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Did You Set Them Up For Success?

3 Nov

child-cheating-classroom-mdnMy freshman year of college, I took a challenging calculus class.  I was doing ok in it, but then came the final.

There were only 10 problems, and for one of them, my answer just didn’t seem right.  I clearly had not fully grasped the power of compounding interest, because when I looked at my returns after “10 years at 8.5%, reinvesting the dividends” I kept thinking, “that can’t be right, that’s way too high.”

So I did what many motivated, grade-conscious students do in that circumstance.  I carefully peeked at the person’s work next to me, and copied his work.

I got my just desserts–turns out my original answer was correct.  And to this day, I still remember that moment and wince, wishing I could have had the fortitude to keep my head down.

My school had an honor code like most other colleges, and my behavior certainly didn’t match it.  But in truth, a lot of high achieving students have at one time or another behaved unethically on their work–copying homework problems, cheating on a test, grabbing paragraphs for their essay from the Internet.  Most of them will tell you it’s wrong, but they do it anyway.

Why such paradoxical behavior?  Some people will say it’s because students are conditioned to care more about the grade than the learning process, so it’s all about the outcome (probably true) and some will say it’s because we judge others most on the actions we’re ashamed of ourselves (maybe true too.)  But it’s also because self-control takes a lot of mental energy, and when you have a mentally draining task, like a hard test, in front of you, it takes additional energy not to look at the paper next to you.

Honor codes are interesting things, because sometimes we set up people to fail them.  Willpower, or self-control isn’t limitless.  In 1998, Roy Baumeister found that when adults had to exert willpower in one situation (resisting cookies) they did worse on the cognitively demanding geometry task they were asked to do later.  Stressing your self-control in one area made it more difficult to exert self-control in another.  Putting people in a position of academic challenge, and then telling them not to do something that will help them to succeed, places an additional stress on them.  They need to exert the will to keep working and the self-control not to cheat.

So when a professor emails out a final problem set and then tells students, “only take three hours on this and talk to no one” it puts a behavioral test on top of an academic one.  A lot of people will pass it–but for the ones who struggle most with the content, both tests become harder.

This plays out again and again with some of our youngest students.  Go into a kindergarten or 1st grade class and you can already see 5 and 6 year olds covertly glancing at their neighbor’s papers when they’re doing an assessment.  Watching them labor over how to form letters and spell words, and also struggle not to copy their classmate’s work, highlights how the cognitive load, the need for willpower to keep trying and not to peek–double up.

Of course we should follow the rules and uphold our ethical responsibilities.  As a 19 year old, it was a reasonable expectation that I keep my eyes to my own work.  But people’s environments have a lot to do with their success or failure.  For assessments, that might mean privacy dividers, proctored tests, desks in rows.  For assignments it might mean more projects that encourage collaboration, or chances to revise and fix-up work.

Hoping the other person will do what you want, regardless of the situation, is sometimes the easier path at the start.  But creating a setting that encourages positive behavior is ultimately less stressful for everyone, because it allows people to focus on what really matters–the task at hand–rather than on controlling their impulses.

Measurements Gone Wild–How Assessment Can Send You Down the Path of Darkness

30 Apr
Math Fact Test, by Judy Baxter, from Flickr

Math Fact Test, by Judy Baxter, from Flickr

Pardon me for the dramatic title, but I don’t think it’s overstated.  In America, we love data.  We love to track what we eat, count how many people visit our website, and test our kids endlessly.  We make important decisions from these numbers.  The scale is up?  Cut back on carbs for a while.  Did you see a spike in traffic?  Iterate on that last post.  Kids are doing poorly in math?  Time to shorten recess and add in weekly times-tests.

What happens the next week/month/year?  Too often it’s…nothing.  The scale is still up, the website hasn’t taken off, our kids are still stagnating in the bottom half of the world in math achievement.  Our response?  Cut out more carbs, eliminate recess altogether, etc, etc.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, America is one crazy country.  We’ve been railing against the achievement gap and low reading proficiency rates for decades, and our response has been to do more of the same.  No Child Left Behind brought in a surge of standardized testing and accountability, some of which was enlightening.  Disaggregating data by income level, English level, and racial group highlighted the disparity in achievement, especially in schools that were considered “high performing” and then were revealed to be failing their neediest children.  Data and accountability  are important for any program.

But are we looking at the right data?  Eduardo Briceno, the cofounder of Mindset Works, began a recent post on assessment with this quote: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.  That quote encapsulates the current data crisis neatly–we are counting what can be easily counted, not what really matters.

Briceno’s article goes on to discuss the idea that important elements of success–creativity, collaboration and communication skills, mindset–cannot be easily assessed, and thus aren’t.  It’s easy to know if a student can answer, “what’s 5 x 7” or “Henry the XIII led which church reform?” but it’s much harder to know if a child will persevere after hitting a setback.  It’s easy to tell if a child can correctly tell you what’s wrong with the sentence, “Elizabeth runned for the ball.” but harder to know if she could write a complex paragraph on her own.  The result?  We test what’s easy–multiplication facts, punctuation–but not what’s difficult.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting children to know how to multiply and punctuate.  Those are important skills.  But they’re low level skills, and if we stop there, we’re in real trouble once we leave the cocooned confines of the classroom.


Finland, long held up as a model of educational success, does things totally differently.  Finland engages a number of positive educational practices, like lengthy teacher preparation programs, small classes sizes, and equitable funding, but Finland also assesses totally differently.  While America has been ratcheting up the testing, Finland has been pulling back.  The results?  Finland leads achievement on the PISA, an international assessment of math, reading and science, whereas the US is stagnating below the mean.

top-ten-pisa-scores1Linda Darling-Hammond, a Professor of Education at Stanford University, shares how,

There are no external standardized tests used to rank students or schools in Finland, and most teacher feedback to students is in narrative form, emphasizing descriptions of their learning progress and areas for growth. …samples of students are evaluated on open-ended assessments at the end of the second and ninth grades to inform curriculum and school investments. The focus is on using information to drive learning and problem-solving, rather than punishment. NEAToday, October, 2010.

By using open-ended assessment and teacher feedback in narrative form, Finland is able to assess a much broader scope of skills than our standardized tests can handle.  The result?  Their teaching focuses on a broader, more complex set of skills.

In America, assessment is the tail that wags the dog.  Whatever we test, we teach.  We have to, with curriculum, school rankings, and salaries all tied to those assessments.  Testing what’s easy is cheap in the short term, but expensive in the long term as we emphasize low-level skills.  So let’s use those tests for good.  Let’s test what we really care about–discrete skills, like multiplication, but also complex thinking, problem solving, collaboration.  Let’s put our minds to work to come up with solutions for how tests can be comprehensive, but also economical, rather than coming up with more carrot and stick measures for schools.  Let’s measure what’s really important so that we can teach what matters.

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