Assessing Whole Students

by Matthew Koslowski on May 19, 2010
in Essays

“When I become a teacher, my students are going to look at my syllabus and say, ‘You expect us to do what now?’” my friend D. said. “I believe in the multiple-intelligences theory.”

We talk about the freedom that the Digital Age has given us for self-expression.

But has it really? The Internet is, largely, a text-based medium. Yes, we do have websites that are visual galleries but, for example, the website of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — and even the galleries themselves — are filled with text.

Writing is becoming an ever more important skill. Kara Miller wrote an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe, “Failure to communicate“, in which she discusses how weak are the writing skills of incoming college students.

To some degree, it’s a mathematical problem. If it takes me all weekend to correct 40 papers, how can a high school English teacher begin to tackle 120 papers (four sections, 30 students per section) in a detail-oriented way?

–Kara Miller

I have thought about this problem myself as I pursue becoming a teacher. Robyn Jackson in her book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching suggested if students are weak on developing opening paragraphs for essays, give them assignments just on opening paragraphs; if they are weak on topic sentences, give them assignments on topic sentences; if they are weak on the structure of an entire essay, give them assignments to write entire essays. I think of the hundreds of students I will have and how long it will take just those shorter assignments.

I admire D. She’s very passionate about challenging her future students and encouraging them to think for themselves. I admire that she wants to use a portfolio system — requiring tests, essays, presentations, and class participation — rather relying solely on one channel. In fact, that is the kind of assessment system that I want to use. But I wonder how much of our time employing that is going to require.

I have thought about giving students two grades per paper. The first for their grammar and the second for their arguments. Reading Kara Miller’s op-ed article, I wonder if I can really separate the two. If the student does not clearly spell out what he or she meant to say, then the teacher is just guessing at the meaning.

D., by her own admission, did not get the best grades in high school. She was not interested in the history she was taught and only rarely in the books. Her interests were more attuned to what she’s now studying, philosophy and psychology. She did not feel engaged with the work and as such did not care about the assessments she was given.

“Middle and high schools do not teach critical thinking,” she asserts.

I remember feeling that way as well. Disagreeing with the teacher in an essay was often a recipe for a bad grade, even in honors and advanced placement classes. And this was before the institution of high stakes testing in Massachussetts.

How can the MCAS assess critical thinking?

It cannot, and we should not expect it to measure that. The MCAS presents the items as if everything can be categorized as right or wrong. We can agree that Shakespeare wrote sonnets and plays, that his works were written in iambic pentameter, often rhyming; we can agree that Thomas Hardy wrote novels and poetry, perhaps we can even agree that it was the poor reviews of critics of his poetry that pushed him to writing novels; and we can call facts forms in which authors wrote, works that are attributed to them.

But on the meaning of the work, on the interpretation of the works, there is plenty of room for disagreement. You may think this passage was parody, was an ironic comment on something; I may think the author meant it as stated. The author cannot tell us and, in truth, I wouldn’t want him or her to clarify.

Ambiguity is good for thought.

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Motivation and Incentives

by Matthew Koslowski on April 23, 2010
in Anecdotes

In This Essay

“Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” by Amanda Ripley, TIME Magazine, Volume 175, Number 15 (April 19, 2010)
On the Surprising Science of Motivation by Dan Pink, TED
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink
Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn
 

I stopped dead as I looked at the magazine racks in my local Barnes&Noble about two weeks ago. On the cover, a little girl was sitting at a desk in front of stacks of cash, with bills falling from the desktop to the floor. The title asked: Should Schools Bribe Kids?

I felt revulsion.

Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards was one of the first books on education that I read. Although Kohn’s book focuses strongly on the effect of rewards and incentives in the rearing of children, he also discusses incentives in the workplace. His arguments were compelling and I could see their relevance in my own life. As I wrote in “Racing to the Test”, my pay-for-performance incentive plan doesn’t motivate me.

After reading Alfie Kohn’s work, I saw Dan Pink’s TED Lecture On the Surprising Science of Motivation. His work was congruent with the work of Kohn, though I didn’t see the nuances at first. I’ve watched the video perhaps four or five times now. At first, I focused on his arguments that incentives inhibit creative thinking. Pink also talks about how incentives actually boost performance for production of unit-driven tasks, such as Adam Smith’s example of creating pins or in the reading of a number of books.

Even with these two works in mind, I bought the TIME Magazine. I hoped to find that the work of the economist was one more piece of evidence supporting my conclusions.

The article describes four experiments designed by Roland Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist who wanted to test market forces in learning. The experiments were:

  • in New York City, paying fourth- and seventh-graders for earning higher test scores;
  • in Washington, D.C., paying sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders for certain behaviors, such as attendance;
  • in Chicago, paying ninth-graders for earning As, Bs, and Cs;
  • and, in Dallas, paying second-graders for each book they read.

