Friday, August 30, 2013

My Yearly Dose of Self-Doubt

I teach high school Biology in Minnesota.  A few years ago, the Minnesota legislature decided that it wanted to explore the idea of a standardized science test that would be required for graduation.  Instead of testing all of the science subjects students are required to study in high school, our law-makers determined to begin this process by testing the History and Nature of Science and Biology in one test of about 80 questions.  A handful of years later, the format of the test has been altered a few times, therefore it is still in the "trial" phase and does not yet affect a student's ability to graduate or a school's AYP (when this was an issue).  However, every student is still required to take the test once, in the spring of the year.  Many Biology teachers fret over how their students perform on the test, and the scores are published in the local paper the following fall.  The typical defense of standardized tests is that they will help improve teaching and learning.  The only thing I can say with certainty that this testing has provided me as a teacher is my yearly dose of self-doubt:  Are my students really learning science?

Let's just put all the cards out on the table:  My students' scores on their state science tests are typically below the state average, and this bothers me.  When the rounds of testing first started, I chalked the low scores up to flaws that are inherent to any new test.  Then my students did really well one year, and I thought, "Okay, now we've got this figured out."  The next year, the student scores were low again.  Hmmm.  I decided to volunteer to write test questions for future standardized exams, and in the process learned that the test isn't actually statistically significant.  There are too many Biology standards in Minnesota for one test to cover, so the percentage passing the test doesn't actually indicate if students have mastered the required topics.  The number of questions the test would have to ask to truly assess student knowledge of the standards is completely unrealistic.  After being told that the test was basically useless for me as a teacher and not a valid indicator of student learning, I resolved to not let the success (or non-success) of my students on this one assessment cause me to doubt what I was doing in the classroom.

Then this year's release of test scores rolled around.  And students in my high school scored below the state average.  Again.  And I experienced that niggling feeling of doubt about my effectiveness as a teacher.  Again.  You see, my science classes are very heavily inquiry-based.  My students ask questions, discuss and debate in groups, and don't memorize definitions.  I don't lecture in the classroom.  I deliver snippets of content via short, at-home videos, but the majority of content is learned through class investigations and activities.  In order to pull myself out of this black hole of doubt once again, I had to remember why I teach the way I do.  I reminded myself that:

  • The way I teach science is supported by research.  I'm not just crafting my pedagogy based on what I prefer or what is easiest for me.  I have spent A LOT of time and mental capital learning from very smart people about how to teach science.  I am constantly revising and reviewing my approach to teaching.
  • My current students leave my classroom feeling challenged, but supported, and report they like the class.  I know this because I ask them on anonymous surveys.
  • My current students know more about science when they are done with my class than they did before they started.  I know this because I give my own pre- and post-assessments for units.
  • My former students report that their college Biology courses are "easy" because the majority of what is covered is a repeat of what they learned in high school.  The one thing my former students report struggling with in college is getting used to the format of college teaching.  They're just not used to science lectures.
  • I listened to an interview with the MN Commissioner of Education (Brenda Cassellius) this summer in which she stated that our current state tests will be phased out within a year because they, "didn't matter to students," the tests were, "biased," and they weren't, "aligned to higher education."     
What finally put my mind to ease regarding this year's test scores (and prompted the writing of this blog entry), was a video I watched this afternoon.  In June, Innovation Hub gathered a panel of educators to discuss "College 2.0," or the direction of higher education for the future.  This almost-2 hour recording is full of gems, but there are a few in particular that really resonated with me.

#1:  "Any job that requires memorization...or rote, procedural problem-solving will go away [in the future.]"  Eric Mazur hit the nail on the head here, and went on to explain that most educational institutions, whether they are Khan Academy, MOOCs or brick and mortar schools, are still focusing on these antiquated skills.  He finishes his position by stating, "The type of skills that are required are changing."

Yes!  This is just what I needed to hear in my post-test-score slump.  Is it possible that the skills I am teaching my students are not measured on the current standardized test?  Could it be that students are scoring low on their state exam because I am preparing them to be a part of the current and future society in which those rote tasks are accomplished by robots or computers; in which jobs will require creative, collaborative thinkers instead of memorization?

#2:  "Your job, as a teacher, is to help them [students] find their purpose, to believe they can do it, inspire them to devote their life to making that happen."  Richard Miller, President of Olin College, is a proponent of project-based learning and learning by discovery.  He understands that in order for students to learn, their intrinsic motivation needs to be harnessed.  This means teachers must give students choices in the classroom and the time and support to follow their questions.  My goal is not that students leave my classroom with every structure of the cell memorized, but that they leave with at least one science experience that excited and inspired them.        

So when I return to my classroom on Monday, I will not hang my head because one measure of "education" says my students are not learning as they should be.  Instead, I will continue to engage students, pique curiosity, invite dialogue, and challenge the status-quo.  I feel as though I can now confidently answer my own question:  Yes, my students are truly learning science.          

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