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?

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Jeremy, Love the story. A quick take on you vs. your friend. My question to him would have been what is the basis of his/her attraction to organised child abuse?

One day we will come to the realisation that accountants actually don't know very much about teaching, learning, assessment etc.

Well, it wasn't so much me vs. him, as it was Approach A vs Approach B, both of which he had tried in his class. I've seen him teach, and I know he does both well.

He LOVED doing Approach A (the month-long project on landmines), both for the process of helping the kids discover and solve the problems that interested them most, AND the products -- he was blown away by the diversity and quality of the presentations and topics they came up with.

The process of Approach B (his innovative micro-assessment initiative) is much less loved by him. It's a LOT of work. The student-based "product" of the work is basically students who know more of the course curriculum and get better test scores. A lot of people value that outcome.

What I didn't talk about much is a teacher's motivation for trying anything new in the classroom. In Approach A, he tried it because he was fascinated with the topic and wanted to stretch the kids to see what they would do. There was no institutional incentive -- if anything there's a disincentive because it's not in the curriculum at all. He did it because it was fun and interesting, despite the risks of going against the grain. There was no hope of external recognition or reward.

But with Approach B, he's getting all kinds of positive reinforcement from the administration. They're asking him to present his stuff to the staff of his school and other schools in the division. They're taking him along to conferences, etc, etc, etc...and because he's human and likes to be recognized for his efforts, he'll do more of that approach and be rewarded more for it.

But back to my closing question. Which approach would you rather have your kids' teacher using? For me, it's no contest. I love the richness, open-endedness, diversity and interest-based focus of the project approach. Other parents only want to know how well their kids are doing in relation to their peers and to be assured that they're going to get into a decent university. Sigh.

As a vocational teacher in a rural Illinois high school, my educational philosophy seems to be more in step with the project-based learning curriculum. Although my administration would definitely side with the micro-assessment philosophy. I have seen my district shy away from curriculum that does not teach to the test. One thing that we all need to keep in mind, is that some of these project-based classes are exactly what is keeping some of our students in high school and our drop-out rates down. Not all students are going to be college bound, yet even those who are college bound could benefit from project-based learning.


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