Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is Testing Education's Red Herring?


flickr CC image via timparkinson

I'm blown away by the volume of Twitter posts addressing the issue of testing in education. An inordinate amount of time and energy is being spent on the controversy, and I'm of the opinion that this is taking us away from the real task of getting on with creating effective strategies addressing the assessment challenge, and also from other educational issues that have been pushed aside by the volume of debate over testing. Before you get all riled up about the title of this post, hear me out just a bit.
  • I'm all for improving the manner in which we assess and evaluate students... we should never, never stop doing this.
  • There are undoubtedly strong arguments favouring alternatives to high-stakes, one shot win or lose forms of summative assessment.
  • We must evaluate students if we are to call ourselves professionals. To do so is responsible, necessary and important professional work.
I worry that the frenetic pace with which teachers around the world are slamming traditional forms of assessment is taking away from the real work of suggesting viable alternatives, and I don't mean alternatives that are so far removed from conventional wisdom that they don't have a chance in you know where of becoming common practice. There are logistical problems... how do we ensure that all kids are assessed fairly and comprehensively to establish appropriate educational transition plans, and to ensure that every one of them feels supported and enabled to approach their dreams without prejudice? This is no small task. I hear a lot of statements about what is wrong with the state of assessment in education, but beyond the regular "ban multiple choice exams" rhetoric, (perhaps there are viable alternatives,) I don't hear many really solid solutions to the problem... just bandwagon-jumping complaints addressing the inadequacy and inappropriateness of conventional testing methods.

Like it or not, education can't happen for free, and as long as taxpayers are paying government to provide an education system, there will be requirements for government to be accountable to them for their investment. This is not inherently bad really, is it? In turn, why shouldn't the education system be expected to be accountable for its investment in learning? It's not whether we should be accountable for what we do in education, but rather how we'll be accountable, that we should be discussing intelligently and openly. Whether students, parents, teachers or government, we should all be targeting the same outcomes surrounding and supporting student success... why not do this collaboratively in their best interests?

Cardinal rule  number one when making decisions affecting how we support kids- ask whether the decision is in their best interest to the exclusion of any other variable. If the answer is yes, you're likely on the right track, and I refuse to believe there is as agenda out there that intentionally damages kids... no matter the group, we need to default to a perspective that assumes people are doing the best they can for kids with the knowledge and experience they represent, and if that's not enough, we need to talk rationally about why, and where to go next.

Let's stop bandwagon-jumping and get talking about alternatives that have hope; alternatives that are viable enough to satisfy the testing gods on high because their effectiveness is undeniable. Let's be smarter than the problem. Let's do our homework, and instead of illuminating the problem, let's illuminate some solutions.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The intangibility of change...

 
There is a sort of natural selection process inherent in a paradigm shift. At the brink of change, people need to see for themselves that prior understanding and perspectives don't serve the purpose they once did. People need to implicitly feel that what has worked in the past is not working anymore, and before this happens no amount of coercion, convincing, ordering, whining or manipulating will make a paradigm... shift.

Change surrounds us within contemporary education... and as usual, it's whipping us all up into a frenzy. Everyone has an opinion, and many aren't shy to share theirs. Many claim to have a better way, a better program or a better philosophy... and their focus appears often to want to sell these to the rest of us as if they can will or force a paradigm to shift. I don't think this is possible if a shift is expected to be embraced and sustainable. I learned a long time ago that I can't change people... people need to experience the need for change on their own terms; it has to be a visceral process for them. So why do we insist on "changing" others if we understand change must come from within; it has to be intrinsically motivated. I think we need to change our attitude toward change.

We seem to perceive change in teaching and learning as a variable. I'm more inclined to view change as a constant. This is my perspective... how I function as a change agent on my terms. I don't believe that 'change' should be considered a means to an end, or an end to a means. I contextualize change in a different frame. I view change simply as the process all educators should embrace; the process of improvement, not toward an end, but rather as a perpetual process. We seem to want to target the 'preferred' or 'optimal' teaching and learning environment as if once attained, we're good to go. There is no preferred educational environment because there is always room to improve. Through meta-reflection and ongoing analysis of what teachers do and how they do it, change (improvement) would become a habit as opposed to a process that many perceive is imposed upon them, and that they have no ownership or investment in. When 'change' in education is reduced to a process imposed by others to improve the state of what we do, what we have is not a culture of change but rather a process of change.

If we were to cast a model of the 'perfect school', what would it look like anyway? Would we be happy with this model forever? Likely not... things change and evolve naturally; why fight this tendency? The Tao Teh Ching written by Lao Tzu, to me is a book essentially about change, and I read it daily. Written more than 2000 years ago, the timeless wisdom it contains is difficult to refute. I appreciate the perspective of Lao Tzu on the usefulness of intangibility, and change is certainly an intangible entity... or at least it should be...
Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub;
It is on the hole in the center that the use of the cart hinges.
We make doors and windows for a room;
But it is these empty spaces that make the room livable.
Thus, while the tangible has advantages,
It is the intangible that makes it useful.
Let's embrace the intangible nature of change and stop trying to control so much of what we do to the point of impossibility. Own change as a cultural element; make it what you do everyday as opposed to a process you initiate when all of a sudden what you used to do, doesn't work anymore. Welcome change as a natural state of improvement; go with it, don't fight it.
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