Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Student View of School, Tests and Learning - More Than Your Evidence

As the Premier of British Columbia considers fundamental changes to the use of standardized testing for students in BC’s school system, Alberta’s government insists on continuing to use testing as a basis for accountability and systems improvement.

Alberta’s primary newspapers also push the idea that the standardized test regimes suggest: (a) that Alberta’s global position as an outstanding education system is threatened by declines in provincial, PISA and TIMMS test scores (especially in mathematics); and that (b) teachers' cannot be trusted to appropriately assess students since there is a gap between teacher assessment and student performance on Provincial Diploma exams. “Testing shows we have a problem – we need more and more rigorous tests!” seems to be the mantra.

The Fraser Institute, which seeks to privatize education and promotes Charter schools, uses test data to rank schools and provide a critique of the work of professional teachers in public institutions. In this, they are aided and abetted by a compliant print media, whose parent company has frequently sponsored Fraser Institute events. So polarizing is this work that the BC School Trustees have called for an end to the use of test data for such rankings.

When the results of international testing, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) appear, Ministers develop a sense of urgency about improving test results. When these results showed a modest decline in mathematics for Alberta, successive Ministers call for “urgent action to strengthen mathematics education”, ignoring the significant changes in the character of school student populations and the consequences of their own inaction on the conditions under which students  learn and teachers work – class size, lack of support for special needs students, lack of investment in appropriate supports for effective teaching. The inevitable conclusion, in the Fraser Institute thinking, is that public education, teaching, and the curriculum are broken. The solution - go back to old ways of working, privatize and test more.

Yet standardized testing tells us little about what matters most to employers and students.

What matters to students is that they fulfill their promise and ambition by developing as whole persons equipped with the knowledge, skills, understanding and socio-emotional intelligence to be active and engaged citizens.  This was the strong and unanimous voice of young people who gathered in Iceland last week-end to explore the impact of their school experience, especially their experience of an international exchange and learning program. At the “More than your evidence” international summit, students from Norway, Finland, Iceland and Alberta met and presented their experience and challenged the educators in the room to focus on the broad aims of public education, not just test results.

One student, Natalia who is now studying at the University of Calgary, made clear that the most transformative thing about her experience of school was being engaged in the international work – staying and working with students in Finland and discovering who she was. Other students – Andi, Cody, Krista to name just three – agreed and added that, for them, the school was a place of discovery and engagement – not just about passing grades and completing tests. What they really wanted from school was to understand, both the subjects they were working with and themselves, and to be able to use this understanding to make a difference.

As an observer, the personal growth in these young people, many of whom we first met in 2012, is remarkable. They are confident, focused and determined young people highly engaged in learning. They all point to their international experience as being pivotal in their learning journey, but also to the way in which this work changed their relationship with teachers. Specifically, these journeys and activities opened shifted this relationship from a power-authority relationship (teachers have power and authority) to a relationship in which there was a co-ownership of the learning journey. Sigurd, from Norway, said that “my teachers now see me as a whole person and I can relate to them more directly as a person too – together we took a learning journey and now I am doing really well as an apprentice..”.

What also changed was their sense of personal responsibility for learning. I realized that I was not just “their evidence” – meaning that they were not just “a number who took a test”, but a person engaged in a meaningful search for knowledge, understanding, and skills. This is why the meeting in Iceland was called “More than Your Evidence”.

As an employer, I am interested in two things: skills and character. Skills I can source from anywhere in the world, but character is key (character trumps skills). In particular, curiosity, an ability to find and solve problems, teamwork and an ability to laugh at oneself and with others is key to working in my organization. The students I met in Iceland all had these characteristics and they had skills. Standardized tests tell me little about either the range of skills these individuals possess or their character – indeed, we never ask questions about test data, diplomas or degrees when we hire: we ask to see what an applicant has actually done and then spend time getting to know them. This is also the practice at major corporations, like Google, Amazon, Facebook and other major corporations.

