Sunday, February 1, 2009

Living trees and dead ideas

We can learn a lot about, and from, a tree.
We can learn a lot about, and from, our children's understanding of a tree.

Many high school sophomores think fire is alive, and that trees are not. I can spend a week letting them explore fire (staring at a candle, perhaps), and if I get permission slips, spend a day or two outside on the town green, studying a tree.

I do not have that kind of time, of course, not if I hope to cover the curriculum before the state test May 18 (and a stand-alone field test May 19, the product of the NJPAA, more on that in a moment).

The assumption is that children already know that a tree is alive, and that fire is not. I have no doubt they have been asked questions about that before in earlier grades:

Which of the following is NOT alive?
A. A rabbit
B. A tree
C. A horse
D. A rock

Figure well over 80% of 7th graders can get that question right--no, I don't have the numbers, but maybe some middle school teacher would be kind enough to test the question. (The answer is, of course, D.)

Here's the crux: "knowing" that answer does not mean the child truly knows what "alive" means.

Here's another question I'd like seen on exam:

Which of the following is more alive than the others?
A. A tree
B. A slug
C. a dog
D. None of the above

It's a "bad" question--it involves a "none of the above" and a little bit of trickery, but it works for Sunday morning before coffee.

The answer, less obvious now, is D. Which would most 7th graders pick (without the usual week or two of prompting preceding the standardized (cough, cough) test?

Here's a better question:

The adults around you want you to "prove" you know what the word "alive" means in its scientific sense. Compare and contrast a rock, a slug, a tree and a dog in terms of whether each is living or not. Be sure to include at least 6 characteristics of life in your answer.

Now some of my sophomores have a tiny shot at getting that right the week we cover the definition of life. I'm betting that most members of Congress would turn it over to their aides, and that even their Ivy League young ambitious aides would have problems answering the question without running to Google.

Still, it's a better question than the previous one if you want to test whether a child grasps the word "alive."

Even if I prettied up the question, ran it through a couple of trial sessions, validated it, and stamped it with the official approval of the American Board of All Things Testable, the state would be hard pressed to use it.


Someone needs to grade it. Grading costs money. People have a lot more fun sitting in lucrative sessions designing tests than in the far less lucrative business of sitting in a cubicle grading essays based on a rubric.*

So how does this happen? How do we end up testing children about life when we design a curriculum that does not allow them to grasp a tree?

Last April, the state came out with a report headed by the governor, the CEO of Prudential, and the President of Montclair State University. No need to drag their names into the foray, it's their positions that matter.

In a fancy brochure with lots of colors (it hogs over 3 MB of my hard drive), our education leaders speak:

Extensive research conducted by Achieve, Inc. and others has revealed that students need the same knowledge and skills—no matter what their plans are after graduation. Students, whether they choose to pursue an apprenticeship, two-year college, four-year college, or entry-level employment will need to be prepared to the same standard.

A Policy Report of the New Jersey High School Redesign Steering Committee
April 25, 2008

You'd think that with that triumvirate of brainpower, someone would have balked at that sentence. (You'd think maybe they'd balk at the indefinite article before "Policy Report", too, but maybe it endears them with a false sense of modesty.)

So I believe they mean it. And that scares me.

If the goals are defined by the tests, and if the former CEO of Prudential doesn't require his charges to know a tree from "the Rock," well, time for me to take my John Dewey and Thomas Jefferson portraits off the wall.

Anyone have a poster of Rex Tillerson I could have cheap?

*Last year New Jersey biology teachers got messages from the New Jersey Performance Assessment Alliance looking for scorers--the money went up and the prerequisite qualifications went down as it became clear that teachers were less than thrilled with the process. Someday the test prompt “Tweaking the Genes” will be available for all to view--give me a heads up if it's available now--and the reasons for our reluctance will be obvious.


Anonymous said...

Doyle - It's almost tomorrow. My girls' birthday, Imbolc, the return of the light, Shadow day, the day of the whistlepig, Candelmas, Groundhog Day - we made it!

Now I want to share a story that is probably apocryphal, and because I surely should be writing those comments this seems like a much better thing to do.

Francis Parker (our school's founder and old buddy of John Dewey) is said to have quizzed a class that was quite proud of how well it did on examinations. Their teacher felt justifiably proud of her pupils. Parker wanted to find out what they knew about the composition of the earth (a topic the were well versed on) and he asked, "What will you find as you dig down to the center of the earth?"
They looked at him, and no one answered.
He asked them again, varying the question to get them to answer.
Finally the classroom teacher became frustrated and told Col. Parker that he was asking the wrong question. She turned to the class and asked, "What is the nature of the earth's core?" to which they all answered in unison.
"The earth's core is molten magma..."
What is more alive? A rock, a river, a tree. Well that all depends on the question that you ask.
Happy February.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

Warm enough today for a beer on the porch (48F)!

The problem is not the question, it's what we're trying to teach, I think.

In the end it matters little if children can say "molten magma"--it does make for a good dog and pony show, though.

It does matter a bit if young adults can grasp how some conclusion about the make-up of the core are reached. I bet most high school kids think we've actually drilled to the core. Most American adults would be surprised to realize how little depth we've actually reached.

But Imbolc beckons, finally, hallelujah!

(And there was a day I saw the rocks shimmer, and I would have sworn they were alive.)

Science Teacher said...

wonderful blog. Do you teach biotic and abiotic as well? I try to avoid the living vs, nonliving until the kids are ready for the 6/7 characteristcs of living things.

doyle said...

Ah, another science teacher blog--

Thanks for the words.

Yes, we teach biotic/abiotic, but the distinction can be confusing to my kids. We start off the year talking about the characteristics of life, and given time constraints, I push the ideas a bit too quickly.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Michael

I've always been fascinated with definitions of living things, ever since I learnt of the space probes to planet Mars and how they had means of life-detection on board that would be able to analyse extraterrestrial substances for the presence of life.

It's not that I wasn't fascinated with life and living things as a biology teacher before that. I was. It's just that I found it presumptive that we humans would go looking for life on another planet, assuming that the means we have here to detect life would necessarily work the same way on life that might be found on Mars.

It just seemed a huge assumption that life, the thing so abundant here on earth, should be expected to occur in the same detectable form elsewhere. To my imagination it was obvious that the attributes of life-as-we-know-it would not necessarily fit life-as-it-happens-to-be elswhere.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth