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Archive for the ‘assessment’ Category

how Jim Gee and I soothe our guilty consciences

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 8, 2010

In the video below of a presentation to the Education Writers Association 2010 Annual Conference, Jim Gee says this about how to introduce innovative ideas into education:

There’s a choice of strategies here…. One strategy is: Let’s take our innovations to the center of the school system and spread them as fast and quickly as we can. People believe that this current school system as it is will just co-opt those innovations and make them … just better ways to do the old thing. Another strategy is: Let’s make these innovative learning and assessment tools and put them at the margins, in places that will tolerate innovation, and then show it works. Now if you think about it, in technology outside of schools, going to the margins first and then to the center–that’s always been the way innovation happens. The only place we’ve ever tried to keep putting the new thing right in the center at once is in schooling, and it’s never worked. What i would love to see is that we hive of some of the (Race to the Top) money for a national center that would trial these new assessments, show they work in places that tolerate innovation, and then spread them there, just the way you would want if we have to keep coal and oil–let’s at least have something trying out new forms of energy, so that we’re ready for these markets but also we can prove they work. if we don’t do that, we’re just gonna get a better mousetrap.

I absolutely agree with the sentiments in the quote above, except for the BP oil spill. Let’s say there’s some innovative energy research going on in the margins, ready to prove it works and to take over where coal and oil left off. That’s fantastic, and it doesn’t do a single goddamned thing to help the birds, the fish, the sea mammals, the tourist industry, the ecosystem, the fisheries, and the human residents of the Gulf Coast. Those are simply casualties, not a single thing we can do to help them now no matter what awesome innovative fuel source we finally embrace, no matter how much more quickly we may embrace a cleaner fuel source as a result. Even if tomorrow’s birds are safe from Big Oil, today’s birds are drowning right in front of us.

Working at the margins of education is a fantastic way to innovate and offer useful evidence that innovations work. I fully support this approach–but not at the expense of the kids who exist at the center of our education system today. Yes, the school system can and does and maybe always will co-opt any innovation we try to introduce. But that doesn’t excuse us from trying anyway. That doesn’t give us license to give up on today’s children, even if it keeps tomorrow’s children safe.

And of course this isn’t what Jim Gee wants to do, anyway. But the Jim Gees of the world who urge us to work at the margin live in symbiosis with the Jenna McWilliamses of the world who believe we must also work from the center, where–ironically–the most marginalized kids in education commonly reside. I can’t innovate as much as I’d like from the center, maybe I can’t help tomorrow’s marginalized kids as much as I’d like either.  And Jim Gee can’t help today’s marginalized kids as much as he’d probably like from the edges. So we need each other, if for nothing else than to assuage our guilty consciences for being unable to do more of what we know must be done.

I should probably also note that Jim Gee is one of my absolute all-time heroes, so I hope he’s not mad at me for this post.

This video also stars Daniel Schwartz, who I believe is one of the smartest guys thinking about assessment and learning these days. I had the great luck to attend an assessment working group with him and a big crew of assessment-focused researchers, and I was amazed and blown away by just about everything he said.

In a recent publication, Choice-Based Assessments in a Digital Age (.pdf), Schwartz and his co-author Dylan Arena make this argument:

Educational assessment is a normative endeavor: The ideal assessment both reflects and reinforces educational goals that society deems valuable. A fundamental goal of education is to prepare students to act independently in the world—which is to say, to make good choices. It follows that an ideal assessment would measure how well we are preparing students to do so.

I can’t remember when I’ve agreed more emphatically with the introductory sentence of a scholarly article about education.

Here’s the video, which is well worth a watch.

Posted in academia, assessment, education, Jim Gee, journalism, learning sciences, public schools, schools, teaching, technologies, video games | Leave a Comment »

blogging as a pedagogical tool: some initial ideas and a request

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 30, 2009

I’m hoping to crowdsource some brainstorming about the pedagogical potential of blogging on learning. Lately, in my work with Dan Hickey’s 21st Century Assessment Project, I’ve been thinking tons about how integrating blogging in the formal English / Language Arts classroom might build a rich new media environment for ELA students. I’ve started a provisional list below but am hoping that others (most importantly for me, people who have worked with blogs in their classrooms) can offer ideas for additions to this list.

First of all, it’s worth noting that my approach to the value of blogging for teaching and learning in Language Arts is deeply informed by the work of a number of teacher-researchers from several fields. Most notable among these are Paul Allison, whose chapter “Be a Blogger: Social Networking in the Classroom” (in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom, by Anne Herrington, Kevin Hodgson, and Charles Moran) offers a glimpse into the day-to-day workings of a blogging-focused ELA curriculum; and Sam Rose and Howard Rheingold, who have devised (and made publicly available) an enormous set of resources for teaching in and through new media platforms.

