Maybe Google isn’t the issue

I highly recommend checking out the podcasts at Modern Learners. Often a single podcast spins off a number of ideas in multiple directions, under the general theme of teaching and learning more fitting for our current times.

For example, at the end of a podcast with futurist Brian Alexander (August 11, 2019), a single comment by host Will Richardson really perked up my ears. 

Will says to make sure your class isn’t “google disabled.”

Right. My colleague Bill Tihen has often mentioned Google when we talk about teaching and learning. Bill puts it this way, more or less: You have to set up class so there is more to learning than what is googleable. Will’s comment made me think of the same concept in a complementary way: Telling students they can NOT use Google might be a red flag. What would prompt us to tell them that? That perhaps what we are assessing is information retrieval (which one can get easily on Google) rather than application and synthesis of information.

So. Bill and Will are telling us not to “Google disable” our classes, or to make sure that what we bring to instruction is more than what is googleable. Googling is perhaps best thought about as where learning starts, not where it ends.

Over the past several years – four or more depending on how you count – we’ve been changing our assessment system to reflect what Bill and Will are saying. We’ve moved away from a 0-100 American scale to a 7 point scale with school level descriptors and complementary specific descriptors at the assignment level, for each of the seven possible results. There are two significant benchmarks, one between levels 2 and 3 and one between levels 4 and 5. 

A mark of 2 or less signals significant issues. A mark up through 4 includes memorization and giving information back. In other words, up through 4 is googleable. Only with the application and synthesis of what was googleable does a student encounter the 5-7 range. 

There is no reason for a teacher to tell a class not to use Google (as Will reminds us); in fact, an assessment system like the one we’ve developed, correctly understood, should put some pressure on the teacher to ensure that lessons routinely go beyond googleable thinking in order to offer the students opportunities to think and work in the 5, 6, and 7. Recall, remember (levity intended), ends at level 4. 

There is every reason to ensure that the teaching and learning we orchestrate require students to go beyond Google. Lessons that do not go beyond googleability should simply not be assessed on the 1-7 scale (since 5-7 aren’t demonstrable). 

The difference between learning and recalling facts and applying those facts is neither hard to grasp nor unknown to teachers. Getting students to think and to learn how to learn are regularly repeated goals across schools. In practice, however, if we are honest with ourselves, our school culture tends to focus our thinking and practice on recall. Our assessment practices may often be unwitting abettors, so much so, that we’ve found it surprisingly difficult over the past years to clearly articulate the appropriate use of the 1 to 7 scale with its division between recall, level 4 and below, and application, level 5 and up. We continue to mistakenly record the results of a vocabulary quiz, for example, on a 1 to 7 scale. There is nothing wrong with a vocabulary quiz. There is everything wrong with assigning the quiz anything greater than a 4, since vocabulary quizzes are not made to demonstrate application. Knowing the meaning of words will help application down the road, but alone, word knowledge is not application, so a perfect result is a 4, no higher. Use a raw score or a yes/no type of score (good enough, not good enough). 

Interested in more about standards based grading? Google it. 4. And then talk about its probable ramifications on teaching and learning, in your particular school setting, with your colleagues. 5-6-7.

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