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May Day Musings

The weather is gorgeous, the flowers are blooming and the porch chair is more compelling than my desk chair. Like my students, I am yearning to be outside. In two days it’s May, it’s May, the month of “Yes, you may . . . open your test booklets and begin.”

OK, that’s not really accurate because we do our testing on-line. But whether it’s paper and pencil or on-line, testing now dominates April and/or May for most schools. We need those tests. They provide verification of learning for students, parents, teachers, school policymakers and all other school stakeholders. The data they provide helps us analyze performance, identifying strengths and targeting areas for improvement. Yet most teachers, regardless of their background, their ability, or the performance of their students on standardized tests, seem to have a gut reaction of resistance to the current usage.

Why? Last week I was re-reading part of Malcolm Gladwell’s BLINK: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. I find it interesting and others find it irritating because it argues with itself about the pluses and minuses of iintuitive decision making as opposed to the importance of information based decision making.

He points out:

…Instinctive judgments rely on experience…….We miss things…..Furthermore a lot of things we try to measure are awfully subtle.

Sometimes teachers rely on experience that is invalid. Some teachers get sloppy. And sometimes what we should be measuring is simply beyond our ability to capture while interacting with a roomful of kids. Sometimes we’re too close to the problem and too engaged in being with a room of children to recognized patterns. We need outside eyes to collect data and drill down to identify strengths and areas for improvement.

But Gladwell also maintains:

We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at our fingertips at all times, and we’re well versed in the arguments about the dangers of not knowing enough and not doing our homework. But what I have sensed is an enormous frustration with all the unexpected costs of knowing too much, of being inundated with information. We have come to confuse information with understanding.

And it seems like it’s the data, not an understanding of children and their needs that is driving education policy and practice. Type “data-driven instruction” into Google and you’ll get 23,500,000 different responses. Somewhere along the way, with the best of intentions, education policy went astray. Instead of using data as a tool to inform how to better teach students, the data outcome has unintentionally become the fixed variable around which instruction, teachers, and even students revolve.

I hoped Gladwell would give me the definitive answer in his Afterword, but instead he remains uncommitted to a single “right” answer, saying:

I think the task of figuring out how to combine the best of conscious deliberation and instinctive judgment is one of the great challenges of our time.

I have a lot of ambivalence about how all of this applies to education policy. Where are the fine lines between what we can prove, informed intuition, and personal opinion? When does statistical information provide clarity and when does it obscure humanity?

Good teaching is a combination of knowledge, skill, experience and reflection. It’s a science and an art. I think we need to trust our instincts, but confirm our intuition by measuring it against data gathered by ourselves and the data generated by others. We know our students’ needs and that is critical because, while they may be data points, they are also people.

In the meantime, it’s May and nerves begin to fray! So take a deep breath, give it your best, and then go out and play!

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