My approach is also informed by my personal experience as a blogger–really, to be fair, as someone who is willing to squeeze out nearly anything in order to make time for posting. By even my most generous estimate, I spend far too much of my time blogging–unless you account for the formative value of blogging for someone like me. I am convinced that the intellectual and identity work required for me to maintain this space has led directly to my growing prowess as a researcher, reader, and writer. You cannot convince me otherwise; so do not even bother trying.

My experiences and the reading I’ve done about the value of blogging for learning informs everything that comes next.

Characteristics of blogging that support new media literacy

Reaching a wide(r) reader base
It’s important to note that blogs differ in purpose from many seemingly similar writing platforms. It’s obvious to most that a blog is different from a personal journal, in that while many of us may hope to have our journals read by a larger public some day, blogs are actually intended to support wider readership. The majority of blogs are public (meaning anybody can view them) and taggable, and they come up as legitimate sites in web searches.

Blogs also differ from forums, chat rooms, instant message programs, and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Of all of these spaces, blogs are generally the most polished, the most text-based, and the most supportive of extended engagement with a single idea.

Shifting from intended audience to intended public

This idea is ripped from Howard Rheingold, who (tapping into some Habermas) writes that

[m]oving from a private to a public voice can help students turn their self-expression into a form of public participation. Public voice is learnable, a matter of consciously engaging with an active public rather than broadcasting to a passive audience.

The move here is away from the “please read what I wrote” approach to “please act on the ideas I’ve written down here.” The regular practice required for building and maintaining a blog’s readership helps to crystallize this shift and helps writers to see there is a broad, if constantly shifting, group of people whose interests align with the broad, if constantly shifting, ideas of a blog. Though the intended public is largely invisible (we have generally only met a fraction of our blog’s readers), consistent practice in finding, drawing in, and engaging this target public makes them less transparent.

Blogs as (genuine) conversations
When I taught college composition lo these many years ago, I always tried to argue to my students that all writing is a conversation–that when we write, we take up ideas that were presented by other writers before us and try to present something new that might be of interest to people who care about the kinds of things we write about.

The argument always felt hollow to me. After all, college students are typically only eavesdroppers. Only a handful of people will ever read what they’ve written, and often the students don’t really care all that much about the assigned writing topics anyway. Add to that the artificial motivator of the ever-elusive ‘A’ and you have a recipe for calamity.

But blogs–now blogs are authentic communication spaces. They really are. Anybody can get almost anybody to read a blogpost and, if the post is engaging enough, to comment on the post for all eternity to see. This very fact ups the ante some: Getting the spelling of someone’s name suddenly matters an awful lot. Making a concise, well supported argument has real, potential consequences: A strong enough argument gets people to sit up and notice. A strong enough argument gets people to act.

A move toward increasingly public spheres of participation

An increasingly participatory culture calls for participation that’s ethical, reasoned, and publicly accessible. After all, the widespread takeup of the spirit of participatory culture requires that we all act in ways that keep the barriers to participation low, the potential for contribution high, and the mentorship possibilities readily available to most or all participants. This can only happen to the extent that all or most of us are willing to operate, to express and circulate our ideas and creative works, in public online and offline spaces. Since so much discourse will increasingly happen in public spaces, it only makes sense that we use the ELA domain to prepare students for engagement in those public spaces.

Blogs as spaces for fostering both traditional and new media literacies

For language arts teachers, blogging presents a fairly obvious avenue for preparing learners for engagement in public spheres of communication, since blogs align nicely with the traditional purposes of the ELA classroom. As a group of readers engage in deep analysis of their own and others’ blogs, they have to think about issues like tone, style, genre, punctuation, word choice, and organization.

The extra toy prize is that students also get to learn about the characteristics of online writing, including what danah boyd identifies as the four properties of online communication (persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability) and three dynamics (invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and the blurring of public and private). As my colleague Michelle Honeyford put it, “they hit all the standards and get to learn about online participation for free.”

