Thursday, March 18, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
"As a culture, we believe ... To be deemed “educated,” a person must be in attendance at an institution, where they pay money, accept the teachings offered by their professors, repeat back the opinions and lessons of the classroom, participate in a collegiate culture, and in exchange, receive a diploma. A person who becomes skilled at seeking lessons directly from the elders in their community, who learns to tap into the resources of a public library, who embarks on their own life adventures, who sets about creating their own experiments and challenging and teaching themselves, is considered “uneducated,” unless a piece of embossed paper is handed to them while wearing a cardboard hat and oversize dress."
The entire text of the article can be found at http://www.yesmagazine.org/blogs/shannon-hayes/can-money-buy-education
Friday, January 8, 2010
Monday, November 9, 2009
This blog is abnormally long - but I thought since I spent like 7 hours drafting this letter, and since it really hits upon so much of what I find wrong with education today, I'd make it available to the participants. Please comment! I would love to get a discussion going on these concerns!
To the Professors of Child Development at Mission College,
I am writing to you today in hopes of creating a respectful dialogue regarding your teaching practices and the effects they have on students. This letter is lengthy (9 pages), but before you decide not to read it, please think of it more as a research article that could greatly affect your teaching practices. To read this would be to give your students the same respect and value that you give the researchers and theorists – after all, we are the subjects of your teaching, right? Please take 10 minutes to read this (it took me at least 7 hours to write it) – and if you decide it’s not worth your time, I will unhappily accept that.
First off, I want you to know that I enjoy specific things about each of your classes and feel that each of you brings a unique and valuable perspective into the classroom. With that said, I have a few concerns regarding the classes I have taken here at Mission College in the child development department and am hoping that you value not only the viewpoint of a student but also of a future teacher – one who is reliant on and hoping for some examples of how appropriate, progressive, and constructivist teaching practices can be implemented in all classrooms.
About the Author and Her Motives
In five out of six classes I aced the midterms. I currently have an “A” in all 18 units of my child development classes. I mention this all for the simple reason of full disclosure, so that you know more about me as a student. As you can see, none of what I am about to say is an attempt to get grades changed or to fight policy for my own personal gain…
Though I use examples from my own life to make points, my concerns are not limited to my own person. I stand up for what is right no matter if the out come affects me or not – because I believe that in the end, we are all affected. My concerns are systemic and foundational to education, and affect all of society. Please do not categorize this as just another “worked up student”. My inflection in this letter, though serious, is nothing but calm…
My Concerns: Assessment and Evaluation
One of my primary concerns has to do with the quality and type of assessment that has been uniformly used in my 6 child development classes this semester: multiple-choice tests. Another has to do with how we evaluate student work; for example, what exactly makes up a student’s “A”? Both of these topics, assessment and evaluation, have short and long term effects on students’ conceptions: which types of knowledge are worth learning; how to go about learning that knowledge; what makes a person intelligent; what the role of a student or teacher is; and how to manage and evaluate their own students as they bring these policies and actions into their early childhood classrooms.
First off, although nearly all of you admit to experiencing distaste for multiple-choice exams, you all gave them for midterms. I will admit, that there was a variety in terms of quality and content; with that said, in just about every class I have, I experienced many questions that I found to be invalid, biased, subjective, or dependent upon how the question was read or interpreted. I found myself writing down qualitative answers in the margins, seeing as how I found the question utterly unanswerable without doing so. I wrote things like, “I know you want me to pick this – but I believe that selection D is not to be ruled out” or “technically speaking, this question places your subjective value in the answer and is a matter of opinion more than fact”. I know that multiple choice stresses to pick the best answer, but I am talking about questions in which there is no best answer – questions in which the presumptions of the test maker are disguised as fact; questions where assumptions made by the professor are inherent in the answer selection – assumptions that students often walk away believing.
