Bate Middle School is a mundane ’70s-era, red-brick building. But what’s happening inside is anything but mundane. I’ve driven the 37 miles from Lexington to see one of the most closely watched efforts in the country to change the way schools assess student learning. Principal Amy Swann and the district’s Superintendent, Carmen Coleman, have completely overhauled their school’s educational philosophy, moving away from standardized tests toward an approach called performance-based assessment.
Kentucky was the first state in the nation to adopt the Common Core and the tests that align with it. But this spring, the 1,700-student Danville district will skip those tests.
On a Wednesday afternoon in late March, I am waiting in the whitewashed hallway outside Diania Henderson’s seventh-grade science class to see performance assessment in action. The seventh graders are sporting dresses, jackets, and ties. When the end-of-day bell rings, they file into the basement cafeteria, quiet and tense with only a few poking each other in the sides, for a snack of cheese crackers and Capri Suns. It is the day of the Science and Math Performance-Based Assessments, or as everyone calls them, the PBATs.
A special education student and aspiring chef earns the top mark of “Outstanding” for a detailed presentation on surface tension and various seasonings.
The whole seventh grade spreads out in small groups across the school building. Most of them are toting three-sided posterboards, like you might remember from middle school. But over the next two hours, as dusk gathers outside, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary science fair.
The entire curriculum at this school has been redesigned around interdisciplinary projects, which take several weeks to complete. The English and Social Studies 7th-grade PBATs were group projects that took place in the fall.
One by one, the students stand and give a 20-minute solo presentation with a PowerPoint or video. Separately, they’ve handed in 15-page research papers. They’re giving these presentations to panels of judges made up of teachers from other grades or the high school, officials from a neighboring district, education students from the University of Kentucky, and fellow students.
When it’s his turn, apple-cheeked Charlie Hall explains how he was able to lower the heartbeat of his Doberman, Rosie, and stop her from wolfing down her food by petting and talking to her.
Claire Strysick, with her hair in a neat bun, speaks about the impact of oil spills and presents the results of a chemical analysis of aquarium water polluted with petroleum.
I watch as student after student confidently answers questions about the steps of the scientific method, experimental design, math concepts like mean and median, and most impressively, how the project relates to his or her life. And they listen respectfully to each other, giving helpful feedback.
Most projects are graded “outstanding” or “competent.”A few are judged “needs revision,” which means the students will keep working on them until they pass muster.
There is high-level learning on display here, from the math and science content to independent research and public speaking skills. Yet Bate isn’t some gifted school. Of the 400 students, 69 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 38 percent are members of minority groups. About a fifth are in special ed.
Schools Can Do Better
Five years ago, when Carmen Coleman took over as superintendent, Bate Middle School was on the state “watch list” because of its low test scores. The state commissioner even made a surprise visit to the school to decide whether to shut it down.
And so in the fall of 2011, Coleman asked her friend from graduate school at the University of Kentucky to take over as principal. “She didn’t say, ‘Come take over my worst school,’” Swann recalls with a laugh. “But I just saw amazing teachers and kids.”
Swann got right to work, reorganizing the staff, introducing project-based learning and setting expectations with a “Danville diploma” that included social and emotional skills, ethics, technological literacy, career readiness. In 2013, the school was designated an “exemplar school” by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, one of just 25 in the nation.
“There’s maybe 10 people around the country who really understand how to demonstrate authentic learning through student work, and two of them are in Kentucky,” says Tom Vander Ark, an author and former schools superintendent who has written extensively on school improvement.
What makes the Danville experiment particularly noteworthy is that Kentucky was out ahead of the nation on adoption of the Common Core State Standards for English and math. Swann believes the standards are worthwhile, but thinks schools can do better than the tests that go with them. Though the new Common Core tests have been touted as improvements over what they replaced, she says they are really “the same old multiple choice,” and adds,”I feel like on a standardized test you’re really showing what kids don’t know.”
Swann and Coleman started looking for alternatives. Together, they visited award-winning schools all over the country, such as Big Picture Learning, an international network of over 100 schools that focus on individual passions, and High Tech High, a school in New Jersey that uses computers in every class.
They were most impressed with a group of 39 schools in New York State called the Performance Standards Consortium. Since 1997, these public schools have been exempt from state standardized tests. Instead of working from textbooks, students in performance schools create research projects, both solo and in groups, and present them for detailed feedback.
Students in these schools produce documentary films. They research position papers on immigration policy, conduct scientific studies of visual perception, and create mathematics puzzles.
“It makes a big difference if kids are doing something that they care about,” says Ann Cook, the leader of the consortium and founder of Urban Academy Laboratory High School,a Manhattan public school in the consortium. According to the most recent data available, Consortium schools in New York City have a dropout rate that’s less than half the city’s — 5.3 percent compared with 11.8 percent. And these students also perform better in college.