Confronting the ethics challenge
Nobody’s arguing that we should sign every sixth grader up with a Blogger account. That would just be silly. Media scholar Henry Jenkins is fond of saying that the role of educators and parents is not to look over kids’ shoulders but to watch their backs, and scaffolding learners toward participation in increasingly public spheres allows us to do just that. Lots of teachers (including the famously brilliant Becky Rupert at Bloomington’s Aurora Alternative High School) start their students out by having them post to a private space (she uses Ning) but having them analyze writing from more public spaces. This way, they have a kind of new media sandbox to try out and engage with the norms of online communication before actually being held to the higher ethical standard, with deeper potential repercussions (both positive and negative).

That’s all I have for now, though I would love to hear from you on the list above. What have I missed? What am I ignoring? What struggles are linked to bringing blogs into the classroom, and what challenges have you encountered if you’ve tried to do so?

I hope for this to be a multipart post that will include thoughts on the following categories:

  • Affordances of blogging as a new media writing technology
  • Challenges to integrating blogs into the ELA classroom
  • Resources (including lesson plans, other writing on this topic, etc.)
  • Assessment guidelines for working with blogs

If you have thoughts on any of the above, I’d love to hear from you. If you have any trouble posting comments (I don’t know why, but some of you have) please email me at jennamcjenna(at)gmail(dot)com.

Posted in assessment, blogging, creativity, Dan Hickey, education, Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, literacy, new media, participatory culture, schools, social media, writing | 10 Comments »

how to think like a good {fill in the blank}

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 21, 2009

“The message of Wikipedia,” writes Michael Wesch, “is not ‘trust authority’ but ‘explore authority.’ Authorized information is not beyond discussion on Wikipedia, information is authorized through discussion, and this discussion is available for the world to see and even participate in.”

This comes from Wesch’s January 2009 Academic Commons article, “From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able: Learning in New Media Environments.” The piece is part of an issue dedicated to exactly this problem: How do we teach and learn in a cultural moment where even the very definition of “knowledge,” “teaching,” and “learning,” and even of “information” is being called into question?

Wesch focuses in on the brick-and-mortar university, arguing that despite growing recognition among higher-ed faculty and administration that university teaching and learning desperately needs to shift away from its authoritarian roots, a series of physical, social, and cognitive structures stymie this effort at nearly every turn. The physical deterrents are, Wesch argues, the easiest to recognize, and they

are on prominent display in any large “state of the art” classroom. Rows of fixed chairs often face a stage or podium housing a computer from which the professor controls at least 786,432 points of light on a massive screen. Stadium seating, sound-absorbing panels and other acoustic technologies are designed to draw maximum attention to the professor at the front of the room. The “message” of this environment is that to learn is to acquire information, that information is scarce and hard to find (that’s why you have to come to this room to get it), that you should trust authority for good information, and that good information is beyond discussion (that’s why the chairs don’t move or turn toward one another). In short, it tells students to trust authority and follow along.

This is a message that very few faculty could agree with, and in fact some may use the room to launch spirited attacks against it. But the content of such talks are overshadowed by the ongoing hour-to-hour and day-to-day practice of sitting and listening to authority for information and then regurgitating that information on exams.

These are a key feature of the social structures that work against change in higher education: The ongoing pressure to standardize curriculum and use (easily quantified) standardized assessments for accountability purposes. Wesch writes:

When I speak frankly with professors all over the world, I find that, like me, they often find themselves jury-rigging old assessment tools to serve the new needs brought into focus by a world of infinite information. Content is no longer king, but many of our tools have been habitually used to measure content recall. For example, I have often found myself writing content-based multiple-choice questions in a way that I hope will indicate that the student has mastered a new subjectivity or perspective. Of course, the results are not satisfactory. More importantly, these questions ask students to waste great amounts of mental energy memorizing content instead of exercising a new perspective in the pursuit of real and relevant questions.

This is, perhaps, one of the most significant dangers inherent in re-mediating assessment: The risk of re-mediating the wrong aspects of current assessment strategies. Rewriting a multiple-choice test is surely not the answer, but it’s often, and understandably, what innovative and new media-friendly educators do. The results of this effort may not be satisfactory, after all, but they’re better than nothing. And short of overhauling an entire course, it’s often a useful stopgap measure.

And what of overhauling an entire course? Wesch, recognizing that “our courses have to be about something,” argues for a shift away from “subjects” (English, History, Science) and toward “subjectivities”–ways of approaching and thinking about content. One simple way of thinking about this shift is by thinking about the difference between learning the steps of the scientific method and developing the mindsets embraced by a profession that embraces the scientific method as a useful approach to experimentation.

