Monday, June 23, 2014

Learning Made Visible

"Thank you for putting into words what I felt, but couldn't say."

I've been writing for a long time, though it took the current education situation to make me really prolific (311 posts so far in 2014). But if I had a nickle for every time I've heard the above sentiment, I'd be writing on really fancy, expensive equipment. If I have any writing gifts, one of them seems to be finding a way to articulate an idea or feeling that helps crystallize or clarify it for some readers. They read what I've written and say, "Yes, that's it. That's what I mean." They get a clear picture of the idea. But let me ask a question about that.

Before they read my words, before they were able to borrow my words and use them, did they have any grasp of that idea at all?

I know the teacher shorthand, the saying, "If you can't explain it, then you don't really understand it." But "explain it" is a pretty barn-side-sized target to hit. If I sing a love song that someone else has written to my wife, does that mean I don't really love her? If I forward a blog post instead of writing one myself, does that mean I don't really understand the content of it?

I ask because the Common Core, like all standards-based and outcome-based educational approaches, is founded on, as one pro-Core blogger put it, "the basis of establishing definable, observable, and measurable outcomes." It is one of the reformsters favorite ideas-- if you can't measure it, it doesn't matter.

Think of it as the corollary of that famous quote from CCSS architect David Coleman-- "Nobody gives a shit what you think or feel." In other words, people only give a shit about what you do.

When we fully shift to an outcomes-based view of education, however, we create a whole raft of problems for ourselves.

Now the goal is not to understand calculus or Great Expectations; the goal is to act as if you understand calculus or Great Expectations.

This is always A goal, and a teacher's challenge is always to design tasks that can be best completed by someone who actually understands the material. Standardized materials generally suck for this. The task designer needs a good knowledge of exactly was and wasn't covered in class, and when it's time to assess, a knowledge of the student who performed the task.

Let's say, for instance, that the task is to provide a speech about Pip's development. A student stands up and gives a halting, awkward speech. Is it halting and awkward because the student doesn't know what he's talking about, or does that actually represent the best speech he's ever managed to get through? Only someone who knows him will be able to tell.

Now, someone is going to pop up now and say, "No, no. Making allowances for your knowledge of the individual is wrong. There has to be an absolute scale against which all speeches are judged. If a student delivers an F speech because he's awkward and a bad speaker, it's still an F speech." And that is true in a system in which we're focused only on the performance task, if we aren't trying to assess how well he understands Pip, but just how well he can act like he understands Pip.

We add more to the challenge when we define "understanding" as "understanding as I do." This is not just an educational problem-- it's a real world problem. Look no further than our own educational debates and consider how many people are convinced that their opponents must be either stupid or deliberate liars, because anyone who really understood the situation would understand it the same way I do. Under CCSS, this has turned into the bizarro world of New Again Math, where we are requiring students to act like they understand math in a particular way, or it doesn't count.

These problems of performance tasks are always with us, but if we accept an outcomes-based view of education, performance tasks are transformed from a tool for measuring our success (student understanding) but the entire purpose of school.

If our goal is to train students to complete standardized performance tasks, our work is simple. Throw an assignment on their desk, collect it, and teach them to act like they understand.

But if our goal is for them to understand, our job is much harder. If we are, in fact, going to give a shit what they think, they we are going to have to find a way to unpack that understanding and rally search their performance of tasks for signs that they get it. We are, in fact, going to have to model critical thinking as we give their work a true close reading. Because not everybody can get their understanding unpacked and displayed by writing a blog or giving a speech or interpretive dance. 

Put another way-- if you can't measure it, that might not mean it doesn't matter. It might just mean your measuring is faulty.

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