Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Mission for Unity and Coherency

Always looking for a teachable moment, Choice Stifles Learning for Educators (Whitby, July 25, 2015) gives me an opportunity to speak to writers taking composition and academic writing about the importance of unity and coherency.

Paragraph 1
What is it about a mandated, contractually obligated, professional development conference that inspires some teachers and completely turns off many others? Why do some teachers glow with excitement at conferences and many others complain as they go through the motions? Is it the conference itself, or the attitude of the educators attending, or a combination of both?
 The first paragraph provides a hook by asking three consecutive questions. The first question provides context by limiting the types of professional development (PD) conferences as not being a choice a teacher makes (i.e., conferences are required); it suggests that conferences are appealing to some educators, and not for others. The second question restates the rheme from the prior sentence, making it sound as if the main idea of the essay (i.e., the thesis) vaguely relates to the differences in opinion when attending a conference.  However,  the third question offers a dichotomy that insinuates the reason for these differences in opinions about conferences has to do with both the conference itself and the attitudes of the attendees.  

A hook should align with the main thesis of the essay.  The rest of the essay speaks mainly about conferences and slightly about educators but not related to ideas found in this paragraph.  Also, mentioning that PD conferences are mandated clouds the overall thesis for this essay.  Just being forced to attend a conference is reason to be turned off and may have nothing to do with the conference or how it is organized.  The hook (the entire first paragraph) lacks unity both in terms of the rest of the essay and within the paragraph itself.

Tip: Begin your essay with a hook but limit it to one question, famous quote, or important statistic or fact.  Develop the rest of the introduction paragraph by providing context or background and conclude with a strong thesis statement.  As a general rule, avoid questions throughout your essay... answer the questions instead! 

Paragraph 2
When it comes to professional development for educators, conferences are believed to offer a great deal of choice with usually a seemingly wide array of sessions and workshops for educators to choose from to fill their blank schedules for a full day of learning. That is at least what is in the minds of the conference planners as they spend a huge amount of time planning these events. They seem to concentrate on the how and what of education, but fall short of the why.
 The second paragraph provides more context and speaks to the problem of conferences focusing more on the how and not the why of education.  Notice how the hook (prior paragraph) does not align with this paragraph.  One of the first two paragraphs are off-topic (lacks unity). Also, notice how the use of passive voice in the topic sentence (...conferences are believed...) fails to disclose who the agent is.  Do teachers or conference organizers believe this?  Then in the next sentence, the writer kind of suggest conference organizers. Incoherent.

Tip: Provide context, background information, or problem in the introduction paragraph.  This sets up or should lead right into your thesis statement, which concludes your introduction paragraph.

Paragraph 3
The why refers to why we do things in the first place? Without at least discussions on that subject of why we should, or should not do certain things in order to examine their relevance, we might find we are doing things just because that’s the way they have always been done. To simplify an example: that is why we teach keyboarding and not typing. There are no longer any typewriters, but keyboards abound. Of course all of that goes out the window with mobile devices where thumbs and pointer fingers rule the keys. The point is that we examined why we were teaching typing, and found that we needed to teach something else to stay relevant, keyboarding.
The third paragraph attempts to expand on the why of education that was introduced in the prior paragraph and concludes with an example.  The topic sentence is vague because it is still not clear who we are: educators, conference organizers, administrators, instructional designers, parents, etc. As a question, it is not clear why the reader should ask why about education.  If this was not just a mistake in punctuation, it is the opposed of what the main point of this paragraph is - that the reader should consider why teachers educate.  The example that concludes this paragraph does not go far enough in contrasting the reasons for teaching typing class vs. keyboarding class.  The example seems to suggest that the we pronoun refers to educators. 

As it relates to the first paragraph, why teachers teach typing or keyboarding has just as much to do with curriculum planning and policy than actual instruction.  For this reason, paragraph three does not align with paragraph one which seems to be about decision-making among educators, forcing educators to attend conferences, and conference organizational choices.  Lacks unity.

Tip: Avoid questions as topic sentences.  Instead, create claims as topic sentences that are 1) not questions, 2) not commands (imperatives), and directly align to the thesis statement or the overall thesis of the essay.  Avoid the we pronoun when its antecedent is not clear.  Unless writing a narrative, it is usually best to stay in the third person.

Your mission: Take a look at the rest of the paragraphs of this essay and choose two to comment on.  Provide an analysis similar to the discussion above.  Your instructor will suggest where to post your response for others to comment on from a discourse perspective.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What's the link between formative assessment and anticipating student challenges?

I was asked recently about formative assessment and anticipating student problems in a recent Google+ Community chat, so I thought I would create a blog post.

Could you give some examples of what you mean by the "formative assessments" you said you build in to your planning? And I'm curious as to how you go about "anticipating student challenges" and what kind of challenges?

Wiggins and Mctighe (2005) posit (and I would agree) that assessments include standardized exams, in-class exams, quizzes, academic prompts, performance tasks, and informal discussions. Informal discussions might occur around homework, student portfolios, Socratic Method, among others.  Broadly speaking, all assessments can be broken down into two categories: formative and summative.