The “subjectivities” approach is, in fact, the favored approach of many graduate programs. My sister, who is beginning law school this fall, is immersed in a cognitive apprenticeship designed to make her think, act, and speak like a lawyer. As a new doctoral student in Indiana University’s Learning Sciences program, I’m undertaking the same apprenticeship. A series of courses, including IU’s Professional Seminar in the Learning Sciences and Theory and Method in the Learning Sciences, are intended to equip new grad students with the Learning Sciences mindset.

This approaches, however, gives rise to a key question: If the “subjectivities” approach is intended to is intended to help learners think, act, and speak like a {fill in the blank}, then who decides how a {fill in the blank} is supposed to think, act, and speak?

Jim Gee offers a fascinating critique of “learning to think like a lawyer” in his book Social Linguistics and Literacies. He argues that success in law school is slanted toward people who think, act, and speak like white, middle-class men, explaining that:

[t]o write a competent brief the student has to be able to read the text being briefed in much the same way as the professor does…. Students are not taught these reading skills—the ones necessary to be able to write briefs—directly. Briefs are not, for instance, turned in to the professor; they are written for the students’ own use in class…. One of the basic assumptions of law school is that if students are not told overtly what to do and how to proceed, this will spur them on essentially to teach themselves. Minnis argues that this assumption does not, however, work equally well for everyone. Many students from minority or otherwise non-mainstream backgrounds fail in law school.

(A female friend who recently completed law school agrees with this argument, and struggled mightily with the inequities inherent in her program and inside the field of law in general. I’ve written about her experience here.)

This issue is certainly not limited to law school; it’s a thorny problem in every program designed to help students think like a {fill in the blank.} I understand that this is an issue that IU’s Learning Sciences program has grappled with recently, and I imagine this is the reason that the Professional Seminar in the Learning Sciences, previously a required course, has now been made optional.

What do I know, right? I haven’t even started my first semester in the program yet. But it seems to me that if this issue is worth grappling with (and I believe it is), it’s worth grappling with alongside of the program’s apprentices. I’m for making the course mandatory and then using it to expose, discuss, and clarify the very issues that led to the faculty’s decision.

Here we can take a page out of the Wikipedia lesson book. There’s no point in simply trusting authority when the social revolution supports not just questioning, not just opposing, but actually exploring authority. After all, thinking like a good {Learning Scientist} is about much more than embracing a set of approaches to teaching, learning, and knowledge; it’s also about questioning, contesting and exploring the very foundation of the field itself.

Posted in academia, assessment, conspiracy theories, graduate school, Jim Gee, pedagogy, Ph.D., social revolution | 1 Comment »

applying the abundance model to the classroom

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 24, 2009

In a recent Wired article called “Tech is Too Cheap to Meter: It’s Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity,” Chris Anderson considers the difference between a scarcity management model and an abundance model. His point is linked to management of technology resources; he writes that

[i]f you’re controlling a scarce resource, like the prime-time broadcast schedule, you have to be discriminating. There are real costs associated with those half-hour chunks of network time, and the penalty for failing to reach tens of millions of viewers with them is calculated in red ink and lost careers. No wonder TV executives fall back on sitcom formulas and celebrities—they’re safe bets in an expensive game.

But if you’re tapping into an abundant resource, you can afford to take chances, since the cost of failure is so low. Nobody gets fired when your YouTube video is viewed only by your mom.

Anderson’s point is that when resources–in this case, willing content producers with cheap production tools–are abundant, we need to rethink how we structure, market, and make money off of content.

The point, though linked to media marketing models, might easily be applied to the domain of education. The following graphic accompanies Anderson’s piece:

Clearly, the abundance model as presented here aligns with the spirit of participatory culture, at its heart an egalitarian, anti-hierarchical movement wherein cultural decisions become crowdsourced. Here’s where many school policies confuse scarcity and abundance: They block participatory media (including YouTube, many social networking sites, and sometimes Google and Wikipedia) and evaluate students based on their ability to repeat back to the teacher (or testmaker) the big ideas of the class. Knowledge, in this case, is treated as a scarce resource, when in a participatory culture knowledge is almost the most abundant thing we have.

What would it look like to apply an abundance model to the classroom? What new roles can and should teachers and students play in an egalitarian classrom in which “everything is permitted unless it is forbidden”? What’s the difference, practically speaking, between a “command and control” classroom and a class without that type of control?

Important questions to chew on. More soon.

Posted in assessment, education, open education, participatory culture, schools | Leave a Comment »

the sleeping alone review of books: Teaching the New Writing

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 16, 2009

Summary: Awesomeness reigns at the house of NWP

I’m only giving you the first three paragraphs, and then you have to read the rest at the real live journal that published it online. brb turning into pile of graduate student joy confetti

ok back

the link is here. The journal is THEN (the name stands for [t]echnology, [h]umanities, [e]ducation and [n]arrative). The review begins below.

