It’s time to let it go: Part II

There’s a parable of a small child watching her mother cook. Before placing a roast in the oven, the mom cuts off both ends and tosses them in the trash. The child asks, “Why do you cut off the ends and throw them away?” The mom replies, “I don’t know, I just learned that from my mother.” The child then goes to her grandmother and asks her the same question. The grandma offers the same response: “because that’s how my mother used to do it.” Finally, the child goes to the great-grandmother’s house and asks the same question. The great-grandmother plainly replies, “because my oven was too small.”

Each day I speak with students about their experiences with testing, I further realize how we’re needlessly throwing meat away due to the smaller ovens of the past. The meat, in this case, is the chance for substantive assessments and inspired learning. Our obsession with keeping the status quo baffles me. Are modern chefs relegated to using aged, miniscule ovens? Why are we?

The first installment of my public breakup announcement with traditional testing certainly hit a nerve with many teachers, ranging from supportive to hesitant. Members of the homeschooling community asserted that they’ve been saying this the whole time: high-stakes, performance-based testing, based on arbitrary deadlines, does not accurately measure knowledge. It measures the students’ performance of their knowledge, which is not the same as knowledge itself.

Don’t worry, everyone. I’m not too drunk on that so-called progressive punch. I surely understand that students need to demonstrate somehow to us what they know. I’m simply referring to assessment formatting, which speaks to the type of learning culture we wish to establish in our learning space.

Suppose that during office hours, you sit with one of your students, going over a graded test together. Have you ever had those moments when he says, “Oh, that’s so simple! I’m so upset I didn’t get that right!” His catharsis may have been sparked from a morsel of information you offered, or you may have even silently pointed to another location on the page to set his focus. Either way, two things are certain:

  1. Going over the test, after the fact, added more value to the test experience -- far more than the student shrugging the test off after seeing his grade.
  2. Your student now knows more than he did before this encounter. Studying for the test, the test experience, having it graded, then sitting down with you all contributed towards increased learning.

Now suppose you offer that student a test re-take. Of course, he’d leap at the chance. Far too often, though, we don’t give him that chance, choosing instead to plow forward in our curriculum. It’s so disheartening to him, because now he knows more, but his grade is mired in that poor test performance. We’re basically saying to students, “You need to know how to simplify radicals by November 10th to get a good grade in this class. But if you become a master in simplifying radicals by November 17th, tough cookies.”

Students must walk a high tightrope all semester long, and if they slip once or twice, they quickly realize that they won’t reach whatever goal they may have set for themselves. Or worse, they’ve grown accustomed to not even setting personal goals, because institutionally we’ve set them up to follow our unilateral programming. Compliance is rewarded; creativity and hope-inducing second chances are squashed. Then we wonder why students aren’t motivated.

What if instead, we were to offer them an exchange deal? In exchange for us removing the pressure of high-stakes testing, students need to work more. That must become the focus of our academic coaching: for them to embrace the struggle, a key tenet in Dr. Dweck’s Growth Mindset educational philosophy. Our tightrope needs to be two feet off the ground, and if they slip, we point them to the beginning and encourage them to get back on to try again. Our job is to note their improvements, make incremental, corrective pointers and offer wisdom.

Suppose you extend your student the following offer: he now needs to make his own test, take it, grade it and then come back and reflect on his experience. If you deem the test not up to par, explain why and send the student back to the lab to have another go at it. You could even document specific class protocols about what a complete test should look like. A myriad of options exist that offer opportunities for your student to re-approach the learning, at a minimum load increase for the teacher.

We need to shift our role away from being information bottlenecks and evolve into becoming supportive facilitators. The model of spoon-feeding knowledge is broken. It makes our students passive and too conforming.

As educators, we place much emphasis on improving our teaching methods. The time has come for students to think critically about their learning methods, and we can help. The full vision of what that looks like will come in the final post next month. It’s time for an oven upgrade. On that note, happy thanksgiving, friends.

Robert Ahdoot is a math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom and in studio, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high-school math for 10-plus years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is the author of One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.

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