Thursday, November 21, 2013

For the Greater Glory...On Means, Ends, and Lessons Learned from Robots

There is a Jesuit catchphrase for just about everything. One of the most common in educational circles is AMDG - an abbreviation for a latin phrase which translates to "For the Greater Glory of God". Many Jesuit schools require students to write this in the header of their papers, other schools have signs and posters, our school made it the student e-mail domain.

It's a big deal...

Interlude: What's in a Name?
Two months ago, a group of students decided to form a robot club. Their goal was to have Brebeuf Jesuit participate for the first time in the Indianapolis VEX robotics championships. This event, sponsored by the Mayor's office, offers free registration and robotics kits to any school willing to field a team.

As I was filling out the online registration, i was faced with a huge question: Team Name. I felt the cold sweat breaking out. This was HUGE. We needed something that could capture the spirit of our school, the care-free but driven attitude that made up our team, with just enough nerd-cred to show that we were the real deal. After a few panicked seconds I typed: AMDGeeks.
End Interlude.

This Saturday was the two-day culmination of our Robot Team's hard work. And it was pretty awesome:

Much has been written and will be written about the use of robots and practical "real-world" problem solving (and to be fair, i want to live in a world where building small-scale competitive robots is the "real-world" -- its like pokemon, but with robots). This is what I observed:
  1. Problem Identification: What is the scope of the problem? What are resources available?
  2. Complex, Strategic Thinking: Given the limitations in time and resources, what will be the best solution
  3. Hypothesis Testing: Build it, test it, note the results, modify, try again.
  4. Research: Yes, it started with YouTube and Google. But it also included talking to physics teachers, calling in experts in fields from welding to general construction.
  5. Cooperation: Each team member had strengths that were drawn upon throughout the tournament. Each team was allied with one or more other robot teams for individual rounds.
  6. Empathy, Emotional Control: Students were reading feelings, supporting one another, etc. 
Quite a bit different from your typical testing environment
A collection of corporate sponsors, educators, politicians and student-coaches, some as young as ten years old, were creating an environment that was a celebration of the development of college-preparatory and 21st century skills!

What struck me as I looked in the audience of hundreds of parents, students, teachers, administrators was the lack of teacher-evaluation. Stick with me here, this might be important:


iAspire: one of numerous
Teacher Evaluation Apps
  • There was no principal in the stands of the Banker's Life Fieldhouse with an iPad App that allowed her to quickly check off the common core standards that were being met.
  • There was no Lexile, no Acuity, no Terra Nova pre-test of cognitive potential.
  • The only analytics collected were in service to teams figuring out from one round to the next what was working and not working...how to work with one team in an effort to defeat two more.
Yet, in this environment with all of its chaos and shouting and stress and fun, real learning was taking place. Students from a variety of backgrounds and schools were learning to work together, communicate effectively, and devise complex strategies to achieve a common goal.
  • It was a demonstration of student learning and real-world application.
  • It was the lived experience of preparation for 21st century skills.
  • It was one of the best observable environments for implementation of many of the  common core state standards.
and yet...no evaluations were made and no test score was given.

AMDG, Common Core, and the Fight for Education
Critics of the Common Core State Standards are often painted as lazy educators who do not want their work held up to the scrutiny of science and data. Accusations often imply that any who do not support the CCSS and its integrated regime of corporate testing, textbooks, computer management systems, and teacher evaluation tools must not really want kids to succeed.

The problem that educators face in discussing this issue with politicians and parents are that the CCSS has become the ultimate goal of education -- education's AMDG. Anything that works toward the #CCSS (read, anything that is "COMMON CORE ALIGNED") is automatically GOOD because it works toward the ultimate goal. Anything that criticizes that ultimate goal is automatically EVIL.

This is what leads to the shock and almost dismissive attitude in state legislatures when teacher's try to explain the flaws in the CCSS-Testing regime. Because the CCSS has the mantle of the ultimate goal, the advocates for teachers, whether they are administrators or unions, are hesitant to go directly at the issue and instead beg for more time or increased professional development.

Educators and Parents and Politicians need to step back from the CCSS-Testing megalith and realize that despite the political spin that has deemed it as the ultimate goal -- it is actually a means to an end. In Fact, built within its purpose and rhetoric are the true ultimate goals of education according the CCSS's designers, the true ends: College and Career Readiness, Development of Leadership Potential, Citizenship.

In order to have a discussion about the role of robotics and STEM or times for reflection or appropriate use of lexiles or the need to read non-fiction vs. 18th century literature, teachers and parents and educators must first have a discussion about Goals and Ends for education. We need to discuss education's version of AMDG.

The common core state standards are a politically popular and well-funded MEANS to reach the end. Yet they are discussed as if they are the END itself. Common Core and its implementation (and all of the testing and data and expense that accompanies it) is a path, an interpretation about how to reach the ultimate goals of education. 

One can believe that the Common Core and its associated baggage is not the right direction for a school or state or nation without being against education itself. One can reject a particular MEANS without rejecting an separate END.

CCSS is not AMDG.

Need proof? Watch the robots.

(More on this tomorrow...)