‘Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse” Exam

If you are in to pop culture, you know that the apocalypse is imminent. The only controversy is how to defend yourself against (kill) the undead. Does it take a headshot a la The Walking Dead or the Double Tap via Zombieland. Whatever it is, make sure you know the rules.

Ok, so maybe there’s not going to be a zombie apocalypse. But one thing is sure: The theories behind surviving the Cataclysm of the Undead have some things in common; The competence to think creatively, the ability to think on your feet, an expertise in collaboration and the desire to survive.

My college aged daughter is a The Walking Dead fan but definitely not a survivor. She never learned good communication or creative thinking skills. I chalk this up to poor parenting and a school system that admires skill in Math and Reading above all else.

The point of this post is that the skills needed to survive the Return of the Zombies are very similar to the 4c’s of 21st Century learning: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking. I know, there’s no ‘Communication’ in the Zombie Survival Guide but there’s also know ‘desire to survive’ in the 4 c’s. We’ll just call that a fair trade but 75% of what 21st Century learner’s need to be adept at will help them survive the Zombie Apocalypse.

Being a little older than the Walking Dead crowd, I am more in tune with the Zombieland rules. Although they aren’t all mentioned in the movie, tell me that these rules aren’t relative to 21st Century learning:

Well, maybe that’s a stretch but I hope you see my point, The skills that we need to survive the rebirth of the undead are the skills (or at least related to the skills) that we need to be teaching our students. We are a decade and a half in and we probably shouldn’t be talking about the need to teach these skills. We should be talking about how successful we are being at ingraining this knowledge base in our students. We should be talking about how we are assessing student abilities in the 4 c’s or the Zombie Survival Skills.

Since I’ve broached the idea of assessment, can anyone imagine testing these skills. Quality based assessments that would tell educators where students need to improve to be successful IN THE WORLD. Yes, I yelled that! I’ve mentioned this before and I will debate this forever: The only reason we test what we do (Math and ELA) is because it is easily quantifiable. Unfortunately the skills that students need to be successful are not always quantifiable.

Woody Harrelson would have been terrible at the PSSAs but I would definitely want him as my zombie killing partner. Think about what kind of student you want next to you when the living dead visits your neighborhood. Do you want the kid who knows all the answers on the test or the one who can fold up the test and make a weapon out of it? I know which one I will pick.

In the meantime, remember the first rule of Zombieland: Cardio – the faster you run, the further you are away from a Zombie. Wait, should that be the first rule of the PSSA?

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Prisoners of Bureaucracy

I started graduate school this week so the posts may get thin over the next several weeks. The advantage is that I’ve found a lot of inspiration from my reading so I’ll have ideas built up when I have time to write.

This week I ran across a quote about being an educational leader today is akin to waking up in a maximum security prison and saying, “What am I going to do today?” The comparison is simple, if you are a prisoner you have two choices: follow the rules or be punished. Similarly it seems that school leaders – teachers, principals, superintendents – have them same choices: follow the mandates or be punished. On a larger scale, schools and entire districts are also prisoners of the test-well system.

I’ve written about it before and I will probably write about it again. In a system where the only thing that matters is how you score on one standardized test is the standard that determines excellence, educators must decide whether they will teach to the test or whether they will choose to expand the knowledge of their students by instilling the desire to learn. These are not the same thing. I’ve told teachers for several years that I could guarantee we could be 100% proficient in two years. I know how to do that. We have all the tools: great teachers, great kids, supportive parents, better than average socioeconomic standing, etc. The trade off that we would have to make is whether we want to solely “teach to the test” or do we want to continue to do the things that have brought us to the level of success that we have already achieved? Our school believes it has the ability to transform from a good school to a great school but we also believe that the measuring stick of greatness is not a percentage of proficiency determined by someone other that us.

One of my large projects for my graduate class is to come up with a plan to address improving student achievement using the Getting Results Template. The Getting Results Template is what schools in school improvement are required to complete as part of their school improvement plan. I think I may blow someone away. I can right an excellent plan for improving but I think at the end I will tell them how I really feel. Like a prisoner of bureaucracy.

Keep Your Art Out of My Science

A couple of decades ago while earning my bachelor’s degree in education I recall a professor asking whether we thought that teaching was an art or a science. At that time it was a pretty good debate for a bunch of 19 and 20 year-olds.

Whether we like it or not, there really no longer is a debate about how teachers are expected to teach. Art is no longer appreciated or rewarded. Science – data, pre-made assessments, canned lessons and are I say teaching to the test – is the expectation. There really is no time or necessity to be creative when there a finite number of objectives to accomplish. Sure, you can feel free to address those standards in any way you like! Or can you?The list of expectations for teaching behavior from lesson planning to classroom management to instructional delivery to professional behavior have been spelled out in detail. This is what great teaching looks like!

You understand in order to make the expense of public education justifiable, it has to be boiled down to a number. A number that Joe Average Citizen can comprehend. In order to get to a number you have to have a measurable product. In order to have a measurable product you have to have a concrete tool with which to measure. You can;t have a lot of loose ends that aren’t part of the accepted equation. Too messy.

Teachers in turn feel the pressure to reach some agreed upon number from the ivory tower and do exactly that. Believe me, it is hard to distinguish the standardized testing scores of students taught by teachers who teach straight out of the book and teachers who spend hundreds of hours planning and tweaking lessons. It’s crap.

It’s crap because the test doesn’t measure heart, caring, passion. It doesn’t measure wiped noses and concerned phone calls. There isn’t a tool that can tell Joe Average how many tears are shed over the frustration of language poor and money poor families or the miles of exercise that it takes to relieve the stress of unsupportive parents and less supportive agencies.

That my friends is science. Specific, Measurable, Trackable. Rows of students who might as well be bolting together widgets and sending them down the line.

