Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Case Against the Graduate Record Examination

Ahhhhh! I despise exams. Particularly multiple-choice ones. And particularly ones that have a magnitude of importance.  I recently had the torturous pleasure of taking the GRE, a standardized test which is required for entrance to most post-graduate programs of study in the US. I didn't do very well and subsequently became quite defeated by the process of the test itself. It had been 8 years since I'd written an exam of this calibre. I didn't put an adequate amount of effort into studying. I am not an effective test taker when it comes to multiple choice exams. I don't deal well with failure or exam anxiety or timers. The computer adaptive testing (CAT) format is completely frustrating. I could go on and on about the multitudinous reasons for my failure to perform as I had hoped, detailing why my poor performance wasn't a fair judgement or an accurate depiction of my abilities. The truth is I did poorly, period. I'm not trying to avoid or excuse that fact, but I do want to share some insights and ideas with you about why I feel that standardized testing is completely ridiculous.

At a time and in a place where K-8 educational standards and practices reflect a general, albeit slow, move away from standardized testing, traditional assessments and formal reporting practices (ok, maybe not in the US, but definitely in settings like the International Baccalaureate's Primary Years Programme), how is it that universities and colleges still form the basis of their acceptance policies on ranking applicants in terms of their test scores? The GRE is required for almost all fields of graduate study in the US, including Education. I want to learn, grow and invest my future into reforming pedagogy and reevaluating practices that impede our current generations of learners and learning styles. I want to have an undeniable impact on the way teachers teach and the way learners learn and I have the impetus to do it (and do it well, in my opinion). Yet I probably can't get myself into a highly-ranked, well-recognized department of Education to pursue a Masters degree because I don't perform well on standardized tests.

Young learners of today, especially in the IB PYP programme, aren't often exposed the world of standardized testing and we've seen vast improvements in skill development and real-world understandings that will empower young people in a furutre of critical and creative problem solving and innovative design. But will they still have to pass a test to get into university in 10 years? It is likely. Will they have to pass a test to get a job? Hopefully not.

The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising Scores, Ruining Schools by Alfie Kohn was published in 2000 with outstanding evidence about how standardized testing is detrimental to learning and an inaccurate assessment of student understanding or academic ability. From Alfie Kohn's website, News & Comments, January 2010 he states: "As for the research studies: Collectively, they make it clear that students who are graded tend to differ from those who aren’t in three basic ways. They’re more likely to lose interest in the learning itself. They’re more likely to prefer the easiest possible task. And they’re more likely to think in a superficial fashion as well as to forget what they were taught." 

Most teachers and schools that I am familiar with, through my short career, focus on promoting an authentic interest in learning, actively engaging students and helping them invest in their own development while providing an environment which fosters life long learning for learning's sake. Authentic assessment is essential and formative feedback is fundamental. We must begin to accept that grading, ranking and comparing of students to one another, goes completely against the intuitions of learning and promotion of growth.

So (if) it's true that within International K-8 education, we are beginning to change, to move away from standardized testing and traditional forms of student evaluation, where will that leave the future generations when it is time for them to pursue post-secondary level education? How will they cope with the levels of scoring, summative assessments and testing regimes? How will they fare when all critical and creative thinking abilities, collaborative and cooperative learning habits, and so-called 21st century learning skills are thrown out the window during an undergraduate degree? We are slowly beginning to model our K-8 learning environments to reflect what the working force will demand in the future, but most universities and colleges haven't fallen in line. How will students navigate this unknown realm of mid-terms and final exams? How will they even get accepted into these institutions?