The National Writing Project is perhaps the most enduring teacher development network in the country. Started in 1974 as the Bay Area Writing Project, based at the University of California, Berkeley, the project quickly grew, both in funding and popularity, and today the NWP has nearly 200 sites nationwide.

Many have argued that a significant reason for the ongoing success of this program is its decision to host NWP sites at local universities. According to NWP supporters, this pairing allows for stability, ongoing professional development opportunities, and a higher degree of buy-in from faculty at local schools and at the university. One wonders if this model limits access to NWP involvement to the teachers who work in and around colleges; these are the teachers who already have the most access to research and university resources, and traditionally underserved rural or geographically isolated teachers and their students are, prevented access to this resource.

Still, it’s hard to argue with success, and the NWP is nothing if not successful. The pairing of K-12 teachers with higher ed faculty makes for an interesting and fruitful partnership, as evidenced by the NWP’s new book, Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom.

The editors of the book represent … [to read the rest of this review, go to]

Posted in assessment, book review, education, new media, public schools, schools, social revolution, teaching | 1 Comment »

the harrison bergeron approach to education: how university rankings stunt the social revolution

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 14, 2009

I’ve been thinking some lately about the odd and confusing practice of comparing undergraduate and graduate programs at American colleges and universities and producing a set of rankings that show how the programs stack up against each other.

One of the most widely cited set of rankings comes from U.S. News and World Report, which offers rankings in dozens of categories, for both undergraduate and graduate-level programs. Here, the magazine offers its altruistic rationale behind producing these rankings:

A college education is one of the most important—and one of the most costly—investments that prospective students will ever make. For this reason, the editors of U.S. News believe that students and their families should have as much information as possible about the comparative merits of the educational programs at America’s colleges and universities. The data we gather on America’s colleges—and the rankings of the schools that arise from these data—serve as an objective guide by which students and their parents can compare the academic quality of schools. When consumers purchase a car or a computer, this sort of information is readily available. We think it’s even more important that comparative data help people make informed decisions about an education that at some private universities is now approaching a total cost of more than $200,000 including tuition, room, board, required fees, books, transportation, and other personal expenses.

(To access the entire rankings, developed and produced selflessly by U.S. News and World Report, you need to pay. Click here to purchase the Premium Online Edition, which is the only way to get complete rankings, for $14.95.)

The 2009 rankings, released in April, are in the news lately because of questions related to how the magazine gathers data from colleges. As Carl Bialik points out in a recent post at the Wall Street Journal, concerns over how Clemson University set about increasing its rank point to deeper questions about the influence of rankings numbers on university operations. Clemson President James F. Barker reportedly shot for cracking the top 20 (it was ranked 38th nationally in 2001) by targeting all of the ranking indicators used by U.S. News. Bialik writes:

While the truth about Clemson’s approach to the rankings remains elusive, the episode does call into question the utility of a ranking that schools can seek to manipulate. “Colleges have been ‘rank-steering,’ — driving under the influence of the rankings,” Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy and a critic of rankings, told the Associated Press. “We’ve seen over the years a shifting of resources to influence ranks.”

Setting aside questions of the rankings’ influence on university operations and on recruiting (both for prospective students and prospective faculty), and setting aside too the question of how accurate any numbers collected from university officials themselves could possibly be when the stakes are so high, one wonders how these rankings limit schools’ ability to embrace what appear to be key tenets emerging out of the social revolution. A key feature of some of the most vibrant, energetic, and active online communities is what Clay Shirky labels the “failure for free” model. As I explained in a previous post on the open source movement, the open source software (OSS) movement embraces this tenet:

It’s not, after all, that most open source projects present a legitimate threat to the corporate status quo; that’s not what scares companies like Microsoft. What scares Microsoft is the fact that OSS can afford a thousand GNOME Bulgarias on the way to its Linux. Microsoft certainly can’t afford that rate of failure, but the OSS movement can, because, as Shirky explains,

open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favor of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea.

Anyone who’s worked for a company of reasonable size understands the push to keep the risk of failure low. “More people,” Shirky writes, “will remember you saying yes to a failure than saying no to a radical but promising idea.” The higher up the organizational chart you go, the harder the push will be for safe choices. Innovation, it seems, is both a product of and oppositional to the social contract.

