Education Evolutions #83

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

A quick note about the next few weeks. I will be putting this newsletter on a brief hiatus until after the new year. So this will be the last one until we are into January. I am halting things a little sooner than I thought but already know next weekend will present some problems preventing me from assembling this thing.

This week is a bit of a smorgasbord of stuff. The reading and exam articles deal with some common issues that proved pretty timely for me personally, while the other one is about Finland. Like a lot of educators, Finland fascinates me. Essentially, they have been a leader in education my entire career. My fascination has led me to read a lot about their schools, probably more than most people. The Scandinavian nation’s education system has become one of my pet research interests, which usually means there are definitely some books about Finnish education on my shelves.

That means this week’s “If you read only one article…” is the middle one about Finland. One of the most fascinating things about Finnish education is the more I learn about it the more I realize we do almost the diametrically opposite things in the United States. Then the press and policymakers wring their hands and wonder why our system fails to measure as high as theirs on tests. Yet, the Finns routinely comment on how inspired they were by our system – our system long ago, however.

Enjoy all of the various holidays you celebrate as we close out the year with the festive season.

Here are three curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

Is Listening to a Book the Same Thing as Reading It? – The New York Times –  Daniel T. Willingham (4-minute read)

I must admit, I read Willingham with a critical eye but I do often read things he has to say. As a psychology professor, he has a lot to say about issues of literacy. In their op-ed piece from the Times, he discusses the difference between traditional print reading and audiobooks. Given that I was just discussing this issue with my students, it proved a timely article for me at least.

Relaying the results of a handful of studies about reading, his conclusion is not exactly unexpected. Comprehension results may vary between audio and print but not always as much as we might expect. The primary difference is revealed by the purpose of reading. The more demanding the purpose of reading the more the advantages of print begin to show.

With more difficult texts read for different purposes, say academic ones, the differences become more pronounced. Overall, I definitely agree with the notion that listening to a book certainly is not cheating. Yet, as I told my students it is awfully hard to talk about an author’s style if you only ever hear it and never see how the words are sequenced on the page.

Educator: In Finland, I realized how ‘mean-spirited’ the U.S. education system really is – The Washington Post –  Mary Tedrow (5-minute read)

This is a guest post in Valerie Strauss’ education column, highlighting even more differences between Finland and the United States. This time is from the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project Director. As a Writing Project person myself, I was immediately curious what Tedrow had to offer. Her conclusions are quite revealing.

Presented with detached clarity, Tedrow is right. The American education system is mean-spirited for all the reasons she shares but perhaps even more. America has long celebrated the cult of the individual. We tend to eschew community benefits for the rights of individuals, so much so that we even view the collective of corporations as legal persons. This concern with individuals has a dark side, allowing us to blame individuals too while avoiding systemic inequities that privilege some individuals over others.

In education, we see this kind of myopia on full display. If a student struggles, it is usually their fault. If they fail for any reason, there are not a lot of safeguards to help them turn from the difficulties that can quickly drag them even further down. Penalties compound. Contrast that with Finland where another chance is always available. Yet, we ratified a law called No Child Left Behind – no short of ironies there.

What Is the Purpose of Final Exams, Anyway? – The Chronicle of Higher Education –  Kevin Gannon (5-minute read)

I came across this piece and thought to myself, I certainly have asked this question more than once. So, seeing it being wrestled with at the collegiate level made it even more interesting. I will confess that I have grown to think that final exams have far less value than I did earlier in my career. Like the writer, I began thinking that it was what was done. Also, like the writer, I would not suggest that they have no longer have any value. In certain circumstances they make sense but they certainly should no longer be a requirement for any course at the high school level or beyond.

For one, final exams only serve to further feed the high-stakes nonsense that is already replete across the field of education. Even if the potential value of the exam is reduced the purpose should be questioned. The idea of a single comprehensive exam does seem pretty antiquated. Yet, exams remain a part of life even beyond schooling. There are loads of tests that need to be taken for licensure, certifications, affiliations, and a range of other professional credentialing.

A course exam that serves as preparation for another required exam makes sense to me on some level but it also seems like a self-perpetuating death spiral. At least outside of education, most tests can be taken as many times as desired, until a person passes it or simply gives up. Sadly, in places where learning is supposedly the chief concern, that option is not typically available.

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