Category Archives: assessment

Hores are Good, Blackboard (TM) is Bad: Keynote Highlights Video #1

From D.’O.H! (the Dept. of Obvious Hypotheses):

Credibility is earned: If students see that their teacher has met with non-schooly success in any of the skills s/he’s teaching in class, then students might take that teacher’s coaching and instruction a bit more seriously. ¹

That’s why I’m screencapturing ² highlights of my “epic farce” of a keynote speech at the Learning Technologies 2009 Conference on Australia’s Sunshine Coast in Queensland last year and posting them on Youtube: so I can show them to my students this year and every year I breathe.

I’ll share several more clips soon — it’s called “shameless marketing,” I think, and I’m all for it, because straight out, I’d love more invitations to speak at conferences — but I chose the six-minute clip below as my lead-off for a very special reason: it ends with belly-laughs from the audience that had people outside the auditorium peeking in to find out what the hell could be so funny in a freaking education speech. Regular readers will know I find laughter appropriate for all houses of worship and of learning — and the sooner all such stodgy institutions get that, the better their (increasingly slim) chances to survive into the next century.

More importantly, the sooner students learn that laughter is okay when they’re presenting, the sooner they ascend from boring to interesting, from droning automaton to spirited human being. And maybe, just maybe, that discovery leads them to learn that designing and giving a presentation can be one of life’s highest pleasures.

So make sure you stay until the end — pacing warts and all — so you can hear all about why Hores are so great:

Steal This: How to Teach Presentation Zen in Eight Minutes

I’m pounding skills — writing and presenting — right out of the starting gate this year, so both my History of China and my World History courses are working on learning how not to cause Death by Powerpoint, but instead cause Delight by Design, via examples from TED Talks and the principles underlying them (consciously or not) from Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen. (Reynolds’ Amazon page here, and his blog here.)

Notice I didn’t label those skills “writing and speaking.” As I tell my students, in their future, some type of visual will be expected virtually every time they speak. Whether Powerpoint or sci-fi Holograph, design skills will be as important as traditional delivery skills. So my two target skills, again, are Writing and Presenting.

To that end, this year I’m not only showing TED Talks, and my own first attempt to apply that presentation style, to my students. I’m also adding, for the first time, this excellent, excellent, excellent 8-minute Youtube overview of Reynolds’ book by marketing strategist Matt Helmke to teach the principles more schematically. Helmke’s video models the design style while teaching about it. I urge you to give it a look for use in your own classrooms. 8 minutes:

¹ Better still, if they see said success was the result of simply writing and podcasting on a personal blog, then they might perk up a bit when teacher evangelizes about the New Media and self-publishing. But that’s for later.
² Why the screencapture? Because the conference was filmed and published in the Microsoft Silverlight format, which makes viewing it require more clicks and downloads than desirable in my book, and walls it off from embedding across the web. One hopes the good folks at Learning Technologies will find a more Open solution to publishing their events in the future.

Students as Writers, Teachers as Audience

Betraying the Audience:

Roman audience thumbs down

Roman audiences were dangerous.

Institutional schooling has perverted the understanding of far too many students of what the act of writing is — and the word “Act” is key: Writing is performance. This makes writers performers.

Performers know they have an unspoken but powerful contract with their audience: I must respect the time you’ve given to my performance. If they break this contract, the audience has ways of letting them know: no return visit. Boos. Bad reviews. Tomatoes flung at the time-waster on the stage.

This is an argument for tough assessment. Especially if the audience — here, the teacher — lays out what is expected on the performance, and the performer ignores it, yet trots on stage to receive a “not an F” grade and try to get by. That performer has betrayed the contract by wasting the teacher’s time.

As in school, so in the world: you show your audience you don’t care about them, you face the music. In the grade book, that music should be in the key of C, D, or F Major.

Sometimes a bad performance is beyond the performer’s control: an emergency came up, an illness. Life somehow got in the way. For those occasions, the performer should be told to explain as much to the audience before performing. “Dear Audience: I’m sorry my performance will not be up to par tonight for x reason. Catch me another week when I can show you my best.” This way, the audience respects the performer for the sensitivity and the honesty, and is more willing to forgive and support. But this is something we never see on papers for school.

I’m going to start requiring it.


More like it.

Since teachers are also kind audience members, and school is only a rehearsal anyway, second chances can always be arranged. But unless that contract is honored, the second, third, fourth, or four millionth chance should meet with the same audience response.