So back to the GRE and me. Why do I fail so miserably at multiple choice questions? For my undergrad degree, I studied Biological Sciences and many of my courses were evaluated almost entirely by multiple-choice testing. And I managed. Here's a perspective on multiple-choice questions and deep thinkers by Banesh Hoffman, a mathematics professor who worked with Albert Einstein and wrote a book in 1962 titled The Tyranny of Testing. He particularly discredits multiple-choice testing, stating in an interview: "Multiple choice tests penalize the deep student, dampen creativity, foster intellectual dishonesty, and undermine the very foundations of education". (Source: The Myth of Measurability, edited by Paul Houts, (Hart Publishing Company, 1977), page 202.) Hoffman continues, "It is not the presence of defective questions that makes multiple-choice tests bad. Such questions merely make them worse. Even if all the questions were impeccable, the deep student would see more in a question than his more superficial competitors would ever dream was in it, and would expend more time and mental energy than they in answering it. That is the way his mind works. That is, indeed, his special merit. But the multiple-choice tests are concerned solely with the candidates choice of answer, and not with the reasons for his choice. Thus they ignore that elusive yet crucial thing we call quality." (Source: The Tyranny of Testing,(Collier Books, 1962), page 92.)

In my undergrad, I managed to get myself through exams with a few techniques and strategies, all of which were useless in the GREs computer adaptive testing format, where you can't see the questions ahead and/or go back to the ones you've completed. I have zero time management abilities when I can't tell what is coming up. For example, in the verbal section you must answer 30 questions in 30 minutes. I couldn't quite master the 1 minute per question approach and was frequently stressing about the time I was taking on selecting my answers. Near the end, I had managed to catch up and was happy to see that I had exactly 4 minutes remaining to complete the final 4 questions. Seemed like I was on top of things. I hit the continue button, just to see that the final 4 questions were based on a 5-paragraph text laid out on the screen. It would have taken me 4 minutes just to read it once thoroughly (I am a slow and careful reader). So I had to skim the article and then race through the last 4 questions, basically throwing out guesses. You can imagine how great that felt.

Well the GRE is now behind me. I can chalk it up to an interesting and experiential learning activity. It definitely helped me reflect deeply and question my own philosophy of assessment and evaluation. I might try to write the GRE again in a few months. I might not. I still plan to apply to pursue my Masters degree and hopefully I will not be judged entirely on my testing ability, because ultimately, it is not a skill set that I am seeking to Master.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

IDEO - The Future of the Book

What's your idea for the future of books?

The digital world can bring us reading that is:
- Informative with less bias
- Personalized to who we are
- Interactive, engaging, and rich

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Green School, Bali, Indonesia

Today I visited the The Green School of Bali, Indonesia. I have watched developments at this school unfold online since it’s conception in 2007, and always daydreamed that someday this would be a place where I would spend some of my career. I am drawn to both Bali and the school; Bali is an island of stunning cultural, historical and natural beauty and The Green School is a school of outstanding principles built on solid foundations of sustainability and global stewardship. The school is also dedicated to providing numerous scholarship opportunities to local Balinese children. The school is open for public tours on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3pm. The Green School has received a lot of international media coverage because of its educational philosophy, its experiential teaching and learning practices and is awe-inspiring structural design. Many famous people have come across the threshold bamboo bridge, a little like tumbling down the rabbit hole, entering into the magical school setting in the middle of the Balinese jungle.

Our tour guide, Ben, has been a part of the Green School team since 2008. Originally from the United States, I quickly learn that he is well travelled and even more aptly versed, in many languages.  He greets and welcomes all members of the tour in their native language, from English to Mandarin to Japanese to French to Malay to Indonesian.

The tour begins on the bridge above the Ayung River, but soon we are walking through a very tall rice paddy. One of the visitors asks, "Why the rice is so tall?" and Ben explains that the rice, which is grown organically and cared for by the students, is a native Balinese rice, a variety that almost no one grows anymore, even in Bali. Ben elaborates with a descriptive explanation of an integrated inquiry that all grades at the school participate in where the students grow rice, learn the history and cultural significance of rice in Bali, host rice ceremonies with local villagers and then eventually harvest and eat their rice.