In many of my classes the multiple-choice exams were meant to assess whether we could identify theorists or specific facts in the content. There were also short answer questions, including questions that required self-reflection and application; I found these to be quite appropriate. I have spoken in person with all but one of my professors regarding the format, goals, and results of their exams, in hopes of breaking the code of why such forms of assessment (namely multiple choice that focus on disconnected child development trivia) continue to proliferate in an era when standardized testing and summative assessment is being called into question.
First I will address the reasons I have been given for why such tests are administered:
One: Most of the time I get the response that some students like it. I believe that a preference for multiple-choice might spurn from the fact that it’s simply easier. It requires rote memorization, guessing, and recall of a concept upon seeing it in print; I do not believe that those are the greatest indicators of successful internalization of the concepts being assessed. Also, the real issue shouldn’t be if students like multiple-choice; it’s about what gives them the best chance to show their mastery of the content as well as how the assessment is used.
Two: Sometimes I am told that there is simply a lack of time to correct anything else, which I can understand – but most of the exams that were only part multiple-choice. I would argue that the test would have sufficed without the multiple-choice section, or that the knowledge being assessed by the multiple-choice portion could have been included in the short answer section without taking up much more of your time. For example, while writing a short answer reflecting how one would act in a given situation, one could use theories and concepts from class to back up the answer – no increase in the quantity to evaluate, just the quality. Or, the multiple choice exam could be replaced with something like: each student has a five minute opportunity to present on a meaningful concept; or each student must answer a question chosen by the professor, to verbalize their proficiency. If they do poorly they can always attempt one more time (office hours, after or before class, at the end of a class that finishes early). It doesn’t have to be high pressure, and doesn’t necessitate any more of the teacher’s time. These may not be choices of assessments that you prefer, but I don’t think it would take us that long before we could come across an alternative that would work.
Specifically, my complaints about the assessments are as follows:
First: Although I think it is possible to assess learning to some degree with a good multiple-choice exam, the quality of the exams I have encountered (their fairness, subjectivity, and validity) must be addressed if they are seriously to be used to evaluate students’ performance.
Let me give some concrete examples of the invalidity I encountered during midterms:
One question was as follows: “adding, deleting, and modifying information” is the process of forming a: A.) concept, B.) idea, or C.) schema. I chose “C”, although I gladly wrote in the margins that I didn’t see enough of a difference between all 3 choices for it to be a truly fair question. The answer was “A”, “concept”. I think Piaget would contend that notion, seeing as how he explicitly said that assimilation and accommodation (adding, deleting, and modifying) of conflicting or new information until we reach an inner peace or new understanding (equilibrium) is the process of building Schemata (or schemas). When I brought this up, I was told that because the wording on the power point was about “concept formation”, I should have known that “idea” and “schema” were both incorrect, and that “concept” was the only right answer. Because I was curious, I asked another student who is in 12 units of CHD and who has a BA in Psychology – she said “ideas”. I asked a full time CHD professor and she said “ideas” as well. I asked my husband who is a teacher, and he said as I did: “schema”. How then is this a valid question, if even a professor who holds a doctorate in the field cannot answer it as expected? And if competent people in the field of cognition, teaching, and development all answer incorrectly?
At what point do we re-evaluate our own ways of defining terms and concepts, allow for student interpretation, and honor alternative ways of articulating the same concept? Furthermore, isn’t this question/answer designed in a way that puts students who have knowledge of theory from sources outside of class at a disadvantage - students who should be more likely to succeed rather than more likely to be confused? In fact, I found that to be a common thread in the assessments that made up my midterms: they were actually harder to answer correctly if one brought prior knowledge to class, if one had experienced several ways of articulating popular concepts, if one gave some critical thought to what was being asked – this means that we are rewarding thoughtlessness and inexperience, as well as the ability to take only the teachers words to heart, while ignoring all other sources of information… This definitely goes against the belief that students are not blank slates when they enter the classroom; that they come to you, each with their own prior knowledge, and build on it from there. How well do we, as teachers, follow the same theories that promote in our classes?
