Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Of Multi-tools and Spud Wrenches

Aaron Eyler, my favourite educational technology blogger, made a tweet yesterday about differentiated instruction and standardized testing. He said "It is hypocritical for any educator to advocate celebration of ind diff and standardized testing simultaneously (You heard that [DoE Secretary Arne] Duncan?)" I think it's an interesting statement, to say the least, because both seem to be on polar opposites of the pedagogic discussional spectrum (See what I did there? New buzzword!) at the moment. What I want to talk about isn't exactly the merits or flaws of that statement, rather the line of thinking I took when pondering the tweet, and specifically differentiated instruction. Now, I'll freely admit in advance that what I'm talking about isn't based on any sort of real research or anything, but rather something I was thinking about. As a result, you can put your stones down... for now.

I must admit that I'm a bit divided on the whole differentiated instruction/multiple intelligences bandwagon, mainly because it seems the only folks who seem to really buy into it are educators, and cognitive psychologists pretty much have thrown the theory into the dustbin. On the other hand, I do see how students tend to respond better to certain types of assignments that are out of the ordinary paper-and-pencil type. I can see how providing a variety of assessment types can be beneficial to all students, but I think the concept of really differentiating our instruction to meet all students may have unintended consequences.

Simply put, the idea that a student should only be assessed in the manner which he does best seems a bit disingenuous to the concept of truly assessing a student, because we are merely providing a path of least resistance to a grade, rather than focusing on the content that they are being assessed upon. Related to that, I've found personally that most methods of assessing student work outside of objective test instruments (e.g. anything that needs a rubric) tends to become subjective very quickly, no matter how detailed the rubric or how extensive the professional development. Maybe it's the analyst in me, but if I want to see how something is performing, I want a datum that is as objective as possible. At times I've just had trouble wrapping my head around the concept of assessing students' knowledge of the Great Depression by allowing one student to create a collage since they were a visual learner, whereas a traditional learner pumps out a term paper or a test on the same topic. I might be wrong, but I just don't think they provide the same rigor and ability to extract objective data, no matter how many hoops you make the visual learner jump through.

What also piques my curiosity are two implications of differentiating instruction. The first is that the real world, which educators are constantly stating that we are preparing our students for, is remarkably non-differentiated. No matter what field you work in, from sales to construction to IT, the fact of the matter is that if you can put your thoughts down in a logical fashion that is readable to your audience, you're going places. Even in the visual learner's paradise, graphic design, the ability to write and demonstrate competence in a "traditional" manner is very important. So, by constantly assessing students in ways that come easiest to them as opposed to the unpopular idea of leaning on "traditional" methods will end up crippling our students when it all comes down to it. You may be a mean collage maker in high school, but if you can't write a good resume or introductory letter, you're going to come in second-best to the one who can--no matter how much better you are to them at the job.

In addition to this, I find it very worrying that we as educators are pigeon holing students into these differentiations at a younger and younger age, and even if not intentionally, we are doing a lot to determine their academic future to possibly their detriment. By telling little Kelly that she's a kinesthetic learner from Kindergarten onward, and focus our efforts on teaching her in that manner, with only token measures of teaching in other ways, we are severely hampering her ability to become a well-rounded learner, not to mention a person in general. I find this most disturbing in the fact that we label so many students as "visual learners" and do so much to teach them through images and visuals. As a result, I think we're creating a generation of people who will see and believe anything they see because that's the only way they know how to gather and process information. In the quest to ensure that all students can do their best, we're creating people that are the cognitive equivalent of a spud wrench: great at doing one thing (removing a flush valve from a toilet), but completely useless at anything else. Rather, we need to be creating multi-tools--tools that can tackle a wide variety of jobs within a single package.

In other words, let's create people with the ability to gather, process, and create knowledge through a variety of means, not just in the method that's easiest for them. I know I am far and away the exception to the rule, but you can't tell me someone who's a very good visual learner who's really good at what they do is better off cognitively than someone like myself who always pegs out learning style inventories in four to five categories. It defies logic to think otherwise because knowledge comes in so many formats that even though I might not be as strong in visuals as other people, but I can easily gather visual information, fill in the cracks through learning in other formats, process it all, and create new knowledge in whatever format I need to present it in.

Let's stop funneling students' capabilities into the path of least resistance, especially when that path is crippling their ability to function at a level below their capability in the real world. Let's make more multi-tools and less spud wrenches. They'll be better off for it, even if the grades don't always show it initially. The human brain has a remarkable ability to adapt and learn when giving challenges that are off its traditional operational paths; if we push our students to excel in new and different ways, they might just surprise us with their versatility.

Until next time.


Matt @ The Church of No People said...

You make some great points. We try to tell kids what they are instead of letting them determine it for themselves.

I'm in a little bit different place, being in special ed where the kids have to take tests for their grade level despite being far underqualified for the tests. The assessment is such a misfit for their abilities, it doesn't say anything except "they don't know anything."

Stephen said...

Very interesting perspective. I agree with most of it. However, the first step is to define "differentiation." If we are referring to "learning styles", then we are wasting our time with it. ALL students need multisensory instruction, even if they do tend to lean more toward one specific style.

OTOH, differentiation in order to meet the individual needs of students based on knowledge and skill levels is an entirely different animal. We cannot expect students reading two grade levels below placement to progress if they have significant foundational deficits UNLESS we provide explicit instruction in their deficit area(s). This what we're doing at the elementary level in Iberia Parish.