So after spending a great couple of days exploring Monterey and the Salinas Valley area, yesterday started with a keynote (blogged in amazing detail by the estimable Jenny Levine) and ended with a white knuckle landing into a windy, rainy Philadelphia just before midnight. (Good to be home.)
But here is the moment that has my stomach roiling (aside from the nasty “snack” the airline gave out): at the end of my presentation, a woman in the audience related the problem with blogs at her school. “The kids are posting questions and answers to tests in between periods so kids later in the day know what’s coming. What do we do about that?” My first response was “sounds pretty inventive to me.” And I know that some people took that as being flip. But I was being serious. What a great use of the technology, not from an ethical sense, certainly, but from a collaboration and information sense. This is the new reality of a Read/Write world where knowledge is accessible, number one, and knowledge is shared instead of being kept closeted, number two. These kids are finding ways to share the information they need to be successful at what they are doing. Isn’t that something we should cheer? (Am I in trouble yet?)
On the plane home, I kept thinking about that teacher’s question, about how absolutely relevant and important it was, and how absolutely abhorrent most educators will find the answer. And I wished I’d asked this question in return: How much of what is on that test could those kids potentially find on the Internet anyway? How many of the answers or ideas are already a part of the “sum of all knowledge” that the Web is becoming? And why, if the answers are already out here, are we asking our students to give them back to us on an exam? I can understand why we used do this, back in the days when the answers were difficult to find. But today? Instead, why aren’t we asking them to first show us they can find the answers on their own, and, second, show us that they understand what those answers mean in terms of their own experience an in the context of what we are trying to teach? Shouldn’t we hear what they are saying, that in a world where the answers to the test are easily accessible that the test becomes irrelevant? (And by the way, I’m not saying that all tests are irrelevant in every instance.)
For a long time now, I’ve been thinking (agonizing?) about what this new landscape means in terms of plagiarism and cheating and ethical use. And I have arrived at the point where it’s just so clear to me that it’s not the kids that need to change. It’s us. We have to redefine what those things mean, because the old definitions just are not reasonable any longer. And please hear me when I say that I’m not advocating that we accept cheating or copying as the way of the world and not work to prevent it. But I am saying that we need to drastically shift our approach to dealing with it. Blocking blogs or Websites or Google is not the answer. Asking kids to take tests to see if they have memorized material that they can now find on the Web is not the answer. Making two or three or four versions of the test is not the answer.
The answer, I think, lies in teaching our students how to correctly and ethically borrow the ideas and work of others and in demanding that they not just use them but make those ideas their own. That they take the ideas we have tried to teach them and connect them to and show us that they can teach it to someone else with their own spin on it, their own remix. It’s so funny that it’s taken me until now to truly start to understand what Lawrence Lessig has been preaching about remix, over a year since I first heard it. It’s how learning happens in our own lives. We take the knowledge we need when we need it, apply it to our own circumstance, and learn from the result. We need to say to kids “here is what is important to know, but to learn from it, you need to take it and make it your own, not just tell it back to me. Find your own meaning, your own relevance. Make connections outside of these four walls, because you can and you should and you will. This is what bloggers do (at least the ones who are blogging.) And this remix is neither plagiarism or thin thinking. It’s the process of learning in a world where, as Lessig says, everything we do with digital content involves producing a copy. This is a profound change from the closed, paper laden classrooms most of us still live in.
And, I’ll continue to incessantly beat the drum for educators becoming effective models for how to use all of this information effectively and ethically. Just as we can’t teach kids to read well unless we read well, or to write well unless we write well, we won’t be able to teach them how to deal with what’s ahead if we don’t start figuring it out and doing it well ourselves.
So I’m all worked up, and I’m feeling seriously hesitant about putting all of this out there, because I know this is a very, very disruptive line of thinking. Oy.
But if I don’t, what am I going to learn?
Bill Brandon says
If education continues to be set up as a system in which rewards depend on knowing the right answers, then students who care about the rewards will continue to find ways to “game” the system. Sorry, Mr. President Bush — standardized achievement tests are just part of the game to these kids (and to many of their teachers).