The U.S. News rankings, and the methodology behind them, runs completely anathema to the notion of innovation. Indeed, a full 25 percent of the ranking system is based on what U.S. News calls “peer assessment,” which comes from “the top academics we consult–presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions” and, ostensibly, at least, allows these consultants

to account for intangibles such as faculty dedication to teaching. Each individual is asked to rate peer schools’ academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). Those who don’t know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly are asked to mark “don’t know.” Synovate, an opinion-research firm based near Chicago, in spring 2008 collected the data; of the 4,272 people who were sent questionnaires, 46 percent responded.

Who becomes “distinguished” in the ivory-tower world of academia? Those who play by the long-established rules of tradition, polity, and networking, of course. The people who most want to effect change at the institutional level are often the most outraged, the most unwilling to play by the rules established by administrators and rankings systems, and therefore the least likely to make it into the top echelons of academia. Indeed, failure is rarely free in the high-stakes world of academics; it’s safer to say no to “a radical but promising idea” than to say yes to any number of boring but safe ideas.

So what do you do if you are, say, a prospective doctoral student who wants to tear wide the gates of academic institutions? What do you do if you want to go as far in your chosen field as your little legs will carry you, leaving a swath of destruction in your wake? What do you do if you want to bring the social revolution to the ivory tower, instead of waiting for the ivory tower to come to the social revolution?

You rely on the U.S. News rankings, of course. It’s what I did when I made decisions about which schools to apply to (the University of Wisconsin-Madison [ranked 7th overall in graduate education programs, first in Curriculum & Instruction, first in Educational Psychology] the University of Texas-Austin [tied at 7th overall, 10th in Curriculum & Instruction], the University of Washington [12th overall, 9th in Curriculum & Instruction], the University of Michigan [14th overall, 7th in Curriculum & Instruction, and 3rd in Educational Psychology] the University of Indiana [19th overall, out of the top 10 in individual categories], and Arizona State University [24th overall, out of the top 10 in individual categories]). Interestingly, though, the decision to turn down offers from schools ranked higher than Indiana (go hoosiers) wasn’t all that difficult. I knew that I belonged at IU (go hoosiers) almost before I visited, and a recruitment weekend sealed the deal.

But I had an inside track to information about IU (go hoosiers) via my work with Dan Hickey and Michelle Honeyford. I also happen to be a highly resourceful learner with a relatively clear sense of what I want to study, and with whom, and why. Other learners–especially undergraduates–aren’t necessarily in such a cushy position. They are likely to rely heavily on rankings in making decisions about where to apply and which offer to accept. This not only serves to reify the arbitrary and esoteric rankings system (highest ranked schools get highest ranked students), but also serves to stunt the social revolution in an institution that needs revolution, and desperately.

In this matter, it’s turtles all the way down. High-stakes standardized testing practices and teacher evaluations based on achievement on these tests limits innovation–from teachers as well as from students–at the secondary and, increasingly, the elementary level. But the world that surrounds schools is increasingly ruled by those who know how to innovate, how to say yes to a radical but promising idea, how to work within a “failure for free” model. If schools can’t learn how to embrace the increasingly valued and valuable mindsets afforded by participatory practices, it’s failing to prepare its student body for the world at large. The rankings system is just another set of hobbles added on to a system of clamps, tethers, and chains already set up to fail the very people it purports to serve.

Posted in assessment, Clay Shirky, conspiracy theories, Dan Hickey, education, graduate school, open source, participatory culture, Ph.D., public schools, social revolution | 1 Comment »

sadhappy, anxiouscalm: on career transitions

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 1, 2009

Today is the first day of my last month at my day job. For almost two years, I’ve been a team member of Project New Media Literacies, an educational research project based at MIT. It would be a lie for me to say that every minute was exciting, fun, and exhilarating; anyone who’s done this kind of work knows that it’s often exhausting, frustrating, and stressful.

That’s because to do educational research well, you have to care, and you have to care deeply. And this means facing some difficult realities: That the institution of education is deeply flawed in some important and fundamental ways; that educational innovations are often stymied by policy issues and bureaucratic red tape; that most of the time, educational research–even at its most valuable–has a minimal impact on education as a whole.

My work at NML has focused largely on the formal classroom setting, the educational environment that–because of its compulsory nature–offers the greatest opportunity for closing the participation gap that limit some learners’ ability to engage with participatory culture in a meaningful way. I’ve had the chance to talk with some of the most amazing, dedicated teachers I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet, and I’ve gotten to sit in on some of their classes. I’ve seen the everyday miracles they pull off, often thanklessly, without acknowledgement from students, parents, or administrators. Some of these teachers have explained to me what they’d like to do, if they didn’t have to deal with state-mandated standardized tests and the policies and curricula intended to boost student scores on these tests. I’ve heard teachers explain which ideals they’ve had to give up on, how they’ve become more cynical or realistic about the impact they can have.