The problem is that because we don’t reward artistry in our education system, our teachers don’t know how to encourage artistry in their classrooms. When we tell teachers that their jobs depend on making the score, the consciously or subconsciously project those fears onto their students. “No, I can;t let you explore how we came to use standard units instead of metric units, that will take too much time and we have to get to fractions before the PSSA. You just need to know that they are different.”

This is in my estimation the core of the problem in education. The rule followers prevail and the rule challengers fail. From kindergarten through to college, the students who can regurgitate some information in paper and pencil are bound for greatness. The artists will struggle because we can;t quantify what they are capable of. There are many examples of creators who were “poor” students in the eyes of their teachers but went on to do great things. These are the resilient artists. Those that rose above the square peg problem to find a square hole.

Our concern needs to be with the artists who aren’t resilient. The square pegs who, if they are lucky enough, will be able to balance themselves on top of the round hole – stuck in far enough to stay – and hide their artiness in the name of societal norms. And for those who aren’t crafty enough to fake it or resilient enough to overcome, what will become of them? 

Quantifying Quality

One of the things that I very often do to find inspiration is to read. I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to reading because about 99% of what I read is non-fiction. I take some grief about this from the few people who know this about me. It is deeply imbedded in my personality.

My most recent inspiration came from reading The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Silver’s expertise is in the area of prognostication. More so in using Bayesian statistics to draw conclusions about probabilities of future events. For example, he correctly predicted 49 of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election and all 50 states in 2012.

Bayesian statistics utilize a sometimes subjective prior probability to make a prediction about the probability of a future event. For example, the number and strength of past earthquakes increase the probability of future, stronger earthquakes.

The reason for my post, as I normally right about education, is whether we can use Bayesian statistics to determine whether the new Framework for Teaching, developed by Charlotte Danielson and adopted by Pennsylvania as it’s new evaluation tool, can predict the number of ineffective teachers in a school.

The Danielson model, by her own admission was developed to provide teachers a framework through which to improve their teaching. Therefore, what we probably want to predict is how likely are teachers to improve by utilizing the Framework.

Another question to answer, and Silver has eluded to his desire to attempt it, is whether any subjective measure can really quantitatively measure the effectiveness of a teacher. In a reddit IAmA, he stated, “There are certainly cases where objective measures applied badly is worse than not applying them at all, and education may well be one of them.” He said this in regard to a question about using test scores to rate teacher effectiveness.

In Pennsylvania, teachers and administrators will be rated on a combination of both: standardized test scores and the Danielson Framework for Teaching. One concrete measure that historically has been shown to be determined more by location than by quality teaching and one qualitative, formative measure that will be applied quantitatively.

I know it’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic but the argument continually needs to be made that education is more qualitative; more art and less quantitative; less science.

Tree Climbing Fish

I posted this on my Facebook wall a week or so ago.  I don’t think a lot of people really know what he is saying.  At least I don’t think many people took the same meaning from it as I did.  It crystallized some thoughts I had been having about teaching difficult students.  Let’s call them fish.

Fish rule the world.  Or at least the parts of the world that make it interesting.  Einstein himself was a fish in many ways.  For all of his mathematical brilliance, he was rather one-dimensional.  He never really set the world on fire in school he was consumed by his thoughts.  It has been said that not only did he fairly regularly get lost trying to get home but also at times he would not recognize his house when he got there.  Can you imagine what he was like as a third grader.  I can just hear the faculty room talk, “that Einstein boy is driving me nuts!  Is it just me or does he have the attention span of a gnat? Somebody sneak some Ritalin in that boys lunch, please!”

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, John Chambers CEO of Cisco, and Charles Schwab all reportedly have ADD/ADHD (Whatever they’re calling it this week).  Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy, though never diagnosed had symptoms of what we now call ADHD as well as Beethoven, John Lennon and Elvis. The world of acting is chock full of people with that gnatlike attention span:  Robin Williams, Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Will Smith and even Alfred Hitchcock to name a few.  And athletes are ADD in amazing numbers.  Greats like Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Bruce Jenner and Michael Phelps suffer or suffered from lack of attention.  They are all fish.

If these fish would have been judged by climbing trees everyone of them would have been a failure.  At the singular activity though they were or are phenomenal.  I don’t believe that it is a matter of overcoming the obstacle, I believe that the so called obstacle is what made them great.

The link to teaching then is that we are keeping a large number of kids from finding their greatness.  There are a myriad of reasons and they go back way before standardized testing.  Standardized testing didn’t make it any easier but it really isn’t the blame.  The blame is on an educational system that everyone has bought into.  A system were being different is condemned and thinking creatively is not rewarded.  Where the number of ADD students in a classroom is seen as a hassle and not a reward.  Just think what it would be like if you had Einstein, Franklin, and Hitchcock in your room.  Would their ideas fit into your rubric?  Would you give them a “C” because they didn’t use commas?

So, what is the solution?  In my estimation the solution is to favor thinking over content.  Teaching students to use the tool they were born with for something other than to  memorize the states and capitals.  Most people won’t want to hear this but I believe the goal of the Common Core Standards is to do just that.  Not just to teach that 1+1=2 but to teach why.  And from that tiny sprout of why, encourage students to continue to ask “Why” until that blossoms into asking “How?” and eventually to students exploring the “Whys” and the “Hows” that interest them.

Fish know that the information is out there.  They need to know how to access it.  Fish know that they have brilliant thoughts all the time.  They need to know how to develop and expand them.  Fish, as I’ve said before, don’t understand your games of due dates, assignment planners, rubrics, and standardized tests.  They do understand when you don’t try to understand them.

Tomorrow:  I have more thoughts before breakfast than most people have all day.