Category Archives: Testing

Watch This: The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools

Have you had a chance to see Will Richardson’s recent Tedx talk titled The Surprising Truth about Learning in Schools yet?  If not, watch it right now:

What resonates the most with me is Richardson’s argument that there is a very real disconnect between our beliefs about schooling and the practices that we embrace in schools.

I wrestle with that disconnect almost every single day — and it’s professionally exhausting.  As a sixth grade science teacher, I am responsible for teaching students about TONS of trivia.  So far this year, the kids in my classroom have:

  • memorized the parts of a flowering plant.
  • studied the difference between the A, B and C horizon in a soil profile.
  • learned about the basic properties of soil.
  • sorted rocks into categories including intrusive/extrusive, clastic/nonclastic and foliated/nonfoliated.
  • tried to keep hydro-, ge0- and thigmotropisms straight.

You see the problem there, don’t you?  The emphasis in each of those examples is on KNOWING, when science classes should prioritize DOING.  Instead of asking and answering interesting questions, we are racing to cover the content in the required curriculum.  My classroom prioritizes schooling, not learning — and that’s a function of the priorities set in our required curriculum.

That’s a tangible example of the disconnect that Will is describing.

If we REALLY cared about developing students who are critical thinkers who can work creatively across domains and who can solve problems collaboratively — which I believe are the RIGHT goals — then those practices would stand at the center of our classrooms and our assessments and our evaluations and observations of good teaching.

The sad truth, though, is while we are more than willing to give lip service to the notion that schools should be different, we continue to embrace traditional definitions of what “successful schools” look like in action.  No one is held accountable for creating learning spaces that facilitate higher order behaviors.  Instead, we’re held accountable for the results we produce on standardized tests.

That has to change.



Related Radical Reads:

How Testing Will Change What I Teach This Year

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

Turned Into a Testing Machine


What Kind of School Have YOU Created?

Let’s start with a simple truth: Genuine learning is a beautiful process that leaves people mentally challenged and stretched and refreshed.  It’s a time of exploration and discovery and excitement that is fundamentally about making connections between notions and new ideas and individuals who are passionate about studying the same content together.

Genuine learning is a joyful act worthy of celebration:

(click here to view and download on Flickr)

Schooling is vastly different.  Schooling is a grind that leaves people exhausted.  It’s a forced march through content that someone else decided was essential or interesting or important.  It’s inflexible and intimidating — driven by unrealistic targets and uncompromising deadlines and cheap attempts at holding everyone and everything “accountable.”

Learning-centered schools are vibrant and alive.  People smile.  People laugh.  People participate — in lessons and in one another’s lives.  Schools that have left learning behind are silent and sad.  People go through the motions.  People do what they are told.  People flee at the final bell.

What kind of school have YOU created?



 Related Radical Reads:

Do Cheap and Easy Letter Grades Tell the Whole Accountability Story?

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year


Do Cheap and Easy Letter Grades Tell the Whole Accountability Story?

For the past several years, North Carolina’s legislature has been working to reimagine almost everything about education in our state.  Their most recent move:  Releasing A-F letter grades for every school in every county in our state.  “North Carolina public school parents now have an easy-to-understand letter grade to help them evaluate school performance,” argued Bill Cobey, the Chairman of the State Board of Education.

The only factor considered in assigning a letter grade to each school are results from our most recent round of standardized testing.  To make matters worse, only twenty percent of a building’s grade is based on year-after-year growth rates that students show on our state’s exams.  Eighty percent is based on nothing more than passing rates.  The results have been sadly predictable:  Schools in struggling communities are almost universally failing under the new system while schools in wealthier communities are racking up high marks.

What troubles me the most is the suggestion that student scores on end of grade tests are a reliable way to identify successful schools.

While A-F letter grades drawn from multiple choice exams may be easy to generate and easy to understand, it is ridiculous to suggest that scores drawn from the current iteration of knowledge-driven standardized tests are an indicator of anything other than kids who can remember REALLY well.

Need proof?  Then consider the fact that my sixth grade students NAILED last year’s end of grade exam in science — a result that I should be ready to celebrate given the fact that our state’s legislators recently made student performance on standardized tests a significant factor in teacher evaluation and compensation decisions here in North Carolina.  According to their metrics, I am an instructional all-star.

But nailing the end of grade exam means almost nothing, y’all.

It means that my students knew a TON of trivial details — and that I spent an inordinate amount of time cramming those trivial details into their minds instead of doing anything close to actual science in my classroom.  My kids could tell you that light bends and slows when it enters a dense medium, that scientists use earthquake waves to learn more about the interior of the earth, and that the key ingredient in healthy soil is humus — but ask them to design an experiment, to share their results in a convincing way, or to collaborate around an investigation and they’d probably be stumped.

And that’s the beef that I have with communities who are committed to finding easy ways to evaluate school performance.

The uncomfortable truth is that adopting easy to understand metrics almost always results in adopting metrics that measure outcomes that are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world where knowing is cheap and easy.  Employers in the innovation economy aren’t clamoring for kids with killer memories.  They are clamoring for kids who are creative thinkers and good partners and innovators and dreamers and doers.

So what does that mean for people who care deeply about the success of both our students and our schools?

