Monday, October 31, 2011

Assessment, Suzuki-style

When I'm seeking a pure solution to a difficult educational problem, I often turn to the Suzuki violin method. It's almost a case of "What Would Suzuki Do?" I have idealized his methods because I trust his heart. He did or said nothing that did not have love of children at its core. So when in doubt, I ask myself, WWSD?

I have the issue of the assessment of learning on my mind, and thinking about how the Suzuki method does it makes it clear what it should be.

About a year ago, at age ten, my daughter had her Suzuki Book One solo recital. It was more than just her demonstration of all she had learned about the violin since she was three. It was many things: a rite of passage, an exercise in endurance, an opportunity to build her self-respect, a day when all her hard work gave her a chance to shine (not to mention a chance for her parents to dissolve into a puddle of love and pride).

As she and I, along with her wonderful teacher, prepared for the recital, my appreciation of the process grew and grew. She had mastered all the songs in Book One, but now she was preparing them for the world. We hung a chart on the wall of all the songs, and put check-marks each time she practiced one, with a special indication when she decided that she had played it with "recital-quality."

As the weeks went by we both grew more and more aware of what she had accomplished. Best of all, she was able to put her personality into the recital, creating funny moments, opportunities for the audience to laugh with her. (She interrupted Allegro just before the final phrase by putting her bow on her head; all the Suzuki students in the audience took pencils we had distributed and put them on their heads, points to the ceiling, as they had done many times in group lesson, and the parents, bewildered, followed suit until the entire audience had pencils on their heads, waiting for Francie to finish the song.) It was her creation, and who she was came shining through.

You always hear people say how hard the violin is. It's true. The violin is very picky about what it needs in order to sound good. When playing the violin, you can't really get a pure tone if you are bowing all crooked or on the fingerboard; you can't get the ringing tones to ring if you don't have your left-hand fingers in precisely the right spot on the fingerboard. If you want to create beauty, you have to master technique.

So one song at a time, one skill at a time, Suzuki teaches technique. In the meantime, you are listening to the songs on your CD, you are attending group violin lessons, and you are tackling each song and each new baby-step of technique. If you are playing Go Tell Aunt Rhodie, Allegro seems very far away; when you get up to Allegro and you see the older students play the Minuets at group violin lesson, you think, "I'm going to play those songs someday -- but when?"

Each little song is an advancement from one technique to the next. You don't play with a complicated division of the bow of Oh Come Little Children until you have mastered the bowings of Lightly Row. But you have not forgotten Lightly Row; you review, review, review. Lightly Row sounds better and better as you advance through each song while continuing to review. And you put yourself into it more and more. (Whoever said to a beginning instrumental music student, "You can express yourself through music" has a lot to answer for. Self-expression doesn't really happen without technique. The first time a child picks up a trombone and blows into it, he thinks, "If this is self-expression, I want no truck with it!")

It is the ideal system of assessment. It grows naturally out of the process of learning. If a child is having trouble remembering to use a low second finger the first time it's called for, the process of learning it is built into the system. You take that measure and repeat, repeat, repeat until your brain is rewired to accommodate that low second finger. Then you go back to the song and repeat the phrase until your second finger knows exactly what to do. Suzuki is not afraid of the dreaded "rote learning." Rote learning, exercises, repetition, is what has to happen if you want to make beautiful music. Suzuki kids understand that.

Other techniques take longer. After her first solo recital, Francie moved very quickly into learning vibrato. It took weeks. First she practiced the muscle movements vibrato requires, without holding the violin. Then she held the violin while practicing those movements. Gradually she put it all together, and created the prettiest vibrato her proud Mom had ever seen: loose, relaxed, effective, and miles ahead of my own!

Now she is preparing for her smaller Book Two half-recital and as she goes back to the first song in the book, Chorus from Judas Maccabeus, a long-bow song that's all about beautiful, sustained, majestic tone. She practices her even vibrato through the entire length of the bow. It sings.

