Teaching

Students Are Not Like Beans

Great teaching and learning goes beyond standardized testing. Way beyond.

We are modeling our test-culture after a business theory popular mandated in the States that is based on quarterly earnings. This trains the eye toward the next quarter and the next quarter only. Myopia becomes the norm as participants scrape by on quotas. Similarly, students are put into various demographic groups and given frequent assessments. Their performance on these assessments (every three weeks in my current district) is analyzed to find out if each demographic is meeting the district’s quota. Easily enough, a person can see that this method is deeply flawed, primarily because people aren’t beans. This isn’t the way it has to be.

“Bean counting is the consequence of a view of the world as consisting of “things” to be manipulated, rather than people to be interacted with and conversed with and responded to.” — Steve Denning, Forbes Business, Online.

In fact, a student is very unlike a bean in so many ways. Consider the following ten facts about beans:

1. Beans are not cognitive creatures. 

2. Beans do not experience grief. 

3. Beans do not experience poverty. 

4. Beans do not experience discrimination. 

5. Beans are not affected by their inability to read, problem solve, or learn as well as other beans. 

6. Beans never need foster care, child support, or doctors’ visits. 

7. Beans do not feel the need to pretend everything is ok. 

8. Beans are not afraid to ask for help. 

9. Beans do not pressure other beans into poor decisions. 

10. Beans do not experience puberty.

I could continue to outline the many fascinating ways that students are not like beans, but but imagine if beans were just like students. Would frequent testing make the beans better beans? Or would a farmer be first obligated to address the ten issues (and hundreds more) first before considering the validity of any test or the judgment a test pronounces upon the quality of the beans (and their little bean trainers)?

No doubt, this metaphor is extremely exhausted by this point, but it certainly reveals the “data-driven” status quo’s absurdity. Great teaching is more than science — it is inarguably an art. A great teacher will be sensitive to a student’s individual needs in a way that no standardized test can be. A great teacher will be encouraging when a student feels defeated in ways that no standardized test could measure. A great teacher will strive to move mountains blocking a student’s achievements in ways VAM can not account. Great teachers are sensitive to a student’s stagnation and growth, pain and delight, poverty and privilege, anxiety and assuredness, turmoil and peace — and the list goes on.

I’ve compared our educational model to that of Germany’s in an earlier article. We can make a similar comparison here in the financial world. Germans rely upon great detail regarding complex businesses (like engineering fields) and take exacting measurements — however they consider the long term. If a product or service is currently unprofitable, they will likely continue to keep it if it shows future promise. They have more data and it is vastly more accurate. They have a much stronger information system than companies in the US as well. If you’re interested in reading more about this system, Management Accounting Quarterly has a wonderful abstract from 2007.

While it may sound at first like I’m arguing in favor of more data, I’m not. But I am. I don’t think the kind of data that comes from standardized tests could be construed by ANYONE as high quality or accurate. I do however think that the kind of “data” a master teacher utilizes day to day IS of this high quality and accuracy. Teachers use this data all day long — they confer and collaborate with colleagues about assignment ideas and lesson planning, they reflect with each other on the outcome of a lesson or event, they adapt their own lessons class after class throughout the day based on data that is collected in real-time through dozens of formative assessments while teaching. A really great teacher knows that their students succeed when they work well with teachers who teach the same students — regardless of department, when they listen to kids who look like they need an ear, and when they voice their concerns to the appropriate parties responsible for making in-the-now changes.

We horizontially align and vertically align — mostly through email and conversations in the hallway or during conferences. We pore over data we collect on our individual students when we ask a collegue, “Did Danny seem upset today? I wonder what was wrong?” and our reply is, “I called his grandmother. They were evicted since she lost her job and in two weeks they’re worried they will be living in a car.” We find solutions to challenges that no CCSS could ever address to help a student become successful.

The problem isn’t that students are not beans. The problem is the status quo is treating them like beans.

 

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Teaching

Changing the Game in Education

The Loquacionist posted an inspired essay about changing the fundamental way we “do school.” The suggestion is that we model our system after the German system, where in middle school at some point, the kids could be funneled into vocational (skilled labor) tracks or college prep tracks. The vocational track means apprenticeships and the college track means more classroom schooling (though with PBL instead of what we are doing now). I am WHOLE-HEARTEDLY for this. I’ve been saying it for years. Only, I want to point out some changes in philosophy I’d make to what is proposed in this essay.

 

The first thing I notice is that it’s not the schools that have it wrong. It’s the legislators and politicians who have it wrong. Were we freed from ignorant standards like common core and the like, we could have more leverage to
engage in apprenticeship programs, perhaps first within the context of a status quo high school and transition toward the German system. Schools get it. Teachers get it a hundred times over. Convincing politicians (all lobbied and “controlled” by Pearson and their ilk — I KNOW Pearson is not alone) who desperately crave data to prove their state’s “progress” and get federal monies will take serious effort by The People.

 

Finally, our worship of sports would HAVE to be completely revised. We worship sports and athleticism (in the south, particularly football) and high school is for sports. Taking sports out of high school and making them something kids pursue on their own time (weekends and afternoons) could help shorten the hours we are in school making the transition to this system easier. But as long as we crave “tradition” in schools; coddle those mad, egotistical parents who vicariously live through their

children’s athletic experiences; as long as we romanticize this culture,  thinking that cheerleaders, quarterbacks, pep rallies, drill teams, and school spirit are more important than academic achievement, we will never part from the high school system. And let’s stop pretending that sports build character — it merely reveals it.

 

High school culture of this type is non-existent in other countries. Foreign exchange students marvel at this culture

and are shocked that it is “just like in the movies.” Because no other countries use precious public education funding to fund sports. It’s absurd. (But then again the NFL is non-profit — seems we are easily duped by displays of athleticism.)

 

I know this means a HUGE reduction in high school teaching jobs. But that can be handled largely through attrition and reassignment. We would continue secondary education with programs like IB and early college. Really great coaches could own and operate their own freelance businesses and private teams (like dance studios do) because I doubt seriously that sports would ever cease to be important to Americans.

 

Until we begin valuing education over Friday night lights, until we start wanting to invest in our future work force instead of new astro-turf, when we wake up from this stupor and start giving kids a chance at their future (instead of reliving our past), we can begin to make change. We have to stop blaming teachers and schools and start telling the politicians what we want them to do. Until then expect a whole lot more of the same.

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