Still a Long Way to Go!

It is July. I will be going home in 9 days. It is hard to believe that this adventure will end soon. It was first an idea about two years ago. So much has happened in those two years that I really can’t process it yet. So I won’t try right now. My brain seems to go into scramble mode when I do.

I had a last sharing session/workshop/presentation with the science teachers at SST today. It is hard to know what to call it since they like the term sharing, but the normal Singapore reticence makes two-way exchanges a challenge. It reminded me that culture, even if it doesn’t seem that different, is always a factor. The teachers here are so dedicated and very reflective but they lack what is probably an American tendency to “just run with it”. They are not risk takers. And years of success on high stakes tests reinforces the tried and true. Obviously, something is working. No one questions that. On the other hand, in the US, we are always worried about being bigger, better, etc. and, frankly, we are not performing well on high stakes science tests. Maybe we take too many risks and don’t really stop to see what is working. Who knows? All I can say is that there are some underlying attitudes that create challenges either way.

The bigger question, and I think teachers on both sides of the world would agree with this, is why have we decided that test performance equates to learning and understanding. It seems that we have surrendered the process of education to the magic powers that create the test. No matter who I talk to or where the discussion happens, you get the sense that teachers feel as if they being held hostage by too little time to cover the material on the test. Most of us know what makes true learning happen. I have read thousands of pages of research and spoken to countless people in the past six months, and no one believes broad, passive coverage of what is on the test provides opportunities for true understanding. It provides good marks on the test and very little else. Yet, as teachers we always have one eye on the test. And, as an AP Physics teacher, I include myself in that statement. Routine test taking is a game and if you have gotten students ready for the exam and felt like a coach getting the team prepped and psyched for the “Big Game”, that’s because that is what you are doing. For better or worse! But, those of you who are out of school, when was the last time you sharpened your #2 pencil, filled in the little circles, wrote down every step in your problem, circled your answer, checked for the correct amount of significant figures and, hopefully, remembered to put your name on the paper in all of that “excitement”? I suspect that is a memory for most of you, and probably not a very fond one.  It’s not what matters in real life. But we persist in labeling students based on that whole process. Even worse, students label themselves based on test performance.

The more time I have spent pulling all of this together, the more I am beginning to think it’s the assessment that is the bottleneck to change. There is an incredible amount of cognitive, meta-cognitive, qualitative and quantitative research indicating that active, in-depth exposure leads to real understanding. There is no argument about how you should teach. On the other hand, it is not easy to create good formative or summative assessment that is truly reflective of ability. And that is where the true issue lies. We like assessments to be nice and neat and objective, yet true learning is often messy and highly subjective. I spent my time today talking about exciting ways to teach physics and engineering. I have no doubt that every teacher in the room wants to make learning an adventure, values engaged students, and  is personally committed to being the best teacher possible. I have been around them and their students for 6 months. They are a committed, well-trained and thoughtful group of professionals. And they care, very much. But they deal with testing that has more significance than in the US. Although it has changed a good deal, national exams in Singapore have a tremendous impact on a student’s choices. And if you care about your students, you have to care about the test. Somehow, some way, someone needs to provide concrete proof that students can be taught with depth and creativity and encouraged to work for real understanding, and still do well on these tests. Or maybe the tests have to change. But grading large numbers of tests fairly rules out testing that isn’t pretty rigidly formatted. Don’t be fooled, the teacher or agency that uses machine graded multiple choice tests is trying to save time. If you really want feedback from that kind of questioning, you need to grade the tests manually. There is no other way to truly even come close to seeing who knows what, and if the questions are well designed, where they are confused. More importantly, multiple choice questions give you no feedback on your students’ thought processes and, in the long run, that is what is important because that is where the transferrable knowledge lies. That’s where, in today’s buzz words, you find the 21st century skills.

I don’t have the answers. Or, I guess more accurately, I don’t have the right test questions. But I do understand how my colleagues here must feel.

On a brighter note, literally, the air is much clearer and breathing is back in vogue! I managed to get few Singapore scenery shots this weekend for those of you who crave the visuals!

Alien Buddha  Mall Art in Singapore

Alien Buddha
Mall Art in Singapore

The giant baby's parents, maybe

The giant baby’s parents, maybe

Wide river and Financial  MBS and Art Sci Zoom Fin area and Fullerton

The Singapore River and Marina areas

The Singapore River and Marina areas

One Response to “Still a Long Way to Go!”
  1. Murri says:

    Hi, I’ve been reading your blog with great interest. I will pick up your mantle in 2014 as a DFT in Singapore researching SpEd practices. Travel home safely.

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