Long-Term Yardsticks

I was reading an article yesterday morning from USAToday about the MicroSoft School of the Future in Philadelphia. The article plotted the school’s struggle with students who were not accustomed to using laptops to “…keep notes, do homework, and take tests.” Now this blatantly schooly description of how students are being asked to use their laptops is certainly worthy of comment, regardless of whether it was the journalist’s (Kathy Matheson, The Associated Press) wording of that of her source. ((Matheson, Kathy. “Microsoft ‘School of the Future’ in Philly finally in a groove?.” USAToday. 19 Jun 2010. 20 Jun 2010. ))

But that’s not what triggered the ding in my head.

The Microsoft liaison, Mary Cullinane, when responding to the “dismal” (7.5% of 11th graders scored proficient or higher in math; 23.4% scored proficient or higher in reading) test scores last year, said,

..test scores don’t tell the whole story. It is a long-term journey and we have to get away from short-term yardsticks.

Several of us edubloggers have written our personal and sometimes moving blog entries, where we confessed to not having been exemplary students when we were young. I do not remember if I’ve written mine, which is almost certainly part of my problem. I’ll just say here that I was not a successful student. I did not become a successful student until graduate school, where I knocked the roof off with my grades — and didn’t learn nearly as much as in undergraduate school, I might add.

I visited my parents last week to help them celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary, and my Mom told me about running into my third grade teacher, Mrs. Newton. When Mom told her about what I was doing with computers, she said that Mrs. Newton smiled and said something to the affect of,

Remember when David was in my room, and I told you not to worry about him, that he’s a bright kid, and one day he’s going to find something that’s going to capture his interest, and he’s going to take off?

Now I’m certain that my Mom would have remained concerned if she’d known it wouldn’t happen until I was 35.  But I have to wonder if any teachers today are saying, “Don’t worry your son.”  Dismissing the below grade level test scores, and saying, “He’s bright. He’s going to take off when he finds his passion.”


Of course it shouldn’t be a waiting game.  We shouldn’t be waiting for children to find “their passion.”  We should be helping them. If we could simply shallow the standards, and provide more time and resources to enabling and empowering students to find, or even invent their passions, we may see the development of deeper and more habitual academic skills — and earlier.

Empowering learning just seems to make a lot more sense to me than just defining and measuring it.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

21 thoughts on “Long-Term Yardsticks”

  1. I am a high school teacher and a believer in the August miracle. It happens when a student goes to college and suddenly realizes that it is for real now and starts to work. And, yes, I have said that students will be fine when the find their passion. And, yes, I have been reading about how school should help students find their passion. I have not read how this is done. There are a number of things school should do and few we have concrete methods of how to achieve.


    1. I do not believe, Leonard, that you can put so much importance on robust standards and inspire passion at the same time. Perhaps some teacher could. I know that this is somewhat simplistic, but the best teachers I had, the ones who inspired me the most, were the ones who, hmmm, “Didn’t get past the Civil War,” shall we say. It’s the ones who went into so much depth and showed us the richness of history (literature, science, mathematics, etc.) that we didn’t get to the end of the book. We left the classroom curious about the end of the book.

      Of course, back then, we only had the encyclopedia to go to, and library for some of us.

  2. David,

    I agree. I’ve written several times that our kids will be okay as long as the adults don’t screw them up. This looks like a case where the adults may have screwed them up though.

    I have to take exception with Ms. Cullinane’s thoughts (although I agree in principle). These are 11th graders, for crying out loud. They are at the end of their “long-term journey.” Under 25% can’t read proficiently!? Someone (perhaps themselves) have done these kids a disservice if these numbers are accurate. Granted, I’m sure the math is only based on 11th grade math that most people really will never use. But it was built upon from one year to the next, I assume.

    I don’t think computers will solve this problem, no matter how we seek to candy coat this one. It’s not the technology, or the lack of it, in this case. I’m not implying that it is the teachers either, but someone did not do their job for these kids.

    I’m equally sure that Microsoft won’t fix it either. Something bigger is at the heart of this issue.

    1. I see your point, Ric, and Gary Stager wrote me privately with a similar opinion. I confess that I do not know that much about School of the Future, and depending on the test, how it was administered, and probably a who slew of other conditions, this does not bode well for these 11th graders.

