Saturday, November 28, 2009

Turning the flywheel

I've been reading How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins. If you haven't gotten to them, Good to Great and Built to Last are also excellent reads if you're interested in organization building.In the appendix he restates the principles from Good to Great. The one that really got me thinking was The Flywheel. Quote:
There is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond. (182)
So how do we get the flywheel turning on changing assessment practices? How do we build that critical momentum to reach that breakthrough point? I've been taking the one-teacher-at-a-time approach but frankly, it's slow. On the surface it seems like I'm making progress. It was a team of 1 last year and now we're up to 8 teachers trying things out. The problem is I'm converting those that want to be converted. The low hanging fruit. How do we reach a point where even those that resist all change are swept up and brought along?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Why industrial designers understand education more than we do

I was watching Independent Lens yesterday on KQED. The film was called Objectified. In the beginning a designer named Dan Formosa said this: (not quite word for word but the spirit is intact):

We have clients come to us and say here's our average customer: female, she's 34 years-old, she has 2.3 kids....we listen politely and nod and say well that's great but we don't care about that person. What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes: the weakest or the person with arthritis or the athlete or the strongest or the fastest person. Because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.
Again with feelings..if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.

An industrial designer has summed up very nicely my feelings on both educational research and teaching in general.

So much in educational research goes to the average kid. We look at the effect size. We do meta-analyses. We care about how a giant lump of kids does on average against another giant group of kids. What we should care about are the extremes. A .4 effect size is nice. What I really care about is the outliers in the group. What type of student did this treatment make a HUGE effect on? It gets washed out because of our love of averages. When we look at research, we shouldn't care so much about the stuff that makes the group move a little on average (although that's still good to know). What we should be looking at is those students or groups of students in the treatment that were extremely positive and negative. What conditions existed for this specific student to make such an extreme gain? We can move towards truly individualized education only when we can say what works for this specific student under these specific conditions.

As for teaching, I don't know how many times I've been told by a principal/other teacher/staff developer that I should choose 3 or 4 kids in the middle and design my instruction around them. I've done that for a long time and had pretty good results. I'm becoming convinced though that I need to be more like Dan and design for the extremes. I need to take care of the really high and the really low and the middle will take care of itself.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Getting rid of pretenses

I saw this article in and have been sitting on it for awhile: District nixes cash-for-grades fundraiser. A middle school was offering 20 points of test credit for a $20 donation. People got up in arms and they had to cancel it.

The cynic in me says that middle school was just cutting out the middle man. The obvious parallels are teachers who give out extra credit for bringing in boxes of Kleenex or school supplies. It infiltrates our grades in other ways too. We're doing a canned food drive at our school and some teachers are also giving out extra credit for bringing cans. Some families can afford to donate cans while some cannot. How about extra credit for bringing a parent to back to school night? In general, middle or upper class families are less likely to have to work at night.

In the end, when anything but grades reflect any mishmash of values this is what we end up with. In standards-based assessment, the achievement scores are reported and all that other stuff (work habits, participation, behavior, etc) is separated out.