Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Purpose for School

This fall I have been supervising morning recess for Kindergarten to grade 5 kids at a nearby elementary school. Although this is a disruption to my day and an inconvenience to how I schedule my work, it’s also an interesting experience. When the bell rings, hundreds of little people converge on the play ground and field with iStock_000010314279Small_thumb4smile filled faces, energy, noise, and a determination to have fun. It’s hard to explain but this positive energy transfers quite well and I feel energized because of it. I sometimes wander into one of the Kindergarten classes to see what they’re up to. The other day, I saw lots of paper (painted) worlds hanging from the ceiling. Some of the kids told told me they learned what was inside and outside of the earth. I asked if the inside was made of “cheese” or “chocolate”, and one little person confirmed it was “chocolate”. I apologized to the teacher for messing up her lesson for that student. :-)

There is relentless talk and endless books telling us of needed change in education. Some advocate for more online learning and suggest that over 50% of all learning will be that within ‘X’ years, etc. There are those that advocate for more testing, less testing, better reporting, no grades, awards, no awards, less technology, more technology, different technology. We need more data, less data, better data, analysis systems, and we need to assess for learning and differentiate it. How does one make sense of all the opinions? As a technologist, I’m always interested in the purpose for what we do. Technology is often used to accelerate, automate, or make more efficient, a bad practice. I am an advocate for how valuable technology can be for many things but we can’t afford to be unclear about purpose when it comes to education systems like school.

Susan Brookhart’s article (pp. 10-14) in the November 2011 issue of Educational Leadership about grading includes the headline “the first task in successful grading reform is to reach consensus on the purpose of grades”. Seems simple enough. But when we think of the perspectives of parent, student, teacher, principal/school, District, Province, Country, it’s seems complicated. Susan asks what meaning should grades convey and who are the intended audiences for this information? A great starting point.

I stumbled across the School Purpose Project recently via twitter which states “[w]e are trying to understand what people around the world believe is the purpose of school”. They are collecting input via audio, text, and video messages and any one can weigh in. I particularly like Luke’s perspective:

Purpose of School

He advocates that school should be about learning to learn (not just skills and knowledge but habits of mind) and learning to co-exist (how to influence and how to avoid being influenced, to become good citizens, neighbours, and good team members). School used to be (still is quite a focus) all about covering content, memorizing, and being tested on memory of facts and procedures. Clearly a certain amount of content is necessary to “know” but what is worth knowing changes so quickly and what is knowable doubles every 12-18 months, presumably making it impractical for knowledge acquisition to be the prime focus.

I like the phrase “what we measure, we value”. This certainly has to apply to school. Alfie Kohn’s article “The Case Against Grades” (pp.28-33) in the November 2011 Educational Leadership (EL) starts with “when schools cling to letter and number ratings, students get stuck in a system that undermines learning”. He writes “grades don’t prepare students for the ‘real world’ – unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant”. People in education advocate to put marks online, iStock_000012753624XSmall_thumb6make them more accessible to students and their parents. Alfie quotes Gerald Bracey who said that technology “permits us to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn’t be doing at all” in reference to grading more efficiently (eg, posting online). Alfie write “sometimes it’s only after grading has ended that we realize just how harmful it had been”. Carol Ann Tomlinson adds that “consistent, specific feedback on a student’s competency in essential goals is a more potent teaching tool than a letter or number grade will ever be” (EL November 2011, p.86).

As I think about the digital tools we are seeing and will see flooding in to our schools, I wonder how these can support the purpose of school. I visited Apple’s offices recently and am impressed with how well iPads, video, and digital displays (Apple TV) integrate. Apple talks about having 160,000 apps designed for iPads and 500,000 apps for all i-devices, many of which are for “education”. I see “top 50 or 20 or 100” lists for apps posted to twitter every other day. How will educators, students, and parentsiStock_000007651615XSmall_thumb5 make good choices from this sea of possibilities to support “the purpose for school”? How will they affect assessment for and of learning? Students using iPads or other like devices have access to vast tombs of information and knowledge through text, audio, and video, and live experts. As they learn to navigate our digital and analogue world, what will we value, how much they can regurgitate on a test, or how well they can organize and how quickly they can access answers? Or will we value how well they can synthesize and create something new, how well they work alone or how well they learn in small teams face to face and online? How do or will 3D immersive learning environments fit the purpose for school and how do we evaluate students learning this way? I think it is becoming critically important to have ready responses for the purpose and form of school so as to inform a District or school’s priorities for providing technology to support this purpose.