Friday, December 23, 2011

Flip It

Cathy Davidson has been showing up in the twittersphere a lot recently for her work on attention blindness in Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.

One of my takeaways from reading her book is this:

The narrow focus that educators have had on standardized tests over the past twenty years has caused attention blindness in terms of being able to think about multiple pathways that students can take in the classroom. The intense emphasis on students being able to select a single correct response out of four distractors on a high stakes year end assessment has stunted educators abilities to image a classroom where standardized instructional methods (i.e. everyone at the same place at the same time) are not the default norm.
This is why concepts such as differentiation and flipped instruction run into trouble as soon as they are brought up in professional development meetings. Teachers immediately dismiss them because these concepts don't fit into the classroom as it is currently constructed in their psyche. You can probably hear the chatter now...."Well, those are nice strategies, but how can I do that and still prepare my students for the test?".

As the common core and the next generation of assessments come on board, I don't see the emphasis on standardized testing going anywhere. So, how do we break the hold that 'the test' has on our nation's classrooms?

I believe it is going to take courageous teachers who flip their instruction and place standardized, multiple choice tests at the 'floor' and not the 'ceiling' of learning experiences.

Here is what it might look like in my classroom. I would begin the unit with a preview activity of the concepts that students will master by the time the unit draws to a close. It would be nothing more than a bulleted list for awareness. This list would also serve as the test out option on the front end for students who brought prior knowledge into the classroom (Straight knowledge and significance identification).

For the duration of the unit students would have the ability to pick from a menu of activities that are designed to help them learn about the concepts that are new to them. Every item on the menu would have a point value, and students would have to earn a minimum number of points in order for the requirements to be considered complete. The menu would be designed to engage multiple learning styles and interests. For traditional students, textbook readings and associated questions would be an option at the low end of the scale. For students who embrace 21st century learning styles, there would be options to demonstrate mastery utilizing a variety of electronic mediums. The more engaging and authentic the option, the more points the activity would be worth. In theory then it is possible that students could spend the entire unit on one comprehensive project in order to earn the menu points, or students could engage in multiple lower point activities.

Now, the fixed mindset person (Thanks Carol Dweck - has probably already found the hole in the scenario above, as you can't guarantee uniform coverage in this decentralized environment. While this is true, I'll argue all day long that this type of authentic engagement will ensure long term retention with more certainty than a standardized teacher centered delivery model.

The way around the coverage argument lies in how you close out the unit. The concept sheet that began the lesson is now used again in a cooperative activity to detail all of the collective knowledge that students have accumulated over the unit. Gaps can then be filled in by the teacher should they appear. This then turns into the study guide for the summative end of unit assessment. Here is the only time where multiple choice questions are used. The secret is to not instruct with an eye towards the final measure (that would be the ceiling approach), but rather treat the questions like a quality control check. The mindset should be that because of the rich, authentic, engaging experiences the students have been involved with, success on the summative measure should be a forgone conclusion (this is the floor approach).

While I've referenced the above exercise as a summative measure, it can be formative if two conditions are met. First, analyze and disaggregate the data to identify areas that need to be retaught. Second, allow students to complete an alternate measure after the re-teaching to assess growth (this could be as simple as an alternate form of the test, an oral examination, a written response to prompts, etc.) For successful, self-acutalized adults, learning does not stop when a setback occurs; rather, it begins. So it should be the same with our students and the ways in which we design multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery.

The instructional design concept outlined above is not new. In fact, pieces of it have been floating around in educational circles for years. To embrace it though means to have the courage to set your students free to discover knowledge under your guidance, and not your absolute direction. Instructional design in this manner will allow students to play to their strengths and deeply encode knowledge. Do you have the courage to try?

Note - If you found this post and read all the way to this point, thanks! If you have feedback (good or bad), I'd love to hear it. This blog is a way for me to flesh out ideas that I have about improving brick and mortar education in a time of immense change. Your voice will only help in that process.

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