How do you know what a child has learned? How do you know your teaching has resulted in learning? It's hard to look at the public-school classroom through the lens of the Suzuki violin method. For all my understanding of the assessment of violin skills, assessment in the classroom remains a mystery. But my understanding of this method helps me to understand that learning is assessment, and vice-versa. Learning is the process of adding skill onto skill; you get one under your belt, and move on to the next, which requires mastery of all the skills before. When you achieve your goal, whether it is accomplishment of Suzuki Book One, the building of a boat, the completion of a short story, the rebuilding of an engine or the design of a green home, the assessment is the accomplishment.

For all my study of education, this is what I've learned about assessment. How does this view advance our thinking of what happens inside our public schools? We need to completely change how we think about it. How much of it benefits children, and how much just satisfies the need for adults to quantify something that can't be quantified? What's a good score for joyful learning? What's a measurable scale for satisfaction and development of self-respect? For more on these questions; watch this space!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Passion solves problems! List them here. #5: Kids cannot behave themselves.

The final problem solved by passion -- until I think of more -- is about discipline and behavior. As I said in my previous post, adult respect for students, their embracing of who each of them is, is the prerequisite for their learning. Showing this respect and even personal liking for every student is the most effective way to help them build on their strengths, bring out their passions and develop their self-respect. In short, if the learning that students are engaged in is their idea in the first place, supported and encouraged by peers and adults, why would they misbehave?

I can hear the scoffs and laughter from here, so go blow your noses and settle yourselves down. Discipline and behavior issues, classroom management, all these things will ever be with us, if perhaps in a very different way than today. I do require that we imagine a classroom that we may never before have seen. Consider the happiness in that room, and I challenge you to seek it out.

Misbehavior as we currently imagine it should be redefined anyway. Boredom and frustration, indifference and resentment all live within the system that is built to support not kids but bureaucracy (and a bad one at that, if you consider it as responsible for the tests that take the life out of schools). Kids talk when they shouldn't; but if they are involved in collaboration and mutual help, it works. Eating in class is OK too if kids feel they need to and clean up after themselves. Taking a break from the work to go to the restroom or even, heaven forfend, lean up against the hallway wall to talk to a friend from another class for two minutes, is that a crime? The minor misdemeanors of school are at least half kids just being who they are, and the other half because...when kids walk into class now, they leave their spirit and passion (along with their cell phones) at the door.

The scenarios described in this series of blog posts cannot and will not take place as long as we continue as stewards of the industrial model of education. It might take place even if we never get rid of high stakes testing, but it would be a whole lot easier if they went away, replaced by a model of accountability that doesn't stand directly in the way of real learning. So if you have trouble imagining this classroom, and think I am living in a dream world, you might be right -- if you also imagine that it can be overlayed on top of the traditional model of education.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What should schools be held accountable for?

We interrupt this series, "Passion Solves Problems," to bring you the following post. The final problem solved by passion, Behavior and Discipline, will be presented in the next blog post.

I have been slowly absorbing a book of essays called Democratic School Accountability, edited by Ken Jones, a professor of education at the University of Southern Maine. This has been a long time coming for me; assessments and accountability in education have been issues for which I have felt a great yawning lack of interest. Let others worry about it. I just want kids to be happy at school. Test scores, outcome numbers, educational assessments all make my eyes glaze over.

But you can't pretend to know anything about education in America if you don't devote time and attention to the issue of accountability.

These issues yield a rich motherlode of jargon. Assessments, learning outcomes, student achievement, standardized testing, high-stakes testing, test-based accountability are all in the jumble of words we use to judge the job schools are doing. I am going to do my level best, as a lay person, to use these terms appropriately but they fly around my head like houseflies. The more they are used, the less meaning they seem to have, and the more annoying they are. In the end, I hope I will have made the case for breaking through all the jargon and figuring out what we really need to know about how our kids are being educated.

Here's the scoop as I understand it: assessment is the tool we use to measure achievement; accountability is the school's responsibility to report these achievement measures to the community at large. I acknowledge the right we have as a society to know how well our tax dollars are beings spent on education. The problem is that it is nearly universally regarded that the assessments that provide the best accountability are the testing of students.

Since NCLB, accountability has had an added knife-edge: punitive measures imposed on school districts as a result of poor achievement numbers. Schools are being held accountable through these high-stakes tests, and to many, this only makes sense.

