Tag Archives: learning

One Simple Change

I hear a lot about our broken education system.  I’ve read many blogs describing the large-scale, invasive systematic changes that need to take place in order to “fix” education. These broad and overwhelming reforms are so massive and so dramatic I can’t imagine they have any hope of actually being implemented.  The change would be too drastic.  What I can imagine is a change that’s more “small-scale”. What would happen if we all agreed to change just one “little” thing? Could one simple change make any difference?

Here’s what I’m thinking. What if I decided, as a teacher, that my students would never again take another multiple choice test? What if my school or district decided to do the same thing? Could this one, simple change make a bit of difference in our student’s learning, critical thinking, and problem solving abilities?


In his book, Stop Stealing Dreams, author Seth Godin tells the story of Professor Fredrick J. Kelly. In 1914 our factories were in need of workers and we needed a quick, efficient means to process and educate the throngs of immigrants coming to the US. Professor Kelly invented the multiple choice test. He described it as “a test of lower order thinking for the lower orders. ” Just a few years later however, Kelly actually disowned the test he invented saying that “it was an appropriate method to test only a tiny portion of what is actually taught and should be abandoned“.  Did we abandon it?

Last May I had the opportunity to visit a couple of schools in Finland thanks to a generous invitation from my friend and colleague, Janet English. I only had one week in Finland – enough time to get a glimpse, but not enough time to observe and discern the real beauty of the Finnish Education system. Janet had six months to observe classes and talk with teachers and students. Thankfully, she shared her thoughts and observations in her own blog and a two part article for OECD Insights.

In her article, Janet shares the following…

“Where American teachers frequently administer multiple-choice tests for assessment, Finnish teachers require students to produce something that reflects their learning.” (US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 1)

“Teachers (in Finland) monitor student learning on a continuous basis so that assessment adds to student progress rather than detracting from it…Tests are not the main method of assessment so students do not spend substantial time taking tests or reviewing for them. Multiple-choice tests are generally not given because having students pick an answer from a list is not considered the best way to assess learning.” (US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 2)

So what would happen if we stopped giving our students multiple choice tests?

What makes Professor Kelly’s test so appealing is that it is so easy to administer and  score, especially since it can be graded electronically.  Will teachers thank you for taking away this form of assessment? Probably not at first. In fact, they might actually complain that forcing them to use other types of tests will take much more time to grade because their students would have to explain what they know rather than just picking from a list. What if, as a result, teachers started designing shorter tests or tested their students less frequently?  Would that be such a bad thing?

Eventually, as an alternative, teachers might have to resort to other methods of assessing their students’ learning.  Methods that could include having students create digital projects that provide evidence of their mastery of particular concepts and standards.

I wonder…Could one simple change, make any difference?


A Matter of Trust

My grandfather will be 101 years old next week. He grew up in a world where a man’s word and a handshake carried as much weight as signed and notarized contract does today. Neighbors watched out for neighbors. If you messed up you owned up.  He shared with me the words his father shared with him: “When you’re hired to do a job, you do your very best work, not because of how much he’s paying you but because you promised to do the work when you took the job.” He was never out of work a day in his life, even though the Great Depression.

Grandpa was brought up knowing the importance of trust and responsibility. So was my Dad. So was I. If I ever misbehaved or slacked off in my classwork, few things would put fear into my eyes more than a note or phone call home. The teacher was respected. Their words rang with unquestionable truth and usually resulted in a tense conversation at home that night, followed the next day by an apology to the teacher and a promise to do better.  That was the system and the system worked because my parents trusted the teacher as a trained professional, responsible for the education of their children. Today, if a teacher even has the courage to make that call, they better also have a defense attorney on retainer to deal with the barrage of  accusations from parents claiming prejudice against their child, and incompetence in their teaching. (What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents)

Ask just about anyone about our education system today and very few will argue that it’s broken. Countless blogs condemn the “tyranny of the test”. An endless line of political candidates pad their popularity by proposing plans to “fix” education:  Abolishing No Child Left Behind, increased spending, more time to plan lessons, more technology, digital textbooks, smaller class sizes, changes in instructional delivery like flipped classrooms and blended online learning. Don’t get me wrong,  these are all good ideas, but I think they are ignoring the main issue that is undermining our education system. Unless we deal with this issue, I believe any strategy to repair education in this country is doomed to failure.

The issue is TRUST.

The system itself doesn’t trust it’s teachers. When you use standardized test results to determine “merit” pay you are telling teachers you don’t trust them. When you offer incentives like “Race to the Top”, you are saying that you don’t expect them to do their best because it’s the right thing to do, you need to bribe them make them try harder. When you mandate endless evaluations and “hoops” that teachers must jump through to make sure they stay accountable, you are telling them you don’t trust them to be responsible. (Downgraded by Evaluation Reforms)  Did you know that in Finland, there is no word for “accountability”?  “Accountability is what’s left when you take out responsibility.” (Accountability vs. Responsibility)

We look at Finland as an example of a system that works. So why can’t we make our system more like that? First, we have to get back what we’ve already lost – TRUST in each of our schools and our teachers to be professionals and do what is best for each student. (What the US Can’t Learn From Finland)

“Trust takes years to build and seconds to destroy.”

Once lost, getting trust back is no easy feat. I’m not going to go into what needs to be done systematically and politically to make that happen, as I feel that may already be a lost cause. Instead let me offer a couple suggestions of what can be done at a school or classroom level to help restore trust in your learning community.


A few years ago, our newly hired administrator told us one of the most empowering things a principal could say to his teachers.  He said, “If you want to try something new and innovative in your classroom for the benefit of student learning, then succeed or fail, I will back you up.” I can’t think of a better way to tell teachers that you respect them as professionals. How many teachers refuse to try something new because they feel they will be left “hung out to dry” if it doesn’t work? If you’re a principal or administrator I urge you to be a leader and stand up for your teachers. Let them know you’ve got their back – especially when THAT parent comes in to complain. I think you’ll be pleased with the growth that occurs when you remove the fear of getting cut down.


Be responsible. Do your best in all circumstances and stop complaining. Listen at least half as much as you talk. And be positive.  When you interact with parents are they only hearing negative things from you? One of my mentor teachers told me this strategy for building a positive relationship with parents.  At the start of every school year, he would observe each of his students. When they did something outstanding and praiseworthy he made a point to call parents and share it. What parent doesn’t want to hear how awesome their kid is? Especially from a trained professional teacher? In the event you eventually do need to phone home about a behavior or academic problem, parents are less likely to be defensive or feel like you’re picking on their kid.

These suggestions alone are not an overnight cure. It will take time and effort, but if teachers and administrators work together, stay positive, and lead by example we can begin to move forward. I really like this picture Diane Main shared on Facebook this week. (I wish I could find out who made it originally so I could give proper credit.)  If we all, both administrators and teachers, worked to be “leaders” as defined below, then we are well on our way to regaining that trust.