The small independent all-girls middle school in New York City bustles with activity at 8 am on a Tuesday morning in April. I am immediately greeted, “Good Morning…”Hi”…when I walk into the building. It is the first day of the English-Language Arts New York State Test–a day that has been kept in the back of students’ minds since September. The girls bustle about in their homerooms turning in homework, gathering books and pencils, highlighters and water bottles. Anything within reason that will help them sit anywhere from 90 minutes to 2 hours and 15 minutes answering questions about topics that bear very little relevance in their lives.
8:20: “I got chills, they’re multiplying, and I’m losing control, ‘Cause the power, you’re supplying, it’s electrifying! You better shape up, ’cause I need a man. And my heart is set on you. You better shape up; you better understand to my heart I must be true. Nothing left, nothing left for me to do. You’re the one that I want; you are the one I want, Oo, Oo, Oo honey! You’re the one that I want; you are the one I want Oo, Oo, Oo honey! You’re the one that I want; you are the one I want, Oo, Oo, Oo, the one that I need; oh yes indeed!” plays on speakers throughout the school signaling it is time for assembly–a 15 minute period that offers a chance for the entire school to come together as one, offering inspiring words, making announcements, taking attendance and closing with a prayer. The girls file out of their homerooms giggling, talking, sharing stories while streaming into the assembly room. Yellow walls, painted with inspirational quotes from the school’s namesake adorn two of the walls. The third wall houses statistics on dark blue plaques highlighting the success of the school’s girls.
8:23: The girls sit down in orderly fashion by grade level. The staff file in as well and sit on benches around the perimeter. Assembly begins. 4 girls get up in the front and begin to sing, “Let it Show, Let it Shooow, Let it Show!” followed by other witty lyrics referring to their ability
to succeed and do well on the upcoming tests. Overtime the chorus begins. Both staff and students start singing along and arch their right, then left arms in the air. After a giant applause, the girls return to their seats.
8:27 The principal says, Attendance.” Two sixth graders, begin “Good Morning to the staff and students. “Good Morning…and proceed to greet every staff–much to my surprise I am included, despite the fact that this is my first time in assembly in years. After staff, all 80 girls are greeted by name. This is followed by announcements. Teachers raise their hand and are called on by the principal. They announce the beginning of track practice and the start of baseball season. They are reminded they need permission slips to start either. They are reminded there was no homework club. After announcements, the principal moves the assembly along to prayer, “It’s time for prayer,”
8:30: A teacher stands at the front of assembly room and says, “Congratulations!” She pauses briefly before continuing, “you’re probably wondering, why I am telling you congratulations. Well, yesterday when I was thinking about prayer, I remembered when I was in the 7th grade, and my teacher came up to me before my tests and told me Congratulations. I looked at him confused; I hadn’t yet picked up a pencil to start and was actually worried I may have spelled my name wrong because I was so nervous about the test. What had I done to deserve a congratulations? He then tells me, you have done all the hard work. You were doing the hard work back in September, and on through November and into January. You continued the hard work through the early months of the new year and now here you are. Ready. You just need to show what you know. You’ve done all the hard work–Congratulations.” She paused again and finished her prayer, “Congratulations.”
8:32: The girls file out of the assembly room, giggling, talking, sharing stories while settling into lines by grade outside of their classrooms. Chatter continues, until a teacher stands in front of the two groups, “I know you all know how you need to be acting right now; you do this every morning. Once you are in line you need to be quiet so you can hear the directions.” The sixth graders quiet down and walk into their rooms to await the directions for test day one. Their teacher proceeds to read directions and in a semi-silly semi-serious voice lists all of the electronic and electronic related devices they are not allowed to have. This is followed by him passing out answer sheets, test booklets and reading more directions. I have been leaning against the doorframe observing this scene amused and impressed. It is a few minutes before a major test, and these girls are smiling and calm.
8:42: I step fully into the sixth grade classroom, before he reads the final set of directions, I interrupt, “Excuse me Mr. S, I need Julie, Maria, Ellie, Joy, and Catherine.” The girls get out of their seats and line up armed with water bottles, sticks of gum and a granola
bar–testing fuel. They are all entitled to take the test in a separate environment with limited students, distractions and receive extra time. Some of the girls who are staying give final “good lucks” as we walk out the door and down the stairs.
