Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Animal Testing: What's wrong with education this time?

Okay it's really about our kids.  But this post was inspired, in part, by this cartoon gaining swift popularity:

There's a burgeoning rebellion against the way we teach.  I'm all for rebellion, but we have to figure out if we really want to overhaul the entire system or just tweak it a bit.  Too many people are ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  And not enough want to look beyond schools to other factors that might affect achievement.

On Sorting Students

If this cartoon is just about standardized testing, like the literacy test we had today, then I'm in total agreement.  But this cartoon is being used in a broader context to suggest that if we give all students the same exam, then they'll suffer because their natural and various aptitudes won't be recognized.  Some students are gifted artists, others good at literary criticism, others math, others gym.  Is it fair that they all have to take the same math test?  Some will excel, but others will fail.  How is that fair to the people who just can't do math?  I remember just scraping by in grade 9 gym, and it sucks to know that no matter how hard you try, you just don't have what it takes to flourish in an area.  There have been some arguments lately that school shouldn't be a place to sort students.  It should be a place students learn to find their passion, not find out what they can't do.

And I dare to disagree.

One very, very important thing students need to learn during high-school is their own limitations.  We are immersed in the myth of, "You can be whatever you want to be," such that we've lost sight of the hard work necessary to get anywhere.  And we don't see how impractical it is to try to be the best at everything imaginable.  Sure, if I had a private tutor and spent hours and hours every night, maybe I could hit the side of a barn with a softball, but to what purpose?  There are so many people out there with strong physical abilities that I don't need to add to that mix.  Pursuing that path wouldn't benefit society, nor be in my own best interests.  The mantra, "If I work at it, I can do anything," also sets kids up for shutting down.  Instinctively they know it not to be true, so some will avoid trying anything in order to avoid really knowing what they can't do.   My variable marks in high-school showed me where I was capable, where I was close, and where I should maybe give up the dream.  There's no harm in that kind of knowledge.

Why people jump on that comic at the top is likely because it once wounded their self-esteem to find out they're not perfect in every way.  That's a different issue entirely.  We are fallible and messy.  We're nowhere close to perfection, and that's okay.  Nobody is good at everything, and some people aren't good at a lot of thing in school.  That's something else people have lost sight of over the last generation. Things have gotten so competitive that we can't stand not being best at everything no matter how ridiculous that idea is.  But failing math doesn't translate to being a failure.  It just means you're not great at math.  Big deal.  Try again.

We don't have to accept other people's judgements of us.  If one English teacher thinks you can't write, but you dream of writing, then keep writing.  Remember that teachers old and new base marks against a criterion from the curriculum.  A bad mark means you didn't meet that specific criteria, not necessarily that you can't write for an audience.   But one bad review is no reason to toss the curriculum or change the evaluation structure to make it possible for everyone to get an "A" in every subject.  A shift in that direction would render marks completely meaningless.  Getting an "A" tells us nothing when everyone gets them.  And learning to work in a style necessary for success in an area is a useful skill.  It doesn't mean blindly conforming, but figuring out the rules and using them to your advantage.  You can write free-form outside of school.  School doesn't show you the one right way to do things, but how to follow one structure.  Then you that use skill to follow more creative structures on your own - like spoken word.

It's like Suli Breaks says in his viral video, which also denounces the current system.

Suli questions why we have to study things we don't need to know.  But how do you know you won't need to know it??  That's the trick.  School provides a breadth of ideas.  We can only teach universals - maths, sciences, literature, arts, humanities, technology.  We can't prepare each student for what their specific life will bring.  Nothing can.  That's the reality.  We can only offer a wide variety of options that might come into use here and there.  But yes, get the word out, that the mark on a test isn't a mark on your life.  Exams only tell you what you're worth if you let them.  Granted it can be hard to stop them if that ideology is reinforced by your teachers and parents, so we have to endeavour to make sure it's not.  Most importantly, exams tell you where you excel in our competitive world.  They tell you what you can do within a defined set of criteria.  That's all.  But that's something you can use.

Suli has another video that lists many successful people in the world that didn't finish school.  And he's right.  School isn't for everyone.  I reject the Liberal's idea that everyone must attend until they're 18 or graduated because school is not the best fit for everyone.  I didn't finish high-school, and I did just fine too.  But I'll get to that in a bit.