Summative assessments are often associated with standardized tests; they are defined as any assessment that measures learning.  They measure what knowledge and skill sets the student has acquired in the past.   When teachers assign grades, they usually (but not always) are applying summative assessments.

Formative assessments set out to promote learning, and in contrast to summative assessments are more prospective or forward-looking. The most common example are informal discussions with students that are intended to help them achieve something they could not do before.  When teachers are in class, they constantly observe students who are struggling and thus make adjustments to either their teaching practice and/or they suggest to learners to make adjustments to their learning tactics.  This is an example of formative assessment...we are assessing and tweaking the educational design in order to help students learn more effectively, efficiently, and through higher engagement.

I mentioned before that exams were "usually" considered summative assessment - but they don't have to be.  Dynamic assessment is a term used to describe how teachers use the results from student exams, for example (which are typically summative assessments) as a type of formative assessment.  Teachers build a lesson (i.e., a learning experience) around common problems reflected in the results that came from the results.

So, formative assessment techniqually can be any type of assessment, but it is what you do with the test, exam, informal discussion, etc. that matter.  The purpose of formative assessments is to create better learning experiences; the purpose of summative assessment is to measure learning.  In formal education, both are important, but my philosolphy leans on having more formative assessment than summative.  As in the case with dynamic assessment, anything can be turned into formative assessment.

As for anticipating student challenges, there are two perspectives to consider: the novice practitioner and the expert practitioner.  The novice teacher perhaps will lack at being able to anticipate certain student challenges. So, what I would suggest is to record or share classroom experiences as often as possible and inquire about what others are doing. One's personal learning network (PLN) can come in handy when using social media to share experiences with others in this regard.  Simply asking questions to others often can create a discourse around working towards a possible solution - make learning transparent.  Then, complement this with what the literature (research) states.

The expert practitioner perhaps can anticipate more problems that students are likely to face.  But since each group of students is unique, being a reflective practitioner and sharing one's experiences with others (like in the case of the novice) can also be beneficial.

For me, being a reflective practitioner and sharing my experiences with others has helped me cultivate my own PLN in a way that helps me become better as an educator.  I often reach out to my PLN when it comes to student challenges. These challenges are often linguistic, technological, and managerial when it comes to when, where, and how they set out to achieve the objectives of the class.  I receive a lot of good information via my PLN and this has helped me learn how to be more in-tune with my students.  For me it's just paying attention to the types of feedback that I repeatedly give (i.e., formative and summative assessments) and then reflecting on and sharing what I learn as often as possible.  This is the approach I currently take.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

ELT Live #9

‘Summer Brainstorm/Get the Rust Out’ edition
Join this ELT live hangout on air of language learners and educators this Tuesday, July 21 at 0100 UTC (Global Times:

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Academic Writing and ICTs

I'm preparing an in-house talk on using information and communication technologies (ICTs) for academic writing and am planning on using the presentation below (currently a work in progress) and will broadcast my talk live as well.  Feel free to share any ICTs you currently are using to promote better academic writing skills with your (language learning) students!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Standardized testing...why not just opt out?

Hashtags: #education #edchat #commoncore

Props to DP (@pakman) for including a segment on education.  I'll leave it to him to put a political slant on it all! :)

David Pakman (DP) - +David Pakman, of The David Pakman Show,  interviewed (at 27:42) Joel Westheimer (JW) for today's broadcast regarding what's wrong with standardized testing.  The answers were all over the place (incoherent), and basically neglected one key point. Let's review.

DP: What are you most concerned about when you look at education?

Point #1: JW begins by describing a shift to standardization stemming from a shift from tradition view of education as serving a public good to one that he labels a "job training institution"...? 

My response: Really?  I thought the shift to standardization came from periodic student outcome reports (tests) showing the US towards the bottom when compared to other countries.  I don't see how standardization came about from a focus on high school students getting jobs.  High schools are designed to prepare students for either the workforce or higher education, but never considered them job training institutions per se (unless we're including vocational high schools).   If one believes the intention of high schools is only to prepare students for employment, what types of jobs are high school graduates prepared to fill? And aren't standardized tests more about assessing academic knowledge than vocational?  If JW means that high schools are job training institutions because they both prepare students to further their education and indirectly prepares them for better employment, then isn't this also a "public good"?  I'm just note sure what JW is getting at.

Point #2: JW uses the term, so-called, as in "...obsession with so-called standards...", to make it sound as if the word standards is falsely termed, yet later in the interview says he has no problem with the term standards, but does have a problem with the term, standardization (more on this later).

Point #3: JW argues that standards only apply to math and literacy to the exclusion of other subjects that used to be part of a public education. 

My response: So, subjects that are not covered by Common Core aren't currently part of a public education?  I know what he means, and I agree that certain subjects are being neglected (and cut out entirely).  But try looking at it another way.  If the US can't even get standards set on a few subjects within a curriculum, how likely is it for them to extend those standards to other subjects? Baby steps...