Two hours and 30 minutes later, I walk out feeling happy and light thinking about the woman who started it all over 20 years before; her spirit, her joy, her laughter live on. I turn right onto First Avenue and into the warm spring New York sunshine.
Big buzz words, both of them in the title of this article. One featuring a significant process of the Pre-Frontal Cortex, and the other, affectation of awareness from the entire brain, based upon the driving of the Pre-Frontal Cortex. However, let’s simplify the language of Metacognition and veer away from the “thinking about thinking” cliché (albeit that is what that is, the repetitive use of the definition is overused).
Meta (after, or beyond) cognition (conscious mental activities : the activities of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering) is that ten second delay before the thinking is decided upon as the last answer or decision. It is the pulling yourself out of your own awareness to look at the process that is involved in your own thinking: from the first suggestion of an idea to the last decided action. Metacognition then is the conscious mental activity that is after or beyond the activities of thinking, understanding, learning and remembering.
It’s what we commonly refer to as THINKING ON YOUR FEET. When you rely on the automatic responses of behavior that you tuck in the memory bank for the ‘rainy days’ and successfully combine these responses without reference to a specific technique or to a pattern, you have successfully practiced the art of metacognition. Most of us use the metacognitive process in its basest sense that its application is usually muted.
Labels, both rigid and tailored to testing have been directing the voice of education. Plotting one’s education based on the ability to test versus improving the quality of the inquiring mind has recently been winning the battle of what standards should look like and what ‘schooling’ should seem to be in the eyes of a successful community, and in the grander picture, what the world expects of a citizen belonging to a particular first-world geographical location. Teaching to the BRAIN inside the human being has been scoffed in skepticism and propaganda by purists of testing protocol, and worse, by those who insist that the BRAIN is a static piece of software that can only evolve in, well, the dog-eat-dog thriving situations to effectively learn (forgetting that the BODY is attached to it, inconveniently).
And yet, there are those who do acknowledge that there is a BRAIN that echoes its decisions on the shadow called a MIND (which apparently is highly controversial for those who have either no imagination, philosophical inclinations, or even quantum physical understanding of cause and effect). The MIND is not simply an artistic, metaphorical description of romantics or serialists.
Mind (the part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels, and remembers) fulness (the eventual quality or state of being full). Mindfulness then is inherently a state of consciousness. Although awareness and attention to present events and experiences are given features of the human organism, these qualities can vary considerably, from heightened states of clarity and sensitivity to low levels, as in habitual, automatic, mindless, or blunted thought or action (Wallace, 1999). Therefore, Mindfulness is the eventual quality, state or part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels and remembers that is full.
Conscious activities of thinking lead to filling up the state of a person that thinks, feels, reasons and remembers. Conscious and purposeful filling, which is aimed at harnessing powers of understanding from genetic, evolutionary biological cognitive methods, now contrast with teaching-to-test. Conscious and meaningful activities where learning is matched with the learner’s natural aptitude while harnessing multiple abilities of learning.
Teaching with the Meta-Mind process is the ideal, not necessarily realistic. The Teacher, broken as Teach (to cause or help a person to learn how to do something by giving lessons and showing how it is done) -er (person or thing belonging to or associated with something) fulfills this process with such subconsciousness if you ask him or her the process of the real teaching, they would have to pause and trace the Meta of how they begin. And when there are words to describe this magical process (taking away the paperwork load and the political requirements), the Teacher’s Metacognition begins with an idea, a seed, a stage either theatrical, comical, empirical or thoughtful. The Teacher is actively immersed in the conscious mental activity that is after or beyond the activities of thinking, understanding, learning and remembering. The preparation for every scenario entails an almost see something-say something proactiveness; student temperament will never be the same in spite of the occurrence in the exact classroom, having the exact community of students, and/or support through the same rules and regulations. Only homeostasis remains similar as learning experiences are emotionally, memory-dependent.