From New York To Kentucky
In October of 2012, Swann traveled to New York to see a “moderation study,” where teachers at different performance schools get together to review each others’ assignments and examples of students’ work. This is yet another way in which performance teachers collaborate and solicit feedback to improve the quality of teaching and learning.
One assignment in particular captured Swann’s attention. “The teacher asked the students to design an amusement park ride. They had all the math in there, and physics, and it just really sparked something in me: That math doesn’t have to be this boring class with lectures and standardized tests. I said, ‘Let’s take this back to Danville.’”
When she got back from New York that fall, Swann held an all-hands staff meeting in the school library. “I said, ‘What if we designed a whole new assessment system?’ They said, ‘That’s not possible.’” Swann described all the exciting teaching and learning she’d seen in New York. “They said, ‘We like this better than the regular tests. We’ll be behind you.’”
Swann asked for an anonymous vote on the new plan, and 98 percent said yes.
A bill to allow Danville to skip the state tests unanimously passed the House in April of this year but was shot down in the Senate. The state Department of Education says discussions to find alternatives are ongoing. Regardless of what happens, the district will still give the ACT and its practice tests in 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th grades. (ACT scores are tied to scholarship money for public university students in Kentucky, and the nationally recognized test will help them benchmark student learning.)
But the yearly grind of prepping for weeks for state tests is over for now. Swann says it’s making a big difference in what teachers do every day, especially in their ability to tailor instruction to each student’s needs and interests.
With standardized tests, she says, “from August to April I have to cover this content, and it doesn’t matter if the kid is all the way up here, I have to pull them back down to review what they already know. And for the low-scoring kids, if I rush them through everything, they’ll have a better chance of guessing it on the test. Everything with school ranking and teacher ranking is based on the tests, when instruction should be based on reaching the individual student and moving them forward.”
Walk into a classroom at Bate and you can see students discussing their work together in small groups, clustered around a book or computer. The teachers circulate, ready to help where needed, or pull out a student to work one-on-one.
Kathy Merryman, the president of the Parent-Teacher Organization, has seen the evolution as her two children moved through Bate. I meet her in the hallway before the seventh grade PBATs, where she is helping a nervous student in a plaid shirt and bowtie rehearse his presentation.
“Every teacher on the staff is here for these kids,” Merryman says, “and they are here till six o’clock tonight. And any teacher is willing to help out anyone who has a question. And they’ve all embraced performance-based learning, from the most traditional teacher to the most nontraditional teacher.”
“I have never worked in a school before where the teachers are all on board with one concept and one idea,” agrees Larry Ebert, a special education teacher. “Our goals are the same, and it’s all about what’s best for the kids. It really does take that collaborative aspect in order for the students to succeed.”
Assessing Performance Assessment
Performance assessment has had a small, passionate group of supporters going back decades, especially among self-described progressive educators who think standardized tests are too blunt and too one-dimensional to measure the full range of how students learn.
It’s related to two more widespread approaches: project-based learning and portfolios. Projects, like the familiar science fair, are usually a special add-on to the regular curriculum. Portfolios, which you may remember from art or creative writing class, seek to give a richer, multidimensional picture of students’ capabilities by assembling a body of work.
These approaches allow students to follow their own interests and lean into their strengths. They are usually graded with a rubric, not a percentile. They address skills like presentation, communication, and teamwork that are common in the workplace but not part of most traditional schooling—or state-mandated testing.
On top of all that, performance assessment focuses on demonstrations of learning to outside evaluators. Students get a “reality check” by taking their learning before members of the community, and teachers who haven’t taught them.
The experiment at Bate takes this approach a step further by making performance assessment the cornerstone of the entire curriculum.
Of course, there are reasons U.S. schools have gravitated toward standardized tests instead. They’re (relatively) cheap, easily administered, and they carry the promise of some kind of “objective” measure. In other words, they’re “standardized.” Performance assessment is the opposite of all that, and that is one reason it hasn’t become widespread. With all its potential, performance assessment does set a very high bar for teachers and school leaders.
“To embrace projects and performance assessment as the core pedagogical approach is obviously a gigantic shift,” says Vander Ark. Even Cook, the head of the consortium in New York, agrees that it’s “not necessarily for everybody.”
In fact, Kentucky itself implemented a statewide high-stakes assessment system in 1992 called “KIRIS,” that included student portfolios of work, performance tasks, and tests featuring open-ended questions. A 1996 report by an outside consultant found that teachers and principals thought the system was good for instruction and raised expectations for students, but was burdensome and stressful to put in place. In 1998, the state dropped it.
However, as disquiet with standardized testing has grown, there’s been a corresponding rise in interest in performance assessment. Supporters see it as an antidote that can be rigorous and address 21st century skills while also engaging students.
The chief state school officers in Kentucky and eight other states have formed a group known as the Innovation Lab Network. These states have adopted performance-based learning as one of their “critical attributes” for a successful school. (The other states are California, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin.)
