Testing, Exams, Karate, Newton

When my wife did karate at school, the instructors made a point of promoting gender equality.   With all the authority of a fourth dan, sensei confidently declared in a deep voice there’s no place for sexism in the dojo.  He glared challengingly at the boys, and said girls and boys can both go karate, and some girls are actually quite good at it.

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Sometimes, our deepest assumptions are unknown even to ourselves

This is easy to laugh at, or perhaps easy to get angry about; but at least there is a gesture towards equality here.  And this is a well-known phenomenon – that when there is a social change, those who see the change can speak about it, and even believe in it, but somehow, they cannot quite leave behind the old values. The most extreme example of this that I know about is Isaac Newton; despite being a key driver towards the modern scientific outlook, he still pursued the occult with a passion (there’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to it!).  Perhaps he was, therefore, more the last man of the old generation, rather than the first man of the new.  The thing is here that we all have cognitive ‘deep structures’ that we do not even know about.  Under this model cognition is commonly depicted as an iceberg, whereby we are only conscious of behaviours above the waterline, and not of the assumptions, norms and beliefs below it.

We sometimes see the same thing in education.  We know that we do not want for our children what we had; authoritarian, top-down, narrow academic learning.  We want an values-based education that prioritises learning to think over narrower, multiple-choice measures.  We want a system that develops creativity, that can deal with ambiguity and that focuses on deep understanding (these are, after all, the things that are needed after school life).  But then we sometimes ask why we don’t give more ‘rigorous’ testing with clear outcomes, like percentages, so we can compare students with each other.    There is a place for tests, for sure, but less than we sometimes think.  It’s not an accident that our most complex, intellectually demanding course (Theory of Knowledge) has no exams whatsoever  – and really, when you look at the work an average class produces you can see why an exam is simply the wrong way to assess here.  Let’s be a bit more nuanced than that.

I am not against traditional exams per se.  My argument is that we need to align our school practices with our modern understanding of education –  and that means better testing, not more testing.  In fact, it may well mean less.   To want modern, progressive education and then to always reach for tests, regardless of context or purpose is like sensei and his dojo, or Newton and his alchemy.

Brexit: People and Perspectives

Like so many other issues, Brexit was essentially a matter of identity; who do the British people want to be?

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What can we learn form the Brexit fiasco?

The Leave side was seen as taking the higher ground by appealing to the identity of the British as proud and independent.  The Remain side forgot it’s own story, and ended up appearing to quibble about numbers, laws and details. As we know, the narrative about identity prevailed.  It usually does, and the result was a staggering and perhaps historic result.

Writing as a staunchly Remain British citizen, I feel pretty glum about the whole affair.  Not (just!) because I was on the losing side, and not (just!) because of the total lack of respect on both sides for reason and facts; but more because I realize how little effort we have put over recent years into the ‘United’ bit of United Kingdom.   That, of course, is why there was so much surprise from markets, media and politicians who did not look outside the London bubble.  So while it was impossible for me to imagine ourselves as anything but increasingly integrated with our neighbours, that really reflects more about my own identity and perspective than it does about anything else.  Others felt exactly the opposite for similar reasons of identity.   Regardless of whether Article 50 is ever triggered or not, both sides probably still do not really understand each other’s attitudes and feelings.

Understanding is, of course, the business of education, and there are important reminders here for teachers and parents, regardless of nationality (the same issues play out in many, many countries –  most obviously the USA at the moment).  Not just that the content of what we teach our students has to be relevant, but also that to have a lasting and profound effect the learning has to be more than academic learning; it has to resonate with our students’ values and identities.   Having an explicit and consistent focus on school Missions helps; so does talking to students (in an open, not didactic way) about who they want to be and what they see as important in life and how we need to better understand people with different views to work together.  If we get it right, they will be able to engage in important issues in an informed, positive way that seeks to connect constructively with others.  The many commentaries that insult the Leave voters’ intelligence or motivation reflect a failure of imagination in some parts of the Remain camp.  We must avoid this polarisation, and schools have to play their part.


download1By Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

School administrators are often faced with complex decisions about curriculum, assessment, and the oversight of both. There is a myopic condition that can occur as conversations lead people into a spiral of good intentions full of false understanding. This condition is the belief that learning is a one-to-one relationship, and that content is related to a course or single field of study. The truth is learning, real learning, is a one-to-many relationship where content can connect to an unpredictable number of areas if it is allowed to develop organically and time as a constant is removed.

Understanding One-to-Many Relationships

A one-to-many relationship is often used in database development. It is normally defined as a situation where an element of A may be linked to many elements of B, but a member of B is linked to only one element of A. For instance, think of A as mothers, and B as children. A mother can have several children, but a child can have only one mother.[1]

In terms of education and learning, a one-to-many relationship is created when something learned in one context becomes relevant in another context. For example, a student in a math course learns about sample size. Then when they are working on a psychology research paper they apply that concept to their survey initiatives. I used math and psychology as examples because I have often spoken with students who enjoy psychology, but claim they are not skilled in math. Flipping the relationship, if students studied sample size mathematics in psychology I wonder if they would feel the same about their computational abilities?

Unlike the database model, there is no real restriction on the relationships between knowledge. An idea (a child) can form new paths and ideas and become a parent.

Supporting the Unpredictable

As administrators debate, decide, and set policy they should consider that the best outcomes are often unpredictable. The history of invention has taught the human race this lesson, yet we seem to constantly try to create outcomes instead of observing what is happening without constant intervention.

The only true way for students to experience one-to-many relationships is to set guidelines for teachers that stress a continuum of learning around a single topic. Most topics have many layers, and as students spiral through the topic they can experience connections to other topics.

The concept of mastery becomes a single question: Have I gone as far as I can go?

Each time a student re-enters the topic they move closer and closer to the answer to that question. They may never reach the end, but they will reach a satisfactory point where they can justify saying, “For now, I am finished.”


Supporting this type of learning is difficult. It requires the administration to discourage small unit based learning and timed slices of activities. School leadership also has to set policies and procedures that allow students to constantly revise and revisit previous projects and topics for additional credit and potential accolades.

From the top level down to the classroom, many aspects of daily life must change to accommodate the organic nature of a continuum of learning. One barrier many students face is an appointed single subject resource. Textbooks, websites, and other pre-selected and filtered materials box students into silo of information. Inside of a silo, they may not see connections to other ideas, and students may dislike the format(s). Department leaders need to be required, not requested, to diversify the options to allow students some choice in the formal materials required to meet the curriculum requirements.

One might think the internet allows for unlimited access to learning. Unfortunately unstructured materials are just as bad as a limited materials. Teachers are subject experts, and they need to help students make smart choices. Having diversity in resources, does not omit the need for standards.

As a computer science teacher I would often have three to four textbooks students could use. I did not set units of work with books, I set projects that I knew could be supported with all the books. Each book was structured differently and had an appeal to different students. Never forget, the medium is the message.[1]

Large scale change to improve learning does not require administrators to sit in a room and write dozens of standards. Developing core concepts that people can understand and support creates a mission everyone can support. And ‘people’, must include students.

When you push students towards an endless formative outcome, the stress and pressure are as real as preparing for an all encompassing summative assessment. The only difference is the student(s) will work until they find the end, and not stop because someone has told them the end is now.