The overwhelming majority of Universities in Canada use teacher assessments as a basis for admission. They do so because teachers know much more about their students and their abilities that are demonstrated by provincial diploma examination results or standardized tests. What we saw in Iceland was why this is the case. Mature, able, knowledgeable, articulate students who were fully aware of their strengths and weaknesses who work well in teams and solve problems made clear their views. If we lost test data altogether, we may have a much more equitable education system – one which does not favour privileged families over poor established Alberta families over recent immigrants or certain groups over others. The evidence is clear that standardized testing measures social status just as much as they measure skills and abilities.

As I reflect back on the summit, it becomes increasingly evident that is time for policymakers to move beyond the hysteria of falling test scores and the veiled attacks on public education. Not only do these irresponsible critiques attempt to undermine the public’s faith that Canadians can create a great school for all - they add to the growing anxiety of young people that they are somehow a failed version of what this country aspires to become.   Those that claimed that the sky is falling by cherry-picking the latest 2015 PISA results, failed to point out that only three countries achieved higher results than Canada in science, one in reading, and six in mathematics. Indeed, if Alberta were ranked as a nation, it would be tied statistically for 10th place in mathematics and second place in science from 72 nations.

The summit title, “More than your evidence” will hopefully become more than a faint echo of the voices of young people gathered last weekend in Iceland. We need to focus more on what matters most for young people – having a sense of hope about the future that is built on recognizing their individual talents and gifts rather than preoccupying ourselves with focusing on testing programs that will only give us a better version of yesterday.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Great School for ALL - This is The Work of Students and Teachers Supported by Principals

I wrote earlier in this blog space about work with some 100 students from across Alberta in Canmore this week. The key ingredient of this work is trust and respect. Treating students, teachers, and principals as colleagues who each have different parts to play in our schools, but whose voices need to be heard, understood and acted upon.

What was impressive was how mature the student voice is. I have been engaged in educational research, policy ,and teaching related activities since 1972 (not 1066, as one student kindly pointed out). I have talked with cabinet ministers, senior policy advisors, superintendents, principals, teachers and students all over the world – in some 70 countries in fact.  My conversations with some students this week were as informed, provocative, insightful and mindful as many of the conversations with senior policy makers and deep thinkers about education.

At the heart of the concerns students have are just four things: authenticity, engagement, respect, and challenge. Let me elaborate.

What many of the students seek in their learning are what is called authentic learning tasks. They want to work on issues, ideas and challenges that matter to them or that they can see are genuine and real in some way. While they are perfectly capable of abstract thought and of historical analysis, they want to focus their learning on the world in which they live. When I talked to three students about the work we are doing on a project called 9 Billion Lives – how will the world support enriched and meaningful lives for the nine billion people who will soon live on the planet – they were engaged and wanted to learn, contribute and make a difference. They understand that they need to know more about science, mathematics, technology, creativity and other things to be able to contribute, but they are looking to do so. In terms of the work of Victor Frankl, they are engaged in an authentic search for meaning. What is interesting is how articulate they are about that search and what it means for learning, curriculum, and collaboration.

This leads to the second issue – engagement. Each school present (and some schools had several groups present) described action research projects they were intending to work on. Almost all were focused on the same thing: increasing, expanding and deepening student engagement in the work of the school. Whether this was making better use of flexible learning times, strengthening peer to peer learning or going deeper into ideas that matter, the students in Canmore want to be deeply engaged in the work of the school. They want engaging relationships with peers for learning; engaged teaching and learning activities; engagement with others around the world. For these students, engagement was not a “buzz word” – it reflected their search for a meaningful, intelligent relationship with other students and with the adults in the school. So as to enable their search for meaning, they were looking for meaningful, thoughtful and enabling relationships.

Which in turn leads to the third issue – respect. What they were articulating, to my ears at least, was a call to be respected for who they are right now. We can all learn, grow and develop. But being shown respect helps us on this journey. Respect can come in many ways:  being actively listened to; being given more responsibility; being given feedback which helps understanding and development (e.g. on an assignment); being given a challenge which demonstrated trust and respect. When these students have been shown respect – for example, when some of them traveled to Finland last year and were trusted and respected both by their parents and teachers, but also by their host families and Finnish peers – their personal growth was remarkable. One student said to me that traveling to Finland made her reflect on “just how she treated other people and that she need to show the care, compassion and concern shown to her by her Finnish billet parents and friends”. It was life changing for her.