Several of these states are moving to include a performance-assessment option in public schools. Vermont is taking similar steps, and there is aNew England Secondary School Consortium of 400 high schools using it as well.
With performance assessment taking root in Danville, Swann and Coleman are now moving on to expand it to more places.
Coleman has left the Danville district to take aposition at the University of Kentucky’s National Center for Innovation in Education, where she hopes to oversee the founding of a performance-standards consortium like the one in New York. A neighboring district, Trigg, has expressed interest in joining Danville in giving up state tests.
“We need to make a gigantic shift,” says Coleman, echoing Vander Ark. “Our kids are getting shortchanged because we’re trapped in this rat race of preparing for assessments.”
Amy Swann, meanwhile, has taken a new job as Chief Learning Officer at a national organization called Matchbook Learning, based in Atlanta. She will be working to turn around more bottom-five-percent “watch list” schools in Detroit, Newark, and soon possibly in New Orleans and other cities.
‘Who Bubbles In Answers At Their Job?’
While there’s no data yet on how the approach is working in Danville, support for the idea in the schools and the community is high.
Twelve-year-old Charlie Hall proves an excellent spokesperson for what’s happening in his school. “I liked school before, but now that we’ve taken this initiative into project-based learning, I really, really like it,” he says over Skype from his living room.
Growing up with his mother and stepfather in Danville, Charlie has always been a good student, cheerful and independent. Besides playing with his dog Rosie, he likes playing soccer and making videos in his spare time. His PBAT project, on Rosie’s heart rate, included an astonishingly slick video, complete with soundtrack, that his mother says he shot and edited all by himself.
“Before, we would take tests like every single day and write long answers,” he explains. “So the transition from that really tight monotonous structure to a very free-flowing environment in the classroom might be a little different at first.”
But he says he sees a huge payoff in the long term.
“Let’s get this straight — who is going to be bubbling in answers at their job? No one,” he says, sounding like just the kind of engaged, motivated learner that Danville is trying to produce. “We’re getting skills that we’re actually going to need later on in life. It’s really cool.”
By Valerie Strauss, May 3, 2015
The movement among parents to refuse to allow their children to take Common Core-aligned standardized tests has been growing in a number of states, as recent Answer Sheet posts have chronicled (here and here, for example). As opt-out numbers have grown, so too has reaction from officials who argue that frequent testing is valuable and that school districts could lose federal funds if too many students refuse to take the test (a threat that appears to be based on shaky ground.) Though testing supporters have attempted to minimize the importance and impact of the opt-out movement, it is having a big impact, as explained in the following post by award-winning New York Principal Carol Burris.
Burris, of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In 2010, she was selected as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She has written several books, numerous articles and many posts on this blog about the seriously botched implementation of school reform in her state — including the Common Core standards and the implementation of high-stakes Core-aligned exams — and about the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. She recentlyannounced that she had decided to retire early and to advocate for public education in new ways.
By Carol Burris
New York opt-out is reverberating around the nation. The pushback against the Common Core exams caught fans of high-stakes testing off guard, with estimates of New York test refusals now exceeding 200,000.
It was evident that the state would be far below the 95 percent federal participation rate as soon as the 3-8 English Language Arts tests began. When math testing started, the numbers climbed higher still. In the Brentwood School District, a 49 percent opt-out rate for ELA rose to 57 percent during math tests. These rates defy the stereotype that the movement is a rebellion of petulant “white suburban moms.” Ninety-one percent of Brentwood students are black or Latino, and 81 percent are economically disadvantaged. Brentwood is not unique–Amityville (90 percent black or Latino, 77 percent economically disadvantaged) had an opt-out rate of 36.4 percent; Greenport (49 percent black or Latino, 56 percent economically disadvantaged) had an opt-out rate that exceeded 61 percent; and South Country opt outs (50 percent black or Latino and 51 percent economically disadvantaged) exceeded 64 percent. New York’s rejection of the Common Core tests crosses geographical, socio-economic and racial lines.
There are also reports that student opt-outs were suppressed by administrators in some districts, who called in non-English speaking parents and pressured them to rescind their opt-out letters. Parent activist Jeanette Deutermann states that she “was contacted by dozens of NYC teachers who were horrified by the scare tactics being used on parents in their schools, to coerce them into participating in this year’s assessments. Language barriers and the absence of a social media presence resulted in a lack of knowledge about their rights to refuse the test. Teachers reported that administrators exploited this language and information barrier, telling parents that their children would not be promoted if they refused, or that they simply had no right to refuse. This is blatant discrimination at best.”
Despite attempts to suppress opt out, refusal rates were over three times last year’s 60,000, and activist parents are already planning to increase numbers next year. The opt-out movement is spreading across the nation. PARCC opt out is taking off in Colorado,New Jersey and California, especially among high-school students.