DP: How do the problems in the US educational system compare with those in Canada?

Point #4: JW claims various things...
  • One similar issue among both countries is that there is a "growing obsession with standards and standardization".  Nobody is against standards, but the problem is that of standardization.  
    • My response: Here, JW makes a distinction I reference in Point #2 above. So, one moment JW is against the term standards, the next he is for it?  Or perhaps not against it and not for it?  And everyone agrees with this.  Can we have standards with not standardization?  And can we truthfully call them standards if only one person is doing them? This is like saying I'm respecting a community of practice (or I'm following "best practices") when I'm the only one doing (or practicing) them. Or another way of looking at it: it's fine if each teacher has individual standards, just don't force teachers to share these individual standards with others. I have to believe that "forcing" teachers to share what's working in the classroom (perhaps a standard, perhaps not) has to be part of the solution. Question: how many standards are required before standardization emerges? :)
  • He states that standardization is the "enemy of imagination".   
    • My response: So, standardized testing is standardizing the teaching practice? I don't think so...I'll explain this more in my conclusion below.
  • Standardization means that everyone must be the same - numberical numbers on very small amounts of the curriculum as represented on standardized tests.  
    • My response: Everyone meaning students?  Teachers?  Both?  Standardized testing does not mean that all students are learning in the same way.  It means that what students are expected to know and can do are uniform, but does not speak to how students can learn and develop such knowledge and skills.  And it does not speak to how teachers teach or the environment they create for students to thrive. 
  • When standardized tests are used, this takes away from teachers individual passions they bring to the classroom. 
    • My response: This is like saying Standardization means that everyone must be the same (see above).  I really get the feeling that everyone here includes the teachers.  This is not what standardization is all about.
  • Standardization is the cause of the high attribution rate in the US. 
    • My response: I'd be interested to know if standardization is the sole reason why teachers leave the profession.  This means that teacher pay, work conditions (which may not relate to standardization), advancement, etc. have nothing to do with it.
DP: What's the logic of the standardized test?  Why have standardized tests?  To find the strongest students?  The strongest teachers?  If standardized tests worked well, what would they help us to do?

Point #5: Standardized tests have noble origins: helped address educational bias so that all students had an equal opportunity. It levels the playing field.  But here are the reasons why this didn't play out, according to JW:
  • Massive inequality that we're experiencing.
  • Test preparation favors the wealthy.
  • Bias build into the test regarding the materials the test cover.
  • Standardized tests to not measure what's important to teachers and parents.
  • Standardized tests do not measure critical thinking skills, creativity, healthy relationships, if students can give back to the community, develop convictions and stand up to those convictions., etc., .
  • DP interjects and suggests that tests also do not show the potential of the student, JW agrees.
  • Standardized tests only measure a vary narrow view of learning.
As a result, JW states that the US is scaling back subjects that are not part of the standardized tests.

My response: Is it possible to even create a completely unbiased exam at this level?  Isn´t it more important the constant measures are being used to improve the test? The rest of my response is included in the conclusion below.

DP: Goes on to mean the problem of funding for schools linked to test outcomes.  JW agrees and they discuss problems with teachers "teaching to the test".

DP: What could change this and how could we restructure this?

JW responses that schools, parents, teachers, etc. are opting out of Common Core.

My response: Teaching to the test is a problem, but this is a problem with teaching and not testing.  Different from teaching to the test, teachers should be preparing students for the knowledge and skills that test items (from the standardized test) are intended to assess. 


Pakman poses some important questions but the discussion really never got to the key point: The reason standardized testing isn't working is because educational stakeholders (i.e., teachers, administrators, parents, civic leaders, lawmakers, etc.) fail to use standardized testing as a means for improving public schools.  What would this look like?
  1. Standardized tests in conjunction with additional qualitative and quantitative data which are generated from both internal and external sources are used collectively to measure student outcomes.
  2. Research into the relationships between teacher practice and student outcomes need to complement comprehensive data points that holistically measure student outcomes.
  3. School funding is based on a comprehensive assessment of student outcomes, current literature into teacher practice and student outcome relationships, and the current educational context that covers everything beyond student outcomes. 
This simple, yet complex, solution turns comprehensive data into formative action.  When schools are struggling, this data provides a clearer vision as to the resources that are needed (mainly an external commitment) and types of changes that are needed using the resources that are newly available (mainly an internal commitment).  This is not a top-down directive, but rather a negotiation (investment) between all parties. High performing schools share their successes, providing a model for possible solutions for other, more lower performing schools. Hence, education becomes more transparent

In this scenario, evidence-based education provides the professional learning environment for teachers and subsequently for students to be creative, imaginative, etc... If teachers are being creative in the learning design, then it's realistic to think that students are being allowed to be creative (however one defines creativity).

Of course my vision is idealistic, some would say impossible.  But unless we change the narrative, then educational stakeholders are going to go on thinking that the "answer" to standardized testing is simply opting out; in other words, we're just spinning our wheels...

What do you think?  Am I off base?  What am I missing?  What's the problem and solution with standardized testing as you see it?