Monday, March 16, 2009

Ensuring Data is Driving the Right Kind of Instruction

Should Data Be Driving Instruction or Should Students Drive Learning?

Editor’s Note: This post was written in response to a job interview question. I thought it was a relevant, thought-provoking question and a great interview exercise. This was some of my thinking on each of the topics.

When educators and administrators think of data driven instruction, they often think of stand-alone assessments taken by students, many of whom believe has little relevance to anything connected to their lives outside of school. In fact in an increasingly connected world where 21st Century literacies are a requirement for success, it is interesting to note that as stated in the recent report, “Beyond the Bubble: Technology and The Future of Assessment,”
There’s one day a year when laptops power down and students’ mobile computing devices fall silent, a day when most schools across the country revert to an era when whiteboards were blackboards, and iPhones were just a twinkle in some techie’s eye—testing day.
Unfortunately in places like New York City and beyond, as I visit classrooms, even in schools with 1:1 environments “testing day” isn’t just a day. In fact, during a visit to a 1:1 school last October I did not find a single student or teacher using technology. Why? As the principal explained, “We don’t use laptops until after the tests in March since kids aren’t allowed to use them on the test.” Yikes!!!! If you’re thinking this is a unique situation, unfortunately, I can assure you, it is not. Furthermore talks of delivering the test in June frighten me, as many educators share the dirty little secret that the real, creative, innovative learning doesn’t take place until after the tests in March.

In an era of data driven decision making, these are NOT the decisions we need to be driving our leaders and students to make. It is imperative that we are collecting and using the “right” data and that, the data is connected to competencies of today, rather than yesterday. During a recent conversation with an innovative principal about the Acuity assessment used in his school he confess that most of the activities recommended are dry and do not appeal to his student’s interests. When the data we are collecting is completely absent of the tools available in today’s world, and the instruction that it’s driving is not engaging, can the data really be effectively use to drive instruction? I would argue no. Especially in light of the “Beyond the Bubble” findings that state,
Efforts were abandoned to produce assessments that more faithfully reflect how
learning would be used in non-test situations, assessments that were guided by
an underlying theory of teaching and learning drawn from the cognitive sciences.
The reason being, that these assessments were costly and technically inadequate
for use in school accountability systems. So, states began to move away from
performance-based assessment systems, back to less-expensive multiple-choice
assessments.

In contrast, many innovative educators, have stopped saying, “hand it in,” and started saying, “publish it.” Once students reach their real goal of becoming producers and creators of content, authentic assessment that is meaningful to them can begin to take place and will certainly drive personal learning. Innovative educators know that many students are already involved in the business of using data to drive instruction. Unfortunately these worlds are largely devoid of educators, parents, or other adults. However, even in their absence, students are publishing content and using data to drive their work. It is the responsibility of educators to tap into these worlds and into student’s interests to begin aligning instruction to the type of data that drives students! If we put aside the profitizing, monetizing testing companies, and look at how students are already assessing themselves, absent us, we may save a lot of money and gain a lot of engagement. Let’s take a step back and think about some of the things we really want students to know and be able to do. The National Education Technology Standards indicate that the following standards should be met for students to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly digital world …”
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Technology Operations and Concepts

I don’t see the data we’re using to drive instruction aligned to these standards. But, this is not as hard as one may be led to believe. At a recent Teaching and Learning conference Sir Kenneth Robinson shared that we’d be much better off in schools if we looked at assessing schools more like Zagats assesses restaurants (imagine British accent and captivating tone). But, this really isn’t such an outlandish idea, and this type of assessment is already occurring in the lives of children. Take a site like Fanfiction where literally millions of students around the globe from the age of 10 on are joining other fans, as old as seniors and are writing and sharing their own stories in genres of deep personal interest for themselves and their fans. They are assessed by 1) Popularity measured as the number of fans who subscribe to them, 2) Reviews from an authentic audience. Kids are engaging in robust, meaningful conversations with real audiences for authentic purposes getting meaningful data they can put right to use to refine, revise, and create new stories. Of course this type of work is happening on more mainstream sights like YouTube as well where students are producing content and success is measured by 1) Popularity measured in number of views 2) Star ratings from viewers 3) Viewer comments. Additionally, unbeknownst to most digital immigrants these sites can be as public or private as you wish and content can be moderated by student or adult.

There are already schools engaging in this type of work. I am fortunate to have been able to support many such schools in this endeavor. Take for instance CIS 339 known for bringing professional learning communities into the 21st Century where they frequently showcase The Power of 21st Century Teaching and Learning by Bringing it to Life at Thel CIS 339’s Open House. They are using tools like Google collaborative documents and wikis to drive and inform everything from instruction to their student behavior system. At the Science Leadership Academy ELA students are collaboratively writing using Google docs and then publishing their work to YouTube where it will be reviewed by classmates, and the world. This definitely drives the students to refine, revise, and modify their work for success. Or, The Island School where they have partnerships with numerous organizations that allow for truly authentic assessment and audiences to drive their learning. For instance, they have a partnership with Rosie’s Broadway Kids. The students are guided to produce a performance. Students are driven to succeed because those who show the greatest talent win scholarships to attend Rosie’s Broadway Kids academy where they are likely to end up on a New York City stage. They also have many students who produce blogs. I spoke to one young lady who is working with a reporter to provide a student perspective on education issues in a local news agency. This happens because the school believes in doing what Sir Kenneth Robinson identifies as helping them find their “Element” and then supports students in connecting with those who can help them to use their passion and talent to drive instruction.

Another place where you can see authentic work and assessment is at IS 93 where students are publishing to an eZine and are completely engaged by the process of authentic publishing. These students are driven to keep learning, revising, and researching based on the comments and ratings they receive from people they care about…other students. Marco Torres is another well-known advocate of authentic purposes driving instruction. His students produce digital videos that are viewed around the world. Students are driven to learn because of authentic causes and passions that they can capture to effect change and bring attention to issues of deep personal importance to them.

In addition to the Zagat’s style assessment there is also real-time, on-demand assessment and instruction when it comes to game-based and digital learning and simulations. These are being widely used in industries outside of education (i.e. military and medical industry) to assess and prepare professionals. Though they are rarely seen as assessments in schools, these type of assessments are available now and lauded by educators like Marc Prensky who shares examples in his book, “Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning.” In digital and game-based environments students are continuously engaged and forced to make decisions that require learning. However, unlike school, if they make a mistake they get to try again and again until they get it right, and…they get to work on their own level and at their own pace. Additionally, these type of environments are designed to adjust to the level of the learner.

Though the types of assessments I’m advocating may seem out-of-reach to those who have been educating since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, this was not the case prior to enactment of the policy where there was a movement among educators to provide opportunities for authentic assessment. As stated in Beyond the Bubble: Technology and The Future of Assessment,
The enactment of NCLB in 2002 further complicated attempts to develop new types of testing. NCLB, which mandates that states give annual tests in reading and
math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, resulted in a sizeable increase in
the number of standardized tests given each year—now more than 45
million—creating a situation in which both test- and policymakers scrambled just
to get the tests into the hands of teachers and students. This tremendous
increase in test taking, combined with the limited capacity of state departments
of education and the nation’s testing industry, encouraged state testing
officials and testing companies to continue to use the same kinds of tests
instead of pursuing innovations in assessment.
It is time we remember why we got into the business of teaching and explore options that move away from what is easier for testing companies, accountability systems, and policy makers and start remembering the kids like Peggy Sheehy’s students who remind us that instead we should leave No Future Left Behind and help our students find their passions and talents that will drive their success today and in the future.
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