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Out of time

04.22.14 | Learning on the EDge | 0 Comments

By ANN MELBY SHENKLE

When one thinks about school, one thinks of a class. A group. A number of children involved in learning. That would be correct. But in the modern classroom they are “involved” only en masse. They read. They follow instructions and fill in the blanks. They read, recite, memorize and hope that they will get it right on the test. Instructional time is used to build a “package” of learning for a large group that can later be easily tested.

The worst aspect of using standardized testing to measure schooling is using test scores to determine teaching methods.

In a growing number of schools, the results of that testing will determine the fate of the teacher. Classrooms with the highest median scores must have the best teacher, right? This unfortunate thinking pays no attention to the value of the material “covered” or how that “value” translates to life in the real world. Evaluation by standardized tests can never measure insight, creativity, or problem solving. But the worst aspect of using standardized testing to measure schooling is to use test scores to determine teaching methods.

Scheduling and using Think Time may turn out to be the most important thing I did while teaching. In present terms, using Think Time across the curriculum would probably get me fired.

Think Time used to be school time, and it was always scheduled in my classrooms. During Think Time, students imagined, tested hypotheses, developed strategies, illustrated their “work” so it could be easily explained to others. It could get messy, as when we used water, cups, and containers. Did you ever estimate a quantity? What was the evidence for your supposition? Was it experience? Was it perception? How accurate were you when you estimated that three little bottles would fill a large bottle up to a certain line? What are “variables”? Why do variables matter? Everybody gets to do it, even the teacher.

Think Time could be noisy, and the occasional visiting principal got uncertain about what was happening. If he had little experience in teaching, he looked in vain for the uniform assignments and the tidy use of pencils. If he asked students, they could have told him what they were working on and why. There were always objectives, even if they weren’t obvious on the Recommended Evaluation Checklist. Somehow, we all survived those evaluations.

In a Think Time activity, we recorded data. If we didn’t have the data we wanted, we could go down and speak to Mrs. Gold in the library. She would help us find the reliable sources we needed. Think Time took time to plan, time to carry out, time to record, and time to doublecheck with the library. In a week, with everybody researching, measuring, recording, and applying in a variety of contexts, Think Time might have been several hours in a week. And that was just the planned objectives for Think Time. On any day, we might drag out our notes and go over the data. Was there a pattern? Were there new questions? Should we “publish” for another classroom? Writing was our history, written down! We needed time for that too.

In Think Time, exploration and review could both be triggered by questions. And questions were sought. Questions were rewarded by recognition of individuals, but the whole class could seek answers. The original questioner could even decide which “answer strategy” answered the question. Questioning time could be part of any content or process, and it certainly took time in the daily schedule. During sessions with very reluctant students, I was known to be a teacher who paid for good questions. Answers were OK, but questions got coin. Listening and dealing with questions got all the time needed.

Now, teachers seem to be out of time. My small groups actively planning steps and strategies on a daily basis are gone. The bulletin board at the door that notified everyone of the best question of the day is gone and so is the mural illustrating road building. The many voices and hands waving in the air with ideas and questions are gone. The goals of instruction have changed; the end product has become a paper full of bubbles checked as answers, the aquarium that had been a collection of local fauna is empty and standing in a closet. My plan book, with scribbled notes at the bottom of each page about students needing extra help, stuff to look up, recipes for paper mache, drill activities, “words to be shared” was filed away forever a long time ago. Surprised at the “drill activities”? Words to be shared? Oh, yes, they were there too. Think Time business was not to “discover” the multiplication tables. Our business was to use multiplication. Shared Vocabulary was a chalkboard constant that was added to every day. Study buddies worked on drills almost every day. Of course, we knew the curricular script. But, with Think Time, we could move a lot of material from passive to active.

Retirement means a teacher gets to watch the whole scene from a safe distance. I sincerely hope that active learning teachers aren’t losing their jobs for the sake of a few points in a standardized test. I hope Think Time teachers are still out there, up to their elbows in projects. But I am worried enough to think that I would not get, or keep, a job today. And I really hope that the teachers in training, especially those who learned with me, have not all decided that the way we did things doesn’t work anymore. Their efforts to engage learners in active learning must continue somehow.

About Ann Melby Shenkle

ANN MELBY SHENKLE (Commentezann@gmail.com) is the former chair of special education, College of New Jersey, Ewing, N.J. Her last Kappan article was “Thinking listserv,” Phi Delta Kappan, November 2011 (Vol. 93, No. 3), p. 80.

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