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Why Do You Ask?

From asking questions that require an answer To asking questions that require a conversation.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How Do You Test An Elephant?

No, the answer is not carefully. The response is, "Why would you test an elephant?" There may be sound reasons to test elephants for disease, scientific research, or perhaps some other necessary purpose. But...why?

Over the past couple of years, Edutopia (a publication of the George Lucas Foundation) has become one of my favorite magazines to read. Ironically, it is because I find myself in disagreement with some of the thoughts spewed forth. But that's why I like it...it makes me think. Now I do not always disagree with the contents either. It presents material that is worthy of thought, and I guess that is why I enjoy the magazine. AND, it's free to educators. Thank you Star Wars.

In a February 28, 2007 article, Don't Weigh the Elephant - Feed the Elephant, Milton Chen refers to some new work conducted by Carol Dweck of Stanford, Lisa Blackwell of Columbia, and Kali Trzesniewski of Stanford. Their work is published in Child Development and was recently featured on NPR. These credentials mean something to most people, but surely someone has completed some research indicating that research can support anything.

Anyway, Chen reports a couple of interesting things:
  • Dweck's study suggests that teaching kids (especially in the middle school years) that their brains are constantly making new neurological connections as they make their brains work, these students are more likely to become successful in their studies, no matter what the subject, but especially in math. Students focus on their brains growing instead of learning the material. Another metacognitive theory in the making?
  • In a separate story, used as his introduction, Chen tells of a colleague who was in India and after a brief discussion on national testing in the U.S., the Indian educator replied, "Here, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don't weigh the elephant."
So I have some reactions. First, the elephant analogy, while interesting falls short for me. Come on India - go further! I am seeing...
  • elephant = American students
  • weighing = testing
  • feeding = curriculum
Our students being the elephants is fine with me.

Weighing our students is testing our students. The Indian educator suggests that weighing the elephant isn't necessary. I'm one of the cynics who thinks testing is more about money for test publishers, and power for politicians, and little else. But, I still think if the elephant is being fed but appears to not be gaining weight, the first step in diagnosis can be weighing it to get a baseline. If it is underweight, then dietary supplements can be used to see what helps the elephant grow. If one thing doesn't work, then you try something different. But how do you know if the elephant has gained weight from the supplement without weighing it in the future? So we are still stuck with testing. Weighing is not equal to testing in the U.S.: it is a tool (however faulty) to determine if weight has been gained.

Feeding, or food, is the curriculum, I suppose. This is the debate point! Perhaps Chen will conquer this in his next article. At this point the only thing I see that he points to is Dweck's metacognitive philosophy. The curriculum will not matter much, because if students focus on their new neuron sparks they make while trying to learn even the boring stuff, they will learn even the boring stuff, because they imagine their brains growing. The results in the article were too short term for me. Even I can influence (bribe) a kid to learn something for a single test.
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Dweck's study has me concerned for one reason. The fact that it is quickly revealed that math scores are the area impacted most raises a red flag to me. We are so math-centric in our country right now, that if a new study does not increase math scores it is nothing more than a fringe report. I find extreme brain activity in the process of writing; more than I ever would trying to learn math. I am constantly bringing together thoughts that seem disconnected to most people in order to make meaning of the things I observe. I think I still make a few new connections each year, but never from math.

Increase Math Scores is the key phrase to gain attention for "new" research. So I'm a bit skeptical at this early stage.

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Scattered Ramblings:

Elephants are herbivores--big herbivores, but I would like to think our kids could get more selection from curriculum than a pre-meal salad. Where's the meat & potatoes?

We are still stuck in the "smart kids know answers" mode, instead of the "smart kids know how to ask questions, and where to find answers." We are not producing life-long learners, nor is that truly our goal in the U.S. We are, however, creating kids who will be able to compete in any number of trivia games...maybe as early as 5th grade!
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So, why would you test an elephant? Not to help it grow, but determine if it has grown at a healthy rate. My concern is once we determine that the elephant isn't growing, what new food will we provide? If we continue to feed it what did not help it grow, why would we continue to feed it food that will not make it grow?

Will the new food be nothing more than metacognitive philosophy that most of the teachers will not understand? No disrespect intended, but metacognition is not a hot elective for education courses in undergrad, and it is a little deeper than any continuing education course will handle.

See, I told you Edutopia makes me think!

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