Thursday, June 14, 2007

Micro-Assessment vs Project-Based Learning

A while back, Christian from think:lab posted a bit about a new kind of "micro-assessment" that reminded me of a conversation conversation I had with a teacher friend a week or two before. I left a few comments over there, but wanted to include the original story here as well, because it goes to the root of my issues with the type of curriculum that currently drives the education system (and the assessment that goes with the curriculum). Anyway, here's the story:

He was telling me about this new grading system he's implemented -- identical to what is described here. Every test broken down into its component learning outcomes, with remedial steps and re-tests only on the parts the students haven't performed well on. At first I was thinking, "wow, pretty innovative and individualized." Then the reality of it hit me, and I blurted out, "that's pretty much the opposite of my educational philosophy!"

He was stunned, because he's made a bit of a splash in his division with this system(of course the administrators adore it, the teachers...not so much). It helps individualize assessment, yes, but the entire focus to ensure that students perform well on the standardized test, covering all areas of the standardized curriculum. It's a "better" way to do something that I don't think should be done at all.

So my friend was a bit irritated with me, understandably, and he asked what I would propose with my opposite educational philosophy. So I described, off-the-cuff, what I would like.

I want students to arrive in his classroom in September and sit down individually with him to figure out the overlap between his abilities/knowledge as a coach and their interests in the subject. Not doing away with disciplines, necessarily -- he's still a history teacher. But maybe the course is called World War 2 (because that's his area of passionate historical interest), and maybe the students' goal is to study some aspect of it that topic interests them...maybe two projects for the whole year that have to be somewhat different. Go REAL deep on one or two things they care about and really DO history, learning the skills of investigation, research and collaborative work. Let them work together. Let them choose how they want to present their findings. Give them great resources and teach them how to use them.

He looked skeptical as I started talking, but I saw the lights coming on...and then he interrupted me: "I've done exactly that before."

So I questioned him on it, and he used to do a unit on land mines -- basically chucked the curriculum for a month and let students explore the topic of land mines through whatever lens they chose, and had them present to the class. He said he learned more from those presentations than he ever learned in school. One techie-type kid researched the cutting-edge of land-mine detection using different frequencies of radio waves. A kid who was really into animals discovered a reabilitation program for elephants injured by mines in war-torn regions. Another who liked working with his hands learned everything he could about the actual construction and technology used in the mines themselves, building a scale model of his own. Another looked at the medical and economic challenges facing amputees injured by mines.

So instead of crafting individualized strategies for acing the test (covering 487 topics at the shallowest depth possible), he got 30 entirely different projects, each with a focus reflecting the motivation and interests of each student. Taken together, they covered the topic in a way that made the kids care about history and geography, curious about geopolitics, and wanting to know more. Assessment took care of itself because they were truly engaged. No need for micro-re-tests because what they presented reflected something they cared about.

Unfortunately, this teaching approach is nearly illegal, and people could argue that his students suffered (on their standardized tests) as a result...but which system would you rather have your kids learning in?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Met School

Apparently there was some buzz about The Met school a couple of years ago, but I totally missed it. Sounds like a really cool learning model, emphasizing individualized programs for each student:
"No two students have the same curriculum. There are no bells, no 45-minute classes, and no one-size-fits-all curriculum. Rather than the ordinary top-down approach, where students learn everything in the order in which it's laid out in a textbook, we build a personalized learning plan around each student's needs, interests, and passions."
Many of the elements they've selected from the buffet table of methodologies and approaches are ones I've wished someone would assemble to see how it might all work together...and they've been doing it for years already: small schools, portfolio/presentation-based assessment, advisors who stay with the same small group of kids right through high school, community internships working on meaningful projects. The cool thing is that it's actually working, and other places are looking to emulate the best of what they're doing:
"Also in 2003, the Rhode Island Board of Regents issued new high school regulations declaring that by the spring of 2004 every public high school in the state would submit a plan to enact these policies. These new requirements come straight from The Met's design and include an advisory system, internships, individual learning plans, senior exhibitions and portfolios."
So there is hope that these ideas could lead to systemic change. Check out this list of articles about it from the mainstream media.

Update (July 17): Stephen links to Ewan McIntosh's post, which includes a video of a student talking about her experience at the school. The most interesting thing to me about The Met is that it's pretty radically different from traditional, but people respond well to it because it still looks like school -- it doesn't freak people out like the free-for-all approach of the Sudbury Schools. There's still a building kids go to, lots of paid grown-ups to help, and very specific (and stringent) standards to meet. Yet the pedagogical approach is revolutionary. So maybe this is a necessary half-step between old-school models and a new model with even more freedom, support and real learning.