As the Refuse the Common Core Test movement grows, the three people who are the most responsible for causing New York’s rebellion—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Chancellor Merryl Tisch—are commenting on opting out, each with their own unique spin.
During a discussion with Motoko Rich of The New York Times, Arne Duncan threatened federal government intervention if states did not meet the 95 percent participation rate. Assuming that Duncan is not planning to call in the National Guard to haul off opt-outing 8 year olds, the only possible “sanction” would be withholding funds. That would surely lead to court challenges forcing the Education Department to justify penalizing schools when parents exercise their legitimate right to refuse the test.–an impossible position to defend.
During the same interview, Duncan said that his own children, who attend school in the non-Common Core state of Virginia, do not see the test as “a traumatic event.” He insinuated that “adults” are causing “the trauma,” thus furthering the stereotype of “the hysterical mom” that those who oppose opt-out often evoke. Before jumping to the conclusion that New York parents are the problem, Mr. Duncan might want to compare the Virginia tests his children take, to the New York Common Core test.
Here is a sample from the Grade 6 Reading test that was given in Virginia last year to measure the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL):
“Julia raced down the hallway, sliding the last few feet to her next class. The bell had already rung, so she slipped through the door and quickly sat down, hoping the teacher would not notice.
Mr. Malone turned from the piano and said, “Julia, I’m happy you could join us.” He continued teaching, explaining the new music they were preparing to learn. Julia relaxed, thinking Mr. Malone would let another tardy slide by. Unfortunately, she realized at the end of class that she was incorrect.”
That is certainly a reasonable passage to expect sixth-graders to read. You can find the complete passage and other released items from the Virginia tests here.
Contrast the above with a paragraph from a passage on the sixth-grade New York Common Core test given this spring.
The artist focuses on the ephemerality of his subject. “It’s there for a brief moment and the clouds fall apart,” he says. Since clouds are something that people tend to have strong connections to, there are a lot of preconceived notions and emotions tied to them. For him though, his work presents “a transitory moment of presence in a distinct location.”
I will let readers draw their own conclusions.
Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reaction brought to mind Mad Magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, whose slogan was, “What? Me worry?” Cuomo just didn’t seethe big deal in opt out. After characterizing the scores as “meaningless” the governor continued by saying, “So they can opt out if they want to, but on the other hand, if the child takes the test as practice, then the score doesn’t count anyway.” Is Andrew Cuomo saying that New Yorkers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on testing and wasting nearly two weeks of instructional time for “practice”? Practice, exactly, for what?
And finally Chancellor Merryl Tisch expressed dismay and confusion. Tisch, who once confessed that “the opting out kind of breaks my heart,” reminded students that it’s a hard-knock life by threatening “a national test.” When the numbers continued to rise, she said that “we” have the right to use discretion and withhold funds to districts. When that didn’t stem opt outs, she decided that threats do not work and funding should not be withheld.
In an obvious attempt to duck accountability for test refusals, she threw the Governor and NYSUT under the bus by attributing opt out to parents and kids having “ got caught in the labor dispute between the governor and the teacher’s union.”
Her unwillingness to see her own role in the testing mess immediately caused a stir. The editorial board of the Lower Hudson Journal News accused Tisch of portraying opt-out parents as “confused patsies of a labor action.” Board members observed that “the stunning success of the test-refusal movement in New York is a vote of no confidence in our state educational leadership,” and they called for Tisch to step down.
The Journal News editorial board said what Duncan, Cuomo, Tisch and other so-called reformers don’t want to hear. Opt out is far bigger than a test refusal event. It is the repudiation of a host of corporate reforms that include the Common Core, high-stakes testing, school closings and the evaluation of teachers by test scores. These reforms are being soundly rejected by parents and teachers.
I don’t often agree with Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, but he gets that opt out is a big deal. During his podcast discussion of opt out, he concluded (at 6.43):
“If this [opt-out] thing goes national, the whole education reform movement is in serious trouble.”
I agree with Mike with one slight revision—I would take out the word “if”.
By Elizabeth Richardson Rau
I was stopped at a red light recently and pondered the stick figure family affixed to the back window of the minivan in front of me: one soccer player, a lacrosse player and a couple of cheerleaders. I have one sticker on the back of my car—round, decorated with sherbet-colored flowers, it looks like something that would be on the side of a VW bus heading to Woodstock—that says “Pay it Forward.” The abundance of familial advertising on the back of that minivan got me wondering whether I should have stickers promoting my three-person family. If I advertised the realities of raising my teenaged son, they might look something like this: Future pot farmer on board! Bedroom smells like a gym locker! Suspended for having cigarettes in backpack! F in English = summer school! I don’t recall seeing any of these on the racks at my local Target, though.
