Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reflections on China Tour II- When the Stakes are High

Here in the US we often talk about High Stakes tests and their impact for example the work by Berliner and colleagues. In China the conversation about High Stakes was very different.

We had lunch on our last day in Shandong province hosted by one of the lead directors of the school district. After the exchange of gifts and pleasentries we had an inetersting discussion which started with his concern for student well being. He relayed that families are putting too much pressure on students to excel within the system, pressure that may harm some students maybe all. At the same both of us acknowledge the immense impact educational success measured by tests can have on individual lives.

We saw the importance of high stakes testing in almost every conversation with teachers and parents. Our research in China (With Stephanie Wessles and Guo Ji) is looking at the interaction between school and family. We had a chance to see the interaction in our first meeting with parents. Teachers took charge and directed parents who, in turn, complied without question. The parents were professionals from a middle class background but they followed teacher's demands. In the US middle class parents would have responded very differently probably actively resisting what they did not like and asking for a voice in the discussion. Here in China it was different and we were intrigued by it. In conversation some have speculated that this was part of the culture and Confusian ideals. Culture may have had something to do with it, though in private conversations and interviews parents were often critical of teacher's actions and did not think that teachers "knew better". The question that emerged was why parents did not resist what they thought was bad practice?

The answer seems to be linked to High Stakes. In China high stakes are meaningful most often to the individual. Starting very early students take tests that are critical for their advancement into the next level. There is a middle school test, high school etc. Each one of these has potentially dire implications for the student and his/her future path. The High Stakes for students and their family (pressure is intensified by the one child policy) create a need to comply. Parents relayed to us: "I do not always agree with the teacher  but I will not say anything because I fear there will be negative outcomes for my child." In the large classrooms (we saw elementary schools with 40-50 students) teachers cannot attend to all student needs. Each parent is keenly aware of the high stakes and the positive role the teacher can play, thus they do not want to rock the boat fearing that their students will be ignored or underserved.

In this case the impact of high stakes testing is a lost voice for students and parents who should be part of the conversation about education. This is not all one sided. This very same situation helped our efforts to integrate iPads into classroom instruction. Not all parents were in favor and a few worried about it but none resisted it This gave them an opportunity to see the impact on their students. After parents saw the impact they were decidedly positive. This is similar to the model Guskey suggested for teachers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Generation D- the impulse to re-engineer

I was playing a quiet game of Candy Crush yesterday and my 8 (soon to be 9) year old son Itai came and sat next to me. For me, casual games like Candy Crush are a great way to pass a few minutes and do some problem solving. Itai, however, is generation D (digital) child and reacted to the game in a very different way.       
As I was olaying Itai was making suggestions about moves and figuring out how the game worked. Finally he said: "Wouldn't it be great if you could design your own board and could decide where the jelly and chocolate went?" He continued musing: "you could design your own special candy like a cross between the fish and chocolate". His stream of ideas went on as I was playing and I cannot remember them all, but what I do remember is how easily he has focused on the creation side. 
This of course is not accidental. I have been observing in schools and at home the impact of games like Minecraft and Little Big Planet. For adults they are games, but I argue that for kids they create new ways of thinking. As a result generation D maybe growing up the most creative one yet, a generation that has a creative instinct. A generation that idenftifies a problem and doesn't just want to solve it, they want to re-engineer it. The question for us is how do we design schools that cultivate and support this world view?

Monday, February 2, 2015

First Reflcetions on our China Tour- Common Ground

Photo Op in a First Grade Classroom Linzi, Shandong, China
We came back from our China Tour two weeks ago. It was a whirlwind tour focused on Linzi in Shandong province and Chengdu in Schizuan province. In each we visited elementary schools that are integrating iPads with our support. There were many lessons to learn and I am still thinking through much of what we saw. In addition we visited only three schools and observed instruction in only two. There is no way for me to know how representative this ample is so please read with great care. This, however, are some of my observations:

There are many differences between US and Chinese schools. For example Chinese classrooms were much larger (over 40 students), and the stakes to students future are higher (high stakes in China is much higher stakes for students not teachers. What struck me though were the similarities. When we observed teaching, our Chinese partners and us were often in agreement about high quality instruction and what it should look like. In our last school after three days of work the principal asked to see me privately. She sat opposite me with her four assistant principals (one each for instruction, professional development, organization, and discipline) and with a tense expression asked for my opinion on the instruction we saw. I laid out a step by step analysis of the lessons (I used LessonNote to annotate lessons carefully). At the end of my exposition she was visibly more relaxed. Smiling she asked: "Do you think it is possible to integrate technology into our traditional lessons?" [translation].

Earlier in our visit I thought traditional meant a focus on memorization and recitation, but at this point it has become clear to me that she was referring simply to the existing curriculum. This is the same question/ concern I often encounter in schools. Teachers and administrators interpret our effort in professional development as an addition or even substitution of the existing curriculum, the reality is that we see it first and foremost as part of the curriculum already taught with some extra skills integrated when they are relevant (e.g. digital citizenship). I carefully responded that yes I thought there could be such integration that would benefit students and help instruction as well as 21st century skills. I went back to the SAMR model as a core foundation to move forward and for the first time since we entered the school we were on the same page.

At the heart of the matter was the fact that both sides did not understand how close our positions were. We were seeing the same instruction and evaluating it in similar way but all of us were also hung up on cultural differences not wanting to assume common ground that was actually there.