      But you say that “.. computers will solve this problem..” I agree to the extent that I don’t think that computers would solve the problem by helping us teach. But if we used computers to empower the learners, to give power to their learning, to help the students to realize their own value, the value of their ideas, and that reading, writing, grammar, etc. are tools we use to think and express, rather than just something that you do for class or for the teacher — or for the test, Then the students might invest more of their own effort in the learning. Maybe I’m naive…

  3. I was one of those students who did well in public school because I didn’t have to really work at it. Undergraduate degree was almost a dismal failure as I discovered all of the things a college students discovers,especially in the early 70’s. I made it through and have been a teacher for 34 years.

    I have told so many parents not to worry, unless there really was room to worry, that their child would find success and so many did. I still get letters from parents who tell me how my attitude when I taught their child in Kindergarten helped them to hold on during the really rough times and that it worked.

    Like you it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I came into my own after I found my passion at the first Shanghai 2.0 conference. Happy to say I have just graduated with a Masters degree in Integrated Technology with a 4.0 GPA. It took a while to find my passion because it had to be developed but at 59 years old I am in love…..for good….

    My passion now is to instill in my kids to be life long learners and to keep reading and investigating.

    Thanks for reminding me of where I have come from……

    1. Congratulations on the 4.0. That was my goal, but I didn’t quite make it. Hands-down, the most valuable courses I took in Grad school were the three statistics classes — and I could not gett the A in any of them. Part of it was that even though we had computers and statistical software, we did all the calculations by hand, so we never got so deeply into the application.

  4. I share a class with our Deputy Principal. As part of our planning we decided to introduce Google time, the 20% that Google allow their employees to pursue their own interests. Having settled on this we thought that 1 day a week student directed learning might be too much for our 8 and 9 year old students to manage effectively, so we cut it to 10% (half a day). I have never seen students so keen, so engaged in topics and interests that they’ve chosen themselves. What we, the teachers, have come to realise is that to really engage and motivate our students 10% time should slowly evolve into 90% time and that we need to take a step back from instruction and become, mentors, guides and facilitators.

    1. This is fantastic. I can understand your reluctance to give up so much time to the students, becasue our experience tells us that many students do not choose to learn. But perhaps their objection is not to learning, but to being taught.

      It’s one of the reasons why I’m pushing this idea, in my talks, of “teachers as master learner.”

  5. This exact question has been dogging me for the last few years.

    I’m an elementary teacher in a low economic status school and while I wish I could let my students go off on their own and explore, so many of them lack basic skills. Our curriculum coordinators are moving us more toward hands-on, group work learning activities, which are good thing, but even this fails to engage many students in learning, though they may have a lot of fun manipulating things.

    Every year I have dreams of crafting class activities/projects that will engage students in independent learning, but how?

    I think technology has a role that is still being discovered, and some of its impact has been negative. The point/click of mouse and videoconsole seem to have to have insinuated their way into the students’ facing problems. The “guess” without the “check” much less the consideration of the parts of the problem and ways to approach them.

  6. David,

    I agree that we’ve been waiting too long to for students to “figure it out”. Either they will or they won’t, sooner or later: the attitude I’ve seen from many of the educators I’ve encountered, from elementary school to pursuing my undergraduate degree.
    Empowering learning has always made more sense, but we seem to be stuck in this cycle of not being able to raise the bar or expand ideas because of so much red tape. The encumbrances then lead to battles like this one: where some argue that we should not concern ourselves with long term goals.
    To reiterate Mr Klein’s comment, How is this done? I’ve heard over and over again in my education classes what we NEED to be doing, and what NOT to do; however, without the passion of the educator (or in my case, student) to figure out how to do what needs to be done, we will continue to to ask ourselves why we’re waiting for public education to “work”.
    Mr. Murry said that “something bigger is at the heart of this issue.” I completely agree. We can only begin to help change it if we give students resources that instill in them the want to learn, read, investigate, and change. You mention this. My question is about specifics. Do you have any advice, resources, or ideas to inspire future educators to really enable and empower students in the midst of the budgetary and political quandary?

    Leah DiVincenzo
    To leave a comment on my blog, click here

  7. It continues to frustrate me that people look to technology to “change education.” I don’t care how long a yardstick you use, it’s not going to happen. It’s as if we took away hammers from carpenters and gave them laptops instead and then waited for home-building to change.