The students come, the dance begins of giving and taking…sometimes with upstarts and hiccups; however, with the arsenal from the Teacher’s Meta phase, the learning is curved to where it momentarily docks. After the last word on the subject, the wards attach the knowledge to a memory base, perhaps a mnemonic one for future reference. And the Teacher? He or She goes into the Mind phase: Mindfulness of students sharing, discovering, uncovering and maybe not fully comprehending what just had happened in the minutes before with the topic at hand. The Teacher in this phase enters into that eventual quality, state or part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels and remembers that is full.
How then can the teacher be unreasonably requested to match the learning of a subject that is not only too cognitively complex for the developing brain of the current roster he or she is given, but also when there is a predetermination of the worded script, the presentation of the activity or knowledge base, and/or finely trimmed boundaries they are unable to be flexible with? How is that called common core really a commonality? The Meta-Mind cycle is interrupted, the learning process is artificial, and citizens are not created, rather parrots with haphazard training preparation for the competitively overflowing sea of professional niches. The Teacher ceases to have a democratic role in the abilities and skills he or she thought was hired to use in the classroom; amazingly, all that’s needed to do this newly reinvented job are professionals with paper pedigree to continually beat down their passion or dedication…unless the latter is just a bad dream someone decided to share with us.
Please allow the teachers to teach again. Respect the Meta-Mind Process of Learning.
The focus on reforming education in the twenty-first century has lead to a near obsession with standardization. We have standardized curriculums, tests, grading, participation, essentially the entire learning process. Yet with this shift to standardization, we have failed to meet the basic standard of a school, which is a place children come to learn. Pacing calendars, pre-packaged curriculums with differentiated tracks, cookie cutter bubble tests are teaching our children to be ready for a test, one that will rank not only their individual performance against a national standard, but the school’s performance as well. However, this test ultimately seems to prove only one thing, how well a student can take a test.
Unfortunately the test heavy focus of education reformation has annihilated a tried and true strategy for learning: testing. Teachers give summative tests at the end of the unit; they provide a study guide a few days before the test, tell students to study and perhaps hold a study session in class. However, according to How We Learn by Benedict Carey, that is not how we learn best if the goal is for information to be retained. We best learn and retain information when we systematically review learned information based on time to test and when we study by testing our knowledge of the information.
Dr. Melody Wisheart and Dr. Harold Pashler found this study interval to be most optimal for retention:
This table provides guidelines for either students or teachers to review material in order to increase retention at time of test. Using this information, teachers and students can intentionally plan study sessions to increase student’s retention of the material. Teachers can revisit material learned at the beginning of the unit at the first interval and continue to add new material to subsequent study sessions until time of the test. By building in time to review material, teachers are teaching students how to study and providing them opportunities to review material in an effective way. This method is to increase retention of information and works best for facts, definitions, dates,mathematical equations etc.
Testing not studying is the answer to learning. Teachers often design pre-tests to determine what students know and what upcoming lessons need to focus on. However, pre-tests serve an even greater objective: they start the learning process of the material being test, even if the student guesses on every single question. Dr. Robert Bjork found that after a simple experiment with his introductory psychology class that students performed 10% better on questions related to pre-test questions when taking the final exam than on questions with no similar equivalent on the pre-test. Students have the possibility of improving test scores by an entire grade with the addition of a pre-test. Furthermore, testing as a study strategy decreases the illusion of fluency, which tends to occur when students read notes or the text book multiple times as a way to study. Dr. Henry Roediger theorizes that it forces the brain to do something more challenging that visually or auditorally process information; this additional effort increases the strength at which it is stored and later the ability at which is can be retrieved. Essentially, testing acts as a novel opportunity to learn and store the information; therefore, it becomes stored in a new way in the brain, connecting to other related facts thus strengthen storage and recall.
Testing needs to be re-branded in our classrooms. It can occur through a variety of ways (i.e. conversations with peers, family, other teachers, games, projects, and traditional paper/pencil tests), but the focus needs to be taken off the final score and placed on the value of knowledge gained, whether that reveals the student knows all of the information in the unit, or she needs to spend more time ‘testing’ her knowledge, to she recalled all of what she knew before and more.
If we start testing to learn, the learning to test will naturally follow.
Text Used in this post: How We Learn: the surprising truth about when, where and why it happens. Benedict Carey. Random House, 2014.