We continue on to the edge of the river where we observe a pretty large water vortex. Built by the school and supposedly the second of its size in the world, this electricity-generating vortex is a fish friendly way to harness kinetic energy from a river or stream. This system was originally designed by Austrian engineer Franz Zotlöterer. It channels a small portion water from the side of the stream, where it enters a toilet-bowl shaped funnel containing a large, slow-moving water wheel. Unlike traditional hydroelectric power generation, this system does not work on a pressure differential, it draws the energy simply form the dynamic force of the spiraling water which exits the vortex back into the stream. Awesome!

Moving on along a lava rock pathway (one of many on campus), we pass the senior student-built 3-story clubhouse (part of a hands-on design lesson focused on integrating math, physics and architecture). Further up the hillside, we see the student support center and head into a high school classroom overlooking the river. Here we learn the origins of the Green School. For the quick version please check out the history section of the Green School website which explains how its founders, Jon Hardy and his wife Cynthia, created the Green School. The Hardys were inspired to give something back to the people of  Bali, a paradise which they have called home for 35 years, and an island which inspired and supported them along their road to success creating the globally successful John Hardy Jewelry empire. The school was created with a passion for everything local, and it is the local environment which most obviously informed thier decisions along the way. Holistic education consultant, Alan Wagstaff as well as Jurgen Zimmer, a professor at the Free University in Berlin, helped develop the educational philosophy and curriculum design of the school in tits beginning stages. The Hardys also set up a bamboo construction company just down the river from the Green School site which was commissioned to design and build all structural features of the school. You can tell this place was conceived by a union by artists and skilled tradesmen. The bamboo furniture throughout the school captures the intricate insides of bamboo design with careful lines and attention to textures, creating a simple and natural beauty.

The tour guide then takes us into a few homeroom classrooms, which were much larger than I'd imagined. I love the reused car windshields, painted white and used as white boards throughout the school. Each lower school classroom, with a cap of 25 students, has its own cool-down area for days when the jungle just gets too hot and sweaty. It turns out that Jon Hardy, in the early 70's, graduated from art college in Canada and had a passion for inflatable architecture. Inside each completely open-air classroom there is an inflatable canvas dome set on top of a miniature classroom pit, well equipped with an air conditioner, bench seating and performance/teaching space for an entire class. Very neat.

Over the course of the next 2 hours we are guided though the rest of the campus which includes the recreational sports area, with kids playing on a field with bamboo soccer goals as well as under a large thatched complex with bamboo basketball hoops, and a we take peak into the Performing Arts center where an after school African drumming workshop is taking place and the large African Mariba and Gamelan ensemble is displayed to one side. We learn about the traditional mud pit and spectator area used for Indonesian ceremonies, school performances as well as practicing other international forms of martial arts. We walk through the healing center of the school, designated as such by an authentic dowser from Astralia who also found water for all of the school's wells. The healing circle is marked with a giant brown crystal from Brazil embedded in the earth (think the size of a dog house). We look in on the endangered bird breeding cages and Green Camp gardens before arriving at the "Heart of School" in the glow of late afternoon light. The Heart of School is a stunning 3-story tripple building comprising offices, students study areas, the library, computer lab and resource area, fine arts studios and open lounging space where an afternoon yoga class is happening as we arrive. The Heart is the largest bamboo building in Asia, and possibly the world. It is breathtaking to stand in the center, climb up and down the 3 staircases in your bare feet and be encompassed by a human-made building that so distinctly resembles a bamboo forest with all the perfect lines and angles.

Among the things we didn't see, but learned about nonetheless, were the school's composting toilets of which students have been experimenting with methane extraction as a renewable energy source, an on-site recycling program, Balinese black sows that digest all the school's organic waste, as well as countless bio-intensive gardens which are managed by staff and students to create food for the entire school. The school is also serviced, campus-wide, with wifi. 

The Green School has had its share of ups and downs. Far from being financially sound, even with the support from their founders and the general visiting public, they continue to struggle to make ends meet. From starting out a few months before the economic meltdown in 2008, ironing out the kinks that are inevitable in starting a brand new school in the middle of the Balinese jungle, to constantly changing staff and changing student body, it is a wonder that they have gotten to where they are already. The school has received its share of global attention, both for its innovative ideas, its core values and educational philosophy, and its unique place in our world, creating global citizens and leaders of the future. John Hardy spoke about the school at TEDGlobal in England this past summer and many people have been, seen and reported on the fascinating and inspiring school culture that is emerging from within the magical jungle paradise. What a place! If you ever have the chance to see it in person, I highly recommend checking it out.

This is a photoset of pictures by Build Back Better on Flickr 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Einstein's Dream Come True

I remember when I was younger, the bestselling book, Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, spent a few months on our family room coffee table. It inspired many conversations with friends and family and I, a teenager at the time, was especially intrigued because its ideas were represented in such a way that I could grasp them, even if only slightly more significantly, than the ones in my high school science textbooks. Each chapter of Einstein's Dreams being a fanciful rendition of a proposed daydream which Einstein, as a young scientist himself in 1905, likely could have delved into considering his intimate contemplations with time and relativity at that time.

A memory that has stuck with me involves one of its 30 chapters, a chapter about people experiencing time differently depending on the altitude at which they live on Earth. My first interpretation was that people at higher altitudes who make a larger orbit as the earth spins on its axis, would obviously experience time more slowly. With this rationale, people living in valleys making a smaller orbit and would experience time faster than those living up high. For my own proof, I imagined a race track where 2 people, one on the inner track and one on the outer track,  set out to walk one complete lap with the finish line representing death. Who would get there first? The person on the inside, of course. To me, that meant that the people in the valleys (the inner track) would experience time more quickly and therefore live shorter lives. So you can understand my perplexed reaction when I was told that my ideas were in complete opposition to Einstein's theory of general relativity.

As my mother desperately tried to explain that the reverse of my postulation was in fact more in-line with the theory of general relativity, she used one of Einstein's Dreams to illustrate her point. In this dream (based on gravitational time dilation, which is the effect of time passing at different rates in regions where the gravitational potential if different; the lower the gravitational potential (i.e. closer to the center of a massive object), the more slowly time passes) people flock to the valleys in order to live longer lives and eventually, the valleys become crowded civilizations devoid of beauty. Meanwhile a few people, willing to trade the romance of an extended life for the serenity and peacefulness of the mountains, live happier and more contently, albeit for a shorter lifespan at the peaks. At least, that's how I remember my mother recounting the chapter; how close that is to Lightman's description is up for obvious debate. In the end, it all still made little sense to me and seemed intuitively contradictory.

Today I was tickled to stumble upon this recent article, Einstein's theory is proved - and it's bad news if you own a penthouse. Turns out that some scientists at the US National Institute of Standards & Technology have proved Einstein's predictions by placing atomic clocks at different heights and recording their lapsed differences. Their results? Well it looks like a person will age 90 billionths of a second faster (per average lifespan) for every foot above the ground in which they live. Not to be surprised by these findings, because it was never a matter of actually proving Einstein right. There's absolutely no need to do that. What's amazing is that with modern technology we can systematically prove that Einstein was right, just over a hundred years since he was daydreaming about time and space... completely unaware of what lay ahead for the world of science and technology. If he could be here now, what would he be dreaming about?

For further reading, buy the book. Alternatively, here are a couple excerpts from Random House.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Powerful Presentations - RSAnimates

RSA - 21st Century Enlightenment - could be described as a UK version of TED.  From their website:
For over 250 years the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has been a cradle of enlightenment thinking and a force for social progress. Our approach is multi-disciplinary, politically independent and combines cutting edge research and policy development with practical action.

As opposed to one big showdown event every year like TED, RSA hosts monthly themed events, each with a slightly narrower scope. Instead of talks, they have lectures. Recently in a creative twist, a group of technical illustrators created a few animations to accompany the lectures. For people who suffer from attention deficit disorder or simply are not auditory learners, this is an amazingly effective way to engage an audience for a 20 minute talk and keep people tuned into the basis of the argument or direction of the dialogue. If only someone had only done this for me during my 50 minute lectures of my undergrad degree! (and then given me the video to review and reflect on later).

