Wrong medium for this student’s message

May 18, 2013

Published in The Carillon (Steinbach).

“The medium is the message.” That prescient observation was made in 1964 by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Basically, McLuhan meant that the way in which a message is transmitted was just as important as the message itself.

For example, those who watch a political leader’s speech on television may react very differently from those who listen to the same speech on the radio. As a case in point, people who watched the famous Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates on television judged Kennedy the winner while those who listened to the radio version preferred Nixon. Kennedy looked better on television and, for many viewers, this outweighed the substance of what he and Nixon had to say.

McLuhan died in 1980, long before the advent of the internet. Were he still alive today, he would probably be amazed at how the internet has confirmed his theory. Release one video on Youtube that goes viral and you can achieve instant worldwide fame. In fact, a young person’s entire future could end up being determined by one video clip.

Last week, Jeff Bliss, an 18-year-old Texas high school student, found out just how easy it is to become famous. Frustrated with the quality of instruction he was receiving in his world history class, he challenged his teacher in front of the class and let her know that he thought she was a terrible teacher. One of his classmates recorded the exchange and uploaded it to Youtube. In only a few days, the 90 second video clip was watched more than 1.7 million times.

To be fair, much of what Bliss said during his rant makes sense. He talked about the need for teachers to be more active with their teaching and engage students face-to-face. He also correctly observed that simply handing out worksheets and expecting students to figure out everything themselves is not a good way to teach. Bliss apparently wanted to take a more active role in his own learning and this is commendable.

However, the way he went about expressing his views was not commendable. In fact, his poor attitude and disrespectful tone overshadowed the good points he made during his rant.

“And if you would like, I’ll teach you a little more so you can actually learn how to teach a freakin class,” said Bliss as he left the room. These types of statements made Bliss look arrogant and rude. No matter how upset Bliss was with the quality of instruction, insulting the teacher in front of the class was the wrong way to express his concerns.

During an interview on the Roy Green Show, Bliss acknowledged that he did not discuss any of his concerns with the teacher before his public outburst. If Bliss really believed in the importance of face-to-face interaction, the least he could have done was meet with the teacher privately to express his concerns. Publicly attacking her without warning displayed poor judgment and undermined the point he wanted to make.

Will this 90 second video clip lead to a serious examination of teaching practices in schools or will it simply provide further confirmation that too many young people no longer respect authority? I think the latter is more likely than the former. In contrast, had Bliss met with his teacher privately to express his concerns, registered a formal complaint with the school principal, or written a thoughtful op-ed in his local newspaper, his message might have been taken more seriously.

In the internet age, it is more important than ever that we choose our medium carefully. For Jeff Bliss, this 90 second video clip was the wrong medium for his message.

Scrapping achievement tests is a big mistake

May 14, 2013

Published in the Calgary Herald.

In a giant leap backward, Education Minister Jeff Johnson recently announced his plans to scrap the provincial achievement tests currently written by grades 3, 6 and 9 students. They will be replaced in the near future by more “student-friendly” assessments to be written at the beginning of the year.

It isn’t difficult to see the likely outcome from similarly wrong-headed decisions. Manitoba went down the same route in 1999 and the results have not been good. Before its current government, Manitoba had a full system of standards tests administered to grades 3, 6, 9 and 12 students, similar to what currently exists in Alberta. Over a decade, Manitoba eliminated its grades 3, 6 and 9 tests and replaced them with performance checklists given at the beginning of the school year.

During the same time period, Manitoba students went from the middle of the pack among Canadian provinces in their math and reading skills to second last. Only Prince Edward Island students turned in worse results. Interestingly, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island also happened to be the two provinces with the least amount of standardized testing. However, Prince Edward Island recently started implementing standards tests for grades 3, 6 and 9 students, leaving Manitoba as the only province without any standards tests before Grade 12.

Now the Alberta government plans to follow Manitoba’s example and join it in a race to the bottom. This is a disappointing development, especially since Alberta has long been the top performing province in the country.

To make matters worse, none of the reasons the government gives for eliminating the provincial achievement tests makes much sense. For example, Johnson claimed the current tests are too stressful for students and need to be replaced by more “student-friendly” assessments. However, other than anecdotal stories offered up by testing opponents, no one has been able to demonstrate why the tests are too stressful for students. Students have written these tests successfully for more than 30 years and there is no reason why they should now be considered too stressful.

Apparently, the education minister thinks that writing the provincial achievement tests on a single day adds to the stress of these exams. So he plans to replace them with assessments written over several days. However, there is no reason to conclude that stretching out the time over which a test is written makes it any less stressful. But it does increase the likelihood more students will miss at least part of the test if they are absent on any of the test days.

Ironically, these new tests may take up even more time than the provincial achievement tests. It has certainly been the experience of Manitoba teachers, particularly at the Grade 3 level, as Ben Levin, former deputy minister of education for Manitoba, acknowledged in his book, Governing Education. They are therefore unlikely to accomplish the goal of freeing up more class time for instruction.

Another argument for replacing the PATs with an assessment at the beginning of the year is that the data will help teachers target their instruction to the needs of their students. This is a weak argument, since one of the main reasons teachers’ unions give for their opposition to standardized testing is that teachers already know where their students are at. In other words, teachers shouldn’t need the data from a provincial assessment to provide good instruction.

In addition, writing the PATs at the end of the school year makes perfect sense. The PATs are an objective measurement tool that, when combined with the data provided by teachers from their own assessments, gives a more complete picture of overall student achievement for that year. Giving tests at the beginning of the year removes accountability since it is easy to blame poor performance on summer learning loss or on last year’s teachers.

Finally, since students are often most ready to learn in September, teachers will end up wasting valuable instructional time at the beginning of the school year. In contrast, virtually all teachers know that June is the worst time for students to try to learn new concepts. So if we are going to make the most efficient use of instructional time, it makes sense to have students write standardized tests at the end of the year rather than at the beginning.

Scrapping the provincial achievement tests makes no sense. The Alberta government should reverse its giant leap backward and keep the PATs in their current form.