Those students who don’t care about the rewards and those students who don’t see any rewards that they can ever attain within the system will simply continue to drop out, as such students always have. Sorry, Mr. President Bush — some children won’t be left behind so much as they will wander off from a path that leads them nowhere they want to go.
Those students who don’t care about the education game but who do care passionately about learning will continue to astonish us all when they emerge as independent thinkers and leaders in spite of their educational record. Standard achievement tests won’t do much for these students one way or the other.
Teachers who claim to care about the game but who can’t even be bothered to come up with different but equivalent tests for their various classes will continue to be frustrated and frightened as their students outmanuever them. Teachers who claim to care about learning but who won’t arrange things so their students can actually learn will continue not to make any kind of difference. One hopes these two sorts of teachers will themselves drop out, but they never do.
John Pederson says
I could sense this was coming after reviewing Jenny’s notes earlier today! :O)
I had a similar moment just this afternoon. How many times in the past have we responded to the “inappropriate use of Internet” situation by banning the student from using computers? Our HR folks got excited today because a principal wouldn’t ban a student from using computers after misusing them. I asked if we remove pencils from students that write nasty stuff on paper. Quite the mind shift for everybody involved, including myself.
It’s a completely different game these days.
Will, if you dont mind, I’m going to copy a little bit of your website and put in on mine. ;o)
Susan Sedro says
Oy! I feel my brain flipping over! I never thought of it this way before. Thank you for pushing me to think. I’m just beginning to grasp what this means. Not sure everyone in my district will welcome me thinking this way, but yes, if we are backward designing our curriculums, if students are showing us that they can use the skills and information we have been teaching them, then they cannot easily post the “answers” on the Internet. And as you’ve so often mentioned, good blogging isn’t a catalog of information copied from other blogs; it is information that is then transformed through analysis or evaluation or synthesis or some other higher order thinking skill.
Maybe these ideas will not necessarily appear toxic to districts if we find a way to truly address, as you mentioned, the way help students both transform and give credit for what they glean from online and other sources.
Thanks for this.
YH Tan says
Looks like students everywhere are innovative and they are able to spot and exploit the potentials of technologies. My students loved to use SMS via handphones to the similar effect. And it can be carried out even during tests 😮 (solution to the problem? u have guessed it, _ban_ handphones in school)
I agree with Will that teaching our students the correct values is the way to go. Think about it in long term, we teachers are not going to follow them throughout their lives. They will graduate from schools, and it’s our responsibility to educate them to become a contributive member of society.
Thanks Will for posting the thoughts up 🙂
Tom Hoffman says
Will, you’re 100% wrong on this one. The school should have some kind of code of conduct which defines what cheating on a test is, and it is probably going to include telling other students what questions are on a test and what the answers are. It doesn’t matter what medium you use to transmit the information. It is cheating and, quite frankly, I’d be in favor of using server logs to publically bust anyone stupid enough to cheat in such a blatant and tracable manner.
Juliette White says
I’m not sure about this.
I teach mathematics and I want to know if my students have understood a concept or can solve a particular type of problem, not if they have a friend who understands that concept or can solve that type of problem. Because, it may be fine as long as they have that friend around, but one day they certainly won’t, and then they are going to be completely stuck and it’ll be too late for them to go back and understand the earlier things because there won’t be anyone around to help them any longer.
Test are artificial, yes, but they are useful way to systematically diagnose where a student’s misconceptions and problems are.
dave cormier says
Thanks for talking about this Will. This may be the most important issue going on right now…
my response is too long to post here… this is the end of it…
“…In this world, the kid who was getting the answers on the test from his classmate gets a C, the one sending the questions a B and the students sending the answers an A. The C for finding information, the B for for helping focus the conversation, and the A for giving people exactly what they need to succeed. This is knowledge, as it exists today.” http://davecormier.com/edblog/?p=21
Will Richardson says
Tom: I agree. It is cheating. And I’m not condoning it. And it really is just another way of doing what many (not all) students have done for generations. It’s the digital passing of notes, which doesn’t make it right. But am I really 100% wrong about the bigger point, which is that now that (many but not all) students have access to information we should start taking a serious look at what we want to know that kids know? 100%???
