Pam Moran and Ira Socol on the educational choices we make
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Our current framework for multiple-choice standardized testing is about 20 years old, dating back to legislation signed by President Bush called No Child Left Behind. The name has changed but testing still rules, although it has been disrupted by COVID-19. An editorial in the New York Times called for testing to return so that schools would know how much learning loss has happened during COVID-19. The idea that tests can answer these question needs to be challenged.
In this conversation with educators, Pam Moran and Ira Socol, co-authors of Timeless Learning with Chad Ratliff, we discuss how our education system responded to COVID-19 and how students have responded by turning off their cameras. That tells us a lot about how our schools fail to engage students in real learning.
- What lessons are to be learned from this experience?
- What kind of schools will children go back to?
- Can schools learn from this experience that school itself needs to be re-designed and re-considered?
- Can we imagine a future where instead of multiple choice tests, schools offer students multiple and different opportunities to learn?
Pam Moran and Ira Socol
I met Pam Moran when she brought her team of educators to World Maker Faire. She has been an educator in the Albemarle Public School System in Virginia for 32 years. She was superintendent for the last 12 years.
For Pam, making wasn’t something that a few kids might do with a single teacher in a makerspace. Instead, making was something that would transform the whole school and become core to engaging all students. In 2017, I visited her and her schools and saw first-hand the realization by her team of a school system infused with maker ideas and practices.
Pam is the co-author with two of her colleagues in Albemarle Public Schools, Ira Socol and Chad Ratliff of Timeless Learning – How Imagination, Observation and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools. Ira who was Chief Technology Officer for Albemarle Schools is now a partner in a consulting firm with Pam.
We’ve been working with educators and everybody seems to be consumed with how disengaged kids have been during the pandemic, that kids are not learning, that they won’t turn their cameras on all kinds of issues around student engagement. What we’ve done is to point out to people if you go back to the Gallup poll data around student engagement was a critical issue before the pandemic started. And that gaps in terms of student performance have basically remained about the same. And student performance in general has remained about the same. No matter what programs that we’ve thrown at that, no matter how we’ve added time, removed time , changed the curriculum to remove PE or art or music, all the things that schools have done to drill down into how do we really address achievement gaps?
When I go back to the the 911 commission and the 911 commission talks about that, the four failures that occurred, that led to 911 were on the part of the government: a failure of imagination, a failure of management, a failure of capacity building and a failure of policy. I’ve said for years, that those four failures are failures of our education system. And in particular of the testing regimens that we’ve created in every state, in every school, in the United States, that subtract from our kids the capability to show us learning in ways that really make sense, regardless of what demographic a child represents.
I would never measure children or schools with instruments like the NAEP test. (The National Assessment of Educational Progress, it’s the the nation’s report card, claims to be.) All that tells me is what matters to those in power. Just like all the state tests do. It doesn’t tell me anything about what kids are learning. As Pam said, the reason we really embrace the maker movement is when kids make, they develop the context that they are going to learn within and demonstrate their learning within.
We watch projects develop that show learning as a unified living thing with kids describing what they can actually do. But what we’ve seen during this pandemic with very few exceptions is trying to jam the worst of school back into children’s homes and nothing more than that.
One of the things that Ira and I have noticed, and this is anecdotal, but if a school district was pretty much in a traditional mode, most of their focus going through the pandemic seems to have been on the procedural kinds of things that it takes in order to simply keep running school. Can we get kids lunches? Can we get computers into their hands or devices in their hands? Can we make enough copies of ditto sheets of worksheets if they can’t get to computers so that kids have packets to work on — those kinds of things. Places that really have taken a look at before the pandemic, how do we really go after the kinds of disposition, skills, expertise that we want kids to have, really were constantly asking the question, how do we make sense of this in a virtual environment? What can we do to bring kids together and have them still work on projects? How do we, what’s the term IRA co seeding? How do we do co seeding? Co-constructed curriculum, teachers working together to really share resources and expertise. And so it strikes me that that failure of imagination is a signature of education as a sector. We don’t reward imagination in our people or creativity. In fact, we tend to try to squash it out.
If you’re doing something that’s maker focused or project-based focused or problem driven, and you’re not looking at some sort of an outcome that will benefit someone else, other than just yourself, as one of the outcomes of your project work, your maker work, your problem-based focus inquiry focus, then you’re really missing an opportunity to build in kids something that we desperately need as a society. And that is a capability to feel empathy, to value other people’s ideas, diverse ideas, to collaborate with others, to find the strength in community that doesn’t exist in us as individuals. It’s not just having kids make something. It’s how what they do actually has some sense of influence in their classroom, in their school, in their community.
I love both the traditional tools and the high-tech tools. And I love all of that, but, if a student deeply involved themselves in a writing project that’s theirs, that’s maker work, and in a critical way.
Last April, when somebody from the high school in the town I live in, said, we don’t know where our high school kids are and none of them are logging in. I said you ought to go to Kroger or Walmart. Because all your kids are there. They are picking out the groceries and putting them in people’s cars. That’s where your kids are.
We do see that there are schools in the country, particularly high schools, that realized that a lot of kids are not going to come back to high school schedules as they have been in the past.
And that they’ve got to really rethink time to create more flexibility, to give kids more choices, to really set up different kinds of opportunities for kids that may involve a much bigger , a more broad definition of hybrid than we’ve ever considered before. It’s not just either virtual or face-to-face time as hybrid, but what does that look like in a flexible way?
I think one of the most fascinating research outcomes of the zoom pandemic teaching mode has been kids’ absolute refusal to turn on their cameras or to unmute themselves. And it’s making our teaching workforce crazy. And I think to myself, have people not ever considered that when those same kids were sitting in class, they were turning off the screens and muting themselves? It just was inside their heads.
The reality is we have tested the kids to death. We have weighed them in every way that’s possible, and they are not getting better as a result of a testing environment. There are other solutions that we have to go to. And I believe that in my heart of hearts, that we have to really go after a much more synergistic, systemic approach to making a difference, particularly for kids who are caught in situations, not of their own making.
And it’s not more testing of them and it’s not making teachers more test friendly in terms of seeing data as their friend. Data are not the friend of teachers and not the friend of kids, because it has not made a wit of difference.
(Schools) have to be places of resources that start to fix the resource gap that our kids have, so that schools are just fantastic supportive libraries where kids can find the things they need to help them. And we will never do that if we focus on testing, which continues to be nothing more than a attempt to measure how far you are from the mythical white middle class, neuro-typical, protestant child whose mother bakes cookies and drives them to school. That’s all those tests are measuring. And as long as we stick with that as our measuring system, we’ll never close those gaps and we’ll never give the vast majority of kids any chance at getting to the places they are fully capable of getting to.
We need to celebrate those people that are taking the risk to move away from schools as institutions of testing — to becoming homes of opportunity. Because a home of opportunity really builds out everything that we believe is essential for a child to be successful in life.
Sustaining their curiosity, their sense of believing in themselves, finding friendships and meaning and relationships with other people, of being able to feel like that they have value because they do. So that home of opportunity concept, we believe, is as absolutely critical. Maybe that’s what our new secretary of education-to-be should really be focusing on is how do our schools become homes of opportunity? And we think maker work is at the center of every home.
Multiple and Different Choices
What then is the multiple choice future? Do nothing and we continue propping up an education system based on multiple choice standardized tests. This future, like the past, will limit the educational choices for many children. Or can we imagine a multiple choice feature that offers children real choices with multiple and different ways to engage and learn? Imagine a multiple choice feature where some students will choose A while others will choose B or C or D and all of the above can succeed.