Unlearning a “One-Size-Fits-All” Educational Model

In Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, Cathy Davidson asks us to rethink our students’ abilities. She writes, “Where [neuroscientists] perceive the shortcomings of the individual, I sense opportunity for collaboration. If we see selectively but we don’t all select the same things to see, that also means we don’t all miss the same things” (2). There are many important threads within this book, but in terms of dis/ability, I think there are three themes worth exploring deeper: cultural values, pedagogical practices, and assessment.

First, we must unlearn our cultural values. The current 21st-century narrative blames technology for our inability to pay attention and for the “dumbing down” of students (10). Because of this narrative, Davidson argues that we are “more likely to label [students] with a disability when they can’t be categorized by our present system, but how we think about disability is actually a window onto how attention blindness keeps us tethered to a system that isn’t working” (10). This is where unlearning comes in.

Unlearning is a theme throughout the book, “required when the world or your circumstances in that world have changed so completely that your old habits now hold you back” (19). For me, unlearning is also required when our cultural narrative devalues certain abilities. This is why Davidson’s notion of “collaboration by difference” is so important. She writes, “Collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction” (100). Instead of devaluing students who lack particular abilities, collaboration by difference places students with different abilities together in settings where they work together on a project that requires all of their particular abilities. In order to enact this kind of participatory collaboration, though, we have to unlearn our pedagogical practices.

Davidson seeks to answer the question, “What if instead of telling [students] what they should know, we asked them?” (62). In the case of Duke’s iPod experiment, we see students in control of learning. Davidson describes the experiment as an investment in teaching: “one that didn’t require the student to always face forward, learn from on high, memorize what was already a given, or accept knowledge as something predetermined and passively absorbed” (69). For students, this meant new opportunities to learn information in ways that best benefitted them, providing them with technology that they could use to enhance and support their own learning—a nice reminder of the benefits of UDL and the multiple options it provides.

Davidson argues that a “one-size-fits-all model of standards” that is unbending to students’ particular needs is partially to blame for student failures (77). Perhaps this is why Manhattan’s Quest 2 Learn (Q2L) is so successful. Using gaming principles that engage students in games that require strategy, problem solving, and teamwork allows students to benefit from each other’s strengths. The same could be said for the success of the Voyager Academy. Here, each child is responsible for learning, for self-controlling and self-monitoring her learning processes. My favorite example of this participatory learning is the “disruptive” boy:

He’s been doing well today, but I learn he’s smart and energetic enough to turn the class upside down with his antics. He’s been learning, lately, how to tell for himself when he’s in a disruptive mood, and he has a deal going with Mr. Germain. If he feels like he cannot control himself, he’s allowed to just walk away and go work by himself at the computer. He doesn’t have to ask permission. All he needs to do is take himself out of the situation where he’ll be disruptive. It’s a public pact: Everyone knows it. 135

For me, this example provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on our values: What are the goals of teaching? Of learning? How do we set up our own classrooms to support and benefit all of our students? Davidson argues that all students can succeed in the 21st-century classroom as long as the curriculum moves away from standardization, focusing instead on the collaborative, intellectual work that occurs outside the classroom.

This brings me to the last point: assessment. It is clear within this book (and in her real-life endeavors) that Davidson is no supporter of standardized testing, and in “How We Measure,” she offers alternatives. First, she argues for a stop to end-of-grade exams, opting instead for tests that challenge the “complex, connected, and interactive skills” of the 21st century (125). Second, she argues that we need to imagine assessment in ways that will measure “practical, real-world skills” such as communicating with others, making sound judgments, and determining credibility (127-8). Instead of “dumbing down” students at the end of the year, Davidson suggests adding a “boss-level challenge” that would allow students to participate in decentered, challenging, and collaborative learning (131). All of these alternatives emphasize the importance of testing students not for how much they can memorize or regurgitate on a piece of paper. Instead, these alternatives push students to engage with the material, providing learning opportunities for students who are failed by standardized tests.

What I like best about Davidson’s approach to testing is her willingness to challenge what constitutes “failure.” She asks, “By what logic would failing a test in a language other than the one spoken in your home constitute a failure for you as well as for your teachers, your classmates, and your entire school?” (94), a question similar to our previous readings and discussions of assessment. If we have different tests, students with different abilities have more opportunities to perform in ways that more accurately measured their knowledge. By unlearning our 20th-century values of ability, pedagogy, and assessment, we provide all of our students with more genuine and fair opportunities to learn and demonstrate that learning in 21st-century contexts.

