Monday, December 12, 2011

When multiple choice became the only choice

I am taking a break from my series entitled “How to fix it” in order to bring a little perspective to some other aspects of teaching that have been kicking around in my head for a while. I will continue with my three-part series over Christmas break. 

When I first got into teaching, E.D. Hirsch had recently published his book Cultural Literacy:  What every American needs to know.  This book started a maelstrom of controversy about what was taught, not taught and/or not learned by students in American schools.  It fueled the debate – which is still raging today – about why American schools are in decline.

While I respect Mr. Hirsch, and I certainly have a deep appreciation for “cultural literacy,” I believe this very mindset – one steeped in tradition and outdated pedagogy – is crippling our schools today.

There is a palpable disconnect between students and schools because the educational system has failed to evolve beyond the style of teaching that was in place when Mr. Hirsch was a mere lad.  In a world where everyone’s mood, relationship status or what they had for breakfast can be tweeted, blogged or sent via IM around the world in a millisecond, we still expect kids to learn using many of the same tools, resources, and teaching styles that were in place nearly 100 years ago.

Although my curriculum focuses on project-based learning, I do, from time-to-time, require students to read from our state-adopted textbooks and answer questions.  I do it because students are expected to demonstrate comprehension by finding Main Idea, Author’s Purpose, etc. on district and state level assessments.  This type of assessment, based on reading short passages and answering a series of multiple-choice questions, was developed by a Kansas State Normal School professor in 1915.  Sadly, not much has changed since then.   

Recently, I had my students read a six-page passage from their social studies textbook about the early European explorers and answer the questions at the end of the passage.  One of the questions they had to answer was:  What records of their attempt to settle North America did the Vikings leave behind? 

Even with a great deal of background knowledge (we had recently read a book on the Vikings), most of my students did not understand the question.  First, they did not know what a record was.  More important, the wording of the question suggested that the Vikings actively sought – through multiple “attempts” – to colonize North America and deliberately left “records” behind.  Nothing in the book we had read or in the chapter from the textbook suggested that, so I re-phrased the question.  What types of artifacts have been discovered to suggest the Vikings may have visited or even settled in present-day North America? 

Since my students have access to a computer, we googled the phrase, “Viking artifacts in North America.”  In an instant, they saw hundreds of “records” of Viking remains in North America. After allowing them to “explore” a few web sites, I asked them to answer the question again.  Immediately, they wrote down parts of Viking ships, decomposed swords, tools, and bowls.  I showed them a web site that explained how carbon dating was used to figure out how old the artifacts were and another that showed were in North America these sites were located.  A collective light came on. 

To those who defend the use of chapter tests and pop quizzes, I offer this.  When in the real world do we ever expect anyone – a mechanic, a lawyer, an accountant or a doctor – to know all the answers on the spur of the moment?  Most doctors examine patients while typing information and symptoms directly into a laptop computer or iPad.  Lawyers often have a conference room filled with law books, legal reviews, and case studies.  Mechanics look up parts and settings on a computer.

Often students are not allowed the same “access to information”.  They are not allowed to “find” information or use resources to show that they understand concepts.  In short, we don’t teach the same strategies and skills they will need “in the real world” in the classroom. 

Much of the blame for our over reliance on this type of learning and assessments falls on the federal and state mindset that educational achievement can be measured through multiple choice assessments, and the belief that students (and teachers) should be assessed and evaluated based on a single test score.  A pop quiz of our schools.

Politicians will tell you the public wants accountability.  They will tell you that we need to hold teachers to higher standards so our students can achieve, grow and develop to meet the needs and demands of an ever-changing world.  Unfortunately, they do not abide by the same precepts.  They do not allow schools to develop curriculum that meets these needs simply because it cannot be measured. 

What are we really measuring?  That question is as perplexing to some as the one my students had to answer from their textbook.  Perhaps we need to re-phrase the question and take measurement and evaluation “outside the box” or least outside the textbook.