On Persistence and Staying Competitive

But let's revisit this idea:  "If one English teacher thinks you can't write, but you dream of writing, then keep writing."  What if all your English teachers and your friends and family tell you your stuff isn't as good as you seem to think it is?  A neighbour of mine shoots baskets all day, and misses almost every time - and he's been doing this for years.  This kid has amazing persistence!  And we celebrate that (except when he keeps jumping the fence into our yard to get his ball which comes inches from landing on my laptop).  But I hope he's not doing a mediocre job in something else that he could really achieve if he re-directed his energies.  Lots of kids get to high levels in video games and will play for days at a time leading some people to believe it means we should use video games to teach kids.  But here's the thing:  Persistence to reach an unattainable or undesirable goal is NOT a cause for celebration.  Consider people who persistently harass people, or who make efforts to never miss a day of drinking.  It's not a value in its own right - only when it's aimed in the right direction.  

Even David Foster Wallace gave up tennis when he recognized it was fruitless:

A sneaky thing's happened over my last 20 years of teaching.  The median grade in most courses used to be in the high 60s, and now it's in the low 80s.  Yet I don't think the grads are significantly more knowledgable nor skilled.  In fact, when I look at what I've taught since I started, when I look at saved exams and assignments, my courses have gotten more and more watered down each year.  That fact that many of the grade 12s entering my course don't know how to cite sources or really what plagiarism is (something I learned cold in grade four) or that many grade 10 Academic students need reminders to capitalize the first word in a sentence and the word "I", really, leads me to believe I'm not the only one cutting out content to ensure everyone passes with flying colours.  Out of fear of not measuring up with other countries we've lowered the bar so more kids can jump it successfully.  Now our students have the marks to compete with international students for university entrance, but I worry about the monster we're creating.

Malcolm Gladwell has made popular one of  James Flynn's studies that compared work habits of Chinese students who immigrated to the U.S. with white American students.  Given a difficult puzzle to solve, the white Americans gave up after 2-3 minutes, but the Chinese kids wanted to work past the 15-minute cut off time - even though their median IQ was 20 points lower.  So if it's not about innate intelligence it has to be cultural, right?  Well... first of all, as one of my grade 12s noticed, there's a confound in the study because immigrating students are often driven to begin with.  And secondly, while Flynn thinks it all ties back to our agricultural methods, and Gladwell figures the solution must be to get rid of summer vacation, I think the reason for this difference more likely, as another student suggested, starts earlier in life, not history, and not just through a cultural influence, but distinct familial practices.  It has to do with that Tiger Mother style of parenting.

If, from a very young and impressionable age, kids are taught that school has primary value, and that video games and socializing have secondary value, and if kids are shamed into doing their very best all time, trying their hardest at every puzzle, then they will work harder to achieve scholastically. I remember bringing home a spelling test in about grade 3.  I got 9/10, and my dad asked, "What happened to that one you missed?"  The focus at home was always on improving and working harder in school, never resting on our laurels, which, I believe, affected my drive significantly.

It would be so much easier as a cultural shift than isolated families working against the tide of pop-culture - yet it's still not impossible.  The problem is, it's even easier to just raise the bar so students can compete with kids studying 14 hours a day, every day.  Things don't have to be as extreme as Amy Chua posits (no sleepovers - ever), but they also shouldn't be as extreme as our current dominant ideology that protects fragile self-esteem at the expense of any work ethic at all.  It used to be shameful to be idle.  Now, somehow, it's mean to set deadlines for kids, and demanding work be finished before the end of class is seen as bullying.  Rushing kids gives them anxiety, so no pressure is good pressure.   That's a problem.

Next Steps:  No More Zeros

This latest popular push suggests nothing should ever damage a student's self-esteem. Students struggling with math shouldn't be made to do the same tests as stronger students in the same course because it will harm them emotionally.  But what really harms kids emotionally is not being trained to have the resilience to cope with set-backs and limitations.  We squander talent when we accept slothfulness as the norm.  It's culturally ingrained in some students such that I have students who will refuse to work - even if given an open assignment on any topic of their choice to present in any way.  They know their rights.  They have to go to school, but they don't have to learn anything. There's no law forcing them to do any work.  And they've bought into Ken Robinson's schtick:  if they don't work, it's because I didn't sufficiently inspire them.  They feel no shame in sitting idle at school all day staring into space.  It's no longer their fault nor their responsibility.  And they don't quite get the long-term consequences of missing credits now.  Grade 10 is a good learning opportunity for this, but only if there are consequences.  They know some teachers will just push them through.  I let them fail.  I waver on whether or not it's worth the paper work and phone calls.