It means that it’s high time that WE start clamoring for something more than cheap and easy measures of school performance.  The simple truth is that high-stakes accountability models that reward the delivery and mastery of low-level skills fail everyone — not just kids who live in poverty.



Related Radical Reads:

If I’m .84 Points from Statistical Perfection, Why am I So Darn Angry?

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year








More on Student Questioning in the Classroom

For the better part of the last week, I’ve been consumed with the notion that one of my primary responsibilities as a teacher is to encourage student questioning in my classroom.

My thinking is being driven by Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question and by the work of the Right Question Institute, who both argue that innovation and creativity depend on one’s ability to ask killer questions.

As a follow-up to a conversation that we had in class last week, I had my students do some written reflection on questioning yesterday.  Specifically, I asked my students:

How often do you ask questions in class?  Why is that?  What affects your willingness to ask questions in class?

While many of their comments mirrored thoughts shared last week, two new themes appeared that have me rethinking my classroom practices again:

“I try to ask questions a lot, but half the time Mr. Ferriter doesn’t take questions.”

Talk about a gut-punch, right?  Especially given that this comment comes from one of my favorite students — a boy that is as curious about the natural world as any kid that I’ve taught in the last 20 years.

But I know he’s right.  I don’t make enough room in class for questions.  That has to change if I am truly committed to inspiring kids to always wonder.

But I can’t say I’m not worried about the consequences of turning time over to student questioning.  It’s not that I don’t think my students will come up with interesting things to wonder about — it’s that I have a MASSIVE curriculum to cover before the end of grade exam that I’m held accountable for in June.

Turning time over to student questioning means I’ll struggle to cover required content before testing season begins — and struggling to cover required content leaves me at risk in a state where “evaluating teachers” is essentially synonymous with “ranking and sorting by nothing other than test scores” in the eyes of legislators.

So I guess I’m walking the moral tightrope again, huh?

“Sometimes I don’t ask a lot of questions because you answer almost all of them in class.”

That hurt too, y’all.  It is evidence of crappy teaching in action.  If I’m answering almost all of the questions that my kids have before they even get the chance to ask them, my instructional practices are literally preventing my students from becoming the barefoot, ragamuffin army I want them to be.

“Children are the research and development division of the human species,” child psychologist Alison Gopnik argues in Berger’s book.  Stirring their creativity and curiosity depends on nothing more than teachers who diligently avoid the temptation to “teach too much, too soon.”  What kids need most is the chance to develop their own questions and search for answers independently.

By creating a classroom environment where I’m answering all of the questions that my kids have, I’m “inadvertently cutting off paths of inquiry and exploration that kids might otherwise pursue on their own” (Berger, 2014, p. 43)

Do you think you’d get the same kinds of results if you surveyed your own students about the role that questioning plays in your classroom?

More importantly, anyone figured out ways to make student questioning a staple of the work that you do with kids?



Related Radical Reads:

Where Have All the Beautiful Questions Gone?

How Testing will Change What I Teach Next Year

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

Numbers Never Tell the Whole Story.

Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton was undeniably one of the NFL’s most talented individual players of all time.  His ability to generate yards despite the circumstances — to elude tacklers with deceptive speed and agility — made him nothing short of a legend.

While most remember Payton as the star back of the Bears at the height of their success — he rushed for 1,500 yards and 9 touchdowns in 1985, leading Chicago to their first title in 22 years — he also put up consistent numbers playing for really bad teams and in really tough conditions early in his career.

By the end of his 13-year career in the NFL, Payton had accounted for 21,000 yards from scrimmage.  He was chosen to 9 Pro Bowls, was named the NFL Player of the Year twice (1977 and 1985), and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1993.  27 years later, he still holds Bears records for total rushing yards (16,726) and total rushing touchdowns (110).

But read Sweetness — a biography on the back written by Jeff Pearlman — and you’ll find out that Payton wasn’t exactly a team player.   

What caught me by surprise was that instead of running out of bounds late in games when the Bears were trailing by 3, Payton would often fight for extra yards to pad his individual stats.  While some fans saw his refusal to be tackled as evidence of a rugged determination to deliver punishment to defensive backs, his teammates saw it as a selfish act that cost Chicago victories.

Looking back, Payton’s 16,000 rushing yards are pretty darn impressive no matter who he was as a person.  But his “accomplishments” are harder to admire when you learn that his pursuit of yards over victories was often self-serving and costly to his peers.

The lesson to be learned:  Professions that celebrate numbers above all are inadvertently incentivizing the wrong behaviors. 

Like most professional athletes, Payton’s contracts weren’t tied to the number of victories that the Bears put up each year.  Instead, his contracts were tied to the individual numbers that he generated, regardless of the damage that he caused by pursuing those numbers.  Payton figured out that putting up 1,500 yards was the key to getting paid — even if putting up 1,500 yards meant making choices that hurt the overall health of the organization.

What does that same selfish behavior look like in education?

Teachers grinding through impossible curricula in hopes of covering content before end of grade exams, even when they know that stepping out of bounds and stopping the clock is the right choice for kids.  The end result:  Teachers with higher “value added scores” even though their students quickly forget everything that they’ve memorized in preparation for testing season.

Are these REALLY the kind of results — and instructional behaviors — that we want to reward?


Related Radical Reads:

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy