Considering Sines of Learning

"I'd like to stick to what I do best--taking tests."

This is my response to The Most Misunderstood Strategy in Education, by Walt Gardner of Education Week.

Yesterday I posted a reflection upon my experiences learning from Yong Zhao about creativity, individually cultivated knowledge, and from Robert Marzano about standards, the removal of time from the setting of school, and measuring skills learned. I suppose what you could call my “blog thesis” was that creativity and standards are not as opposed as I had previously thought. The measurement of learning is not a practice tying you to a pact with the devil of accountability or synthetic evaluation.

As the most insightful comment helped me to consider, we can’t focus completely either on creativity or standards in our practice. Justin, an artist and teacher blogging for Bound Staff Press, explained to me that:

Without creativity, standards based education often produces button pushers who can only follow directions. Without standards, creativity based education may produce daydreamers who are pleased to never produce anything.

The comments section of the Education Week article included mostly deriding remarks (some very well composed and supported) about how standardized testing was ruining teaching. Walt Gardner has yet to respond to the comments, which is a major blogging crime in my eyes, but his points are not entirely dismantled by the commenters. What he is mostly attacking is the nefarious practice of literally teaching THE test (not teaching TO it):

too many teachers have essentially provided their students with an advance copy of the test.

As it is with many politically and emotionally charged ideas, standards-based education has been attacked through a lot of rote-memorization and repetition of buzz words and phrases like, “teaching to the test” which many people can’t defend beyond its emotional appeal. As someone who went through school during the standards boon of the mid-nineties through the early 2000s, I came into college with a somewhat negative view of them myself.

I as consider these complex and significant issues, one core idea that continues to echo in my mind is that of balance. As I grow as a teacher, a professional, a writer, and a person, I seek balance of each domain in my life. I don’t want to spend too much time at work or my wife will be slighted. I don’t want to spend too much time on my own professional development or my students will be slighted. I don’t want to ignore the good work my colleagues are doing, or else I will slight myself and become insulated. There are so many different modes within which we must find balance.

I’m always brought back to Mrs. Erikson’s class in high school when I think about balance. A sine represents some kind of continual repetitive oscillation. The pattern can be manipulated through various shifts in trough depth, length, and height, but the sine continues. It is a pattern seen in nature many times visually and aurally. I try to see it in my personal and professional life in various ways as well, especially when it comes to complex issues which are often expressed as simple extremes.

How can we oscillate between the use of good learning standards and creative cultivation of learning? No clear answer has manifested for me at this point, but I feel as though the genuine consideration of each idea is necessary to create that answer. I don’t expect any sampling of my thoughts or actions to be a perfectly representative sine. Instead, I’d guess it would like more like an echo of a heart beat with a natural up-and-down sinus (there’s that linguistic bridge) rhythm. What does your heart tell you about these issues?

4 thoughts on “Considering Sines of Learning

  1. Steve,

    I’m a big fan of metaphors and I think you’ve come up with an interesting way to describe the notion of balance. I’ve always been fascinated with functions like sine because it seemed magical to me that an equation could be plotted into something visual, and something so iconically appealing as a sine wave no less. I bring all this up because I think it illustrates what I see as the shortcoming of standards from my own school experience. When I learned about sine in high school, I was given the equation, told to plot it, told that was a sine curve. No one asked me what I thought of a sine curve. And if they had, and I had said, “That seems magical,” I probably would have been deemed a math failure. Yet given the opportunity, asked a simple question that I’m sure is not part of most math standards, who knows what I might have been inspired to create because of the magic of algebraic functions? Recently, I heard two interesting comments about standards. My colleague, Shirley Brown, said she thought the standards movement was simply a means to continue the schooling practices of the industrial revolution whose goal was to create docile, cookie-cutter, worker bees. My friend Andrea Zellner said despite all the best intentions, standards can’t help but become prescriptive rules for teaching practices. I’m afraid I think they’re right. However, I like the idea that you have a blog “thesis” in which you’re trying to understand the relationship between creativity and standards in your teaching. I’m looking forward to reading what you discover.

  2. Steve,

    I prefer e-mailing each person who responds to my posts. I think they appreciate this policy. I’m doing precisely that right now to you.

    First, I want to thank you for your intelligent comments. I think we agree on the harmful practice that too often prevails in today’s classrooms.

    Teaching to the actual items on a test is the predictable – but always indefensible – manifestation of Campbell’s Law: the more any quantitative indicator is used for decisonmaking, the more it will be subject to corruption, and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.

    On the other hand, teaching to the broad body of skills and knowledge that a test’s items represent is sound pedagogy. I don’t know of any effective teacher who doesn’t do it. They may not openly admit it because of the negative connotation. But I submit that if you analyze their instruction, you’ll know what I mean.


  3. Thank you for responding Walt. I took some time to consider my own comment in return, but in the meantime I did compliment your integrity on other social networks. It instills confidence in me that you respond to people who take the time to write you.

    First, I was very happy to see your piece on “teaching to the test” in Education Week. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s mindless repetition of buzz words in any field. This one about testing has been a fly in my ear for years now. Your article has helped me to swat it down.

    Thank you again, I’ll look for future articles of yours!

  4. Paul, you’re such a good blog steward:)

    I love how the Writing Project encourages such a socially gratuitous attitude of written feedback. It really is a large part of why we write: to get feedback (the other major portion being to figure out what it is we actually think!).

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