But this is the last year I can actually give a failing grade on a grade 10 report card.  Next year, thanks to the relentless work of Damien Cooper and his ilk, like Douglas Reeves, no grade 9s or 10s will get a failing grade.  They just get an "incomplete" and have to finish up the work they didn't do at a later date.  Reeves is concerned that a zero is toxic to students' emotional stability and doesn't inspire them to work.  I don't use grades as inspiration but as an indication of the ability the student has shown during my class, but getting a 50 for an assignment they didn't do gives them absolutely no impetus to do any work ever.  And we look like suckers for falling for that.

Once, rock climbing on the side of a cliff, I struggled with a hold.  The guy on belay watched for a bit, then just heaved me up to the top.  I was furious.  He found it uncomfortable to watch me struggle, so he thought he'd "help" get me to the top.  But the point of climbing isn't to get to the top, it's to figure out your own way there.  Being given a 50% on work that's below standards doesn't give kids the opportunity to struggle with their own learning.

He suggests that students shouldn't get zeros, but should lose privileges if they miss an assignment; we should make them spend their free time doing the work they missed.  It's a similar idea to the Lunch Club that my 8-year-old's school has.  That's a great idea that will work well for students who are running behind, but the kids who openly refuse to work are often the kids who will also refuse to show up for a lunch-time study session.  These kids aren't the norm by far, but they are the exception that specifically adds to the drop-out rate.

Reeves also posits that the "math" around giving a zero is inaccurate using a fallacious analogy in assuming that a 5-point mark scale has to have some ratio relationship with the percentages represented.  If a 4 is a 90, 3 an 80, 2 a 70 and 1 a 60, then a 0 should be a 50.  Really.  I've never used that marking scheme anyway (see one of my rubrics at at link near the end), so it shouldn't apply to me, but in practice, if I give a 50 for every piece of work that isn't done, I'm doing something very, very wrong.  I think a better analogy is money.  If I offer a kid $100 to do a list of yard work, and the kid comes to me for money only halfway through the list, then he deserves $50.  If he comes for money before he even started, then he deserves diddley.  Reeves has discovered that this is a really emotional issue for people, but I think that's only because his inability to see how illogical his argument is is so exasperating!!

On Failing and Learned Helplessness

Finally, Reeves suggests that failing a course is a lifelong consequence that kids just can't overcome.  I think that's partly accurate, but only if nobody has ever taught the student how to overcome failure - a problem that can be remedied in ways others than ensuring they never fail anything.  If people are given work that's far beyond their ability over and over, they can shut down.  It's a phenomenon seen in a famous experiment on learned helplessness done in the 60s - back when they didn't have ethics committees approving studies.

Dogs were put in a compartment and trained to jump a barrier when given an electric shock.  After one or two tries, the dogs jumped the barrier immediately after being put in the compartment even when no shock was given.  BUT some dogs were restrained the first time and not able to jump the barrier.  They had to tolerate the shock without being able to escape.  When they were unharnessed, they still didn't jump the barrier, but just stayed there, tolerating the pain.
"Seligman found that it took many experiences (up to 200) of being forcibly dragged across from the shock compartment to the safe compartment for them to rediscover that responding could bring relief and thus to break out of the learned helplessness syndrome."
Up to 200 times.  So I can see why people are so afraid of giving work beyond students' ability.  But equally damaging is giving them work that's so easy that it makes them lazy and complacent.

Students need to be guided through failure - to be given work just a bit above their abilities to give them enough of a challenge that they learn to be persistent.  Individuated instruction is a welcome shift in education, but only up to a certain level.  And the final evaluation has to be based on curriculum standards - how far they learned, not how much - so the mark is meaningful to other schools, parents, and employers.  At this stage of the game, in high-school, we're at the "dragging-over" stage - "I know you can do this" 200 times until they're willing to try again.  This, of course, applies only to the students who value education enough to be vaguely interested in making an attempt at doing the work.  Failing doesn't have to be a burden, but can be a learning opportunity. It's a chance to figure out what's gone wrong, improve work habits, and develop resilience.

Lots of people have failed, but learned from their failure to go on to greatness:

It's an odd belief that if the kids can all get high marks, or pass without effort, then they'll stay in school.  Kids know when they're getting something for nothing, and they lose all respect for teachers that cater to them.  They want to do work they can be legitimately proud of.  Sometimes that can't happen in a specific class that's mandatory.  They should still have to learn the basics of the course, and do their best work, but not be too disappointed with lower marks if it's not their forte.  But getting a mark handed to them, won't instil a strong work effort, not a sense of pride.  In my experience, failing grades are rarely a result of inability anyway, but of a simple lack of effort.