So we’re back to burnout, exhaustion, and stress: This is the story of the educator who cares.

I leave NML equipped with a more complete understanding of the complexities and challenges of working in education. I leave knowing I did my best work but wishing I could have done more. I leave more confident in my own abilities but less confident in the possibility for real, lasting transformation of formal learning environments.

And yet I leave NML to begin doctoral study in education.

Despite, or maybe because of, my frustration, I have come to believe that schools are the most important institution America has for working toward social justice. This is where the participation gap is most obvious; this is where class biases–and the racism, sexism, and accompanying approaches to teaching and learning–are simultaneously most apparent and most insidious, and therefore most essential to confront.

I’ve been writing obsessively here at sleeping alone and starting out early about what I’ve started calling the social revolution. By this term I mean to suggest that we are immersed in fundamental changes to our society that are so rapid, so deep, and so transformative that we can’t yet even say exactly what this revolution will yield; but we know that a new social order is emerging out of the emergent tools, technologies, and practices of a participatory culture.

In fact, as one of my colleagues pointed out, even NML has trouble defining “participatory culture.” He argues that while we have little trouble explaining what participatory culture allows for, we struggle to explain what it actually is.

He may be right on this, and he may be wrong. It is true, however, that we don’t yet know what valued social structures, practices, and dispositions will emerge out of the participatory practices enabled by new media. In fact, it may be that one of the features of a truly participatory culture is a constant destabilization–perpetual overthrow–of dominant values, mindsets, and skillsets. Christopher Kelty calls this a “constantly ‘self-leveling’ level playing field.” Wouldn’t that be scary and at the same time so very neat?

This is the struggle of our society, and one that John Dewey pointed to back at the end of the 19th century, when he proposed development of a laboratory school where educators could try out new approaches to teaching and learning. In setting forth a series of arguments about new ways to think about knowing and cognition, he conceded that

[i]t is… comparatively easy to lay down general propositions like the foregoing; easy to use them to criticize existing school conditions; easy by means of them to urge the necessity of something different. But art is long. The difficulty is in carrying such conceptions into effect—in seeing just what materials and methods, in what proportion and arrangement, are available and helpful at a given time…. There is no answer in advance to such questions as these. Tradition does not give it because tradition is founded upon a radically different psychology. Mere reasoning cannot give it because it is a question of fact. It is only by trying that such things can be found out. To refuse to try, to stick blindly to tradition, because the search for the truth involves experimentation in the region of the unknown, is to refuse the only step which can introduce rational conviction into education.

Beginning this fall, I’ll be a graduate student in the Learning Sciences program at Indiana University. The transition makes me simultaneously sad and happy, anxious and calm. Bring it on, says hegemony. I can take you.

It’s already been broughten, says revolutionist cat, playing hegemony off.

Posted in academia, assessment, education, graduate school, Henry Jenkins, Ph.D., Project New Media Literacies, public schools, schools, social justice, social revolution, teaching | 3 Comments »

thank goodness the Boston Globe is shutting down

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 5, 2009

or I’d have to smack it down big-time for this editorial arguing that we shouldn’t standardize and measure achievement on so-called 21st-century skills. The op-ed offers further proof–as if we needed it–that the Globe’s editorial board has no idea how the playing field has been utterly transformed by participatory culture.

The impetus behind the op-ed is a move by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to put its money where its mouth is. The department recently awarded a $146 million contract to the designer of the MCAS, the standardized test mandated in the commonwealth of Massachusetts by No Child Left Behind, and part of that money is earmarked for integration of 21st-century skills assessment. This is a problem, as the Globe’s editorial board will point out momentarily.

But first, it uses state MCAS scores as proof of public school rigor. As it explains,

Massachusetts stands apart in public education precisely because it created high academic standards, developed an objective measure of student performance and progress through the MCAS test, and required a passing grade in order to graduate. Students, as a result, rank at or near the top of standardized testing not just nationally but on tough international achievement tests in math and science. Any retreat from this strategy would be a profound mistake.

So to summarize: Massachusetts students are among the top in the nation because their achievement on standardized tests prepares them to…score well on standardized tests. It’s like the iconic example of circular reasoning: The MCAS is useful because it prepares them for future learning. How do you know? Because Massachusetts students do well on other standardized tests. What prepares them to do well on those tests? Doing well on standardized tests, of course.

