This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/
and the end of this newsletter.
Assessing Our Schooling System
"Not everything that
can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
(Albert Einstein; German-born theoretical physicist and 1921 Nobel
Prize winner; 1879–1955.)
Are Our Schools Getting Worse or Better?
When Bob Sylwester began his teaching career in 1949, folks told
him that the schools are really terrible, but that they had been
excellent ten years ago. And then during the next ten years, people
continued to say the same thing. Actually, they’ve been making the same
pessimistic statement during his entire career. Such pessimism suggests
that the optimal time to attend school was ten or more years ago.
Certainly not now!
Dave Moursund sometimes falls into the “woe is us” pessimistic trap. To
bolster his spirits, he periodically asks Bob if schools are getting
better, and always gets a positive and uplifting response.
Cultures and communities changed very slowly in the tens of thousands
of years before the development of agriculture somewhat over 10,000
years ago. Agriculture facilitated increased population densities and
more specialization in labor, and these speeded up the pace of change.
Still, the pace of change was still quite slow until reading and
writing were invented a little over 5,000 years ago. The pace of change
slowly increased, but was still relatively slow until the Industrial
Revolution began somewhat over 200 years ago. The Industrial Revolution
brought a large worldwide increase in population, average standard of
living, and in formal schooling.
The Information Age, which emerged during the past half-century, has
steadily increased the pace of cultural and technological changes.
Consider Bob’s observation that many people nostalgically look back at
how much better they believe schools were in earlier days. Such
retrospective analysis doesn’t consider the many cultural, scientific,
and technological changes that schools have been assimilating and/or
It’s not easy to measure many of these changes. For example, we may see
regression or minimal student improvement if we compare decades of
scores on paper/pencil math tests. As we lament such data, we seem to
forget that technological progress has brought us calculators and
computers that can quickly solve a wide range of math problems. When
was the last time you used paper/pencil to solve a two-digit divisor
division problem? We now have a wide range of tools with some built-in
(machine) intelligence that obviates some of the historically important
math education topics.
National and international comparisons of student achievement in
paper/pencil math tests may thus be increasingly irrelevant to the
needs of soon-to-be adults. If so, major curricular changes are needed.
Learn about a recent short, excellent math education talk by Conrad
accessible at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/teaching-kids-real-math-with-computers-17-minute-ted-video.html
The December 2010 Atlantic Monthly
includes yet another article that compares US student achievement with
other countries (Ripley 2010). The article focuses on the percentage of
students in the United States and in other select countries who perform
at the advanced math proficiency level.
What’s intriguing about this study is that the 58 worldwide countries
assessed were compared with the 50 individual USA states rather than
with the USA mean score. Taiwan scored #1 in the 58 + 50 = 108
country/state comparison. Massachusetts scored #17, the highest of the
states (right behind Austria). Minnesota, the next highest state,
scored 20th (right behind Denmark). Mississippi at #92 scored lowest
among the states, right above Chile.
The state/country range: 11.4% of the Massachusetts students and 1.3%
of the Mississippi students scored at the advanced math proficiency
level, compared with 28% for Taiwan and 0% for Kyrgyzstan. Nebraska (at
6.0%) has the mean USA score, and Ireland (at 7.9%) is the mid-country
of students who scored at the advanced math proficiency level. But what
do these scores mean?
If we modify our math education curriculum so that it more closely
teaches to the national and international tests, our test scores will
probably go up. Of course, other countries are also doing that, so that
teaching to such tests will not necessarily raise our ranking. This
brings us to a very challenging question: do the tests measure what is
currently important for soon-to-be Information Age adults? (Moursund
and Sylwester, 2010).
Measuring Things that are Easy to Measure
As indicated above, national and international tests focus on
the curricular areas that are the easiest to score precisely. Skills
and factual information are relatively easy to teach and measure. For
example, students can memorize that 6 x 5 = 30 and not 29 or 31, and
learn how to solve quadratic equations in math by the using such
techniques as factoring or the quadratic formula.
Skills and factual information can similarly be measured in other
disciplines. Dog is spelled d-o-g in English, and has precise spelling
in other languages. Students can or can’t read the words on a specified
page, and know or don’t know the name of their state and national
capitol. Students can or can’t identify the composer and/or performer
for a particular piece of music….