So What Works?

High-school is a time of discovery.  It needs to offer a breadth of content and skills for students to try, and sometimes fail.  It's as useful to find your limits as it is to find your talents.  Students should be treated fairly, which means evaluating them against the same established criterion for each course.   If the measuring stick moves with each student, then it no longer measures anything accurately.  We can't all be 6' tall - and there's nothing wrong if we're not.  It's curious that we want to celebrate difference in every arena except academically.

If you're bad at math or art or music or gym, well, it is what it is.  So it goes.  You're no less worthy as a human being, so long, that is, that you tried your best throughout the course!  And to figure out what you're good at, what you can do to enhance society and feel good about for your own sense of self-efficacy, it's necessary to weed out your weaknesses.  It will help to clear the field to really excel at doing what you do.  I'm leaning on Aristotle here:  pursue your function with excellence.  Figure out what you're best at, then go for it in spades.  When distressed at a lack of perfection, my mom often barked at us: "Don't worrying about doing the best as long as it's your best."  All the time.

But what to do with that rare but worrisome groups of students who just hate school - who don't even want to do the projects of their choosing? There's nothing that can interest them enough to write about it.  They don't value school; it's a rock bottom priority.  Then what?

The only thing I've seen affect this kind of attitude significantly is a new girl/boyfriend who does value school and doesn't want to date a dummy.  Love (and maybe even the possibility of sex) is a powerful motivator.  But beyond a schoolworkmatch.com solution, I wonder about letting that last year be less academically driven for students with more hands-on aspirations.  It could be a year volunteering.  There are no factory openings for them like there was 20 years ago when kids dropped out at 16, but there could be opportunities to build or garden or fix or help in some capacity to get them moving and practicing skills instead of sitting, feeling imprisoned by inertia.  If we want to keep them in school, and keep them motivated, let them take more courses that they can directly apply to their goals.

One thing that we need to do, and that's happening more and more although many of us have always done it, is to offer a choice of assignments to students at younger grades, and, in older grades, a refinement and an assortment reflective of the likely next stage.  In my 12U classes, I have major assignments that are all very similar to assignments done in 1st and 2nd year university.  The focus in all grade 12 courses should be preparation for the next stage, so it is questionable why all compulsory English courses focus on literary analysis.  They have workplace math, but no workplace English.  By contrast, my grade 10s get myriad options of topic and a chance to display a variety of skills to show they've learned something within each unit.  They can expand their knowledge in limitless ways showing off their talents along the way.

I fear that that dream of unlimited potential all comes part and parcel with unlimited growth and the push towards progress at any cost.  We've lost something vital to our sustainability:  the ability to be content with what we have, what we can do, and where we're at.  I'm lucky that my skills are profitable, and the ones that aren't (like blogging) make a good hobby. I can still play ball with my kids, I just don't plan to try out for the major leagues.   And that's okay.


Rick Onofrey said...

Hi Marie,

Thank you for this blog. I found many interesting points, and will probably be back.

However, I would like to voice my umbrage at your objection to standardized testing because it's not fair to everyone. In particular, I find it outrageous that you, as an educator, ask "How is it fair to people who just can't do math?"

Why is it acceptable for people to claim to have the inability to do basic math? Is it because, for some people, math is hard? Is it because some adults have decided that since math is hard for them, that it is reasonable that their children shouldn't have to be subjected to the academic torture of having to do some simple algebra?

If that is the case, then I would like to make the argument that it should be perfectly acceptable to be illiterate. Reading, for some, can be hard. Since it can be hard for some people, we probably should just accept illiteracy as a given in our society, much in the same way that we are accepting of the inability to do math for the math phobic.

As a science teacher, I find it highly offensive to hear one of my (for example) English teacher colleagues tell a parent that they can't calculate the necessary grade for their child to earn on the final because the "don't do math."

Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, as well as some basic algebra need to be taught in all schools, and should be a graduation requirement for anyone who wishes to function as an educated adult.

Yes, math can be challenging. It's time we stop making excuses for students who are not willing to take up the challenge.


Marie Snyder said...

Hi Rick, You need to read that quotation you're discussing from my second paragraph in context. The cartoon is suggesting that if people take the same test, then it's not fair to people who can't do math. Then I spend the rest of the post arguing against that claim.