Opinion: How Do We Know What They Know?

In my past life, I was a middle school math teacher. As I am still in the field of education, I keep my experiences close to my heart as I have witnessed the issues multiple families are now experiencing.

Your children are coming home with good grades and they don’t know anything. Okay maybe they know something, but not everything on that assignment sheet – I promise you.

Math is the easiest to fake since K-8 is all about the repetition of memorizing procedures and 9-12 takes those memorized procedures are the backbone of more memorized procedures. I did not understand the “why” and the “how” of math until my undergrad. I made up rhymes and songs to get myself through high school Calculus because there was no tangible sense to the subject.

I was one of those students where memorization and little tricks came easy to me, so I decided to major in mathematics for my undergrad. I liked math and I was good at it. Yeah, I was good at memorizing and making sense of it all! Was I truly learning? Could I apply my skills to real world situations? How many word problems were on assessments or included for homework? Hardly any. Why? Because my teachers didn’t know how to explain applicable math in the real world either.

I could go on for days about how our education system is royally messed up, but I’m here to talk about something a little bit different. Once I started my undergrad I had incredible professors that taught me how to study the learning process.

The article, Knowing What Students Know: The Power of Documentation -By Angela Stockman & John T. McCrann describes the advantages to study the learning process by documentation and even includes 8 Steps in a Recursive Process to aid in the shift. 

Hilda Borko, Brian Stecher, and Karin Kuffner  suggest that when scientists want to study the earth’s crust or the ocean floor, they don’t require our planet to stop spinning in order to produce lab samples. Instead, they simply scoop up what they need in order to examine it. Likening learners to planets and teachers to scientists, Borko, Stecher, and Kuffner challenge us to assess learning in process through the use of scoop notebooks rather than disrupting it in order to test. Much can be learned about the power of documentation from their work.

How do you know what your students know? This article raises some questions- how is this possible in our system of underpaid teachers who are highly skilled, yet bogged down by the ever demanding standardized tests. Oh, and teaching math, among other subjects, in the most ridiculous way possible?

So now, is higher education any different? I am so fortunate that the SME that I am working with is an incredible person: she loves project-based learning and structures her learning outcomes and objectives to meet those requirements. In their graduate courses, students create something that is valuable to the career they want.

As I’m reading these steps from the article, wouldn’t it be amazing if there was time to meet with students to mull over the documentation and feedback? What if we could truly sit down with our students and display, interpret, and theorize the evidence?  Students need feedback. They need relevant and meaningful goals towards learning something new is a crucial step to this process just as making the learning process as real as possible. When students are involved in the way they learn, where their struggles and strengths lie, they will be more apt to actually learning instead of regurgitating information that is completely meaningless!

My favorite:

Good scientists know that the findings from their documentation work serve as catalysts for different and perhaps deeper investigations far more often than they provide clear answers. Similarly, great teachers use what they learn from their documentation efforts in service to students, but more importantly, they use their discoveries to define what they want or need to learn next. This renewed commitment to learning, sharing, theorizing, testing, and relearning often ignites enthusiasm, inspiring them to seek company among professionals who share their passion for this work.

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