Bad Idea #2—Conflating Ends and Means

I hinted at this yesterday in my discussion of some of the problems of making in-class assessments look like scaled-down versions of externally evaluated high-stakes assessments. The idea is simple. We have many long-term goals in education, and the teacher’s job is to find ways—the means—to help students achieve these goals—the legitimate ends of education. Let’s start with an easy example. Suppose the goal is to teach students to solve mathematics word problems. It’s tempting just to give them a bunch of word problems of increasing difficulty and watch them grow. But his puts the cart ahead of the horse. First, we need to make sure that the students can read the problems. This is more than just a demand of basic literacy. The students must be able to read the words and parse the sentences, to be sure. But more than that they need to have the background knowledge of the situations in the problems and of the relevant mathematics to even understand the point of each question. This is not the trivial detail it might at first appear. Students come to class with a wide range of reading abilities, many are new to English (or, more generally, the language of instruction), but may be proficient in another language and many may lack relevant background knowledge to understand the physical (“real world”). Ok, so we have to make sure that reading and world knowledge is in place. Now let’s give lots of problems. Well, no. The student needs strategies for mathematizing the problem. It may seem obvious to you and me, and even to many students, but it isn’t always clear, for example, that Jane’s height is modeled by a line segment. It isn’t always clear how to get from words to picture, or diagram and from there to arithmetic or algebra. These are things that have to be taught. If a teacher skips these steps, s/he is likely to find that very few students learn to solve all the relevant problems. The point is simple, but crucial: most complex tasks first require some level of mastery of supporting skills, abilities and strategies. And this is a general point. To learn to write an essay, a student must learn how to write words, sentences and paragraphs. The student must learn about relevant evidence. The student must learn about argumentation. And the student must learn about the rhetoric of the essay. Yet we still see teachers assign essay after essay with no supporting instruction. And they get frustrated by the students’ lack of progress. (On a related note, see Explicit Success Criteria.) It is true that in order to improve as an essayist you have to write a lot of essays. But it’s also true that to write any essays, you need to learn a number of smaller skills first. We see the conflation of ends and means in all sorts of areas of education. If we want students to understand democracy, we often create student councils or run mock elections. There’s nothing wrong with these exercises, but they assume what they are trying to create: just by going through the process, there is no reason to think that students learn what is intended. I find it exasperating that this very simple point is being lost every day in education. And not just in classrooms, but in support materials, and even in curriculum development. Perhaps the worst area is in the use of internet-based research. If we want students to learn to use the internet to conduct “research” for their school projects, I can’t think of a worse place to begin than Google. Google is a terrific information finder, but nobody can learn to research by beginning with typing in a search engine. To research, first we need to create a researchable question. We need to establish the types of evidence that will address the question. We need to determine the kinds of analysis that will be appropriate to the evidence. How can a student tell relevant from irrelevant data without prior instruction? Yet again and again, students are sat in front of a search engine to conduct “research”. And daily, students are gathering information of unknown quality and their teachers are accepting it. There are many things wrong with this scenario, but to me it begins with assuming that the end—in this case a research product—is the appropriate educational tool for teaching students how to achieve it. It’s a tough habit to break.

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