John Mahar's Blog

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Monday, September 30, 2013

Teachers Need to Be Informed, Part 1

Teachers Need To Be Informed
Part 1: Global and National Education News and Views

As a teacher you should of course have your content knowledge, specific pedagogy knowledge, general pedagogy knowledge, and knowledge of technology. But if that’s all you’ve got I doubt you’ll be one of the teachers that stays in the profession for long. In order to stick with it, you’ll need to know about the landscape of teaching globally, nationally, statewide, and locally. People are always talking about what’s going on in other countries and on a national scale, so it’s good to be able to contribute to the conversation, but also the trends you can read about eventually affect you. In Part 1, I’ll share a few resources for keeping up on the global and national scene. In Part 2 I'll share state and local resources. 

Resource A: The New York Times Education section:

This portal has links to stories on all kinds of education, from day-care to the university, public to private. You’ll see stories on testing, reform, trends, pedagogy, and people of interest.

The other day when I checked this was as good as any other day, and I found two articles of interest:
This story talks about how MA would rank second in the world on the TIMMS international assessment if it were its own country. International comparison is a hot topic in the policy world and teachers need to be aware of one of the primary justifications for education reform: “We’re falling behind other developed nations.” The story goes on to describe what kinds of things MA does to make their schools some of the best in the nation. Learning about practices you admire can help you bring change to your school.

Part of the deal with the No Child Left Behind waivers states received in recent years was a string attached that said states would have to adopt “tougher standards,” which is the Common Core. Tennessee is among those states and this article provides useful information on how public schools will be affected. 

Resource B: Education Week
I follow Education Week on Twitter, and they constantly send out links to interesting articles related to policy at all levels and general and subject-specific pedagogy.

Recent links:
A link to a specific math pedagogy/policy website:
And an article about getting ideas from around the world to improve education:

There are plenty more, maybe readers can tell me other good ones.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

“Why are we doing this?”/“When will we ever use this?”

I’m in the middle of explaining division of exponents and the dreaded question comes. “Mr. Sohn, I’ve got to ask you. When are we ever gonna use this stuff?” They won't ever use this specific stuff, I thought. 
I heard that question quite a few times in my seven years of teaching. I developed stock responses, asked other teachers what they say, and tried to think carefully about why students ask that question.

I always thought that the students who ask that are showing some spunk and not just trusting that adults have their best interest in mind. Because why are we requiring all students to, for example, pass Algebra 2? I was a math teacher and I know that Algebra 2 is a pre-engineering type course. How many engineers does the USA produce? Will we produce more by making everyone learn conic sections?

For the students, everything is busy work if they don't know why they’re doing it or when, where and how they will use the information. For some students, school itself (all of it) seems like busy work. Ormrod (2011) talks about value expectancy. If students don't associate a value with their work, motivation is hard to find. 

Some students, of course, ask the question as a diversion tactic. One student in particular knew that I loved to talk about it, so he would ask one of those questions every other week in the hope of getting me off on a tangent. But many students are genuinely interested in the reasons why they are doing what they are doing and if they will need to know the information after the test is over.

In my math classes I would often answer this question with an idea about transfer. “I hope you are learning how to take complex problems and break them down into manageable pieces,” I might say. Another math teacher I know would tell them, “You better hope you are using this someday because you will be making good money.”

Another possibility is to try to change students' goal orientation. I try to encourage more responsibility on their part by asking them to change 
from the question, “What do I need to know and have to do for this course?”
to, “What am I committed to understanding, and how do I engage with this class and its content to best pursue that understanding?”

Those answers justify what is taught in class by telling students about future use, but the truth is we don't often know why we are teaching what we are teaching. Or we believe the lie that the government knows that this is what students should learn. It would be nice to think that the state-mandated curriculum was not produced in an arbitrary way. But if expert economists can't predict what the economy will look like in 10 years, how can the state legislature possibly know what we should be teaching?

So what if we can’t answer the question about use? Is there another way to create value for what goes on in your classroom? I came to a realization recently by having a class that I wanted to “get something out of.” “I’m not going to use any of this stuff!” I complained (to myself). I knew I needed to readjust my attitude because I wouldn't get anything out of the class if I thought it was useless. I thought back to something my Uncle Brother, aka Thomas Berry, said to me about the earth and environmentalism. Among humans, he said, use is the lowest of the low. No one likes to be used. So why is that an acceptable mode of relation with the planet that sustains our life? So I worked to value the time and interactions I was having with the professor and other students. Once I was over my bad attitude and developed relationships with my classmates, my mind opened up to the possibilities of application and (oh man, surprise!) use for the content of the course. 

Why do we have to use everything from class? Class is something we do, and serves a purpose beyond utility. Class is a place where members of the community come together, go through various rituals, take state-mandated high-stakes tests, and sometimes even do some cool stuff like discuss issues and learn about each other and the community we share. Those things have value in and of themselves. Among humans, if you said I only want to hang out with you if I can use you, that would probably ruin the relationship. Why is it ok to only do schooling if it can be used?

What will you say when your students ask those questions? Will talking about values other than utility work for your students? 

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Assessment and Feedback Metaphors

When I asked in class for my 401 students to come up with an image or word to represent assessment, two of the student group's suggestions made me think deeply about what assessment is and does. The word was "placement," and the image was of a road leading off into the distance where there is a city and the sun setting.

With placement, one could say that grades and assessment tell you where a student is. What is their place? Where on the road to the Emerald City are they? The question that occurred to me is this: how do we know where we are in general? What helps us distinguish when we have moved from one place to another? Landmarks, signs, and features of geography or the built environment are the indicators of place and define limits and borders of space. It is natural, then, for people to determine where they are by looking at external sign-posts like grades. Grades and assessments can show where students are relative to others with the idea that they don't get lost. Statisticians and test-makers determine what it means to be at a fifth-grade reading level, for example.

But academic achievement and advancement is not a literal domain, and so external landmarks like grades can distort and in fact mislead students. This is particularly the case when grades, rather than signposts or markers of progress along the journey, become the destination. If the signposts we offer are just like boxes to be checked off on a scavenger hunt, they become as trivial as finding an old tire (or whatever it is people find on scavenger hunts).

So what should feedback (as an integral part of assessment) be like in order to avoid the trap of triviality? Sticking with the placement and road metaphor, we could argue that feedback should be like a compass: a guide to keep students on track towards the goal of reaching the Emerald City. But I am going another direction (haha).

Feedback can be confusing or provide guidance. There is nothing worse for me, when reading professor feedback on a paper, to see a checkmark or a question mark to the side of a paragraph. "What does that mean?!" I think. But there are other times a teacher asks a question that helps me think about what I have written in a new way. In rare cases, teacher comments have helped me glimpse a whole new world I didn't even realize my writing had implied.

So for me the ultimate goal of feedback is for it to be like a mirror: teachers hold a mirror up to their students so that they can see themselves in a new light. With the new light, they can see where they are and decide for themselves which direction they would like to go.