Raising children, particularly teenagers, is a tricky business. Parenting is tough enough without the added pressure of competing with those who publicly proclaim to be doing it better than we are. I wonder when our children’s accomplishments became the source of our own self-esteem. And what message does advertising only the positive send to typical kids who miss curfew, roll their eyes and talk back? Public promotion of our kids’ accolades not only creates a false reality for other parents but teaches our children to conceal the reality of life: that it is messy and imperfect, just like they are.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, my parents did not contact our extended family or friends each time I did something boast-worthy, nor did they send a holly-trimmed newsletter each December bragging about my successes of the past eleven months. They did not have bumper stickers of any kind of the backs of their cars, certainly not ones advertising my identity as a tennis star or piano player. From them, I learned that the accomplishments themselves made me feel good, not the praise I received from others for achieving them. I was a typical teenager, much like the one that I am raising, an average student who participated in extra-curricular activities largely against my wishes; left to my own devices, I would have raced home every day after school to watch Little House on the Prairie while eating spray cheese straight out of the can. I did participate in many sticker-worthy activities, yet virtually no one outside my immediate family knew about it. There was no social media, and parental competition was something passed from ear to ear, not trumpeted from the top of the Internet mountaintop.
With Facebook came the public platform for showboating (Ate oatmeal for breakfast! Ran 5.5 miles! Twenty years ago, married the love of my life!). Twitter brought the capability to do so in 140-characters or less. When I was a pimply-faced, awkward adolescent, information moved at the turtle-slow pace of a note passed in the school hallway. My parents never thought to brag about my piano concert or number of tennis match wins. But today, with one click of a button or the slap of a sticker, the world is in the know about our business.
Why should we, as parents, care about public recognition for our kids’ accomplishments, and when did it become popular for parents to take credit for their children’s successes? I don’t recall ever seeing stickers advertising parental successes on the backs of any minivans (Employee of the month! Won preferred parking space at the gym! Voted most popular in book club!), so why do we put this pressure on our kids? Are we so desperate, as parents, for recognition of our kids’ achievements that we are willing to sacrifice the powerful lesson of gaining esteem from accomplishment to get it?
Listening in to conversations at high school sporting events, I hear mothers bragging about kids’ grades, sports wins, extra-curricular successes and those college applications! My son will be attending community college and while I am proud of his choice, mention it and people back away slowly, as though it might be catching. Community college is not sexy or prestigious, despite it being the best choice for my son. He doesn’t know what he wants to be for the rest of his life and has enough common sense to find out before investing a small fortune in an education he feels would be for show.
It is the accomplishments themselves, not the public trumpeting, that should generate self-esteem and self-worth. Teaching our children, particularly our vulnerable teenagers, to base their value on acceptance and third-party praise is one of the most damaging things we can do as parents. Instilling the value that being the best we can be, without recognition or judgment by others, is far more meaningful than advertising it. Life is about balance—with every accomplishment comes equal failure—so advertising only the good promotes a reality that is unattainable and puts pressure on our kids to be something that doesn’t exist: perfect.
My son learned a hard lesson when he lost his circle of friends because he was publicly honest about smoking pot. He admitted an imperfect choice, one that many of his friends also made regularly, and became an outcast overnight. The mothers of these boys, one of whom was my closest friend, led the social exodus and my children and I became prey to the realities of false advertising: it must look perfect in order to be accepted or worthy. Parenting teenagers is rarely pretty, but attractive lies are apparently far more appealing than ugly truths. Interestingly, the void left room for other families who were more interested in what we were on the inside as opposed to what we presented on the outside. Our social circle is smaller, yet more authentic as a result.
With drug use, suicides and mental health struggles in the adolescent population at epidemic levels, we must ask ourselves, as parents, if we should be advertising our kids differently, if at all. Teaching children to value themselves for their successes and be real about their struggles might be healthier than advertising partial truths. Perhaps the time has come to place value where it should really be: who we are as human beings instead of what we are achieving. Isn’t being—not bragging—the foundation of good self-esteem?
Be instead of brag. Maybe we can make that into a bumper sticker.
Author’s note: I continue to emphasize internal authenticity with my kids despite the challenges of doing so in a social media-obsessed world. We are regular practitioners of paying it forward and strive to “be instead of brag.”
Elizabeth Richardson Rau received her B.A. in journalism from Simmons College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is a freelance writer and marketing communications strategist and lives in central Connecticut with her two children.
By Annie Murphy Paul
A note to Brilliant readers: The following essay appears in the May issue of School Library Journal. The issue is devoted to making and maker spaces, and includes many interesting articles on the subject—I encourage you to check it out. My own contribution looks at how librarians, teachers, and parents can make sure that kids arelearning while they make stuff.—Annie
There’s no doubt that students find making to be a creative and engaging activity. But as they tinker, design and invent, are they actually learning anything?
Making is too young a phenomenon to have generated a broad research base to answer this question. The literature that does exist comes from enthusiastic champions of making, rather than disinterested investigators. But there are two well-established lines of research within psychology and cognitive science that can inform how we understand making and help us ensure that making leads to learning. Taken together, these two strands of empirical evidence provide the best guide we presently have for maximizing the learning potential of maker activities.
