Publication Type: Web Article
Year of Publication: 2004
Cossondra George connects her experience having students learn about report on ancient cultures to an article in Educational Leadership, "The Courage to Be a Constructivist."
George, C. (2004). The almighty state assessment and the illusion of control. Teacher Leaders Network diaries. Retrieved from the Teacher Leaders Network 9 Apr 2008. Link: http://www.teacherleaders.org/old_site/diaries04_05/other/CG04_04_05.htm...
The Almighty State Assessment & the Illusion of Control
There is a card that hangs on the cork board by my desk. I read it on those days I am questioning my very existence as a teacher. Those days when I wonder if I am doing what I should be in my classroom. Those days I struggle to find a link between the almighty state assessment and the the teaching and learning that I believe is most important and long-lasting.
The cover of the card is a bit unusual. The drawing is of a colorfully clad woman holding onto some vertical pole. The woman is seemingly flying across the top of the card, completely horizontal. The words on the card read: If you hold onto the handle, she said, it's easier to maintain the illusion of control. But it's more fun if you just let the wind carry you.
When I first saw the card, I didn't "get it". What was the meaning of this strange woman I wondered?
On the inside of the card though, the meaning becomes clear. Laurel, the young lady who gave me the card, had written a lengthy note. Part of it read: "This card is like your teaching. You not only taught the kids about American history but about how to find who they are & what they want to become & do in this amazing world around us, helping & coaxing them to do their best but 'let go' & 'let the wind carry' them to where their place in life is."
When I had Laurel in my American history class, we did let the wind carry us — to some exciting new learning. I had never taught the class before, and as a student, had not particularly enjoyed history. My memories of the class were the memorizing of dates, people, and places, with little opportunity for me to construct my own meaning from the topics we discussed in class. I was determined my own class would be different.
The first chapter in the textbook was about the ancient civilizations, the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas. The textbook was boring. Instead I broke the class into three large groups, and assigned each group one of the ancient civilizations. They had various resources and free reign to learn about their culture and then teach the rest of the class what they had learned. My classroom was a flurry of activity for the next two weeks with each group venturing on their own, learning about these fascinating peoples. I worked as their facilitator, questioning, guiding, and watching.
When the day came for them to teach the class what they had learned, some of the presentations were almost as boring as the textbook itself. Even so, it was clear that in the process of researching and preparing their presentations, these students had really taken ownership of their learning and gained a deeper understanding of the material than they ever would have by simply regurgitating the textbook.
Some groups had turned their learning into magic. My favorite was one group who was assigned the Incan culture. They presented the material they had learned in the form of a skit. The skit was pretty typical of what you would expect from an 8th grade production, written, directed, and performed on their level — with one major exception, the baby alpaca.
The skit revolved around an Incan family and what their daily lives would be like. There was much factual information, and we learned all the necessary details about this culture. Then, everything and more that you could possibly want to know about alpacas. The baby alpaca stole the show. He was cute, dressed in brown fur, but his antics were what made his performance one worthy of an Oscar. As the rest of the cast recited their lines, reading from their scripts, the little alpaca zipped back and forth across the "stage". He kept saying things like, "How old do I have to be to carry a pack?" "What happened to Uncle Bob? Why does that blanket look like his fur?" "Gosh, I wish I could go up into the Andes with my mom and dad today!"
The baby alpaca knew his stuff. He taught us about the role of the alpaca in this ancient culture in a way that stayed with my students much longer than any reading from a textbook could have ever done.
The courage to teach for meaning
I've struggled some to put this experience into a context that might be useful to anyone who reads this diary entry. When I asked my editor for suggestions, he sent me the link to a 1999 Educational Leadership article titled "The Courage To Be a Constructivist." The little teaser headline at the beginning of the article reads: "In the race to prepare for high-stakes state assessments, students are losing out on instructional practices that foster meaningful learning." And that was 1999! Before NCLB, AYP, and the era when the definition of "highly qualified teacher" would be restricted (in middle school, at least) to content knowledge.
Most teachers know – but other readers may not – that constructivism is a theory of learning "that describes the central role that learners' ever-transforming mental schemes play in their cognitive growth." The authors continue:
Learning is a complex process through which learners constantly change their internally constructed understandings of how their worlds function. New information either transforms their current beliefs—or doesn't.... Trying to capture this complexity on paper-and-pencil assessments severely limits knowledge and expression.
This is my real concern about the current trend in education — in how we are expected to teach and how students are expected to learn. It's as if NCLB, accountability testing, AYP and all the rest are the "handle" that we are hanging onto, giving us the illusion of control. But are we just fooling ourselves?
In our rush to hold schools accountable (often for problems that go far beyond the school) through constant paper-and-pencil testing, what are we sacrificing? Is it possible that we are sacrificing too much? Are we trading well-rounded young citizens who can think for themselves for disengaged individuals who may retain a few more facts and figures just long enough to "perform" on the state test?
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the article:
But controlling what students learn is virtually impossible. The search for meaning takes a different route for each student.... (A)s educators we have great control over what we teach, but far less control over what students learn.
The search for understanding motivates students to learn. When students want to know more about an idea, a topic, or an entire discipline, they put more cognitive energy into classroom investigations and discussions and study more on their own.
State and local curriculums address what students learn. Constructivism, as an approach to education, addresses how students learn.
The push for accountability is eclipsing the intent of standards and sound educational practices.
Students must be permitted the freedom to think, to question, to reflect, and to interact with ideas, objects, and others — in other words, to construct meaning.
I am fully prepared to be accountable for my teaching. But I want to be held accountable for teaching students "to construct meaning," not to simply parrot information on a certain day of the year and then forget it. As the pressure increases to bow down before the almighty Test, I will strive to continue to have the courage to follow the advice of these authors:
Focus on student learning. When we design instructional practices to help students construct knowledge, students learn. This is our calling as educators.