Infuse Test Preparation With Life-long Learning
So, what do we do now?
by Lanny Sorenson
If not already so, many standards at the state levels will soon be adjusted to meet requirements of the education bill, recently signed by George W. Bush, http://edworkforce.house.gov/issues/
107th/education/nclb/nclb.htm What do the changes, including high stakes testing, mean to educators?
Mrs. Smith loves kids, loves teaching, loves learning, hates the notion of teaching to the test. Mr. Takahashi likes being in the classroom. He connects with his students and they trust him. He inspires them to learn. He doesn't put much stock in end-of-unit quizzes or even comprehensive exams. He's always found alternative ways of assessing. Like many do, these teachers believe in learning beyond the test. In the face of mandated testing, what are Mrs. Smith and Mr. Takahashi to do? Exactly what they've been doing, with a twist; now they must infuse test preparation with life-long learning like never before.
Progressive theory and development, more than not, validates what good teachers are already doing. Student-centered practices and strategies that produce deeper understandings are in more abundance than ever before. Is there any way a student can gain valuable, life-applicable information and still be ready to do well on the mandated exam? Simply put, there has to be!
If every teacher could somehow observe all the good things other teachers are doing, what common practices would they notice? What are the good strategies educators should hang on to that prepare students for life and the test? The list is long. Here are a few:
Begin with the end in mind. Every good writing teacher has a handful of ‘golden nuggets' they share with their students, some of which might be: let your voice be heard (be yourself); be clear, specific and support your opinions; begin with the end in mind; start strong, follow through, and end on a high note. Good educators generally follow these same patterns.
Voice. Good teachers rely heavily on their own personalities to make an impact on students. They understand that while they cannot force trivial facts and information to be stored in the brain, they can motivate, engage thought, and inspire students to want to learn.
Be clear, specific, support opinions. Good teachers' expectations are always clear. If educators understand fully what is expected of them, they can transfer the same to students. The challenge then is to understand what is expected. However inundated, educators must not pass over the first steps in meeting expectations: reading, understanding, and applying them. Likewise, sample tests are usually provided for the asking. Teachers must be well acquainted with the information, or instruction will never relate to the test.
The end in mind… It sounds silly to even mention, but educators must know what it is they want to accomplish. Brain research is showing that students must be able to make connections for long term, enduring understandings to be accomplished. They must connect what happens at the beginning of the year with what happens in the middle and at the end and so on from year to year. These kinds of connections can only improve test scores. They certainly won't hurt them. By looking at the desired end result at the beginning, good teachers make those connections throughout the year, preparing students for both life and the test.
Cooperative Learning/Multiple Intelligences/Differentiated Learning: Someone walks past a classroom. They look inside and students are walking about. Some are playing music, some are painting, some are writing, some are reciting, and some, well, it's hard to tell; and this is a math class! Surely what is going on there has nothing to do with learning? Good teachers know otherwise. Surely this "stuff" will do nothing to prepare them for exit exams? Research shows otherwise. Again, it's those connections. When used effectively, these strategies are getting students involved in the learning. They give students reasons to keep information. A cold, hard fact remains, despite all good intentions, students only learn what they think is important, and moreover, what is interesting to them.
Passive activities, the kind of which traditional teaching is known for, guarantee only a small percentage of retention. Edgar Dale's "Cone of Learning" reveals that only 10% of what students read is likely to stay with them. 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see is retained. While still a limited amount, mixing the senses produces more retention. Up to 50% of what is simultaneously seen and heard, stays. Active participation ensures more learning. Up to seventy percent of what is said remains with the speaker. Up to ninety percent of what is both said and done is retained with the presenter. Therefore, participating in discussions, giving speeches, doing dramatic presentations, simulating the real thing and doing the real thing ensures better retention. Anyone walking past a classroom should expect to see structured, mediated activity! Never should they expect to see the teacher talking extensively beyond the first few minutes of class.
Simulations capitalize on the theory that hands-on activities provide the best learning. Students remember things they were personally involved in and likely had an opinion about. What teacher doesn't remember such an activity from their own learning? Why is it then, many tend to turn it back around and deliver endless speeches?
According to the research, the best thing for retention is actually being there. For obvious reasons, "being there" can't always happen. When it can't, simulations are the next-best thing. They can even be more flexible than the real thing. Most every good teacher has a few former students who come back to visit. Likely for those who use simulations, the first thing out of the now-older student's mouth is, "Do you still do that [simulation activity]?"
Simulations can appear to be an easier fit for some "other" discipline. That drama teacher who also teaches English may appear to have it made. He can bring literature to life right in his own classroom! However, if students need anything to survive the standardized test as well as the test of life, it's the ability to think for themselves. Thinking begins with the teacher who must model creativity in designing the activity. The student then follows suit. Simulations get the student up and away from the worksheet to experiencing. Obviously, the activity itself is not the learning. It is up to the instructor to make the connections that last for the test and life.
No one is claiming that high stakes testing is going to be easy on an already over-burdened faculty. The pressure has always been on. Now it's even more intensified. However, throwing out the baby, progressive strategies that work, with the old bath water cannot be the solution. All involved on either side of the mandates claim they are doing what is best for the learner. It's up to those on the front lines, the teachers and staff, to ensure that the learner is the resulting winner. All students must be given the opportunity to succeed in life, but not at the expense of the test. The test is merely a part of that success.
For more information on simulations, active learning strategies, or Lanny Sorenson:
Recommended books for more information on:
Retention Through Experience:
Dale, E. Audiovisual methods in teaching. New York: Holt. Rinehard and Winston, Inc, 1969.
Erickson, H. Lynn. Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction: Teaching Beyond the Facts Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. 1998
Wiggens, Grant & McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1998
Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1993
The Quality School/Choice Theory:
Glasser, William. Reality in Action. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2000
Grading and Reporting Student Progress:
Gusky, T.R., & Bailey, J. Developing Grading and Reporting Systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. 2000
Gregory, H. Gayle & Chapman, Carolyn. Differentiated Instructional Strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. 2002
Kagan, Spencer. Cooperative Learning. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Kagan Cooperative Learning, 1994
High Expectations and Mediated Learning:
Rodriguez, Eleanor Renee & Bellanca, James. What is it About Me You Can't Teach? Arlington Heights, IL: IRI/SkyLight Training and Publishing. 1996
Sousa, D.A. How the Brain Learns, Second Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2001
Wolf, Patricia & Marny, Sorgen. Mind, Memory and Learning. Napa, CA: 1990