Wednesday, May 30, 2012

All for the good of the children--and their brave new century

The largest textbook company in the world has teamed up with the 16th largest school system in the US--and one of the highest performing ones--to boost students' futures even more by teaching them 21st century skills.

You can read all this partnership in a paper by an Associate Research Scientist at Pearson by the name of Emily Lai, entitled “Creating Curriculum-Embedded, Performance-Based Assessments for Measuring 21st Century Skills in K-5 Students” and published by the American Educational Research Association.

The partnership between Pearson Publishing and the Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools, notes Lai, began in 2010 “with the goal of developing Pearson Forward, a digital curriculum featuring embedded assessment and professional development resources,” centered around 21st century skills.

21st century skills, explains Lai, include the following:

Critical thinking (encompassing analysis, synthsis and evaluation), creativity (encompassing fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration), collaboration, metacognition, motivation, and intellectual risk taking.
These, she assures us, have been operationalized based on a thorough literature review, which appears, from Lai’s bibliography, to be based predominantly on publications by education journals.

So important are these skills, Lai explains, that they will be assessed every 9 weeks during a 3 week period, each one in the course of 1-2 class periods, through Pearson’s Performance Based Assessment, (a variety of “embedded assessment,” or assessment that is “seamless with instruction”). Assessment tools include “holistic” rubrics, checklists, and student self-ratings. The 8 assessment tasks (assigned every 9 weeks) include “open-ended or ill-structured tasks,” tasks embedded in “authentic, real-world contexts,” and strategies for “making student thinking and reasoning visible.” The goal of all this assessment? “Tracking progress to predict success in post-secondary education.”

As Lai notes:
Each of the skills targeted in the curriculum entails both cognitive and noncognitive or affective components… Cognitive components of these constructs include knowledge and strategies, whereas noncognitive components include attitudes, traits, and dispositions.
Different assessment tasks target different 21st century skills. A task assessing intellectual risk-taking might look at whether, when a student is given a particular reading task, he or she chooses a story that is already familiar to them, or one that isn’t, since:
choice of unfamiliar story [is] arguably more of an intellectual risk than the choice of a familiar story.
Tasks assessing motivation similarly vary by subject (after all, different kids are more or less motivated in different subjects). Pearson’s task for assessing motivation in reading is:
a task that paired a teacher observation tool designed to capture students’ use of strategic behaviors with a student self-rating tool designed to capture more affective aspects of motivation, such as the student’s interest, self-efficacy, and goal orientation.
Tasks assessing metacognition might include open tasks that
allow students to decide what relevant information to use or how to use the information to solve the problem,” as opposed to “closed” tasks that “are characterized by more teacher control and structure.
Such tasks should also make student thinking and reasoning visible, which is
typically accomplished by embedding some sort of informal teacher-student interview into the assessment.
For example, during a ramp-construction project:
Students were encouraged to share their thinking with teammates as they worked together. We provided a set of interview questions for the teachers to pose to individual students as they worked:
How is it going?

What are you doing right now?

Why did you decide to build the ramp this way?

What is working well about your ramp?

What would you change about your ramp?  
As Lai notes:
Using this tool, teachers could observe the extent to which students were able to share their thinking and explain their ideas to others, both key indicators of metacognition at the Kindergarten level.
A task that measures “creativity” could be a time-limited response to a prompt:
We point out aspects of tasks that should not be varied, such as the time provided to students to respond to prompts (when assessing the creativity indicator of fluency, for example)
The most important 21st century skill, of course, is collaboration, and Lai’s proposals here are commensurately elaborate. A task assessing collaboration might involve:
Ill-structured tasks that cannot be solved by a single, competent group member… Ill-structured problems are those with no clearly defined parameters, no clear solution strategies, and either more than one correct solution, or multiple ways of arriving at an acceptable solution.
Collaboration-assessing tasks might also involve time constraints that make it impossible for one person to complete the task:
For example, to assess collaboration in math, teams of 2nd -grade students were required to design and create a mosaic using multi-colored tiles and then to devise and implement a method for representing the data on tile color by creating a graphical depiction of it (e.g., a bar graph showing the number of tiles of each color used to create the mosaic). 
In rating students based on these collaboration tasks, teachers should consider:
the quality of the completed group work project… the student’s ability to work respectfully and productively with others, and the student’s self-reported collaboration skills and contribution to the group.
As well as:
factors related to students’ use of helping behaviors (e.g., communicating respectfully, soliciting diverse opinions).
Citing a 1995 article written by N. M. Webb and published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Lai writes:
As Webb explains, assessments that occur in group contexts can fulfill several different purposes. For example, teachers may wish to determine how much a student can learn from collaborating with others, whether a group of students can complete a product together, or whether individual students can communicate respectfully with teammates. Group processes that support one goal may not support another goal. For example, if the goal is to measure a student’s ability to learn from collaboration, then group processes such as co-construction of ideas, identification of conflict, giving and receiving elaborated help, and equality of participation should all be encouraged. In contrast, if the goal of group assessment is to determine whether a group can successfully complete a task on time, then group processes that facilitate student learning, such as trying to ensure equal participation among all group members, may be counterproductive. In this case, it will be more efficient to use processes that maximize group productivity, even if they minimize learning opportunities. Such processes might include letting the most competent student in the group perform most of the work. 
All of this, of course, is for the sake of the children--as the emphases on assessment (as opposed to instruction and remediation) and on predicting (as opposed to influencing) who will be successful in post-secondary education make abundantly clear.