The first line of research is called cognitive load theory, developed by John Sweller, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and others. You may recall from a college psychology class “the magical number seven”—the notion that people can only hold seven pieces of information in their heads at one time. In recent years, scientists have determined that our cognitive capacity is even smaller, able to accommodate more like two to four items. So students learn best when they aren’t grappling with too many ideas.
This argument has relevance for student makers in two ways. First, cognitive load theorists warn that activities that are “self-guided” or “minimally guided” (as many maker projects are) may not lead to effective learning, as measured by assessments of students’ knowledge at the activity’s end. Novices are, by definition, not yet knowledgeable enough to make smart choices about which avenues to pursue and which to ignore. Beginners engaged in self-directed projects may also develop new misunderstandings along the way. In all, self-directed maker activities may have students expending a lot of time and effort—and scarce cognitive resources—on activities that don’t help them learn.
Second, cognitive load researchers caution that learning and creating are distinct undertakings, each of which competes with the other for limited mental reserves. Absorbing and thinking about new knowledge imposes a significant cognitive burden, as does pursuing a specified goal (for example, building a model airplane). When students are asked to do both at once, they tend to focus on meeting the goal, leaving precious few cognitive resources for the reflection that leads to lasting learning. Student makers may produce a handsome model airplane having no idea what makes it fly. The best way to ensure learning, these researchers maintain, is to provide direct instruction: clear, straightforward explanation, offered before any making has begun.
A second line of evidence is called productive failure. This research has mostly been carried out by Manu Kapur, a professor at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and has principally concerned mathematical problem-solving. Rather than explain a mathematical concept and then ask students to apply it, as in a traditional classroom, Kapur gives students a difficult problem without any explanation at all. Working in teams, the students are tasked with devising as many potential solutions as possible. Typically, such students do not arrive at the textbook or “canonical” solution—but instead generate more inventive approaches. Only then does Kapur step in and offer direct instruction on the best way to solve the problem.
Kapur has found that presenting problems in this seemingly backwards order helps those students learn more deeply and flexibly than subjects who receive direct instruction. Indeed, the teams that generated the greatest number of suboptimal solutions—or failed—learned the most from the exercise.
This happens for three reasons, Kapur theorizes. One: Students who do not receive teacher instruction at the outset are forced to rely on their previous knowledge. Research shows that “activating” previous knowledge leads to better learning, because it allows us to integrate new knowledge with what is already stored in our brains. Two: Because the learners are not given the solution to the problem right away, they are forced to grapple with the deep structure of the problem—an experience that allows them to understand the solution at a more fundamental level when they do finally receive the answer. And three: Learners pay especially close attention when the instructor reveals the correct solution, because they have now thought deeply about the problem but have failed themselves to come up with the correct solution. They’re eager to find out what it might be, and this eagerness makes it more likely that they’ll remember it going forward. The best way to ensure learning, Kapur maintains, is to deliberately “design for failure.”
Now, neither of these approaches may, at the outset, hold much appeal for maker enthusiasts. Making is concerned with learning through creating—not through lecture-style direct instruction. Also, maker culture is about promoting a sense of competence and mastery—not deliberately setting up learners for failure. Moreover, don’t these two lines of research contradict each other? One advises instructors to tell learners what to do upfront, and the other prescribes just the opposite.
On closer inspection, however, these two bodies of evidence actually complement each other. Some tasks, like those concerning basic knowledge or skills, are better suited to direct instruction. It may be better to provide explicit instruction on how to operate a 3-D printer, for example, than to have students figure out the directions on their own. We should tell student makers exactly how to perform straightforward tasks, so that they can devote cognitive resources to more complex operations. Meanwhile, tasks that themselves demand deeper conceptual understanding are likely to benefit from a productive-failure approach. In such cases, we should organize makers into groups and ask them to generate multiple solutions.
Incorporating insights from both methods can help ensure that maker activities produce real learning. By applying cognitive load theory to making, we can “unbundle” learning and creating—at least at first—so as to reduce cognitive overload. Instead of asking learners to learn and make at the same time, these two activities can be separated and then pursued sequentially. Makers working on that model airplane, for example, could carefully inspect a previously assembled plane, examine a diagram of it, and then watch as we put one together, explaining as we go, before attempting to make one themselves.
Once students begin making, we can carefully scaffold their mental activity, allowing them to explore and make choices but always within a framework that supportsaccurate and effective learning. The scaffolding lightens learners’ cognitive load until they can take over more mental tasks themselves. This approach actually dovetails with the apprenticeship model that inspired the maker movement: the student learns to create under the guidance of a master, taking on more responsibility as his skills and confidence grow. And, rather than relying entirely on his own intuitions, he has models to inspect and emulate—again, especially early on, when the mental demands of learning are high.
