Choose your Own Adventure (Wagner’s, “Achievement Gap”)

As much as I’d like to fantasize about being a non-linear thinker, weighing multiple options, always looking for connections between data point y and data point x from three weeks ago, I’d just be fooling myself.  I think my brain operates like a dichotomous key or a “Choose your Own Adventure” book, constantly choosing between diverging circumstances, only to arrive at another fork in the road.  It’s how I solve electrical wiring conundrums in my house, and it’s probably how I assess student learning.

It’s also how I’ve been approaching Wagner’s “Global Achievement Gap.” When Wagner asks me, “Do we want this or that?” I choose one and make my next determination based on the previous choice.  Some questions have frustrated me, some have filled my heart with the placid warmth of the “It’s not just me!” feeling, and some things have made me furious.

Some breadcrumbs I’ve dropped along the way:

In discussing the Seven Survival Skills, Wagner interviews a teacher who laments that “schools don’t teach kids how to really think critically.”  In later chapters, he admits that our system of accountability (NCLB) provides no return on investment for critical thinking.  (The SAT does not ask you to interpret social polemic, so what’s the benefit in learning how…).  This was probably my first question of the book:

Have we ever taught critical thinking?  And if not, are we supposed to?  Look how far we’ve gotten, after all!  Are we lamenting something lost or something that was never there?  Depending on your answer, solutions to the problem are different.  If you choose the latter, “Something that was never there,” turn to page 18.

Okay, so critical thinking has never been a part of our educational process.  I accept that as it pertains to the MAJORITY of students.  However, I know that there are (and have been) many teachers who excel at prompting critical thinking and problem solving.  But, yes, for the majority, it’s a lot of scantron sheets.

Now we have to assume that the answer lies in an approach or a system of beliefs that we have never held in the education world.  Where do we look for this new “paradigm” (oh, how I have come to hate that word!)?  Wagner offers us Cisco Systems (I’m still bitter that they won’t pay a dividend).  The CEO of Cisco suggests that “if you try five things and get all five right, you may be failing.”  He’s talking about stretch goals.  Taking risks.  In order for teachers to take risks in class and accept occasional, even frequent failure, then teachers must also allow that of their students.  Since the consequence of failure is a failing grade, we must assume that in order to remove the fear of failure, we must remove the brand of failure–the failing grade itself.

My school has dipped its big toe in these waters just this past December when the principal introduced the “Death of Zero.”  Rather than returning a zero for unfinished work, students are expected to <gasp> finish the work.  It will require some extra nudge from teachers, but I find great value in this approach.  And I believe that an assessment rubric in which students exceed/meet/do not meet expectations may be a way to address the anxiety surrounding the false empiricism of the percentage grade (“Johnny, congratulations, you are 83% as good as you could have been in this course.”)

Although Wagner doesn’t take on this argument in the first 150 pages, I hope to read about it sometime soon.  What he does take on is the barn-sized target of standardized college entrance exams.  Enough said.  I won’t even bother.  (One disturbing aside–if College Board is a non-profit, then how come they and ETS have a lobbying budget that rivals most unions and tobacco companies?)

I’m off to finish my adventure.  I’ll be back with more “ifso’s.”

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