Juliette: I agree with you as well. There are things that we need to test. Basic computation. Reading for understanding. The ability to write clearly. More. And there are many skills that require memorization of facts to carry out successfully. But why are we still testing to see if our students know the dates of the Korean War, for instance? Why instead are we not engaging them in conversations about the Korean War and assessing instead their ability to analyze that experience and apply the learning to today’s conflicts? Or, as others have suggested, to analyze different versions of the history of that war (or any war) and ask why they are different and where the truth lies? Wouldn’t a conversation in class be much more revealing? Or, for more reticent types, a discussion on a blog?
Everyone brought up great points, but I could not help but think that blogs, for some teachers, threaten their philosophy of teaching, their understanding of learning. The woman who asked that question probably was giving a multiple choice test. The teacher does not have to write four different tests. To me, that means that they are creating questions with one possible answer. Where are the questions that tap into their thinking instead of their ability to regurgitate material? Have students write instead of filling in blanks! Teachers will probably find this a lot more enjoyable to read as well.
I have my own example of “cheating.” We were assigned a take home test in quantitative statistics. It was impossible. He said we could not talk to anyone about the test but we could use the book and our computer. So, I started typing questions into google and finding some answers. I have to admit I felt a bit like I was cheating. I would have rather sat with my fellow students and discussed this, but I was attempting to find information. I wanted to share what I found too.
Plagiarism and cheating happen, but I believe there is a preoccupation with it because our technology has outpaced many teachers understanding of learning, teaching, and knowledge.
David Warlick says
An uncle of mine recently wrote a book about my family. Even though we go back nine generations on this continent, it’s a short book, because there isn’t that much to tell. One thing that fascinated me, though, was that my family valued education. My grandfather earned a degree in the Classics, driving himself to classes at the University of North Carolina in a horse drawn carriage. His brother earned a degree in engineering at North Carolina State University.
However, when they returned to rural Lincoln County North Carolina, there were no newspapers nor magazines, and very few books available to them. Being educated, at that time, meant having knowledge permanently stored in their brains, and the act of educating was to cause knowledge to enter their brains and stay there.
Today, we are surrounded by information and knowledge. Media is available any time and any where. Not only that, but the information is constantly changing — and here is the true crime that we commit when we inflict industrial notions of education on information-driven youngsters. We imply, in the way that we teach and assess, that what they are learning is omni-important and absolute, and that it will serve them the rest of their lives; when we know, as do they, that the answers are constantly changing.
If I were still teaching history, I’d take my students into the library for each test and say, “Answer my questions — with the knowledge you can find here.”
Juliette White says
I agree with you totally about the example you give, but aren’t you assuming that all tests are about memorisation, something which definitely isn’t the case?
Christopher D. Sessums says
I have enjoyed reading these posts and Will’s original argument.
Stepping up onto my soapbox, I have to question the philosophy of testing and the lack of imagination in many teachers across the country.
Teaching should be a subversive activity; it should instill in our youth the ability to question the status quo, and strengthen their ability to think and solve problems that are meaningful to themselves and the world as a whole. In many cases, what most teachers call “Tests” only help legitimize inequality rewarding the most exceptional or most advantaged. Without getting into a great political debate here, technology is providing us with a great WAKE UP call regarding effective practice in the realm of teaching and learning. I think Will’s argument represents the tip of the iceberg.
Tom Hoffman says
You know, Will, I’ve been thinking about this post a lot, and I do pretty much dislike it in its entirety. I don’t like the way you and your commenters seem to assume that there is no good reason to give a test, or to seek to withhold the questions on a test, or for a student to commit something to memory. To be sure, our “traditional” school system overemphasizes these things, but to assume that the teacher in question doesn’t know what she’s doing is quite presumptuous.