But we need to take a look at what high-stakes testing measures, and how that compares to what we as a community value for our kids. We all make judgments on schools based on test scores, even those of us who reject them, since they are the only current measure, so let's take a look at what they are telling us...and what they can't tell us.

Tests measure the most basic of outcomes: the answer to a question, which is either right or wrong. If this sort of assessment was applied to measure the narrowest possible view of education, there might be ways in which it could be made useful. But the narrow view tests give us has become the sole picture of schooling on which we base all our judgments of the system. Using those results as the measure by which we make decisions on whether the school that produced them lives or dies is positively fatal to efforts to create the conditions in which learning can happen. Something else is in the driver's seat; deny it though we might; it is the very pursuit of test-based accountability that has created the ongoing and increasing failure of public schools.

Over the last ten years, schools nationwide have narrowed and contracted the curricula and become test-prep organizations. In doing so, one might imagine test scores in the US would have risen -- but that has not happened. Test scores have stagnated. The institution, in its panic to produce these test results for their survival, have had to rid itself of the very learning experiences that would engage and enrich its students, and even, quite possibly, produced better test results (a nice paradox, is it not? Well, it's my own theory, and most experts probably disagree with me!).

In his book, Ken Jones lays out a system of accountability that would give a healthier and more robust view of how schools are doing. What does he believe schools should be held accountable for?

*The physical and emotional well-being of students;
*The learning of students, and the assessment of that learning;
*Teacher learning and evaluation;
*Equity and access to learning for all;
*The continuous improvement and renewal of the organization.

All the above categories for which our schools should be accountable are reasonable to expect from a system, Jones argues. I'd like to pay particular attention today to the first one.

At first glance it seems an achievable and obvious goal. Schools need to provide a safe place for kids. It is ongoing work that needs vigilance and proactive approaches, but the goal is clear. However, if you think of this job as creating the conditions in which learning can happen, you can see that it is a complex challenge, and one that will be different for every child.

The topic of how to create these conditions is too great for this blog post; my intention is only to show that if a system does not devote time and energy to doing this work, children will not learn, and no test, no matter how well-aligned with curriculum, scientifically designed and professionally administered, will give you a key to how a school needs to improve.

My own focus has always been on giving children the respect they need in order to learn. The respect they are accorded by their teachers turns into self-respect once students realize they are being seen and heard for who they are. I also talk a lot about devoting time and resources to the individual passions, interests, and strengths of children.

It occurs to me now that passion is a process.
Coming to an understanding of who each child is becomes a demonstration of the respect the institution has for them. It is this respect that creates the conditions in which learning can take place. Is it testable? No, it is not.

There is simply no way that an institution forced to dedicate itself only to quantifiable outcomes can create an atmosphere in a school where every child is respected for who he or she is.

Another essay in Ken Jones' book, written by Jean Whitney, professor of special education at USM, tells the story of a student named Helen, who is dedicated to becoming a nurse. Shadowing Helen throughout her school day, Whitney witnesses instances where she is very much respected and her needs honored, and instances where teachers and students alike disrespect and disregard her. Her devotion to succeeding in school and becoming a nurse despite a learning disability is very great, but if not for those few individuals who respected her needs and abilities, you can clearly imagine her spiraling downward into total disengagement.

The testing culture we live in now has meant the narrowing of the curriculum, eliminating all but what is perceived to contribute to higher test scores; and the narrowing of our incentive to figure out who these kids are. The struggle to create the conditions in which children can learn is done when it can be fitted in around those goals.

So what is a school district to do? Join the battle to eliminate high-stakes testing, for one; be aware of the damage to children that is caused by test-based accountability, for another. Don't try to deny that this has an impact on your school district. Don't deny that we are entirely focused on "teaching to the test." Acknowledge that the incentives imposed on us from the outside have had a negative impact on the institutions and children in our care. Try to minimize the damage. Figure out how to find the time and resources for each teacher to come to understand who each of his or her children are; bring out their self-respect by showing respect for them.

Show up to school-board meetings. Follow the testing debates. Insist that the focus on test-based accountability be removed. It is the only way to develop the kinds of learning institutions in which all our children can thrive.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Passion solves problems! List them here. #4: We can't trust kids to lead themselves where they need to go.

