Saturday, January 29, 2011

Midterm blues

Imbolc's just a few days away, and the crocuses will not be far behind. They are already stirring beneath the frozen earth. I forget this, every year.

I am wrestling with our midterms--I am sifting through our essential questions, through conversations that crackled in July (and no doubt are continuing today at EduCon), and through my goals for the year, and there's a huge cognitive dissonance brewing. I am blessed to have a supervisor who not only encourages reflection (it's easy enough to say), but also allows us to work towards solutions.

Be careful what you wish for--I am trying to construct a better mousetrap for assessing what my students can do, within the constraints of a traditional midterm format. How we assess reflects on what we think matters.

If I fail, and I might, at least I have a better handle now on what's been roiling in my skull. Our current system rewards the wrong things. Deliberately.

A child can parrot the Calvin cycle without knowing a thing about a seed, about food, about the billions, trillions of other organisms teeming around him.

I love Steinbeck's Cannery Row, partly because of its wonderful biology, mostly because of Steinbeck's loving, honest look at people.
The kind of women who put papers on shelves and had little towels like that instinctively distrusted and disliked Mack and the boys. Such women knew that they were the worst threats to a home, for they offered ease and thought and companionship as opposed to neatness, order, and properness.

Change "women" to teachers, and "home" to classroom. 

I teach biology, the study of life, in a culture that fails to recognize death. The children spray themselves with unnatural scents, yet shy from the pond water and the mud brought in from outside.

We got peas and carrots and basil and dill and tomatoes and egg plants and wheat sprawling all over the classroom. The kids are getting better at this planting thing. They no longer plant 25 seeds in one pot, no longer over-water, no longer expect insta-grow seedlings.

I can hardly grade a child on her ability to keep a plant alive in a public building. I cannot ask a child to slaughter a calf in class. I can ask her to tell me how many NADH molecules are generated from one molecule of glucose during the Krebs cycle.

As much as Hans Krebs and I stammer in excitement over the citric cycle, as much as I can teach the children how to  paw at the ground like Clever Hans, the wonder horse that could count, as much as we want to compare how well our students paw at the ground in China and Korea, none of that is science.

I have scanned through thousands of  released questions, and very few of them go beyond challenging the Clever Hans's in our midst.

If we want children to re-discover the world most westernized adults have left, we need to assess what matters.

The scary thing is that I suspect that's what the dominant culture thinks matters--how else to explain our idolatry of standardized tests?

Neatness. Order. Properness. Get the degree, kid, or starve to death. Now there's a lesson in biology....

Clever Hans photo found and  discussed here.

And now a PSA--get your flu shots! I should be in Philly...sigh.


momomom said...

Michael, I was just talking about my friend and his meade and how he loves crocuses....and yeah, great timing.

Shannon said...

I saw this comic ( it made me think about this post (and many others on your blog).
I too fear that the dominant culture thinks that neatness, order, standardized testing is the best way to assess and demonstrate learning. I have a feeling that these are the same people that think Jeopardy contestants are the smartest people ever because of their ability to retain a large library of facts in their head (not to say those people aren't necessarily smart). Sure facts are great and it is important to have knowledge but regurgitation has become our main means of assessment and it honestly assesses very little.

doyle said...

Dear momomom,

We pay attention to cycles--and the crocuses are stirring. We're almost halfway through winter.

Dear Shannon,

I've been reading Colonel Francis Parker's Talks on Pedagogics, written in 1894. And it talks about the same things you bring up.Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.