How important are these kinds of facts and skills for humans to master?
Is our world changing in a manner that makes such factual information
and procedural skills less important than in the past?
Some Things that are Less Easy to Measure
What Bob has learned in almost 84 years and Dave is gradually
acknowledging after a mere 74 years, is that life isn't just about
knowing factual information and procedures for dealing with specified
kinds of test problems. Life is also about discovering how to get along
with other people, to make appropriate well-reasoned decisions, and to
appreciate the aesthetics that add style and grace to almost everything.
We’ve both had long and successful professional careers involving
continual learning, working with students, and communicating with a
broad range of audiences. Teaching, learning, and communication are not
areas in which precise measurement is possible. We both know many facts
and have considerable procedural knowledge, but these are only part of
what has brought richness and satisfaction to our lives and
Factual information is certainly important if we're planning a long
trip, figuring our income tax, or taking out a loan. However, we
suspect that folks are more apt to lose their job because they can't
get along with their co-workers than because they don't know the
multiplication tables, or how to spell the word accommodate
without the use of a dictionary or their computer’s spelling checker.
Dealing with Approximate Information and Ill-defined Problem Situations
We humans have biological, analog brains. Information in our
brain is stored, processed, and used in analog (as contrasted with
digital) form. The human brain evolved to deal principally with
approximate rather than precise information.
Of course, we have some quite precise capabilities. For example, even
very young children and some animals can differentiate among the
quantities 1, 2, 3, and 4 because of cognitive systems that are
specialized to instantly identify up to four items without counting
(subitizing). For most of our history, it sufficed to consider more
than four as a whole bunch
It didn’t make that much difference if seven or nine bananas were in
bunch, or if a pack of seven or nine carnivorous animals had just
picked up our scent.
Most oral communication is quite imprecise and laden with ambiguity. In
face-to-face communications—and especially within one’s small family or
tribe—a conversation would continue until people reached an acceptable
agreement about the nature and/or resolution of the issue. Community
and organization meetings currently attempt to carry on this tradition.
The previous IAE Newsletter reported that music (which focuses more on
the emotional overtones of communication than on precise specific
information) existed long before reading and writing emerged.
Much of our success in life is based on our ability to make reasonably
good decisions, and while factual knowledge is typically helpful in
decision-making, it’s not the only (or often most important) element. A
restaurant menu contains much factual information about prices and
ingredients, but four people sitting around a table may choose entirely
different meals. The situation is similar with our preferences and
choices in such decisions as TV program viewing, breakfast cereal and
clothing purchases, and votes in political elections. In all such
cases, people generally have access to most of the same facts, but
often make considerably different decisions. Analog brains
differentially interpret factual information, and also make decisions
on the basis of their individualized emotions/feelings plus huge store
of accumulated knowledge and experience. And who is to definitively say
that one person’s choice is better than another’s?
The arts similarly deal with both factual and imprecise information.
The printed score is very clear about what notes are to be played, but
when a renowned pianist was once asked to differentiate between a piano
player and a pianist, he responded that anyone can play the correct
notes; it’s how you play the notes that makes the difference.
This issue of the IAE Newsletter lays groundwork for subsequent
issues that will discuss aids to the mental and physical capabilities
of a human being. As these are integrated into schools and everyday
life, they present a major challenge to our evaluations systems.
Research and development has created a rapid and rapidly increasing
pace of technological change. While schools are adjusting to some
of these changes, the pace of scientific and technology-based changes
is outstripping their current coping capabilities. We will explore this
situation more in subsequent issues of the newsletter.
Moursund, D. and
Sylwester, R. (June 2010). The quality of our educational system.
Information Age Education Newsletter. Retrieved 11/21/2010 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2010-43.html.
Ripley, A. (December 2010) “Your child left behind”. The Atlantic Monthly (p 94-98). Retrieved 11/20/2010 from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/12/your-child-left-behind/8310/.
About Information Age Education, Inc.
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to
improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE
is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology
museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki
with address http://IAE-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter
you are now reading.
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