22 October 2011

Tastes Like Chicken

Over the years, I've been involved with a lot of lenses focused on standards. I've used them in the classroom. I've helped write them. I've developed items and assessments for them at the classroom and state levels. I've presented on them. I've evaluated student performance and reported on them. If there's anything you can do with a standard, I've probably done it. I'm just that kinky.

But the more I work with these little beasts, the more I realize what complex little creatures they are. And the more I worry about the ones yet to come as CCSS becomes implemented and the Next Generation Science Standards emerge. (Aside: If you haven't been keeping up with Jack Hassard over on The Art of Teaching Science site, he's been killing it with great posts about the science standards process. Get on over there and read.)

I mentioned in a recent post about a conference session I did that was geared toward having a conversation about the shift from analog to digital in the research process and what that means for us and the students we work with. During that process, we took a peek at the EdTech standards and considered what was underneath. For example, a standard for grades 3 - 5 includes these expectations:
  • Gather information using selected digital resources.
  • Organize information using digital tools.
  • Record sources used in research.

Seems simple enough on the surface. But whether you're talking about how we guide students to take notes, paraphrase, use digital tools (e.g. outlines and mindmaps), read a digital text, or capture information about a source, there's a lot going on here. This is the mechanical engine that drives the standard. While you can make an easy link to the next grade band and how it will build on the strengths students develop at this point, that really doesn't get us toward a greater good. If there's an argument I hate more than "You need to learn this because next year's teacher will expect you to know it.", I'm hard-pressed to name it.

Although I'd never say it this way to students, the point of this standard is about getting your shit together. And that, my friends, is a lifelong skill that requires constant attention. What you learn, where it comes from, and how it fits with other pieces are things we all do throughout a lifetime (in both analog and digital ways). But we don't say this in the standard. Relevance gets lost as we condense and package the words. Meanwhile, all those bits and pieces mentioned above (such as, read a digital text) are also not mentioned. Standards seem to occupy some sort of middle ground between the grunt work that goes into mastering them and the higher purpose they can serve.

Teachers already know this. Most of the people involved in writing standards do not. I really worry about this---not just because it's ridiculous to leave teachers out of that process---but because it can take months or years for the statements representing the standards to be "unpacked" enough to know what's there. And here we are, simultaneously trying to develop assessments, when we don't even understand what's going to need to happen from an instructional standpoint.

Back when I was more naive (or more to the point: ignorant), about working in a true standards-based classroom, I thought things would be pretty simple. You read the standards...you get a picture in your head of what it looks like...and Poof!, kids learn them. The reality is different. I couldn't get to more than 6 standards in a semester with students, and even then, I felt that was pushing too hard. To build understanding for every student takes time---not just for them, but for the teacher. There needs to be multiple assessment opportunities. Instructional time devoted to teaching and reteaching. Standards shouldn't just be like chicken---something that can be incorporated or repurposed into a variety of recipes. They each need their own flavour for kids, with a palate that develops in complexity over a lifetime for them. I have major concerns about the rhetoric out there about the CCSS making kids "career and college ready." I'm sorry, but the words on those pages won't make that happen. It's all of the mechanical parts underneath---all of the unmentionables---that will guide that development. And teachers will be the most valuable part of that process.

I may well be overthinking things, but the more I have to wrangle the bon mots contained in standards, the more unsure I am that we as educators really know what we're signing up for. Hassard cautions, "Standards are opinions of a subset of professors, mostly from the academic disciplines, often appearing on boards and planning and writing teams for the first time. And in some cases participants of the teams ought to be replaced with fresh faces. Are there concepts in science, for example, that every human being must know? Probably. A set of standards for every student? We really do not have a way to determine what every student should know, and we have to wonder why we are so obsessed with this. Why, in a nation of 50 states, and 15,000 school districts, do we insist of a single set of standards, all of which are discipline based." I like the idea that every child has access to the same flexible "toolkit" when they leave the PK-12 system, but I have no confidence that we really know the meaning behind the words on those pages.

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