These quirky and fun RSAnimates, published on the RSA website and on YouTube, quickly caught the attention of the people at TED, who highlighted a selection in their Best of the Web collection.  About  3 weeks ago, directed from the TED website, I watched the RSA Animate - The Empathic Civilisation based on a lecture by Jeremy Rifkin, and, feeling inspired by the powerfulness of the presentation technique, forwarded it off to people I know in the field of education.

The conversations that were subsequently inspired concerning how this would be a superior way to for children to actively absorb long speeches and lectures inspired to me to think a bit more about why, generally, people felt excited about this scribed presentation style. As humans, we try to differentiate our presentation of information to appeal to a wide range of learning styles and audiences. This is especially true for teachers in diverse classrooms who are tuned into the different learning styles of their students. For decades, presenters have tried to engage their audiences with visual devices and strategies such as PowerPoint or Keynote, video representations and visual enhancers framed to sequester the attention of individuals who struggle to focus, one way or another, for sustained periods of time. The evolution of TED, for example, demonstrates the progress we've made on creating powerful presentations. This particular animation style, seen in the RSAnimates, like visual cues on steroids, is an amazing example of artistry that effectively enhances a presentation.

As for the content of this particular presentation, I found it easy to follow and conventionally interesting. I can see how this could be engaging for a wide and varied audience. My test came, however, when I realized that there were other RSAnimations on topics I knew much less about and would have otherwise been disinclined to ever watch. For example, David Harvey's Crisis of Capitalism or Slavoj Zizek's First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. When I watched these animations, I was able to digest and sort-out the material embedded within the lectures in an excitingly new way, an intake much more dynamic than what I experience through simply listening. Maybe this explains why I've never been motivated to listen to podcasts! My brain struggles to stay connected to just the auditory input, especially when there are visual distractions around me (fairly consistently).

 A few other RSAnimates that I found wonderfully interesting to watch include Philip Zimbardo's The Secret Powers of Time and Mathew Taylor's 21st Century Enlightenment. Hopefully you enjoy them too!

I wanted to learn about the artists involved in these productions as well as give credit and draw your attention towards them here. I discovered, disappointingly, that there isn't often reference to these artists. By simply browsing the RSA pages and/or watching a few of these videos, you won't find mention of the scribes (unless of course you are more thorough than I am and you actually watch things through to their ultimate conclusion!). At the end of the YouTube videos there you'll find a logo for Cognitive Media, who are the illustrators behind the scenes.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be.

Educational scientist, Sugata Mitra, changes children's lives by allowing them to teach themselves on computers embedded in walls in impoverished areas in the world. See the website, Hole in the Wall, for more information on this amazing project.

The main idea here is that children learn best when interested. Of course. Self-directed learning and authentic inquiry describe the most fundamental way that humans learn from their experiences with the world around them. It is important to have ownership over our own learning, an investment in something that matters to us, and critical understandings are most often born out of 'figuring things out' for ourselves. This type of experiential learning empowers the learner to feel satisfaction and understanding from the experience, and therefore motivates and drives the learning cycle onwards.

It is important to note that this type of learning doesn't only happen with technology. A child can have deep learning experiences outside in nature, through social interactions and with non-technological objects in the physical environment. It is obvious, however, as we see in numerous examples around the world, across cultures and between stages of development, that technological devices are a focal point of interest and enthusiasm for children. They provide instant feedback and create an interactivity that inspires the user to dig deeper and keep learning. 

Sugata Mitra suggests, "Education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emerging phenomenon." This doesn't mean that teachers are irrelevant, or even gaining insignificance, within the system. Their effectiveness is being challenged. Learning is not something that teachers can teach children. Learning needs to happen collectively, collaboratively and with a positive outlook. A playful, supportive and humble attitude is often a teacher's best quality. This can be the driving force behind inspiring and motivating self-directed learning as well as the essential, underlying safety net used when encouraging learners to become risk-takers and step outside their comfort zones. This is when and where all the good stuff happens.