Disease, Meet Antidote

Over-testing is more than a burden. It’s a disease, and its symptoms have infected the school day itself. Here’s an antidote to one of those symptoms: the fragmentation of content into way too many pieces. Teachers, I’d love to hear your own prescriptions for the testing malady.

My deepest fear about our school system is this: Instruction itself has come to suffer the same symptoms that afflict our approach to testing.

American tests in the NCLB era tend to share a few troubling characteristics:

  1. One-size-fits all. Every child takes the same test, whether that test is ridiculously easy for her or ridiculously hard.
  1. Coverage robs depth. My state’s old Benchmark test in math always felt like that Whack-a-Mole game at Chuck E. Cheese. We taught the kids just enough about dozens of unrelated concepts that they could whack “fractions” or “coordinate grids” when a multiple choice question reared its ugly little head.
  1. Fragmentation. On most tests, kids don’t solve a complex, coherent problem. They don’t create something complicated and intriguing. They get a shattered mosaic of unrelated concepts, scattered at random across the screen or page.

Of all these “worst practices,” fragmentation may be the easiest to fix.

 

Teacher! Leave those kids alone.

My first graders have at least 12 separate subjects each day. Factoring in 11 transitions, that works out to about 25 minutes for each block.

Having so many subjects in such short blocks results in amputated lessons that often scratch the surface of important concepts, without giving kids enough time to investigate big ideas in depth.

My students are six and seven years old. I’ve heard the belief that kids’ “attention span” is the number of minutes that corresponds to their age—a ten-year old has a ten-minute attention span, a five-year old has a five-minute attention span, and so on.

This number of minutes seems about right to me if we’re discussing how long a child will listen to an adult talk. But that’s not remotely the same thing as attention span.

My three-year old son will build an elaborate city or pirate ship out of blocks for 45 minutes or longer. My first-graders will work on a story, math problem, or art project for an hour or more.

The problem is, their teacher keeps interrupting them every 30 minutes to move on to the next thing. On Thursday we were doing the share time for a math problem, and I noticed that Marcus kept working on the problem when he was supposed to be listening to the student sharing her work.

I asked him, “Marcus, do you want to take that home and work on it tonight?” His face lit up like I’d just offered him a free guinea pig, and half the kids’ hands shot up to ask if they could take home their math, too.

True, I teach fairytale kids—they’re incredibly sweet and motivated. But they also possess a trait that most students have, no matter their age: the desire to pursue a meaningful project, problem, or concept until they either complete it or lose interest.

 

Fighting Fragmentation

One day back in October, our class did a 100-minute math block, and it was the best mathematical thinking I’ve seen from them all year. They had the time to get into the zone and stay there. We didn’t have time for writing that morning. But later in the week, their writing block was over an hour long so they could finish writing their research projects; I cut math that day so we’d have enough time.

Technically, my state’s education guidelines don’t approve of that week in my class. Minimum numbers of daily minutes are mandated for math, reading, and so on.

These guidelines have a purpose, but there’s an easy improvement in keeping with the spirit of the law: change those daily minimums to weekly minimums, so that teachers and students have the flexibility to engage in meaningful investigations that take a lot longer than 30 minutes to complete.

Tests dissect content into neat packages labeled “Math: Computation” or “Reading: Comprehension.” But life, work, and learning experiences are not so easily categorized. Architects, doctors, and carpenters combine all kinds of skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking in a single hour of their day.

The most powerful learning often comes out of complex projects that combine multiple disciplines. When I did an economics simulation with my students a few years back, they learned concepts in Math, Visual Art, Social Studies, Technology, and Writing, integrated in a single week-long project.

We’ve all seen the gaps that result when we dissect learning into too many pieces. Kids who do great on the phonics chart but can’t read a book. Students who nail their math facts but can’t solve a real-world problem.

When I build longer Writing, Reading, or Math blocks into my day, my students experience fewer disruptions and transitions. They spend less time listening to me talk and more time in the zone, whether they’re working with classmates or on their own. The work they produce is better, the thinking they articulate is more insightful, and they enjoy school more.

Testing excess may be a pervasive disease, but it has its antidotes. Many of us have discovered a powerful one: longer blocks of time, interdisciplinary projects, and structures like Writer’s Workshop that limit teacher talk and ensure uninterrupted blocks of time for students to create, collaborate, and think.

Teachers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you structure your school day, and what benefits you’ve seen your students experience as a result.