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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Read Carefully & Select the Best Answer

By Starr Sackstein — February 07, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s Guest blog is written by Starr Sackstein. Starr is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in New York City and the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed.

This will not be a story about test preparation to ensure student success, but rather a cautionary tale of what happens when we focus too much on short-sighted goals and not enough on the pedagogy that actually affects deeper learning.

Just kidding, this is going to be about transformative pedagogy that will prepare kids for life and tests a bi-standard to that.

When each of us decides to become a teacher, we don’t take an oath to spend the better part of everyday preparing students for timed impending doom. We hope to engage in a dialogue that allows students to acquire skills and inspire them to become lifelong learners. That has always been my pursuit.

Part of what has made my students successful is their relentless commitment to meeting me at every challenge, questioning my choices and my giving them the latitude to do so. It’s a relationship that depends on us pushing back on each other constantly; them to find meaning and me to improve the ways in which they are exposed to new ideas.

Creativity and innovation must be the end goal, nurturing the symbiotic relationship so we can all become better together. This cannot be assessed with short answers or multiple choice.

Teach with purpose, rather than complain about the test

...Or as the voice in Field of Dreams would say, “if you build it, they will come.” As long as there is meaningful, transparent learning happening, the test will take care of itself. Every teacher must aspire to pack each lesson, class period and personal interaction with thoughtful opportunities to experience all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy from comprehension to creation.

It’s not enough for an educator to be an expert in the field of anything that can only take us so far. We must provide engaging lessons that teach one skill at a time and offer students multiple opportunities to practice and show what they know against the standards on a regular basis, not just one test on one day in one way.

If in our classrooms we truly encourage and espouse the philosophy that learning and progress are prized above a grade or an average, then students will grow to understand that learning takes time and progress shows itself steadily like the tortoise ready for the long race.

Learning is a life experience, not a cram session with a finite number of things to know; it is nuance and individuality and freedom to explore both of those however the student sees fit.

Don’t be a hater, understand the Common Core

The Common Core didn’t do anything to you, why do you hate it so much? Standards are inherently positive and create a structure by which to assess our students. These particular standards are focused cross-discipline and skill based - what’s bad about that? The challenges that have arisen are mostly due to poor implementation or vision myopically focused on excessive testing, closely tying teacher success to student success on these unbalanced exams.

Anyone who has taught for even just a moment sees the inherent challenges with this model. If we could reimagine initiatives around the Common Core to include full portfolios that embrace and encourage self-assessment and reflection against standards interpreted by the students themselves, then we can see skills that will be transferable anywhere, in a school setting or a life setting.

Collaborate across content to ensure skill development

Writing and reading skills don’t just happen in an English classroom; students utilize these skills in all classes, so why not work together to scaffold and practice them. Understanding literature on any figurative/craft level works a different set of skills than information texts, but annotation and transparent purpose helps students universally.

Let’s take the time to help students learn to read and write with authentic reasons, the kinds they will encounter not just on a test or in college but in a career as well. Consider ways we can teach them to approach a challenging text, chunking ideas, making notes and meaning to develop a personal context through which they will connect an enduring understanding.

If we can help students truly attach a profound experience with their reading and writing, they will develop skills that don’t just last until game time where they are used and forgotten as is the case a good majority of the time with tests.

Making students career or college-ready

Proficiency in reading, writing, speaking and listening as well as technology and media integration illustrates a readiness for adult life. Let’s face it, in the world we live in now if a person can’t exhibit these skills, success will sadly be out of reach. Although it takes great talent to artfully shade a multiple choice oval, since my teaching certification exams, I can’t say I’ve had any use for it in my adult life.

When are we going to accept as a society that testing and grading or any other quantitative means associated with learning will only quash the intrinsic value of curiosity and creativity? We keep saying that we want innovation yet we breed standardized clones studiously pursuing a meaningless number... the highest one which ultimately doesn’t serve to actually tell us anything about what they know.

A number is just a number and without any qualitative or reflective connection, it’s vacuous. It’s our job as educators to talk to kids and colleagues about strengths and weaknesses, be available to help them establish plans of action and then coach and cheer them on to accomplishing the goals they set. We need to watch them and help them stay the course, recognizing their accomplishments and urging them beyond mere proficiency.

Students should be leaving for college with the skills to read anything, write about anything in any format and creatively indulge in education for the sheer want of bettering themselves and society by proxy.

Graduate students life-ready

As educators our most important role is that of role model. We aren’t just educating students with content knowledge, we equip them with life skills that will transcend the information found in books and lectures. Interpersonal skills, coupled with metacognitive awareness, students should leave their formal education lifelong-learner ready, eager to quench a thirst to know and a hunger to persist. Last I checked, there aren’t any tests that adequately assess these skills. Only the personal successes each young adult achieves can quantify his/her acquired skill set.

Are we teaching students to cram for life or offering life-long learning skills that will transcend and endure the challenges of their adult experiences? And if we aren’t already, how can we make the shift?

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.