We adults are so afraid of what will happen if we let students lead themselves! If they are given the chance to follow their passions, maybe they will all make dirty bombs or numb their minds with constant World of Warcraft playing. Or listen to violent music and go shoot up a McDonalds! Who knows what awful things will result from letting kids go?

Seriously, why would the giving of respect to young people end up with them wanting to reject everything adults want for them?

And we do want a lot for them. We anxiously watch over our kids and hope they will be happy and self-sufficient. We worry about the times we live in and the world they will be entering as adults. Why would continuing the disempowerment of them as students help them be able to follow their dreams, make an impact on the world or just live happily in their corner of it?

It's lack of respect that creates rebellion, and in that case, it's rebellion that is appropriate, rebellion that we created as the folks in authority. Respect children for who they are. What's inside them, where they want to go. Respect them before they ever get a sense that who they are is not wanted or valued: that means kindergarten.

Ask kids what they want, ask kids how they want to get it, ask kids who they want to help them, ask kids what they will achieve. And then listen. And then act on it. Provide them with resources: time, space, technology, teachers, mentors. Ship them to the places most appropriate for them to learn what they need to know, because it probably isn't in the school building.

What will you have as a result? Exactly what you want. Kids who are literate, knowledgable, self-motivated, self-respecting, productive, helpful, active.

You want the world for your students? Let them grab it for themselves.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Passion solves problems! List them here. #3 Kids can't work independently!

Before I go on about how kids will work with independence and enthusiasm when they are pursuing their passions, here is a video of a young woman talking about her senior project. This video is from the What Kids Can Do: Just Listen project.

If you want kids to work independently, if you want to stop having to keep after them, if you want to see them move ahead on the momentum their work without constantly having to tell them why it's important, then let them decide what they want to study. If it's important to them to show the world this topic that they love, they will pursue it. If it's about who they are, they'll go after it. Give them the chance to study something that is part of them, and accept that topic, whatever it is.

Dennis Littkey, in The Big Picture, talks of a student who wanted to do a presentation/gallery exhibit on death. She interviewed funeral directors, toured cemeteries, examined different death rituals. Another student wanted to do a project on Tupac Shakur: his music, his life and murder, and the various posthumous sightings. The teachers didn't bat an eyelash. For their own reasons, these kids needed to study and present on these topics; each of them found that these interests led them to another, and another. They grew to respect themselves because their teachers respected their need to pursue what they did.

In another post I talk about the concept of ignition as a critical factor in learning. Pursuing mastery is difficult; it requires hard work, focus, frustration. The only thing that can really carry a student through the required work is ignition. With no ignition, no spark, learning is rote, learning is boring, learning is stupid (let's face's not even learning.)

Yet the ignition needed to pursue mastery can't be planned; it comes from within or not at all. I could never have ignited my daughter to want to put on
pointe shoes
and make her feet hurt on a bi-weekly basis! Hey, they're not my toes, they're HER toes! But she loves it, and tells me that her feet are emotionally happy, even if they are not physically happy. She practices at home as often as I let her -- and I only limit it out of concern for those poor toes and ankles. She'd practice constantly, if not for that.

Those who are skeptical of what I'm saying will (and often have) immediately jump to the conclusion that I don't think kids should learn anything unless they are passionate about it. No, it's not what I'm saying; I do think that motivation is complicated and comes from a lot of different directions for kids. They are motivated by what their friends like to do; by a teacher they admire; by a movie about a topic; and on and on. But how about this: let's bring about motivation by allowing kids to know what they are capable of. Let them get over the initial hump of difficulty because they were ignited.

I remember being told that the development of a writer is the process of finishing a piece and moving on to the next one; evaluating, judging, criticizing oneself, then starting something new. It's similar in education; in a sense, learning happens when you complete something and stand back to see what it was you were able to accomplish, take a moment to be proud, then start the next thing.

If a student is truly passionate about what she is doing, her momentum pushes her through the difficulties; in the end, she's done something to be proud of and is ready for the next thing.

If motivation is the problem, let passion be the solution.