Incidentally, if y’all haven’t heard of the “badges” for lifelong learning that Davidson mentions, here’s a video that explains them. Badges are the brainchild of HASTAC, a cross-disciplinary organization that explores the collaborative uses of technology. When they announced the badges competition last Fall, people freaked out—not as much as it sounds like they did for Davidson’s “How to Crowdsource Grading” but there were definitely some people with some important and interesting things to say about these alternative grading measures, including Davidson.

Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York, NY: Viking, 2011.

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The Role of “Fairness” in Accessible Assessment Practices

What struck me most about this week’s readings was the language used to describe universally designed assessment. Of course, Rose & Meyer make a very clear argument: “It is true that standardized tests can yield valuable information, especially if one is evaluating trends and information about groups, but as accurate assessments of individual students’ skills, knowledge, and learning, these assessment tools are severely flawed.” And while the other authors don’t seem to argue against accessible assessment practices, they are more cautious, making points about “reasonable accommodation” (Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone 165), an awareness of “high-tech cheating” (Salend 49), and “fairness.”

Fair Selection cartoon

"Fair Selection" & the Importance of UD Assessment

In “Accommodations and Universal Design: Supporting Access to Assessments in Higher Education,” Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone make an argument for applying principles of UD to assessment in order to minimize accommodations (thus reducing stigmas and barriers to learning). Before they make that argument, though, they have to lay down some rules.

  1. First, ADA only extends to “reasonable accommodations”—those for classroom practices or environments that “do not place an undue administrative burden or cost on the institution” (165). But what counts as reasonable? And why don’t all accommodations count as reasonable?
  2. Second, the student’s disability must “interfere with at least one major life activity” (165). Yet, even if the student has documentation, reasonable accommodations are not guaranteed. Students must first perform (in fairness, they say “demonstrate”) their disability.
  3. Third, there is an issue of fairness. Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone note that if students are incorrectly diagnosed, “the fairness of the system is jeopardized because of the inappropriate advantage that accommodations might provide” (165). If all students benefit from an accommodation, then the accommodation provides “an unfair advantage” to those students (165).

Now, Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone are simply the messengers of accommodation legalese, so I’m not faulting them, but these policies raise a number of questions: What are the implications for students and teachers? What does it mean that students must perform their disabilities in order to receive “reasonable” accommodations? Again, how and why is “reasonable” defined? What do these policies convey in terms of fairness?

My questions continued as I read Salend’s article, “Using Technology to Create and Administer Accessible Tests.” Here, Salend makes the argument for using technology to provide multiple ways for instructors to present test materials and for students to engage with and respond to the test material (41). Generally, I agree with Salend’s argument. I think technology can greatly impact the test-taking experience for all students—in fact, I would argue that digital projects can often stand in for traditional tests (but I’m coming from a non-standardized, non high-stakes perspective).

However, I was thrown off by Salend’s uncited claim of increased accounts of high-tech cheating, defined as “accessing unauthorized information such as notes, Web sites, e-mail, handheld devices, and cell phones” (49). There are two problems I see with this point. First of all, it’s fallacious—just because students have access to technology during tests does not necessitate that they will cheat. Second, if this is a persistent issue, why—instead of creating software and programs that monitor student cheating—aren’t instructors talking with their students about cheating? This comes up so often in writing classes when students plagiarize papers. They don’t take responsibility for plagiarizing because they are accustomed to their instructors taking responsibility by tracking their cheating (often by uploading their papers to Turn It In). Like any new “tool,” instructors should talk openly with students about the ethical uses of new technologies. Without having this discussion, is it “fair” for instructors to discredit technology-based assessment?

While reading these articles, I couldn’t help but think ahead to Cathy Davidson’s approach to assessment. Recently, she has written some great articles that have developed from her book, including “Badges: A Solution to Our Teacher Evaluation Disaster?” in The Washington Post and “Blogs vs. Term Papers” in The New York Times. Davidson sides with Rose & Meyer, claiming that traditional assessment practices are dated, inaccessible, and unfair. We will certainly see this argument developed more in a few weeks, but for now, I think it’s important to think about what constitutes “fair” assessment and remember Rose & Meyer’s final thoughts: “Assessments in our digital age should be dynamic and universally designed.”

 

 

Ketterlin-Geller, Leanne R., and Christopher Johnstone. “Accommodations and Universal Design: Supporting Access to Assessments in Higher Education.”  Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19.2 (2006): 163-171.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. “Chapter 7: Using UDL to Accurately Assess Student Progress.” Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 2002.

Salend, Spencer.  “Using Technology to Create and Administer Accessible Tests.” Teaching Exceptional Children 41.3 (2009): 40-51.