17 April 2011

Century 21

I work in EdTech, but I often consider myself a visitor to this strange land. I have long been trying to understand its language and customs...wondering if I should try to establish residency. Having a foot in the tech-for-the-sake-of-tech world and one in the good-instruction-is-good-instruction world has given me the opportunity to observe the bastardization of certain terms in both places. And if I were to give an award for "most abused term," it would be this one: 21st Century. Used as an adjective to describe skills, assessments, instructional models, and more, it was originally invoked as a rally cry for techies everywhere to drag classrooms into the modern world. Now, more than a decade into the new millennium, I'm seeing a much broader educational audience adopt the term and make it their own. And like a game of Telephone, where every iteration produces a copy slightly altered from the original, 21st Century is starting to venture into some very odd territory.

At ASCD in March, I saw more than one presenter make the 20th Century = Bad vs. 21st Century = Good distinction. Trust me, there is nothing which will open your eyes as quickly early on a Saturday morning as slides like these (taken from Session 1118):

Good teachers have been using things like self-assessment and questioning to evaluate student products (including case studies and portfolios) long before the year 2000 (or 2001, if you're a stickler). The cognitive demand of a "selected choice" item has nothing to do with which year it was written (not to mention you can write an incredibly bad item no matter the cognitive demand). And best practices in assessment are just best practices---whether or not you use technology. But as I look at these slides, and consider the similar proselytizing by other presenters, I think it's an interesting study about what happens when someone's chocolate lands in someone else's peanut butter.

Cries for 21st Century skills, first heard from the EdTech camp, seemed to spring from a need for credibility. Techies didn't want to be seen as people with toys---look, kids can learn with these things, too! And they can learn better...faster...stronger! And while that shot did land in the Instructional camp, it hasn't grown in the way EdTech hoped for. In fact, it is being returned to EdTech in a twisted and stunted manner like Dorian Gray and his painting. I'm both amused and horrified by this turn of events. Techies are ready to abandon the term (we're already more than a decade into the 21st century) while it's just turning red hot in the rest of the education world. This time warp means that there will never be any sort of agreement about what the term means---or its relevancy to the classroom.

I think that, as with any edu-fad, this term will fall out of favour soon enough and we can weed out the definitions at the edges. What we will likely be left with is some sort of agreement about a set of skills that cross disciplines (critical and creative thinking, collaboration...). However, at the rate we're going, that might not be until the 22nd Century.

P.S. Today is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of construction for the Seattle Space Needle---built for the Century 21 Exposition in 1962. We've been using the 21C term a really long time...

16 April 2011

Are You Smarter than an 1869 Harvard Freshman?

Over the last week or so, the link to this 1869 Harvard Entrance Exam has been floating around. It includes Greek and Latin translation, grammar, and composition questions, a bit on History and Geography, and Math, Trig, and Algebra to round things out.

Many people sharing the link tend to include comments like the ones shown below:

But as I look at the exam, I think people are reaching the wrong conclusion. Are the questions about Greek and Latin difficult because of the structure of the question---or the content? I admit I couldn't pass that part, but if I'd had some education in those areas, I might think it was pretty simple. So, let's look at some of the other components.

Here is a snapshot of some questions from History and Geography:

These are not questions with much cognitive demand---they only ask for basic recall. What about math?

Again, these particular questions don't require a deep knowledge of mathematics. In 2011, some of the terminology might trip us up (When did the terms vulgar fractions and circulating decimals go out of style?), but the math skills involved would be found in much lower grade levels than high school now.

For me, this test is a perfect illustration of why it's important to communicate what we mean by "rigor," whether we're talking about the attributes of an instructional material or an assessment item. Does this test really show that we as a society have gotten dumber or that we expect too little from our students? I actually think I'd make the opposite argument. We might not include Greek and Latin with basic curriculum anymore, but we do expect a more intensive performance of deeper knowledge and skills. We also do this for all students and in a variety of subject areas.

