Thursday, March 04, 2010

Can teachers come anywhere close to measuring learning?

A colleague here at UC is engaging with my ideas, commenting and sending links to research. I very much appreciate the engagement, the over all silence and disengagement from work colleagues is always a disappointment.

Recently I was sent a link to another one of those annoying formats only researchers like to use, the PDF, writing up a study done by Adam Friedman and Tina Heafer called "You Think for Me, So I Don't Have To." The Effect of a Technology-Enhanced, Inquiry Learning Environment on Student Learning in 11th-Grade United States History.

I think the study was bogus, but more interestingly - points to the inherent problems and bias in teaching practice and the research of its impact on learning.

The abstract:
In a study investigating the effects of student engagement in inquiry learning through the development of Web sites, nearly every student reported having enjoyed the project, and the majority scored an A or B for their project grade. However, neither enjoyment nor high achievement on this performance task necessarily translated into high scores on the unit test. Therefore, this paper explores why success in a technology rich inquiry environment did not translate to measurable changes in student learning. Results demonstrated that students were not accustomed to this type of pedagogy and that the assessment did not match the task.
I was looking all over the paper for some more detail on what they thought inquiry learning was in a school context, what they though "the Internet" was, what they meant by students creating "websites", and what they mean when they refer to "use of technology" in social studies. I like to think I know what all that means in a school context, and that has no similarity to what it means in real life, and real inquiry learning.

Students created "websites", what sort of websites exactly? Websites all out on their own where no one would see, or editing Wikipedia articles or creating Wikibooks - where everyone will see and evidently engage, leading to authentic engagement with the Internet, networked learning and continuous inquiry learning. In the absence of a qualifying statement in the paper, I'm able to assume that the teachers in the school, like most I've met, think uncritically on the feasibility of any of this truly taking place in a school context. Saying they used the Internet in this study, to consume information so as to create obscure websites amounts to saying they used all the world to create a cardboard poster with scissors and glue for a 5 minute show and tell in their safe little classroom.

And get this P204:

Despite the availability of primary and secondary sources for students on a Web site
developed by the researchers, many students spent a significant amount of time searching
for images using search engines and electronic encyclopedias, particularly Google images
( and Wikipedia ( These
sites were often the first place students sought information about and images of World
War II. Researchers as well as the teacher had to remind students that there had been a
Web site designed to provide them with resources to complete their Web site
development class.

If only their teachers and the researchers they cited, used Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons a little hey! The places the students (indeed everyone!) go to could be the same place the teachers want them to go! Perhaps the students instinctively knew the content the teachers had gathered was bogus in copyright, and too difficult to reuse, fraught with unreliable URLs, and very poor rez images based on the extent of the teacher's Google Image Search abilities.. :) LOL

I guess my reading of it comes down to this. It seems the researchers and the teachers didn't consider the bias that their generalisations brought to the question. They didn't elaborate on the things being used in the measure, such as "The Internet", "Create websites", "Use technology", coupled with an uncritical view of common educational practice such as assigning work that amounts to inauthentic guess-what-the-teacher-wants tasks. Inquiry learning by way of the Internet? Somehow I doubt its possible in schools.

But this criticism goes deep into the cultural make up of institutionalised education doesn't it? We don't teach and learn in the real world, we create replicas and simulations, within impossible time frames, to formulate a schizophrenic appreciation of the world that fits our bureaucratic processes.

How would I do it differently? Using the popular Internet to teach and learn would be a start I guess. And try this old post for size: Teaching has nothing to do with technology

I hope this usual ranting critique doesn't turn my newly engaged colleague away. Maybe I've got this study all wrong!?


Michael de Percy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Michael de Percy said...

Hi Leigh, IMHO the 'think for me' attack on contemporary learning methods comes from those who have not been able to keep up to date with the information revolution. They are the same people who think it is easier to teach in an online environment (it takes longer and requires more personalised attention for students) and that students do nothing for themselves (because of the Internet). This soon will pass! Cheers, Michael.

Rodd Lucier said...

So long as the end of unit activity continues to be a written test that proports to measure learning; we as teachers will have failed.

Simon Leonard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Simon Leonard said...

Yes, institutional education lacks imagination in many things. You may be interested in some related thoughts (well at least what I was thinking about as I read this blog here.