Unfortunately this is only one example of the subjectivity and arbitrariness I have come across. In another class, one question insinuated that sports could not help a child’s development – this professor rescinded and thanked me for my input when she realized the question’s invalidity. Thank you for listening and having the strength to reflect on your practices.
I do not do this simply to help my own case – in fact, I got many invalid questions “right” because I know what the professor expects me to say. But what message are we sending about being successful and intelligent - that it depends upon the good graces and arbitrary opinions of those in charge? What assumptions are we passing on as truths with the way we present and evaluate test questions? In what ways are we affecting how and what students value in terms of knowledge?
Second: Such exams show nothing about the quality of our thoughts as students. If we got it wrong, why did we get it wrong? What were we thinking, instead? Good assessments tell us more than just right or wrong, pass or fail… They give us qualitative information about what we do know, and what we still need work on.
Third: These tests are not at all used in a way to promote further development - to identify weak points in our rationale and strengthen those weaknesses… Assessments should not be used primarily as a way of judging the student’s performance, but as a way to positively influence the student’s understanding and growth. So I ask, how do they make us better teachers? Even if students revisit the material they missed, the test format still confines students’ thinking and worldview to that which the teacher generates. Rather than allowing for student thinking, it requires students to validate teacher thinking by selecting from a fixed pool of answers that the teacher generated - based on lessons the teacher generated. Most likely, if the student “performed badly” he or she will simply lose confidence when they get their test back, dusting the ashes of their score under the mat and trying to forget as soon as possible. Worse, they are proud of the fact that they aced the test, haven’t learned to think critically when presented with assumptions and faulty logic, and don’t push themselves to gainer a deeper appreciation of the material. Worst, they take this type of assessment and use it in say – the elementary school classroom - never questioning its appropriateness or effectiveness. This good practice of using assessments for furthering positive development also gives the student a chance to qualify why they do or think as they do, which can often shed light on administrative problems (such as unclear guidelines or invalid questions) rather than problems with the student’s logic or understanding. This should be an opportunity for teacher and student to work together, not a one-way street full of judgment without agency.
Fourth: Many of the tests encouraged rote memorization of the power point, since the test questions and answers were directly from the power point themselves, word-for-word. This encourages the kind of passive learning which stops the brain from questioning, halts our higher-thinking, and encourages us to simply focus on exactly what the teacher says, memorizing it word-for-word as we go; after all, our value as students (as dictated by exam results) requires nothing else. Multiple-choice tests often lack the drawing of connections, the deeper understanding, and the application of concepts that signifies proficiency.
I have noticed in most of my classes that attendance has dropped significantly after the midterm. Why is this? Is it only a matter of time – people getting burned out? Or is there something more to this? I know I lost my interest when I realized that nothing more was expected of me than to be an empty receptacle ready to passively receive the outline you bestow on me – isn’t this what we are trying to avoid? Don’t we believe in the child’s necessity to actively construct knowledge in the classroom? Don’t we want to encourage higher-level thinking – so we can begin to expect to cultivate it in children?
I truly believe that the way we format our assessments and the content that we evaluate student’s knowledge on send messages to students (future and current teachers and parents) about what we value. Many of your students look to you for guidance, and highly esteem your opinions – some of them even look at you as if you were beyond human. Your messages to them are extremely influential, and do affect their behavior in the end. So it is extremely important for us to constantly be aware of the messages we are sending them, the values and expectations we place on them in terms of assessment, evaluation, and performance, and the subtle ways in which we condition their behavior.
