Saturday, January 10, 2009

Information systems in schools

It is with a heavy heart the passing of one of our students. The dear departed was a terrific young man, a lover of sports and a great mind looking for a problem to solve. His brother was in the car accident, as well; he survived and seems to be doing as well as can be expected, which is to say, not particularly well at all. The funeral was today, but the copious snowfall kept me from attending. Michael will be missed; we are all extremely grateful that Shane is still with us. If there's anything I can do for Shane or the family, they have but to name it. Shane, you're not alone in our community, and we're all here for you.

In areas that I can do something about, I've been thinking about information--how much information does a teacher need about his students to teach them effectively? We cannot know everything; if teachers were omniscient, we'd be spies or oracles or something. So what do we have to have in order to teach our students? Below are some of the categories of information teachers have access to (or should). They appear in the order it occurs to me.

Prior knowledge
How good are students at (in my case) Spanish the day they walk into class? Maybe they were huge fans of Dora the Explorer when they were younger, maybe they're the nephew of a woman who married the former Ambassador from Guatemala. Students bring a lot to the table, and reteaching something that everybody already knows is a recipe for an unsuccessful class. So we need to know at the beginning of any class what information a student has access to, and how well she knows it. It also happens that our state mandates pre-tests for all required classes.

The typical tool for doing this is some kind of pre-test, often the final exam of the class. Each standard has several questions at each knowledge level, and at the end of what presumably is a 12-hour ordeal of a test, you know with a high degree of certainty what students know and how well they know it. You can then tailor your instruction to exclude stuff they already know and focus on stuff they don't already know, or even pick up stuff they don't already know but should.

Academic skills
Historically speaking, reading is the most important skill for educational success, because of the importance of gleaning information from written texts. This is followed closely by writing, because it's the most accountable method of determining how much a student knows. (A teacher can say, "I heard my student speaking in Spanish, and that should be good enough for you," but it's only been within the last not-too-many years (100? 50?) that audiovisual recording equipment has been widely available to confirm it. And since in a lot of ways our educational methodology was established in times long since past (see tabula rasa), AV equipment still doesn't have the role in education it maybe should. In any case, the ability to read and write are vital to success in schools. Thus, it behooves an instructor to know how well his students will be able to read the materials he gives them.

Fortunately, every standardized test in the country measures reading ability, to one degree or another. Several of them measure reading specifically (DIEBLS and the like), so that information is available. The reports can be hard to understand, and if (like me) you haven't been formally traned in reading methodology, it can be tough to know exactly what to do with it. Principals and reading specialists can help with that, and it's probably a good way to spark interdisciplinary cooperation and all the good things that we as teachers should be doing.

Apparently some people consider basic mathematical comprehension an academic skill, so we should probably come up with some kind of, I don't know, fill-in-the-bubble test for addition, multiplication, and differential calc.

The regular follower of this blog knows that I've spent a lot of time in the last X months working on school-wide positive behavior support. All of the literature I've read (all one book and some articles) say that whatever your tangible reward is, it has to be something of value to the student. Other research shows that students engage with content better when it interests them--and along with regulation, that just makes sense. And these are a few of many areas that knowing what motivates individual students is useful.

Of course, most students are unlikely to tell their teachers what motivates them. And there are reasons for this: 1.) the relationship between students and teachers. Students don't share stuff with teachers. 2.) the nature of teachers' jobs. Elementary teachers spend more than 5 hours a day with their students, but there are 30 students. Middle and high school students have like 150 students a day. (Not me--my high school only has 100 students. And I don't have all of them in class.) You can only get so close to that many students, particularly if you have to teach them math at the same time. 3.) the nature of interests. I've been interested in Spanish literature for 12 years now, but I've only been interested in Google Earth for 1, and international economics just since the world economy collapsed in September. A Borges story would always be welcome, an article on how to use Google Earth would have been welcome over summer break (or even over winter break), and a news story about trade agreements between the US and China would never get read. Point is, interests change. When you're 7, they change very quickly.

So, you listen carefully to what they talk about when they talk to each other. You try to watch the movies they say they like, and you try to remember that you're twice, thrice or four times as old as they are. Just because something is consumeristic, overly priced, or juvenile, doesn't mean it's not interesting to them. They are, after all, juveniles. (Comes from the Latin iuvenus.)

Worthy of a post by itself. For here, suffice to say that, if done properly, they can be very helpful. And if not, they're a colossal pain in the neck and a useless bureaucratic nightmare. Plus, they're getting more complex all the time.

Am I missing anything? Probably.

1 comment:

Ray said...

Any tragedy in schools is so hard on the staff and students. I know we are very proud of our staff for once again pulling together and making the best of an impossible situation.

Prior knowledge information is so important. With the use of video, pictures, stories, and other resources we can often trigger someones prior knowledge or at least give a student background on a subject by first viewing a video, picture, or story and then discussing it before we begin a unit of study. Another powerful way to create prior knowledge and background knowledge is through vocabulary notebooks. This is a notebook students carry with them from class to class and year to year, which covers all of the vocabulary they have learned at school in all of the various disciplines. This is really a goal of mine for school, to have students create vocabulary notebooks, which will then require teachers to select the vocaubalry they need for their subjects ahead of time. Marzano has two good books on this subject, as do many other educational authors.

The state only requires testing if students want to test out of a required Michigan Merit Curriculum subject. It is the schools responsibility to have tests prepared in case a student wishes to choose that route. But I think you make a solid point for why pre-testing is important. Of course, there should always be a pre-test for a unit of instruction, which should be done before each unit so the instructor can see what students know. This would be assessment for learning. Using the results and data to drive the instruction. The assessment at the end of the unit or the final exam would be an assessment of learning. Meaning the results and data are used to inform what was learned. Both types of assessment are important and should be used. We all need further training in this area.

Grading and reporting are two areas we can all study and attempt to become more efficient.

Thanks for letting me share a little. We could discuss these topics and many others for long periods of time.