Friday, February 15, 2013

It's About the Questions

As teachers, we have been somewhat caught during the last year or two, trying to prepare for the changes that are coming with the implementation of the Common Core standards and the resulting mandatory end-of-course testing that will follow.  Specifically, we have been looking at the Common Core standards and, other than the placement of some of the topics (for example, the amount of statistics written into the algebra 1 and algebra 2 standards), the actual content isn't really changing.  As a result, our initial reaction to the Common Core was, quite honestly, "So what?"  However, now that we are (finally) getting to see some sample questions from the end-of-course tests, it's clear that questions on the new tests are going to be significantly more difficult than anything on the current standardized tests. How is this possible?

Simple: the tests are going to include "performance tasks", extended questions that require the students to put the content together in ways they may not have seen before.  They will require the students to really understand the material, to the point that they will be able to get a bit creative with it.  This is a far cry from the current testing (at least it is here in Ohio) that requires the students to repeat one more time pretty much what they have done in class.  With enough practice and enough rote memory, the current test is reasonable.

It is also unreasonable, in that it does not indicate whether or not the students actually understand the material.  I've said for a while now that the traditional way of teaching does not teach the kids to solve problems; it teaches them to mimic the way we solve problems.  The students we produce tend to be really good at memorizing processes and following algorithms, but not at using the content in ways other than those they have seen in class.  The textbooks are built according to this model as well: here are a few examples, now do a bunch of problems just like it with new numbers.

So what's the difference?  It's all in the questions.  On a surface level, the content is, in fact, the same.  But if you're asking the kids to actually understand that content rather than just memorize a process, then the same content can make for a very different result when it comes to the grade on a test.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of teachers who are stuck looking at the content and, upon seeing the same content in the Common Core standards, think they are going to be able to continue teaching the way they always have and that their students are going to be successful on the new tests as they have been on the old ones.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Even with the same content, we need to fundamentally change the way we teach the kids.  We need to be asking them to truly understand the material, and the only way to do this is to have them put the content together themselves, to discover it themselves, to make sense of it for themselves.  We need to get them to actually solve problems and not just imitate us or the textbook, and the only way to get them to do this is to ask them to do this on a daily basis.

Enter Harkness.  The more I look at what the Common Core and the subsequent testing will demand of the students, the more I become convinced that the Harkness model is perfectly suited to meet those demands.  However, to implement Harkness requires the teacher to write the questions to be used in the class, because the textbook questions by and large simply don't cut it.  It requires the teachers to get creative with the questions they ask, and to do that means that they actually have to understand the content of the course rather than just having it memorized themselves.  It requires the teachers to leave the old methods behind, because, quite simply, the old methods won't produce students who have the kind of understanding and creativity being demanded of them, not only on the new tests, but in college and in life.

Nothing about the process of implementing Harkness has been easy.  But the central exercise in the entire process for me as a teacher was the writing of the worksheets and the tests we are using this year.  It has been in the writing of the questions, in breaking free from the textbooks and truly designing the course that I have grown as an educator.  In short, it has been in putting the pieces together for myself, and not just following along with the textbook, that I have come to truly understand a course that I have taught for over a decade now.  And to be clear, it's not because the content of the course changed this year.  What has changed is the questions.

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