14 July 2008

The Elephant in the Room

I took a class once on Great Books. The premise of the course was really about who decides what makes a book "Great," how we know whether it belongs in the Canon of Literature, and what the inherent messages are that we as a culture are being fed through the selection of these books. I was reminded of this class because of a comment left here not too long ago. Roger said (in response to my post about a Thought Experiment):
Perhaps "standards-based grading" can get them to say "I have to learn to get that diploma" so they will actually learn. But I have my doubts.

Partly because of the elephant in the room. Any time we assess a student's learning, we are partly assessing what the student has actually learned. But we are also assessing what the student has managed to memorize or absorb without thinking, and which will be out of his or her head in a few weeks or months.

My hypothesis, which I keep being unable to reject, is that most of what we assess falls into the second category. And I keep coming back to the same questions, "Why is what a student has memorized at that time especially good? What makes that more important than other things that students do?"
It's a fascinating elephant, isn't it? I've been pondering it a lot for the last week or so. At times, I find myself thinking really broadly about this. Does it revolve around the concept of what is education and the purpose of school? Or, perhaps it's simpler to think about things at the classroom level.

For example, do I care whether or not students remember for the rest of their lives that amylase is a kind of enzyme in saliva that can break down carbohydrates? No. Then why do I teach it? It's a means to an end. What I really want to know is whether or not students understand systems thinking---that there are inputs and outputs...that matter can be transformed and energy changed. Amylase is one example...one peg to hang ideas on. There are a myriad of others throughout the year, with every example meaning something different to each student's understanding of the whole. Maybe a kid struggles with cycles and systems when we talk about photosynthesis, but they "get it" when we work on digestion. For me, taking a more gestalt view of learning and grading in the classroom has freed both students and me. A student who didn't master systems thinking with one piece of content, but did with others is still credited.

As a teacher, I want most to know that every kid has a set of thinking tools and can learn on their own. It's okay if they forget much of the content from their high school biology class as they move through life. It's more important that they have the skill set to find and use the information again, if needed. I haven't retained much of what I've learned over a lifetime. That doesn't mean the information wasn't useful or good to know---it just didn't turn out to be something I regularly need access to. But other people in those classes? Perhaps they are doing jobs where they depend upon that information. It would be nice to think that we could know or anticipate all of the careers and life experiences students would have in the future so that we could tailor their schoolwork for that. Instead, we try to give the best general background set of skills that we can.

The state tells me that there is a Canonical Curriculum in the form of the standards. Like the Great Books, these weren't selected by me and I have to think carefully about whatever underlying message is there. The vast majority of these are skill-based and I tend to view the content ones as the vehicles for getting students to develop and practice the skills.

I also find myself being unable to reject Roger's hypothesis, but I'm hoping that within my own classroom, I'm moving more steadily toward doing so. I do want to do more to assess thinking over memorization. I often tell my students that knowledge isn't theirs until they do something with it. They can't just depend on filling in a worksheet---they need to apply, synthesize, and create. Even then, I'm okay with knowing that they will forget some content over time. The memorization aspect is the basis for the learning, but the real goal is for them to learn how to use it. I think that if I was more UbD'ish in my planning, I could give even more strength to this approach. Maybe that should be my goal for next year. Perhaps that will help finally shoo the elephant from my room.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

Cool observations here, SG.

My goal was (and is) to equip students to learn whatever they need to succeed.

It works. And I think that's why, no matter how many different pedagogical fads we expose the kids to, we don't seem able to mess them up too badly. :)

hschinske said...

Honestly, I think half the point is that they retain SOMETHING. If you know *enough* of the bits and pieces of what's considered common knowledge, you can make sense of the world around you reasonably well, and continue to learn. If you fall behind too far, you have a heck of a time catching up.