Too often I have felt that to talk to a professor about their teaching practices, or to bring concerns to their attention, is not to create dialogue, but to get into a power struggle about who has the last say – can’t we end that here and be humble enough to reflect on our own practices? I know I am not perfect, and may not be as graceful as I should be when addressing issues I am passionate about, but I am willing to learn and try…
If you feel, for whatever reason, that you do not want to get rid of your multiple-choice exams for good – then this is the least that I ask: Ask yourself what goals you have in mind when you pass out that exam. Then, take a look at your exam, and ask yourself if the questions you are asking and the answers you provide send the messages that help you get to that goal. It may take an outsider to see the assumptions that some of your questions/answers have made; so have someone else look at it with a critical eye. We as educators are essentially handling minds and egos – and to remain ethical, we must handle them with care and diligence.
The Essence of Evaluation and Motivation
First off, if you are reacting negatively to this evaluation - if you are mad, hurt, angry, or upset - try to keep in mind that this is, essentially, an evaluation; As professors, you evaluate students constantly. At least this type of evaluation includes qualitative reasons rather than a simple “Ö” or “X”. Evaluation is personal and it does change our behavior and self-concept; so it is an issue that must be dealt with gracefully and appropriately, with constant attention paid to what result the evaluation has on the person being evaluated. So please, give me some feedback about this letter so I can learn from this, too…
Essentially an evaluation of a student’s work is based on standards. These standards are often imposed externally on students and are at times incongruous with students’ own sets of values. I find that these standards and evaluations are often arbitrary, unfair, and damaging to future development. This applies to evaluations of learners at any age.
Most of the time, in our child development classes, evaluation takes the form of points. My concern is this: the way in which we do and don’t award points and what we assign points to, sends messages to students about what is valued and what is expected; it also controls behavior in the way that points can be assigned to certain actions – you do the action you get a point; you don’t and you lose points. The more points you have, the better the evaluation, the better the GPA – and for many – the better the self-esteem and success as you leave the classroom. We must reflect on what it is we assign points to - ask ourselves in what way are we exercising too much control over the behavior of our students? How does what we are doing affect their self-motivation? How do our evaluations of them engender certain behaviors? What does our evaluation of students really accomplish – does this stay true to our goals?
The following is an example of how certain evaluations expose students to arbitrary standards and behavioral conditioning, thus affecting the student’s motivation. Attaching a point value to attendance or group work makes the goal of the group work or attendance to acquire points - not knowledge or expertise. This takes what would have been an internal drive to learn and perfect, and turns it into a “must”: compliance brought on by external controls, essentially killing intrinsic motivation. This is also an unfair and unbending policy when we consider the student who is prepared to make up for missing class, has extremely good reasons for missing, contributes to class when he or she does go, and can pass the assessments with excellence. Something is wrong with that class’s grading scale and standards when it is possible for a student like this to get anything less than an “A” for reasons that having nothing to do with their understanding and application of the material. If both parties can get their needs met, if the teacher is unaffected and the student can still perform up to the expectations of the class, then why the need for any negative effect on the student’s grade? Do we have a right to evaluate students, to judge them, to influence their self-concept, to place a grade by their name without explanation, based on decisions they make concerning their own irreplaceable time – even when there is no real negative effect on their understanding of the class material or it’s application?
But if the student wasn’t there to participate in that meeting’s group work, then how can they get the points everyone else worked for? Well, I believe that points shouldn’t be necessary for good group work to occur. Not only should they not be necessary, they are actually detrimental to the quality and outcomes of the work. They do not serve the purpose of creating a love of learning. In fact, for most people they underwrite their free-will and replace the natural self-motivation that brought us to class in the first place with a need for external motivators, such as points – a hot poker to keep us from straying, as if we had no right or desire to make our own decisions about whether or not to come to class. This policy is just a step away from conditioning behavior, and sends a message to the future and current teachers that you are preparing that such conditioning is an acceptable way to encourage desired behavior. I am proposing that all ways of ensuring students come to class, all ways of baiting them with points that they cannot miss without sacrificing some of their merit as a student, be abandoned.