The test also shows the importance of not using Bloom's Taxonomy as a hierarchy. It's just a taxonomy, people. "Recall" doesn't have be any less rigorous than "Synthesis," because it depends on the content. (I much prefer Webb's Depth of Knowledge because it includes both aspects: How you ask an item and what it's about.) The assumption that we're not as smart as 1869 Harvard freshmen is based on our lack of background on the specific content asked. What we value as a society in terms of what belongs in public education has always been an evolving target. Just because every high school graduate no longer completes coursework in Greek doesn't make them stupid or signal the end of civilization as we know it. I'd love to see an 1869 Harvard freshman complete the variety of performance assessments (or even standardized tests) we require now. I think they'd feel just as inadequate.

10 April 2011

World on Fire

I had a lot of time to think on my recent train trip. The thing about traveling that way is that it forces you to slow down and look at things from a different perspective. Sometimes, you are moving through areas where there are no roads or cars. At night, lying in bed with the horizon removed, you feel like you are floating in space as the constellations move around you just outside the window. It feels like you are inside the sound---the whistle, the click-clack, the squeals of the brakes---not sitting at a fixed point experiencing the doppler effect as the train passes by. Even with all of the modern conveniences available (wi-fi, wine tastings, cinema...), being on a train connects you with something distant.

I thought about how people used to always travel long distances on the train. Travel must have felt far more significant. There was no flying out to see grandma for a long weekend. I imagine that a "family vacation" was not a concept yet. The train was a way to change your life. Maybe it still is. In an age where we're all in such a hurry to get to the destination, it reminded me that it is important to remember and appreciate the journey that gets you there.

The area where I grew up is on fire.

from Alpine toward Ft. Davis by John Schwerdtfeger

Looking east of Alpine by John Schwerdtfeger

It is devastating and sad to read posts from friends who have lost homes...to think about all the places I knew well growing up...and to see people trying to drive cattle down the highway away from the fire. It's an old-fashioned sort of area. We're not fancy. It may not be much, but it was my journey.

Volunteer firefighters are doing their best to battle multiple fires, some as large as 2 miles wide, 20 miles long, covering 4 miles every 30 minutes. Much of the fighting must be done with dirt. Water is running low, and with the fire cutting through electrical poles, there is no power to pump what is left.

You can find out more at these sources:
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02 April 2011

ASCD 2011: Conference Wrap-Up

I'm already thinking about the ASCD 2012 Annual Conference. Session proposals are due May 15, so if you're interested in presenting, the clock is ticking. This is important for me to remember, too. Not sure what I'll toss in for consideration. I'm hoping for a stroke of brilliance within the next couple of weeks.

As I start to look forward to next year, I also need to think about what happened for this year's conference. I've shared some of my thoughts about the sessions, but it seems to be important to take a more holistic view.
  • ASCD did an awesome job with organizing the conference. Messaging was clear and consistent and there were many paths for people to find information. If I still had my eyeteeth, I would have given them for a simple PDF version of the conference book, but I was still impressed with the full range of options for finding out about sessions. Kudos to the organizers for looking for so many ways for people to connect.
  • My fantasy conference would have a collection of posts each day---kind of like ScienceOnline does. Lots of people are blogging, writing, and tweeting about what's happening. There should be some place where it gets aggregated and can be accessed. More people could get in on the discussions.
  • One of my favourite parts of this conference was meeting so many new people. Thank you to everyone who emerged from the online world into meatspace to enrich my learning this past week. Thank you to the ASCD event and communications staff for your hospitality, enthusiasm, and all the work you did to create this experience.
  • The site for sharing conference handouts was changed this year, and I don't think it was for the better. For all intents and purposes, only those registered for the conference could have access to the handouts. I can understand that there might be reason to limit things to ASCD members only, but I would love to see more open access. I also would take this a step further and mark the area for Creative Commons. There will be some who feel too proprietary about their work to share via such a license, but presenters have always had the choice as to what they offer. It would also be nice if the site is more of a "living space." As it is now, handouts are deleted a few weeks after the conference...and yet, it may be weeks or months before some application develops. One of the people in my session asked how long I would have my wiki available for them to use. My answer: As long as people have a use for it, I'll maintain it and leave it. There shouldn't be an expiration date on learning.
Conference season is over for the 2010 - 2011 school year. I've been to lots of events this year, met many new people, learned much along the way. I'm not sure yet where 2011 - 2012 will take me, but I am hoping that there will continue to be new opportunities to extend what has been started.