The whole context of the discussion seems to exclude higher order tasks. Either you’re memorizing facts, or you’re looking them up on the internet.
Your whole riff on figuring out an ethical way to reuse and remix makes no sense to me. Of course we know how to do that. It is called citation. You know, the research process, with the little notecards and the annoying footnotes and bibliography?
I’m a student very passionate about learning (all the time) and education (sometimes)… so it’s pretty scary for me to post here…
But I just wanted to say something about students using blogs to post up answers to a test…
even without blogs those students would’ve done that anyway – typing up a blog probably took longer than a quick conversation in between classes…
By the way, I’m a good student and I don’t cheat. But I have often asked others if the test they just had was easy/hard, long/short – which you could say is if it meant I got better scores from knowing to work steadily or knowing to do a bit more study right before the test…
Will Richardson says
Tom, I’ll agree there is an all or nothingness to the argument. And I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about it all. I do know this: unless you are talking about information that we must have so that we can react appropriately in pressure situation (i.e. how much of a dose to give, the application of a particlular precident while lawyering, etc.) it makes no sense to me to test for knowledge that can be easily found as needed. What we should test is whether or not kids know how to find it, and whether or not they understand the importance of that imformation in their own lives and context. We do a cruddy job of that right now. Form the plagiarism/cheating sense, I more conflicted. It’s getting grayer for me. You’re right that it starts with process (I’m not sure if notecards are the best answer for that any more, but) and it comes with teaching that process appropriately. But it’s more complex than that. There is so much more information out there right now, and we have to do a lot of work yet to figure out how that fact changes things. To simply say that we can stick with what’s worked is to say that we should stick with the whole model of traditional education which is now over 100 years old.
Marco Polo says
If “learning” means simply getting information, then, as long as kids have access to the Internet and/or good libraries, there’s no need for school. In this sense, I agree with David Warlick’s comment (tho I’d add they can use the Internet too). So what happened to the idea that the purpose of education is to teach children to think? Test questions could then either actually provide the “answers”, the facts needed to answer the question, and require the test-takers to put together these facts/pieces of information to make a convincing argument or theory. Another idea might be to set the test to a class as a whole, and have them work out answers, using collaboration and collaborative tools (e.g. Wikis). It’s a tricky balance, tho, because you can’t ask children who are too young, who have not developed the mental structures required to properly process information; it’s like requiring babies to walk before they can crawl – they’ll end up deformed.
The woman’s question was not dumb, by any means; it reveals an internal dilemma that she (and many, many others) gradually become aware of: the mind-boggling limitations on learning that are placed on children by the educational institutions they attend, indeed, some of these limits are intrinsic to educational institutions (e.g. “periods”, marked by bells which signal when “learning” begins and ends!).
Marco Polo says
Borderland has an interesting post on testing. Borderland is a teacher in Alaska. Actually (s)he has a couple of ’em, maybe starting here and then here and then here
I didn’t plan to join this discussion when I first saw it, but since Marco Polo recommended something I had to say, I guess I’ll jump in as well.
My position on cheating is unambiguous. Don’t – even where tests that you don’t like are concerned. It’s an ethical matter, and shouldn’t be compromised.
My position on testing is more complicated, but my thinking can be summarized by saying that I don’t disagree with testing per se, but with the uses of tests to rank and punish in the name of accountability. Most tests don’t measure exactly what they claim to. All tests are biased. Every paper and pencil test is a reading test. That being said, some well-constructed tests, fairly administered and thoughtfully interpreted, can provide us with useful information about a student’s conceptual knowledge. Most importantly, students can and should be taught to read tests and test results so that they can form their own conclusions about their performance. This is a key component of critical literacy – talking back to any text and challenging its unspoken assumptions.
What happens when test performance is equated with simply “getting the right answer” is that knowledge is confused with understanding. Most well-constructed tests would ask a student for more than simple information, but would somehow require an application of what they know. It’s hard to fake that, even if you know the questions ahead of time.