Furthermore, this policy makes an assumption that group work (which in this specific situation is done in every class so there is no opportunity to miss without losing points), is more important than whatever it is the student has missed class for. This seems a bit invasive into the student’s private life and choices – isn’t it the right of the student to decide what is more important for them: the group work or the unforeseen need to cut class? By giving group work a point value, we are placing an artificial influence (or leash) on the student; placing a teacher created and enforced advantage on the side of group work. Essentially, we are making decisions for the students, without any consideration or respect for the student’s feelings. For example, I skipped a seminar on democratic schooling in the bay area so I wouldn’t miss the points for attendance/group work… Did I make the right choice? If there were no points involved, would I have still gone to class? To be honest, I think that it was in my own best interest, and I would have learned more, to go to the seminar – but I couldn’t bear the thought of tarnishing my transcripts.
Do you want someone to come to class purely for the points? Or do you want them to make an informed decision, based on weighing whatever opportunity is taking them away from class against the opportunity to learn what only your lecture and group work for that day can give them? I think that is the students decision to make, and no one should be interfering with that process by creating artificial but powerful rewards/punishments in an effort to influence that decision. Students are the only ones who really know all sides of the coin, who can see and weigh what is at stake, who can make an informed decision; It’s their life – it’s their grade – it’s their decision.
Here is a more concrete example of this policy in practice. I missed one day in a certain class (the first day of class, with teacher permission) to take my CSET exam. There was simply no other day to take it that would meet the deadline of my teacher preparation program. I missed one more for a wedding (again with teacher permission). I chose not to go to my nephew’s birthday party, came to class when I was sick, missed a seminar on democratic schooling in San Francisco, and left my husband at home with swine flu all because I knew I could not miss any or part of class. After all, I didn’t want the “B”, right… especially when I knew I didn’t deserve it?
This is not a personal issue, nor an egotistical rant, but a systemic problem I am hoping to address, and I only put my position at risk by giving a personal example because I hope it makes the controversy a little bit clearer to you; more concrete, if you will. In a way, it’s my evidence. I hope it points out that in terms of real life, people should not be given rewards and punishments to condition their behavior – they should be allowed the freedom to choose and to live with the natural consequences of their actions. Behavioral conditioning is something that I believe harms our children everyday in terms of praise, points, rewards, and punishments - and something that I see being perpetuated at Mission College in terms of this policy.
I have been told that these policies are in place mainly for other “not-so-self-motivated students”, in an effort to encourage them to come to class. That if one doesn’t come to class, they won’t do well on the exam. This is simply untrue. Many lectures stick to the material provided in the reading and overlap with other child development classes. A dedicated student who has a firm handle on child development could supplement the work they missed on their own – plus many of the power points are available online, and the topics are listed on the syllabus. It is true that some students need to come to most classes. But if someone wants to pass your class, don’t you think they will do what is necessary. Furthermore, when did professors have to start coercing students into coming to class? Are we handicapping students by short-circuiting their free will and decision making? We always teach that we must trust children…Do we trust our students? Will our student’s trust their students?
Essentially, this policy is designed specifically for the irresponsible or undedicated student, at the expense of those of us who are committed students; to make those of us who are responsible and hard workers suffer in order to control those who would rather be somewhere else. I say this not because I don’t want to come to class; I love class (as most of you know). This is a much bigger issue than just a personal dispute.
