“What gets measured is what gets done.”
I hear this mantra often in the educational world. While some people might read it and sigh, thinking about all the testing our kids have to go through, I see it differently.
Why accept the current frame, that assessment is a tool merely for evaluation? What if assessment were a process that is fulfilling for students and teachers instead of draining?
How might we rethink “What gets measured is what gets done,” and shift our focus toward documenting students’ potential instead of merely passing a test?
One approach I find effective for this work is digital portfolio assessment.
I wrote the book Attack of the Teenage Brain! Understanding and Supporting the Weird and Wonderful Adolescent Learner, because of an advocacy bias: as a neuroscientist, I felt educators should have detailed knowledge about a cognitive gadget called executive function (EF). The reason? The power it holds over the academic lives of teenagers. It’s like cognitive Red Bull. What EF is, and how to boost it, is the fleshing-out of this bias and the subject of this blog post.
What Is Executive Function?
Executive function is defined in different ways by different researchers. It goes by many names, from attention-shifting to self-control. Most researchers agree on two defining components to the gadget: cognitive control, which really does involve attentional states, and emotional regulation, which include behaviors like impulse control.
What does Executive Function Have To Do With Educating Teenagers?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that EF plays an outsize role in their academic performance. It’s also outsized in shaping socializing behavior — and EF dysfunction may mediate many adolescent psychopathologies. That’s the reason for my advocacy. Here’s how researcher Roy Baumeister describes the impact of EF (which he calls self-control) on student performance:
“When researchers compared students’ grades with nearly three dozen personality traits, self-control turned out to be the only trait that predicted a college student’s grade-point average better than chance. Self-control also proved to be a better predictor of college grades than the student’s IQ or SAT score.”
That’s quite a thing to say. Given its academic effervescence, a logical question bubbles up: What activities improve Executive Function?
As a teacher myself, I feel your pain when a capable student chooses — yes, chooses — not to perform well academically. Cajole as we might (and do…) to convince kids like these on the merits of academic accomplishment, many of them look at us with that blank expression of adolescence that speaks volumes in its silence.
What they don’t say are things like these:
- “School is irrelevant to what I’ll eventually do in life, and we both know it. Tell me how linear algebra will help me become a better attorney.”
- “If you really cared to help me, you’d let me test out of what I know how to do so that I had time to pursue stuff that is important to me.”
- “The reason I don’t do the homework is that I’ve already proven to you through my class performance that I understand this stuff. Wouldn’t you be as frustrated as I am if you had to do such meaningless work every night?”
More times than not, smart students who choose to do poorly on purpose have very good reasons for being disillusioned with their middle and high school experiences. And these students may be on to something. Research on gifted students and other high achievers has shown that many of them know 50% or more of the grade-level curriculum before it’s “taught” to them.
We want to meet, chat, and learn about what’s going on in your teaching world. A team of us here at Teaching Channel will be in Boston March 23-26 for ASCD. You should know that we never leave folks empty handed, so you can expect to go back with some great swag and new ideas.
There are a few opportunities for us to meet. Here’s the rundown of when and where we’ll be, so please come see us!
Popular culture often presents school assessment in the narrowest possible fashion. Based on what we see in films and television, it would seem that assessment in schools is restricted to a narrow range of tests: How often do we watch students in fictional classes being told they have a pop quiz tomorrow or see them practicing fill-in-the-bubble SAT questions?
This might be a stereotype of teacher practice, but it speaks to a deeper issue that teachers face: It can be difficult to see the full range of options open to us when we’re trying to find the best way to assess our students.
Testing itself represents just one small subset of assessment practice, but it’s a good example of the broader problem. There are a lot of different ways to use tests to assess your students, but in the hubbub of a busy classroom, it’s easy to default to the same one or two test types and use them in the same old way.
The best way to avoid this trap is having some alternative testing strategies in your toolkit to widen your options.
When it comes right down to it, teaching in general, and working as part of a professional learning community (PLC) specifically, are very human endeavors. Our charge as educators and the interactions we have with each other in pursuit of that charge are very personal, indeed.
As such, it’s easy to forget when we’re in the throes of a PLC meeting and working on processes like writing SMART goals, that we’re dealing with people, and with all of the talents, knowledge, curiosities, skepticisms — and yes, baggage — they bring to the table.
By comparison, it’s easier to blindly forge through and tick off items on an agenda than to be in touch with and respond to the interpersonal dynamics that play out as those agenda items are executed. This is the road less traveled, in a sense; acknowledging and honoring the humanity of teacher teams, and not forgetting for an instant that everything we accomplish (or not) happens squarely in this context.