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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Who, What, When And Where Versus How And Why

Our school has recently been engaged in a number of productive experiences that speak to qualities that contribute to success in virtually any workplace our graduates may encounter in the future. Activities like anti-bullying assemblies, volunteering to serve and clean up at senior citizen dinners, fire safety essays and poster contests... all promote cooperation,commitment, and a sense of community. These experiences offer the participants an opportunity to see why their efforts are important and how they make a difference. Yet, these characteristics are not cultivated in the state mandated assessments that solely cultivate academic progress as a measurement of the success of a school in the state of New York.

I certainly don't question the need to promote academic success and measure achievement. These are accomplishments necessary to encounter future success. However, among the challenges of such tests, and the criticism of these assessments, is the emphasis on answering questions asking - what? That is, there is a tendency to solicit knowledge based largely on recall and comprehension level questions.

Just as teachers are encouraged to stretch learners by advancing up a taxonomy (see Bloom's Taxonomy) that begins with questions requiring knowledge, then comprehension, with application next, followed by analysis, synthesis and finally, evaluation; tests should also engender higher order thinking skills. Paper and pencil, fill in the bubble oriented large scale tests often require responses that are short (true/false or multiple choice) and black and white (universally accepted answers instead of essays that can result in different "correct" answers). This likely precludes the use of many questions that require analysis, synthesis, or evaluation.

In other words, there is a tendency to ask "who, what, when, and where" type questions of the test takers. For example, who was the first European explorer in America? what were the name of his boats? where did he land? and, when did he set sail? Answers to these tests are much easier to assess than answers to questions like, how did he create and sustain his course of direction, or how did he maintain the focus of his crew when dangerously exploring beyond the boundaries of the known world? or, why did he decide to colonize the new world in the manner he chose?

The "what" is fairly easy to see and describe. For example - "this is what I do," or "this is what it is." Just like answering the question, What is the capital of New York? Let's step out of tests for a moment and enter the real everyday world. Let's move away from test questions and examine meaning and purpose.

The future belongs to those people who can consistently extend themselves beyond the obvious "what" and progress toward the "how" and "why."

Harvey McKay pens a weekly syndicated business column that appears in the Albany Times Union. His latest installment was entitled - Why you should ask 'why' to be successful. It's an essay worth reading. He describes the difference in the workplace among people who are limited to knowing what, versus workers who can explain how, and others who can tell why.

McKay begins his summary of the essay with a quote from Diane Ravitch: "The person who knows "how" will always have a job. The person who knows "why" will always be his boss." Finally, he concludes by advising - "It's not enough to know how to do things - you must know why you do them."

How will we ever encourage the acquisition of higher order thinking skills if we are forever expected to prepare learners for state tests that ask who, what, where, and when instead of challenging them to answer the all important how and why?

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