And my predictions were mostly right. I thought they would all be failures, but one surprised me.

The schools with pay for performance did boost some test scores but not consistently. And the improved performance on specific tests did not translate to improved performance on the national tests that determine America’s international standing in education. If I were to pay you — well, most of you — right now to solve a second order differential equation, most of you could not do it because most of you have never learned to solve second order differential equations. Paying a student to get a better grade without teaching the student the techniques of how to get a better grade is much the same.

But the one program that seemed to have the most effect was paying second-graders for each book they read. The students earned their money after taking a short quiz on the book. I balked, thinking that such a program would kill a child’s natural inclination to read. Alfie Kohn makes a strong argument for incentives killing internal motivation. He describes a reading incentive program they had when I was a kid. After reading so many books, a child can earn a pizza from Pizza Hut.

And then I remembered something. Something very important that I had forgotten while reading Alfie Kohn’s book. I participated in that Pizza Hut program. I studied literature in high school and college; I love to read for pleasure; and I am well on my way to becoming an English teacher.

As much as I hate to admit it, maybe there is something to these program after all.

* * *

PS: You would think Dan Pink was paying me, considering how often I have mentioned him on Literature&Literacy. He’s not, but I like his areas of interest and research. Though I wouldn’t mind if he were to pay me.

Are Stars Fixed?

He grimaced after he realized what I had asked. He thought of how to phrase what he had to say. He was not happy that I had asked the question. He took sip of his drink. While he was fidgeting, I figured out what he was thinking. He tossed around for what else he could do to avoid answering the question.

“You don’t think my writing has much potential,” I answered for him. I had heard it before, though before it had been about my poetry and not about my fiction.

“Well, here’s the thing, Matthew, you’re a friend and I like you.”

“That is true, but that doesn’t change the quality of my writing.”

I thought about what he had said about the piece I shared with him. At first he had thought it was a thinly veiled diary entry. When I told him I’d never experienced anything as painful as my character had, he complimented my imagination.

“I think you may well be published and you will well get some good reviews. But is it enduring? When I think of a novel, I think of a piece that is art for art’s sake. I don’t see the art there.”

I thought about Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft which I’ve been reading. He writes that he think it is possible for a competent writer to become a good writer, but it’s never possible for a good writer to leap the chasm, becoming a great writer. Since reading that I have been wrestling with the idea.

If, for example, there is a limit to how quickly an individual can run — only a limited number of people can run at Olympic speeds — does it follow that there is a limit to how well one can write? Perhaps writing talent is like singing talent: everyone is born able to sing in a specific range, with some training someone can reach some notes higher or lower, but a bass will never be a tenor.

As I sipped my own drink, I thought about how just the other night after reading a friend’s work, I told her that I wasn’t sure if there was any there there. And now I was hearing the same thing. I thought about what he said.

What I had shared were five and a half double-spaced pages of my first foray into writing after a long absence. Could Faulkner’s friends see the art in his first attempts? Didn’t Shakespeare’s genius develop through his first plays before he had fully mastered his craft? Some critics say that Shakespeare’s first plays show strong attempts to emulate the more established playwrights of his day.

My friend smiled. “What the hell do I know? Every genius was underestimated in his day. Here’s to your writing!”

No Fixed Stars: Thoughts on I.Q. Testing

by Matthew Koslowski on February 3, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson, Ph.D., with Lou Aronica
Alfred Binet, Wikipedia
Lewis Terman, Wikipedia
 

I have always been aware of ideas of intelligence and, therefore, ideas of Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.).

Unless you count a silly Internet test I took in college, I have never taken an I.Q. test. Often I have wondered what my I.Q. was, assuming as I did that I.Q. was a valid measure of intelligence. Since I did well in my scholastic subjects, I thought I would score high on an I.Q. test and I wanted in my insecurity about my own talents an objective verification of what I wanted to believe about myself but doubted.

When I moved to Ohio for college, I learned from friends that administering I.Q. tests is routine procedure in Ohio. I felt cheated then that Massachusetts did not do the same.

Now, however, having read more about the history of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, I am thankful not to have had my I.Q. measured in this way.

Read more..

Digitally Divided

by Matthew Koslowski on December 16, 2009
in Essays

In This Essay

Digital divide narrowed, but lives on for students across US by Annie Gowen, The Washington Post via boston.com
 

How do we provide equal access to education when one-third of households do not have Internet access?

In our fervor to embrace technology, we are leaving children behind. We are creating a two classes: the digital haves and the digital have-nots.

The idea of a digital divide had occurred to me before I read Annie Gowen’s article. But the full impact had not occurred to me. I had not thought of how stressful it would be for a child of eleven or twelve to try to juggle getting to and from school when is computer lab is open with getting to and from the library when its computer lab is open.

When I first moved back to Massachusetts after more than six years in Illinois and the Midwest, I lived something of the digital divide myself. My experience illuminates problems the students have.

Read more..

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