But when the performer’s risk and daring — regardless of how successful — or at least the attempt “not to sing out of key,” to quote the Beatles, pleases the audience? Then it’s time to bust out the A Sharp on the gradebook, and cry Encore.

Image credits:
Gladiator by Michael Heilemann
Applause by smackfu

Higher Reading Scores, Dumber Readers?

[Note: I'm going to spend the summer cross-posting here any posts I wrote for's Education blog that I feel are worth the effort. This is the first.]

U Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham‘s video below is about reading instruction. I recommend it to parents, students, teachers, administrators, and school board members – and especially to Arne Duncan, who testified before the Congressional Committee on Education and Labor that he increased teaching reading in Chicago Public Schools to two hours a day to achieve higher reading scores (see that eight-minute testimony in the “Baker’s Dozen Videos on Education Reform” post on the blog).Orwell Doublespeak

Since Duncan seems to be a believer in standardized tests as the best measure of reading skills, it’s no great leap to suspect that his reading instruction reforms were geared to helping students improve their scores on these tests: higher scores on low-level comprehension tests means higher reading skills — a simplistic view of reading if ever there was one.

Worse, Duncan’s “solution” of expanding reading time to two hours a day begs the question: At the expense of time spent learning what other subjects? As Willingham argues in the video, real reading requires background knowledge of a wide variety of subjects — subjects I suspect get the axe under the Duncan plan. Results? Higher reading scores, and higher student ignorance.

Finally, Willingham’s video focuses on primary grade reading instruction, so my last cavil may be beyond the scope of his argument, but it’s this: real literacy goes beyond having the background knowledge, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and other decoding skills to be able to comprehend a text. If we stop there, we stop at the authoritarian view of reading in which the author is also the authority, and the reader little more than a subject tasked with “comprehending” the content of the authorial text. Under this model, reading is a practice of social control that places the reader in a position of compliance and obedience.

Reading must be taught as more than that. Beyond denotative and connotative comprehension, which are absolutely basic necessities that of course should be included in reading instruction, comes the real meat of reading: questioning the text, holding it at a skeptical arm’s length, challenging it: Who is the author? What are the author’s ideological leanings? Beyond what the author included in the text, what did s/he exclude? And more.

Here’s the video. I’d love to hear what other things you “read” into it:

Cross-posted from

Image by Joel Franusic

On Student Genius, How Not to Grade a Wiki, and Making the World a Stage

clock pictureScot Aldred asks how I assessed projects like the Broken World Wiki textbook, and I tell him I haven’t the foggiest idea. It was too long ago. More to the point, he notes that since I said in my Australia keynote that whatever I did at that time led to burnout, the better question is, “How are such edit-heavy projects best assessed?” This set me to thinking of a speech I saw a brilliant Korean student give in the Original Oratory competition at the IASAS Cultural Convention in Taipei, Taiwan, earlier this month, and how it challenged a lot of what I’ve been taught is “authentic” writing instruction and assessment.

But this post is as much about that brilliant young speaker, and how he and the other young prodigies at that event need to learn to showcase their brilliance by harnessing the power of the web. So, first, that Korean kid.

The Spoken

Slouched in the back rows of the auditorium, high above the stage, I looked down on this kid approaching the podium with a bit of amusement. Straight bangs down to his mad scientist glasses, thin and slightly hunched frame, he didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Even less when he took a few beats too many, it seemed to me, to adjust the microphone, pause, survey his audience left, center, right. Had he forgotten his lines? Finally, he hunches forward into the microphone and peers out at the audience from beneath those low-hanging bangs:

To the left: “Tick.”  To the center: “Tick.” To the right. “Tick.” Pause. “Time is passing, and you’ll never get a moment back.”

My cliche-meter activated, I’m already plotting a path to the most discreet exit. But he keeps going: “And that’s why I want to talk to you today about what we’re told is one of the great evils of student life: Procrastination.”

He belts that last word out with such surprising flair, both vocally and physically, wheeling his body in such a way that he takes in the whole audience with his eyes, that I’m inclined to nibble at his bait. I’ll give him a few more seconds.

“You’ve all heard it a million times from a million teachers: ‘Don’t wait until the last minute to start your essay. You’ve got a week: start drafting now.’ Or, ‘Don’t put off studying for that test until the last night.’ ” Pause. “But I’m here to tell you: the teachers are wrong. Procrastination is one of the wisest strategies for living the Good Life.”

