Education: ‘…not because it is easy, but because it is hard’

Man looks into the telescopeIt has been nearly 45 years since we first landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.  Say what you want about the 1960’s, but the one thing the decade most certainly got right was its ability to encourage children to dream big. Somewhere between JFK’s 1961 inspirational speech about choosing to “go to the moon” and this moment, we have reversed the messaging we send to our children. Instead of telling our students,  “if you can dream it you can do it”, we caution them to be realistic and do their best to “keep up”  with the children in India and China.

As Sir Ken Robinson wisely notes in his book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, “Current systems of education were not designed to meet the challenges we now face.  They were developed to meet the needs of a former age.  Reform is not enough: they need to be transformed.”

Educational transformation, like setting a course to the moon for the first time, is not easy.  Yet we know we need to face this challenge, to recall JFK’s words, “not because it is easy but because it is hard.” We need to return to asking our children to create the future only they can imagine.

Our current educational system is generally doing what it was designed to do- providing content in the form of courses in an effort to prepare students for the future.  In decades past, that future was somewhat predictable.  We knew how to set the course for that moon.   The issue now is the fact that the rapid pace of change has interfered with our ability to predict what comes next.  We cannot design a flight plan, with proper coordinates and trajectories for a particular destination.

Instead, we need to shift our focus.  The system can no longer rest on providing content for a linear and predictable outcome.  Educational transformation requires that we take our focus away from the landing point, and move it to equipping the astronaut for many possible destinations. Now, more than ever, our students need skills, not content.  Content reigned in the industrial and informational eras when access to content was tethered to experts and hard cover publications. We have known this for a while, but like any fixed system with a fixed output, it is difficult to know where to begin the transformation.

Today we have the world and its experts at our fingertips.  So what should a school do, right now, to properly equip a student for his or her flight into the unpredictable future?  Our educational transformation must center on adaptability.  Just like the software industry learned early on, fixed systems have a short useful shelf life.  Our design thinking must be anchored to change.  In this sense, there are four basic principles important to preparing our future pilots:

  1. Essential skills: Redesign the emphasis in our curricula.  Content should merely serve as the foundation for learning how to reason , communicate, calculate, research, problem solve, imagine, create and innovate with diligence, curiosity, and emotional intelligence. 
  2. Diverse connectivity: Rethink the spaces, faces and schedules.  Humans are important, connecting with them should happen in physical and digital spaces.  It should also happen across cultures and age levels.
  3. Balance: Keep calm and find the center.  The duality of this world requires a healthy respect for old and new, nature and technology, activity and stillness.  Skip the ‘all or nothing’ approach.  
  4. Relevance: Keep it real.  Schoolwork must be relevant to real life.  A solid design for our modern approach needs outcomes that matter more than grades. According to Sir Ken Robinson, “Education is not only a preparation for what may come later; it is also about helping people engage with the present.  What we become as our lives evolve depends on the quality of our experiences here and now.”

In this current period of exponential change, we must choose to inspire and equip our young people for take off.  We cannot program the coordinates for their destination, since that is still somewhat unknown, but we can shift our educational priorities from content delivery to skills acquisition.  We can make room in the outdated schedules for the arts, for maker spaces, for problem and project based learning.

Small budget? So what.  Your school and your students need you to do something now.  Today. Stop planning and start doing.  Even amid the most overbearing circumstances, a small space is waiting for you to make something happen.  We’ve been to the moon with technology less advanced than the phones in our pockets.  Just imagine where our kids will take us next.