I originally wrote this blog entry last June. But today, it is raining torrentially, so I am revisiting some ideas that concern me about the concept of how to measure learning, and the bind that most excellent classroom teachers find themselves in, trying to serve their students, with an insatiable burocracy on their backs. Gordon Elementary’s Options Program is an example of a public school version of a charter school. I get quite optimistic about the future of public education when I visit classroom programs such as this.
What a treat for me to be able to teach a class, last spring, for the Gordon Elementary Options Program, in Kingston, Washington. Not only are these students used to helping each other, in this multi-level, multi-aged learning community, but this public school program gives students the opportunity to be fully immersed in their learning experiences. Because of the ‘family-like’ atmosphere, and the help of Elizabeth Unsell and Spencer West, this group of young people, from three years old to fourteen years old, successfully completed their Clam Shell Rattle Necklaces, learning about the three distinctive ecosystems that the materials to make them came from. Best of all for me, was to have all three of my grandchildren in the class. What fun to spend time with them in this setting, and get to know many of their awesome friends!
Later, groups of students spread out to ‘give-back’, by planting baby cedar trees nearby.
When we use, or ‘take’ from nature, the balance only happens when we learn to give back.
Was this a good lesson? Did these students benefit congnitively, physically, and emotionally? I think so. I know this by looking and listening to them. And I was rewarded for my efforts too. I had fun getting to know these students. It was gratifying helping them gain new skills, and watching them use those skills to create something they had never done before. They have been outside getting to know some of the native plants in their neighborhood. They have learned about the local First Peoples high regard for plants. And they understand now that there is a vast amount of Traditional Ecological Knowledge retained, and passed on, through the oral traditions of all indigenous cultures around the world. These students have learned that by practicing a traditional art form, such as weaving with plant fibers, they are part of a continuum, keeping alive important scientific and cultural knowledge about the place they live. I loved being able to share my knowledge with these students. Their individual comments and the look of pride and accomplishment on their faces as they show their work to me and share with their classmates, is how I know right away if my teaching is effective.
But how can an effective teacher convey what they know about their students to a bureaucracy that has converted itself to a numerical system? Every time we put a number by a human being, we take one step away from being human.
I feel there is a heavy burden on most teachers today, pulling them away from the good teaching practices they wish to be able to perform freely in their classrooms. As a grandmother, who happens to be an artist inspired by nature, culture and science; when invited into a classroom “family”, I am a bit of an “outsider” to the greater bureaucracy we call the public education system. Because I’m an outsider, I can bring with me something that is being forced out of the learning environments of many classrooms today. I can bring an experience to students where their understanding of the lessons I offer is demonstrated by their participation and completion of a project, a piece of art, something they have made themselves which could not be created without understanding. Yet, even I, an outsider, am now required by some funding sources, to take additional time, on top of the many uncompensated hours of preparation time I’ve already given, to put numbers by students, which attempt to indicate the learning that takes place. I can do this, but honestly, I would prefer to spend more time directly with the students.
Whatever happened to a simple pre-test and post-test of vocabulary and concepts hoped to be learned? This type of testing, an immediate, tangible, specific measurement can be very helpful to teachers by showing each students’ growth in knowledge and understanding, and revealing the concepts that need more teaching time. But I’m observing the growing obsession and focus of the public school system I’ve been involved with for over 30 years, as it has been driven to invest huge amounts of money and resources into a system that emphasizes TESTING.
For most teachers and teaching-artists working in US public schools today, a greater amount of their expertise, artistry, and classroom time, is being diverted toward the quantification of the learning taking place in their classrooms. There is money appropriated for each individual students’ learning, and a growing portion of funds is paid directly to curriculum and testing companies. But do these tests directly benefit student? Can standardized state or federal tests directly improve student learning?
It seems that standarized curriculum and tests are being forced into classrooms from outside the local communities, to create a numerical system for the bureaucratic measurement of the TEACHER’s effectivness; the local SCHOOL’s effectiveness; the DISTRICT’s effectiveness; the STATE’s effectivness; rather than having anything to contribute towards the real growth and learning of each individual student. Wouldn’t be great to use those funds to reduce class sizes and increase the salaries of *teachers? I’m pretty sure that if grandmothers ruled the world, that’s what would happen!
It is true that measurements and numbers are lovely and useful in many ways. Numbers can give us some types of information, and indicate certain trends, like: “Has the high school drop-out rate in the United States increased, decreased, or stayed the same in the last decade?” Let’s google that!
Being asked to convert to numbers things which hold multiple levels of understanding, some that can only be realized by the recipient of the those lessons at each student’s individual pace, seems almost counter productive to the student’s well-being and growth. Call me old fashion, but I would prefer to measure all academic success by looking at my students faces, listening to their voices, and letting them show me in a multiplicity of ways what they’ve made and learned. (essays, poems, songs, experiements, teaching others, and yes, pre-tests and post-tests)
Everything has to be measurable! But how do you measure the unseen? Art is a bit easier than many subjects because there is often a product or performance that demonstrates the student’s understanding. But even art, is not exempt from extraneous pressures from outside the classroom, reaching in to demand that all things BE quantifiable. I’ll try my best to fit into the bureaucracy, but I know in my heart and mind, everything that has the greatest value in life has no language to measure it.
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” (Albert Einstein? William Bruce Cameron?) (Thanks to Debbie Engel for reminding me of this quote!)
*I have to fully disclose that my husband is a public school teacher, and I think quite an awesome one too!