The pleasure of the hook piercing the cheek. I relax into my seat to enjoy being reeled in.

The Heard

The student went on to marshal all sorts of evidence that real people often wait until the deadline to do their work, and they do just fine. He’s got me thinking of how I teach writing — the Six Traits of Effective Writing, using the Writing Process to revise, trait by trait, over a number of days — versus how I do it, and have always done it: in one sustained outpouring of words that normally begins around 10 pm with a full pot of coffee, and ends around dawn the next day at the bottom of the second pot. And yes, that day is the day of the deadline.

It worked for me in college, where my professors almost always praised my writing. And it has worked for me since, in all the (admittedly modest) ways my writing has been successful.

So why was I making my students practice a model I myself didn’t practice, had never practiced? Why was I forcing them to sacrifice on its altar so many irrecoverable ticks of the clock, and forcing myself to sacrifice hours as well to assess each of those revisions?

Pitchforks down, readers. I’m a strong advocate of the Six Traits, and sing its praises whenever the topic comes up. It’s a beautifully focused model for zeroing in on the fine points of the writer’s craft, and its internal logic makes it a baby worth keeping. My way of teaching it, though? That’s the bathwater this kid was making me think should be thrown out. (And that points toward my first gut answer to Scot: assessing wikis shouldn’t excessively weight the number of edits. It’s the quality of the final piece that should be assessed. For some writers, excellent quality will take many edits, and for others, none at all. The proof is in the pudding. If the final product lacks polish, the student should be able to show edits as proof of effort. Otherwise, ignore them.)

The Echoes

Then came the moment of the speech that lifted me powerless onto the deck, happily flapping at this young speaker’s feet: “And now let me close by warning you of your fate if you don’t procrastinate: you become that most unhealthy of things in modern civilization” — and he wheels on the next phrase, and spits it out with fire-and-brimstone perfection — “a workaholic!”

Laughter and applause all around as he speeds through the details of a life lost to obsessive perfectionism and a work ethic gone berserk, before putting on the brakes, slowing to a pause, and closing where he started, with the “Tick, tick, tick” of that precious clock that, unless we rule it, rules us: a healthy reminder that some cliches earn their status for good reason.

Toward a Bigger Stage

I left that Original Oratory event the way I had left so many others — the Impromptu Speaking, the Oral Interpretation, the Extemporaneous Speaking — at that Convention: amazed by the talent of the students, and depressed at how boxed-in it all was. That Korean student (Sung Jin J. of Jakarta International School) struck me as nothing less than a young, Asian David Sedaris, able to use his wit and verbal skills to turn his quirky physical package to his great advantage; another student, a Pakistani young man named Raheem of the International School of Manila, spoke in multiple events with such polish and intelligence I would have paid admission to see more; likewise Zach at my own school, with his Original Oratory speech about the degeneration of high school into a breeding ground for “fakes, hypocrites, and cheaters,” an institution devoted no longer to “college preparation,” but to mere “college application preparation”; and an Australian young man whose name I forget but whose speeches I never will: all of these students showed nothing less than genius. And while IASAS deserves kudos for celebrating these prodigies on the same level that we usually (and depressingly) reserve for people skilled at getting a rubber ball through a hoop, across a line, or over a fence, it still falls short of promoting them on a far broader, and at the same time far less labor-intensive scale.

You know what I’m getting at: all that genius disappears into silence or, only slightly better, onto some school website that gets ten visits a month. If they truly had the savvy popular wisdom suggests these “digital natives” do, they could be getting thousands, tens of thousands of viewers a month. And that could lead places for them.

The missed opportunity to showcase them as they deserve killed me. I approached many of them, gave them my card, told them they deserved a wider audience than the auditorium, and I wanted to help them reach it. It was all unplanned, so I cast about in my mind for possibilities: I could propose to my old colleagues at that they publish these students as guest-writers. I could see about interesting them in reviving Students 2.0. I could feature them on this blog.

But all of those ideas are more complicated, it seems to me now, than necessary. It seems to me that all those students need to do is start their own blog, or YouTube channel for their orations, and share their talents with the world that easily. When they launch, they can tell me, I can tell you, and we can all promote them and send viewers their way. And then the unpredictable possibilities of “Open Living,” to quote Alan Levine — the possible job offers, interviews, feature articles, and the million other serendipities — are given their opening. And maybe these young geniuses can be discovered before they graduate high school.

Image by zoutedrop