Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The View from Psychology

It's not often you see a neurologist who's also a middle school teacher. Judy Willis apparently meets both qualifications, and is advertised as "an authority on classroom strategies derived from brain research." You can read more about her story here. She blogs at Psychology Today, and I came across her article Top Ten Necessities for Education Reform there. The article is short and to the point. Some of her recommendations bear on outcomes assessment at least indirectly.

Dr. Willis recommends teaching collaboration and tolerance to new ideas and cultures. These are non-cognitive--a theme in this blog lately. She also recommends that teachers and students have a better understanding of how brains work. This seems utterly obvious, but also generally overlooked somehow. I've argued that outcomes assessment is in a nether world between science and a sort of theology [here], and that without any grounding in science we can become like Richard Feynman's cargo cult illustration [here]. Ideally we should be able to answer with confidence questions like the following:
Is IQ's general intelligence quotient g meaningful? If so, is it fixed? If it's fixed, how do we propose to improve skills like critical thinking without affecting IQ? If it's not fixed, are IQ tests appropriate outcomes assessments for education?
Dr. Willis doesn't address the topic in this detail in this short post, but has written several books connecting neurology to teaching.

On the topic of assessment, she's not a fan of standardized testing. Quoting from the article:
Standardized tests for federal NCLB funds test rote memory of isolated facts. Assessments need to include ways for different types of learners to demonstrate their knowledge. Once teachers do not have to teach-to-the-tests of rote memory, classrooms can become places of inquiry, student-centered discussions, and active, engaging learning.
She recommends that:
Students need to know how to find accurate information and use critical analysis to assess the veracity/bias and current/potential uses of new information. These are the executive functions students need to develop and practice in school today, or they will be unprepared to find, analyze, and use the information of tomorrow.
I think it's fair to say that most educators and administrators in higher education would agree wholeheartedly. There seems to be a disconnect between NCLB-style teaching and assessment and this worthy goal, however. This is undoubtedly because of the micro-first approach to teaching and assessment: a focus on the details. This in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. I mentioned an idea here that is half micro and half macro. What's missing in NCLB is the macro assessments, I think, due to over emphasis on the micro. I mean by this that learning outcomes are handled in great detail, but since there is no way to realistically accumulate those into some kind of creative thinking index, the higher order skills (analytical and creative thinking, for example) don't get enough attention.

In higher education, we do pay attention to the macro skill set,but there's considerable confusion about how to assess it. Bottom up accumulation from the detail level is not likely to work, nor is a standardized approach--all well-traveled territory for this blog.

I plan to set up a simple experiment at the end of this semester, if I can pull it off, to get some actual data. Some of our instructors are using detailed assessments in class to pull out critical thinking examples and rate them on a standard rubric. The missing part is the macro evaluation, which I'll have to put into place quickly. It will be based on the Assessing the Elephant material, of course. The research question is to see if the two are correlated. Stay tuned...

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