  8. I’m not sure these ideas are mutually exclusive. My elementary school teachers helped me discover my passion for poetry at a very young age. That passion did not keep me from also being a terrible student until college. And to this day I would probably still be a bad student, if I were forced to take a science class. We can work towards helping our students find their passions AND reassure parents (and sometimes students) that there is a great deal of hope for the “bad” student.

    1. Actually, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, if I might borrow from Sylvia’s metaphor. I should say, that regardless of not being a highly successful student, I enjoyed school. I enjoyed history, literature, science, and even math, when they were taught and told by teachers who cared. At points during my twelve years of school I wanted to be a scientist, author, explorer, engineer, and “rock star,” I had a passion for many things — that in spite of the shame of “not living up to my potential,” as they put it. Undergraduate school was even more inspiring to me, having moved me change majors at least a dozen times (no exaggeration).

      I hate to say this, but even though I know that my children had fantastically talented and passionate teachers, far more so than the ones I had in that very small town in western North Carolina, I do not believe that they were nearly as inspired. With the exception of music for my son and ROTC for my daughter, I believe that my children were trained — and it was not the fault of their teacher. It was the fault of the federal government.

      1. I was right there with you, both in your original thoughts and your reply to Jessie, until I read “fault” and “federal government” in conjunction with your children being “trained,” rather than taught. It took me a few minutes to figure out why that bothered me.

        Perhaps it’s these two things: (1) Nothing–and no one–prevents administrators from hiring enthusiastic teachers and giving them support to do their magic in the classroom. (2) I believe it’s my role as a parent (who also happens to be an educator) to seek out, identify, and nurture my child’s passion in life and refuse to allow any teacher to extinguish it.

        You’ve made me think and I suspect I’m not quite finished yet (with the thinking…I’ll stop with the writing).

  9. Spoken like a person who truly knows what they are talking about. If only we could get people like David Warlick to advise on, or even set policy, we would not be in the midst of a “failing education system.” Don’t the powers that be remember that they were educated in this same “failing system?” Why can’t we let kids be kids and feed their creativity, instead of testing it out of them?

  10. I recently was asked to reflect on students passion in a graduate course and it really made me think. Your blog post here has also made it clear that this is something that needs to be addressed in our schools. Many students feel out of place in high school because they do not find their niche. We wonder why students act out and get into trouble. We have to give our students an opportunity to find their passion sooner than later. I have many students that I know have potential and I hope one day they find their passion, but sadly some will not even later on in life. If these students found their passion early, we could change their lives. I know that this is easier said then done especially with school budget issues. I live in a rural area and all of the extra-curricular activities are the same. We are not offering our students outlets to what is out there. Everything that we offer is mainstream and not all of our students fit that mold.
    Adam Bulfer

  11. I feel I am similar to David, because it took me some time to excel academically too. Helping kids find their passion is a wonderful thing. I think it comes down to relevancy. Material, curriculum, activities, and assessments have to be relevant. Standardized tests are not relevant to students, and that could account for the lower scores. I remember taking the ACT test when I was a junior. My counselor told me to take it, and I had no idea why. I just took it, and went to college. Even though I knew I wanted to go to college, and needed to take the ACT, it did not register with me. Relevancy allows us to engage our students, and engagement brings learning. One way to engage students is through technology. All of the sudden, the student who never talks begins to write in blogs. Having students create their own websites may bring out enjoyment for many students. Technology will help student find their passion. So much information, and so many different ways to find a student’s passion, resides in cyberspace. I do not think it is enough to tell students, we need to show them. Laptops, net books, i pads, i phones, and many other internet ready devices allow us to show, as well as tell.

  12. I think technology makes curriculum relevant. As it stands now, most standardized tests are just not relevant to students. I remember taking the ACT test, during my junior year. My counselor told me to take ti if i planned to go to college. So, I took it. Nobody told me why to take it, i just took it. I absolutely hated every second of it. The test had no relevancy to me at all. I think it is absolutely ridiculous to get students test ready, when the tests are irrelevant. We can rely on technology to bring relevancy to our tests, and curriculum.

    I have personally taken several graduate level standardized tests, and many are now computer based. We need to teach kids, and I Meany every kid, to use technology. Almost every job requires some sort of technology. There are not many jobs that require filling in bubbles, and sitting quietly as other finish.

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