Applying the lessons of productive failure to making, we can immerse students in a maker task with minimal prior instruction. Students should be asked to generate as many potential solutions as they can, working in teams to maximize the number of solutions contributed and explored. This initial phase should be followed by direct instruction on the optimal solution—instruction that addresses the students’ own array of solutions, explaining why each one misses the mark. The contrasts we draw between the ideal solution and the learners’ suboptimal solutions do much to facilitate their learning. This approach, too, is fully in tune with the maker approach: it encourages students to play with ideas and materials, without the pressure to find the one right answer.
School librarians who direct maker spaces have found ingenious ways to accommodate the ways in which students learn. At New Milford High School in New Jersey, for example, library media specialist Laura Fleming has created two types of “stations” at which students can work: fixed stations and flexible stations. Fixed stations have “low barriers to entry,” says Fleming; students can walk into the library and immediately engage in the activities set up there, without any instruction or guidance. Fleming’s fixed stations include LEGOs and a take-apart technology area, where students can disassemble old computers and other machines to investigate how they work. These fixed stations are available at all times throughout the school year. Flexible stations, by contrast, are periodically changed, and they involve much more structured guidance from Fleming, who might lead students step by step through an activity, modeling what to do as she goes. Projects at flexible stations have included building a robot and creating cartoons with stop-motion animation.
Fleming has ensured that her library’s maker space enhances classroom learning by doing her homework. “Before I ordered a single piece of equipment [for the maker space], I did a thorough survey of students’ existing interests,” says Fleming. “I also looked for ways that the maker space could supplement areas in which the academic curriculum was thin, or make available to all students activities that had previously been open to only a select group.” The “themes” of Fleming’s maker space include molecular gastronomy, wearable tech, electricity and papertronics, polymers, and engineering inventions.
At the library of Perry Meridian Middle School in Indiana, maker space themes include micro-manufacturing and fabrication, digital music composition, textiles and sewing, and architecture and urban planning. Leslie Preddy, the school’s library media specialist, promotes learning there by encouraging kids to collaborate. “We had a student who became very knowledgeable about video production who went on to lead a workshop for his classmates in the subject,” says Preddy. “When you’re teaching other people, that’s learning at the highest level.” Preddy scaffolds student learning in her maker space by providing “pathfinder guides”—written instructions that structure students’ thinking—and by asking “intentional questions,” queries that help students find a solution without handing them the answer. She also encourages them to embrace failure as an efficient and effective way to learn.
“Thinking and sharing have always gone on in school libraries,” Preddy notes. “Maker spaces connect thinking and sharing with creating, and that takes learning to a whole new level.”
Brilliant readers, I’ve already heard from some maker-advocates that with this article I’ve missed the whole point of making, which is to encourage unstructured, undirected exploration. I’m open to that criticism, and yet I think that if we’re going to incorporate making and maker spaces into schools, we should be clear on the value that such activities and spaces add. What do you think?
Those of us who loved school, enjoyed the learning and the game of it. The accolades and challenges inherent in a broad academic program meant to push us into readiness for college or life.
As an overachiever, the deep satisfaction I got in receiving As or 90s or whatever the highest in my class were, was unmatched by few other things.
I hated group work because I was often at the front of it doing everything, denying my classmates the chance to even try. I loathed the injustice of other students who clearly didn’t try as hard as I had and still managed to get decent grades even though they didn’t follow the “rules” at all.
So when I became a teacher, I knew the type I’d be. I knew the kids I’d like. I knew what my expectations and goals would inspire.
Or so I thought.
In the beginning, I took points off for everything. Rather than offer students positive experiences for growth, I penalized them for everything and I proudly wore my failure rate on my sleeve. “This time 30% of them failed because they couldn’t keep up.” Like this was some kind of evidence of the rigor of my space.
But I was so wrong.
This idea about learning and assessing didn’t inspire children, it stifled them. Fortunately, I had great rapport with my students and they desperately didn’t want to disappoint me, so they worked hard for me, even if I wasn’t working hard enough for them.
8 years into my career and I realized everything I was doing was wrong.
All it took was the right reading material, Ken O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes For Broken Grades. It was the first pedagogical book I had read that really made me question my practices. Feeling ashamed by what I had done to students, I started implementing change immediately.
Starting with one class at a time, I shifted what achievement meant and allowed students to really be a part of the process.
It took time and work, but I’ve moved to the other end of the spectrum. School is no longer about playing a game or rewarding or taking points. Learning is about mastery; developing skills to become more adept and inspired to continue to grow.
These are the key things that have changed:
- Tests are no longer used as a punishment to catch kids who didn’t listen. As a matter of fact, tests are barely given at all
- There is no extra credit given to “raise averages”
- There is no homework that counts against students – only practice that supports learning for students who need it
- Class time is spent actually doing – a student centered classroom, no longer a teacher centered space
- Learning is project/problem based
- Kids have the opportunity to revise all work for better understanding and growth
- Reflection is an essential part of student learning
- Students are partners in their learning, setting grades and tracking progress
- Self-assessment is at the heart of all we do.
