Friday, December 31, 2010

Grammar Workbooks and Math Tests

Joe Bower has posted on his daughter's experience in school on a fraction unit. He reports:

"I have been teaching 8 years and have struggled under the weight of grades and what they don't mean for true learning. The truth of their effects didn't become crystal clear to me until a recent discussion with my 6th grade daughter's math teacher. After doing very well on homework and in class work, my daughter has "struggled" (i.e., gotten poorer grades) on the unit tests."

The test his daughter did poorly on was a provincial assessment. This is a familiar story to me. Many students in my class struggle with provincial assessments when during class they are learning at their own rate. I am all for the assessments as a measure of their progress and relative standing. It should not be hidden from them that they are behind or ahead of others in their learning. That should not limit their ability to learn at their level and to be taught using the best possible methods.

Early in my career I had a very poor concept of how to teach reading and writing. I adopted a grammar and writing skills workbook for the students to complete every week. I had all of the students do every exercise in the book throughout the year. One particular student struggled, yet he completed the exercises religiously. At the end of the year I gave a comprehensive test on grammar and writing skills taken directly from the workbook. He scored below 30%.

His mother came in to talk to me and wanted to know why he did so poorly. She knew how hard he had slaved at the weekly workbook. I was dumbfounded and was unable to avoid the conclusion that what I had been providing him yielded little in the way of learning grammar and communication skills, for that matter, any meaningful learning at all!

I was so embarrassed and had no excuse to offer. The parent and the student deserved better. Since that time I have learned so much about how kids learn to read and write. Workbooks have been in my bad books for a long time now.

Joe Bower's daughter doing poorly on her math test may be:
  1. a sign that she is not learning the concepts of math in class. It may be taught in the same way that I taught grammar years ago, workbook style, algorhythms, repetition and little meaning.
  2. the assessment was inadequate in measuring the learning that his daughter had achieved in the classroom. I have had great success with teaching math using open ended, "conceptual math" (Dan Meyer et. al.), yet it has become obvious to me that the way I assess learning will have to change along with the more patient, creative approach to learning math concepts. It is my sincere hope that the changes I have made in my math classes will eventually result in my kids out- performing others on provincial assessment or, at the very least, improving their test scores drastically.
Lastly, in our earnest attempts to achieve the best possible learning environments in our classrooms, we have to be careful not to be too judgmental of others' attempts to provide great learning environments for their kids. I am the first to admit that what I provide in my classroom is a work in progress. I am open to sharing and know what I offer is imperfect. I am not the only educator trying to achieve the perfect learning environment, most others are on their own journeys as are the authors of the provincial assessments.

I am not judging Joe Bower's position with respect to his daughter's teacher. On the contrary, I believe he is a wonderful warrior for change that will improve learning for his kids and many others. I love the difficulty and challenge of change. It will keep me interested in learning about teaching for a long time.

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