Sunday, May 23, 2010

Standardized Teaching

The death of the book (as we know it) will hasten the death of the teacher (as we know it).

Book, man

At my current school, and many others like it, I have been told to instruct and assess with a careful eye towards "replicating the standardized testing environment."

The thinking is simple: if you want kids to do well on an assessment, then you make sure you teach them so they can know how to do the things you're going to ask them to do on the test. And you practice in those conditions, over and over.

And then it occurred to me the other day that we surprisingly still do standardized testing with paper books. The grading is all scanned in, but there are more inefficiencies in the system. Why kill all those trees? Why not have the kids just take tests on the computer?

That question may take a few more years to resolve logistically, but very soon computer testing will become standard. And that shouldn't really seem like a big deal until you think about how we "replicate the standardized testing environment." If you are going to be assessed in a digital environment, wouldn't you want your learning to be in the same realm?

And if learning is based mostly in the digital environment, what role does that leave for the teacher? The teacher who battles for the attention of students who are progressively more emotionally invested in their consumptive technologies?

Not much.

My students are generally on their best behavior when they have a computer in front of them. They don't disrupt, they don't talk loudly, they keep their hands to themselves (thank God, finally!).

Of course that doesn't ensure effective instruction, or even actual learning. If we're trying to socialize competent, productive members of society, you need a human leading the instruction. Otherwise, the results will be less than ideal.

But that doesn't mean people won't try to use alternate methods, particularly in lean economic times. Human teachers are expensive, in terms of investment of time and money, and wouldn't it make sense to invest more in software (as it were), as opposed to hardware? If you had a program that could show the same test results as a human, wouldn't you hire the program? Some might even say it would be immoral to do anything less. Again, that's taking for granted that learning is only worthwhile if it can be represented by a number.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to numerical assessment of student learning. When you're trying to teach someone a piece of information, the most important question is not one the pupil asks, but the question a teacher asks to check for understanding.

The problem with this new approach to education is less in the principal, but more in the practice. Mahatma Ghandi's philosophy of non-violence is well known, but less attention is devoted to his reservations and distrust of technology. He uses the introduction of trains to India and the virulence of British colonialism as an example. Ghandi says it wasn't trains themselves that were evil, but they were transporters of evil across large distances. The rapid movement of goods was a catalyst for exploitation. Can anyone say cotton gin?

Student performance scores represent a technology that can tell us a lot about how to instruct our children. But it can also be used to transport the evil of greed. Once education is completely corporatized, and once the test performance of children is tied to profit, that's when the evil will be most easily transported. That's when schools will close and open like fast food franchises. That's when caring professionals will be cast out like "obsolete" autoworkers. That's when a generation of students will be taught to value test performance over knowledge.

But we're not there quite yet. We have to be willing to weather the storms of active minds, without relying on electronic pacifiers. We have to work to ensure the careers of educators are not determined merely by test data, but the activation of student thinking and learning. That's why we need to craft an educational philosophy informed, but not enslaved by data.