Given the Globe’s wholehearted genuflection at the altar of bubble tests, one wonders why this editorial might oppose integrating assessment of 21st-century skills in addition to traditional subjects. It turns out their concern is less about whether we should measure 21st century skills than it is about how doing so on the MCAS will affect test scores in general. As the editorial points out,

[s]tate education officials have done a generally poor job of defining 21st-century skills – which can include interdisciplinary thinking and media literacy – or explaining how to test them statewide.

The problem for the Globe, it turns out, is that if we develop mediocre assessment strategies it’ll ruin the MCAS for all of us. Because 21st-century skills can only be measured subjectively, the Globe argues, an “objective” test like the MCAS is an inappropriate place to assess achievement. Instead,

MCAS testers should concentrate on accurately measuring math ability and reading comprehension, which surely correlate with a student’s success in the workplace.

Let’s leave, just for now, the outrageous assumption that a standardized test could conceivably be considered “objective.” Let’s leave the assumption that a standardized test could “accurately” measure student ability in anything other than the ability to engage in the weird and peculiar game of test-taking. Which leaves just one last question:

In what world can anybody make the argument that achievement in math and reading without the accompanying facility with 21st-century proficiencies prepares any learning for any workplace worth the energy of applying for employment in the first place?

It’s such a weird argument to make, that literacy practices like reading, writing, and doing math can be somehow isolated from the 21st-century contexts that make them meaningful. It’s like asking someone if she knows how to tie her shoe, then making her
prove it by writing a detailed step-by-step description of how to do it. It’s like asking someone to prove he can build a fire: But is the fire for warmth, for signaling for help, or for burning the whole house down?

Same with math: Knowing how to “do” fractions doesn’t mean a learner is equipped to, say, resize a .jpg for a blogpost.

Arguing that we should keep 21st-century skills out of standardized tests in order to keep the tests objective is as lame as the argument that standardized tests are objective in the first place. Neither one makes any logical sense. Neither one gets you anywhere.

Posted in assessment, education, participatory culture, public schools, schools, social justice, social revolution, teaching | 4 Comments »

Awesomeness: Project New Media Literacies’ spring conference: Learning in a Participatory Culture

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 5, 2009

There was awesomeness going on at MIT this weekend, as my colleagues and I at Project New Media Literacies put on a conference called Learning in a Participatory Culture.

If you’ve never planned a conference before, I can’t say I recommend the experience–though when one goes well, as this conference did, the stress and exhaustion that pile on top of you in the lead-up suddenly turn into a fair trade-off. All day, my coworkers and I got to be surrounded by the smartest educators and educational researchers ever, and we got to hear them say all kinds of insanely awesome things.

As part and parcel of the pure awesomeness of the day, I scored two key personal / professional victories: First, I slam-dunked an opening presentation on design and development of Project NML’s Teachers’ Strategy Guide, garnering not one, not two, but three separate thumbs-ups from the people I most hoped to impress: My sensei Dan Hickey, my boss Henry Jenkins, and my close, close friend, colleague, and fellow Fireside Moonbat Katie Clinton. I only wish Katie had received more recognition for her contribution to the project–somehow, I’ve been given her share of the credit and I want to find a way to put it back where it belongs.

I’ve included a QuickTime version of my presentation below, though it admittedly loses something without the audio. I’ll see what I can do about adding the audio in once we have it processed from the day.

A second key victory was in getting a back channel going, via a #NML09 hashtag on Twitter, for the day. We had set up a TweetGrid and the hashtag going into the conference but had no specific plans for supporting and integrating the technology, but before I gave my opening presentation I offered up a quick tutorial on how to Tweet using hashtags and my colleagues and I spent the day monitoring and engaging in a rapidfire Twitter conversation that extended participation in really nice ways. As the man Henry Jenkins himself said to me midway through the day, the fact that we didn’t need to plan for or organize participation in social media but that it worked anyway when the tools and the energies were in place proves something important about the nature of participatory culture.

This is the artifact of my tutorial:

Finally, I want to shout out to all the participants who made the conference such a roaring success. Energy, enthusiasm, and engagement were high from beginning to end. I don’t have the words to articulate what an amazing experience it was.

Posted in assessment, awesome, Dan Hickey, Henry Jenkins, MIT, Moby-Dick, participatory culture, Project New Media Literacies, public schools, schools, social media, social revolution, teaching, Twitter | Leave a Comment »