Really? More Test Scores? Is That All There Is?

I attended the Model Schools Conference two weeks ago. It was quite a gathering and there were a lot of challenging and inspirational speeches. The sessions are led by one of four groups of people, Model Schools Consultants, school employees of found model schools, school employees of created model schools, and corporate conference sponsors (these were noted in the program).  

The conference impressed me in a lot of ways. Presentations across the days and topics had very similar formats. It was obvious to me that behind the scenes all presenters had been given tips and tricks and encouraged to follow them. Presentations started with objectives. Many worked off the same template, even if they were not a consultant. Presenters referred to research, although they could have cited it more often. Finally, and to me most noticeably, presenters gave evidence of success. 

The success is what made me scratch my head. It was test scores. A few places here and there were stories, but the exciting results were better test scores. If education reform is going to succeed at anything but standardized students it needs to figure out a way to simply present success without showing test scores. If that is all we show off computers will replaces teachers completely. 

Teachers are important. Caring people do a better job of bringing out the individual strengths of others than bland technology. Relationships welcome new members into the club of readers and writers and physicists better than any computer can. Interested people bring out the strengths in others quicker and better than disinterested technology. 

If we want education to look truly different, which many of the people at Model Schools did, we have to stop reporting results in the currency of old schools education: test scores.

Can you really become fluent in something you do not want to be fluent in?

One theme of the model schools conference this year was the uptake of schools on game based learning. Their definition of game based learning is drill and kill made fun. I think the exact quote is, "Games make repetition and volume fun." There are other definitions of game based learning that I am more excited about, but I became much more impressed with the underlying ideas as the conference went on.

Two advantages of computer based games really caught my attention. Return to areas of safety and detecting the use of working memory for basic facts.

Back when I first played video games, which I do not do hardly ever anymore, when your lives were up you set back to zero. That is not the case anymore. Good games take you back to your spot of safety, the place that you can confidently conquer. One of the reasons I gave up on games was the infinite boredom of reconquering levels. 

The argument in education goes like this. If a teacher knows you do not have your multiplication facts down you get a worksheet with all of them. A computer only gives you the ones you need and enough others that you have success and stay interested. This makes for more targeted and more efficient use of student time, something I am in favor of. 

The speaker also went on to say that based on time to answer games could make decisions about whether or not a student was using working memory or long term memory to solve a problem, long term memory being the goal. If a student is pulling necessary information, like a math fact, our of long term memory then they are fluent and can solve more complicated problems. If we know this has happened we can stop wasting their time with practice they do not need. This is a good thing.

I wonder if, when a student wants to overcome a barrier, a teacher could hand them the right game based tool to really advance their fluency in an area. The argument goes that this frees the teacher to focus on making the classroom more rigorous and relevant and it also frees the student from tons of monotony and exchanges it for focused targeted learning. 

More time on the not boring stuff seems good to me, and if a teacher can increase the amount of relationship in their class because basic skills are effectively and efficiently taught, that also seems good to me. What seems bad is the likely unthinking application of these tools upon kids that have not found the hook to learning a skill yet. Then it will be just as boring at the fortieth game of Pac Man, or in today's case Fruit Ninja.

Getting the student to want to be fluent seems to be the big hurdle to using the tools well.