Monday, March 06, 2006

We Teach Backwards

What is the point of our K-12 school system? One would think it was to teach students the skills and material necessary to tackle professional fields of study. But in actuality, it appears it is more used as a large sieve to filter out those who naturally learn well from those who don't, and break them into their lifelong paths of socio-economic class.

Take testing, for example. Tests come after the material is presented by the teacher. Worse yet, they are graded. A poor grade basically says "Sorry, you just didn't get it, student number 123 - and it's too late to do anything about it. Let's move on now..." It seems that this method of testing is measuring more the success of the teacher's teaching technique than it does the student.

If the goal of the system was for each student to learn a certain level of skills and material in a certain grade, then tests could be used to identify that material (and those students) that require additional time and assistance to learn.

But that's not how tests are used.

How about turning this around? Why not give a test, then use incorrect answers to lay out a study plan (ideally tailored to each student, but this could work in a mass setting as well). Break up the work into sections, then provide the instructional materials - and additional short tests - and iterate until the student "gets it". Then move on.

In fact, regular testing in and of itself appears to be a better learning technique that merely listening to a teacher or just reading material. Read an interesting little blurb about a study that showed that students who are tested frequently on material retain the information much better and longer than students who just study the material over and over.

I've discussed this "test first, ask questions later" approach with a couple of teachers, and it appears that this actually is a technique that is used a little bit, but not much. And the main objection seems to be that it wouldn't matter what the tests told them about each student, because they didn't have time to tailor instruction for each student individually.

Enter computers. You know what computers are really good at? Keeping track of mundane information. Organizing information. Repeating tasks without complaint.

You know what teachers are good at? (Or should be). Interacting with students, answering their questions, helping them understand a word, a concept, a technique necessary to advance in their understanding of the material.

So here's the proposal. Identify the material we want the kids to learn. (Done) Develop tests that evaluate whether the kids have learned this material. (Done). Put these tests on computers, and allow for self-paced administration of the testing. (This exists).

Give a comprehensive test at the beginning of the term. Have the computer spit out the list of items, by student, that they need to learn more about. Make the instructional materials available (instructions and worksheets - which are just little tests, if you think about it), have the student do the self-paced (but teacher prompted) "studying", retest, regenerate the list. The teacher is *always* there, but to interact and answer questions from the individual students. If a student is stuck, the computer could flag for the teacher's attention, and the teacher could tutor the student through the difficulty.

At the end of the term, we have a set of students who have learned the material and who (due to the testing technique) will retain it better and longer. Students who can move on to more material in the next term, and probably handle more material at a faster pace due to the fact that their building on a solid base of "getting it." (I've noticed that a large part of each years curriculum is to repeat the prior year's curriculum, because the students don't retain it after the summer break.)

Does anyone know if this is being tried anywhere?


At Wednesday, March 08, 2006, Blogger Jamie Sidey said...

Really good idea... I'm going to forward this to some teachers I know...


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