Finally, most of the students in the room in Canmore were ready to be challenged to do the next thing to move along the agenda of building a great school for all. They genuinely want  to help other students be successful since, they have worked out, this will help them too. Canada is good at the work of equity – these students want to  be challenged to make it better. They had a great many ideas – lots of small things – which could make a difference.

I came away from my three days with these young people with a strong sense that the future of my adopted country is in good hands. Impressive minds, articulate and fun young people with a commitment to an inclusive future. Let’s help them “make it so!”.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Alberta's Student Voice - "What Math Crisis?"

In Canmore these last few days over 100 students, teachers, and principals from across Alberta sat together to explore how they could leverage international partnerships between Finland, Alberta, New Zealand and Norway to improve Alberta schools. The question they were asking was not “how can we improve our ranking on PISA”, but “what else can we do to make schools in Alberta great places to be, learn and enjoy for ALL students?”. The so-called “math crisis”, manufactured by our own Education Minister,  did not come up once.

Six years ago schools in Alberta partnered with schools in Finland to explore these questions. The partnership not only continues but has grown and expanded its reach. Norway came on board two and a half years ago and now New Zealand is in the mix. These partnerships involve exchanges, explorations, and collaborative projects between students, teachers and schools.

This work involves exploring questions like these:
  • Why do we do what we do the way we do it?
  • Why don't we do what we do differently?
  • Is what we do and the way we do it helping and making a difference for all students or just some?
  • How we can we engage, show care and concern and make a difference for all students?
Key to the way this work is undertaken is the task of helping students find and share their own voice. It is their understanding, ideas and suggestions that make the difference.

Teachers matter. But when they treat students as colleagues and partners, the work teachers and students do together can “change the game”. Across all of the schools involved, it is the student's voice, peer to peer networking within and between schools and the authentic partnership with teachers that makes a difference to what happens in schools.

The visits to Finland have, according to the students, been transformative. Students who went as shy, quiet individuals come back with confidence and they have found their voice.  Many have found that their time away helps them better understand their own community and place in it.  The visits are not “educational tourism” they are powerful, life-changing opportunities for self-discovery and development. One parent told a participating Principal “I don't know what happened to my daughter over there, but I tell you, she is a much better person for it and we need more of our students to have the opportunity to grow and develop the way she did in such a short time…”.

When the students from Finland come here their experience is the same. Being billeted with the “home” family, sharing meals and leisure time with the family, being at a different school, asking seemingly innocent questions – all open up opportunities for change and development for all concerned.

There are all also powerful developments as a result of this work in Alberta. Schools in Calgary co-operating in ways they had not done before; a school in the Crowsnest Pass collaborating with other schools across the Province to support student learning; accelerated use of ideas for high school redesign.
One reason Alberta does so well on PISA – we rank 8th in the world – is this kind of work. Helping students help their teachers so that the system can improve, one school at a time.

After fifteen hours of intense conversation, activity, planning and collaborative work it was still the case that no one mentioned the “crisis in mathematics” in Alberta. Maybe that is because those closest to the work – and there were maths teachers in the room – do not see a crisis in the way that bureaucrats under the dome do. They see young people seeking to make sense of their different futures and just want to help them have a successful journey.

Alberta is focused in this work on equity - ensuring that all students have success in what matters to them. Equity, in this conversation, is not about equal opportunity, but more about outcomes - enabling that outcomes that matter for the student.

When we look at PISA 2015, Canada performs exceptionally well because of its focus on equity. Tied first in the world for reading, second in the world for science and eight in the world in mathematics. This high performance is combined with a high level of equity. Let's put this another way: our high performance is because of our commitment to equity. No crisis there, whatever the Minister of Education and his staff may think.  PISA matters little to teachers, students and parents. Letting PISA results drive policy, my friend and colleague Pasi Sahlberg points out, is not only a mistake - it's dangerous.

We can do better. We will do better when we learn to collaborative, engage, respect, trust and challenge in ways that help schools become better for all students. Rather than inventing a crisis, we would be better to make investments in equity for our students. That's what the students say too..