- Group work is no longer graded as 1 product… each child reflects and shares what he or she learned against standards and that is what determines their learning.
- Feedback is provided throughout the process, not just at the end and it seen as a growth opportunity.
- Students have input as to how they get their feedback and how they learn.
- Students have input into everything.
Since these changes have been made, my students are enjoying learning more and they have much more specific sense of how they are doing in the classes. No more, “what did I get on that?”
Are you ready to change your grading policy? Maybe it’s time. What’s the first thing that would go? Please share
On a recent afternoon, Riverdale Country School students stretched in the dark, streaks of sunlight illuminating yoga mats and bowed heads. In gym class at the elite Bronx private school, monitors strapped to students’ chests beamed their heart rates to display screens suspended from the ceiling. In a course on study habits, the class closed their eyes for a moment of guided meditation.
More independent schools are pushing to redefine what it means to teach health, shattering the stereotype of awkward classes and squirming students.
Many New York schools are incorporating mindfulness training to help students handle stress and replacing lectures on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases with interactive sessions on life skills, such as communication and decision-making.
For a long time “the definition of success for our members was mainly focused on the academic part,” said Amada Torres, vice president for studies, insights and research at the National Association of Independent Schools. “But now the research is stressing the importance of developing these noncognitive skills.”
The National Association of Independent Schools conducted its first-ever survey this spring on health education among its members. While 85% of the schools surveyed called health and well-being an essential or high priority, only 41% described it as part of their school’s mission.
Unlike public schools in New York, there are no national or state standards specifically for private-school health instruction. The Independent School Health Association is now pushing the independent-schools group to adopt guidelines for approaching health, the way it has endorsed principles for other areas.
That includes a broader definition of health that moves beyond “sick or not sick” to include emotional, intellectual and social well-being, said Miguel Marshall, the association’s interim executive director.
Traditionally, health education for independent schools has been “very much of a wild west,” said Ben Thompson, vice president of the health association. “A lot of times it was seen, in my view, as kind of a necessary evil.”
In the New York area, the push means private schools are rewriting curricula and providing healthier food at lunch, and some are investing heavily in new technology and facilities for health education.
At Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, starting in fifth grade, students have twice-weekly classes that incorporate mindfulness training, social justice, food politics and gender identity, in addition to more traditional health topics.
Teachers at Friends Seminary in Manhattan are expanding the health curriculum to include extended instruction on social action and social justice, as well as mandatory yoga and mindfulness classes for middle school.
At Grace Church downtown, middle schoolers will start taking three multiweek sessions on life skills, health and wellness, and community service.
Hackley, a private school in Westchester County, received an approximately $49 million donation in 2012 that it is using to expand its wellness curriculum, build a new wellness center, hire a full-time wellness director and rework its health curriculum.
In the eight years since Dominic A.A. Randolph became head of school at Riverdale, he said he has tried to reframe what it means to teach health, encouraging teachers to weave wellness instruction through academic classes.
That means English classes sometimes begin with a moment of silence as part of a schoolwide push for mindfulness.
Riverdale also added daily recess for fourth- and fifth-graders. Officials eliminated trays at lunch after research showed that it leads to less food being wasted. And to widespread dismay, they dropped dessert three days a week.
“People are not happy about that,” Mr. Randolph said.
The changes haven’t come unchallenged. Some teachers worry longer recess will cut into their instruction time. Some students and teachers object to the increased meditations, which “they view as religion or spirituality,” said KC Cohen, middle and upper school counselor and co-director of the health program.
“I think what’s missing is people don’t really understand how much five minutes can center you,” she said.
Ms. Cohen overhauled the health curriculum in the past few years. In seventh grade, students learn about communication—just as parties for bar and bas mitzvahs begin to ramp up social pressure. Eighth-grade health class covers traditional topics, like addiction and anatomy, but also decision-making and how to build healthy relationships.
So far, changes like adding moments of silence before class have been voluntary, with faculty seminars and mindfulness sessions scheduled to introduce the ideas.
“People used to think the idea of going to a gym or running outside was absolutely ridiculous 100 years ago,” Ms. Cohen said. “Same thing with mindfulness.”
Health classes can still be uncomfortable, some Riverdale students said.
Caleb Jeanniton, a ninth-grader, said he didn’t take his eighth-grade health class seriously and resented that there was homework.
This year, he signed up for a class on mindfulness—despite some skepticism. “I had a very 1970s image of tie-dye and yoga mats and mullets and beards and stuff,” he said.
He said he was pleasantly surprised.
“What really intrigued me was the aspect of being able to have more control over your life,” Caleb said. “There’s a world full of things you can’t control.”
Write to Sophia Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org