Finally, this is not the only way the points can go awry. Other examples can be taking points away for (what seems to some) “inappropriate” reasons. I recently received a 28 out of 30 for an observation. Now, I listen very well in class. Most of you can attest to this. One of you can also attest to the fact that I know how to write an observation with objectivity, and many of you know that my reflections are of good quality. The problem with this assignment was, that I simply misunderstood which parts of the paper were to make up the observation and which parts the reflection. Anyone who has done observations for other teachers could have easily made the same mistake, since the direction sheet did not specify. I decided to play it safe by including a completely objective running record, thus exemplifying that I could objectively observe a child. Since my running record, by definition, included all that was objectively observed, I dedicated the rest of the paper (under subtitles such as “Sensory Perception”, “Imitation”, and “Language”) towards citing the objective observation and then thoughtfully reflecting on this observation. What the teacher had actually had in mind, and I found this out when I got the assignment back, was that we would use the subtitles to paraphrase the objective observation, and only reflect at the end. I lost points due to my inability to follow her expected format. I don’t want the points back. I am simply bringing this up because when I explained to my professor that my confusion was due to a lack of clarity on the direction sheet, I was met with a nod and a reaffirmation that now that I know I will do better next time. Just the other day I ran into this problem again, where the directions for a write up did not match the sample of the write up that had been provided. Confusion ensued. Rather than addressing my concerns, and saying, “Maybe someone else might get confused from that, I’ll make a change so it’s no longer an issue”, I got the feeling that the professor placed all blame for the misunderstanding on me.
My point is this: when we are allotting points, which get translated into a permanent evaluation on the student’s transcripts, we must be perfectly clear about the expectations we have for student work. This is not always easy, and sometimes it takes someone pointing it out for us to notice we’ve made an assumption; so when a student voices concern that they didn’t feel the teacher’s expectations were clear, please take the time to listen - to actually inspect the expectations you have outlined (often in print form) and see if there is any basis for the student’s misunderstandings. Also, points are not the way for a teacher to win in a power struggle – they are supposed to be a direct reflection of the mastery the student has shown in terms of class material, and if points are being held back for any reason other than this - what is it exactly that the student is being evaluated on? Unfair evaluations make students feel powerless and at times, resentful. They send messages that are not far from the “Because I said so” rationale that we, as teachers, try to keep out of classrooms.
In the end we have to ask ourselves what is the point of a point; and are points serving our purpose, or are we serving their purpose? Are we in control of our points or do we use them in ways that are unfair – in ways that suggest a set distribution of power and control, influencing student behavior and thought?
Although I enjoy all of you for your unique insights and experiences, and exclude some of you from what I am about to say, I believe we need to start putting our money where our mouth is. We say learning must be constructive, learners engaged, activities varied, our assessments formative and ongoing, and our practices self-reflective. Unfortunately I do not see these practices and beliefs being mirrored in the teacher preparation classrooms of your department. I see us preaching one thing and modeling the other. And as you very well know, human beings often learn via modeling and imitation rather than doing what we are told. Just as the old adage proclaims: actions speak louder than words.
I see myself as the exact kind of early childhood teacher you all are trying to promote with your teachings. I often reflect on my own practices as well as the practices of others around me. I support and hope to apply constructivist, progressive, hand-on, diverse, and individual means for actively engaging in class material. I seek to teach through a variety of ways, appeal to multiple intelligences, and promote higher-level thinking via open-ended activities and Socratic questioning. My main concern is the well being of the student – and to me this is not just limited to children. I see myself as totally in line with the goals you all have vocalized. So I sincerely hope that you can put aside anything that may hinder our dialogue – because I am the future of your cause, I am on your team, and I need you as an example that what we are trying to encourage in the world is possible. I expect you to show me how. Please, be my teachers.
I will leave you with one more thought. For each class you teach, even if you have an average of 30 students, which most of you have more, each one of those students will as teachers, teach 20 children – every year. That is 600 children per year that just that one class will teach… Now figure that every year you have new students in your classes. And so we add another 600 a year. It grows exponentially! So please, let’s not get our egos hurt, let’s not get defensive. Let us simply support each other in the process of refining our teaching, so that we send the proper messages to students about what teaching means, what intelligence is (and is not), and how to better evaluate and assess student performance in a way that promotes our goals, creates self motivation, identifies weaknesses and strengthens them, provides opportunity for positive experiences, furthers our understanding of the content for the course and exemplifies how it can be used in practice.
Thank you for your time and I sincerely hope that we can work together in creating a stronger child development department at Mission College. Please let me know by responding via e-mail or in person if wand when you would like to talk more on this.