In other words, in no way is it about multi-million dollar backroom deals between powerful companies and school boards that shut out all meaningful input from parents and traffic in educational buzz words and double speak. And in no way is it about branding half-baked assessment tools as “Pearson Forward Performance Based Assessment” tools and then associating them with a famously high performing school district whose current reputation lends them credibility (however much their relentless deployment--every nine weeks over a three week period,1-2 class periods for each 21st century skill--might help diminish this reputation in the future).


C T said...

Wouldn't it be great if Scott Adams (the Dilbert cartoonist) would start in on these brain-numbing "collaborative efforts" foisted so mercilessly on little children? His recent Teamwork Means You Can't Pick the Side that's Right was great.

Anonymous said...


The questions and what my responses would have been in kindergarten, or almost any grade after that:

How is it going? (shrug)

What are you doing right now? (shrug, thinking "please go away, please go away, go away, if I sit here quietly, will you go away?")

Why did you decide to build the ramp this way? (shrug)

What is working well about your ramp? (eyes down, ignoring teacher, hoping s/he goes away)

What would you change about your ramp? (eyes down, still ignoring teacher, thinking "why won't s/he leave me alone?")

kate said...
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kate said...
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Anonymous said...

This looks like it was written by the principal at my kids school. She also insists that "researchers" are trying to write a new SAT with these same types of assessments, thinking that this will better represent "21st Century skills" and better predict who will do well in college. They plan to include things like long essays with ambiguous prompts to see if kids can think on their feet and be creative. Teachers seem to want to take achievement out of testing entirely. Why not just IQ test 5 year olds and be done with all of it?
A major problem with these sorts of assessments is that they are entirely subjective and basically allow teachers to assign any grade they wish without justification. These grading systems dramatically advantage gregarious girls and disadvantage introspective kids and boys. They are also not used evenly. A child who struggles in math class may be given class time to work on basic skills, while a child who grasps concepts easily and needs less practice may be assigned "group work" to help other students or may be assigned a worthless "authentic" project to do. The latter's grade will depend largely on his willingness to work "collaboratively". Attitude rather than aptitude. High achieving kids feel cheated, with a disconnect between their work product and their grades.
Funny how these constructivist ideas are popular in private schools and public schools in affluent neighborhoods. They act as a great grade equalizer in schools where parents expect that all of their children are above average. It also allows teachers to fudge grades for the children of Trustees or major donors. Obviously this is a motivation and achievement killer for left-brain kids.

Anonymous said...

TEachers who actually like to teach will resist this system and/or flee from it.

Auntie Ann said...

Isn't an ability to collaborate pretty innate for most non-left-brained people? It seems like they are proposing spending a massive amount of time to teach a skill most people already know.

Then again, maybe that's the point. Beats actually having to come up with a give-and-take lecture.

Anonymous said...

Very true, Auntie Ann. And left-brained people will not learn these skills through a program like this one.

Barry Garelick said...

It truly amazes me to see how many teachers in middle schools arrange the desks in groups of 4 in their classrooms. Kids at that age are especially distractable, and there's a lot of "free riding" that goes on. Maybe it comes down from on high, like the principal's office, that teachers have to arrange desks like that.

Anonymous said... looks like this is what my school district is also doing, their new wave of the future. My selfish reaction after hearing about it at a meeting last fall was that I was glad it was being phased in behind my kids, so they wouldn't be affected that much. Though some is already used....the reason my 2e 8th grades son's english teacher gave for not recommending him for GT english in high school was that he could not produce for his group on time (no place for extended time for writing as part of a group, I guess). BTW my reaction to the teacher would have been the same as Anonymous Ugh and I hated group projects but as a working adult it seems totally different and ok I really would rather see content beefed up.

Auntie Ann said...
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Auntie Ann said...

As a student, your grade depends...or should depend...on your work. I think a lot of students get irked when they are in group projects, because much of their grade is outside of their control, and that there is a great deal of time wasted in discussions instead of getting the task done and actually learning something.

As an adult, the goal isn't to learn something, to improve your skills, or to get a good grade; instead, the goal is getting the job done. It is easier as an adult to accept and seek out help, to work in a group, and to break up a large project among multiple people; because there really is a unified goal: creating a salable product from which everyone gets paid.

Group projects in school take what is ultimately an individual goal--each student needs to train their own brain--and pretends that it is a group goal.

Anonymous said...

From a career working as an engineer at a defense contractor, I can see how very important 21st century skills will be taught through this curriculum.

It's entirely subjective, and up to the teacher's discretion and imagination to give a mark. Therefore those students who suck up the most and talk the most will get the highest marks regardless of learning or skills.

Fast forward twenty years and they will be management in training on the fast track to being pointy-haired bosses. They will have mastered the important twenty-first skills of sucking up, kicking down, bullying, and out-shouting (aka "collaborative skills" as assessed by distracted superiors).

Elementary school is such an important place to develop the leadership the 21st century needs.