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Education in the Media, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

School is not a fetch quest

This morning I finally caught up with “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test”, the The New York Times article discussing the conclusions of “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping,” a recent Science article on the advantages of test-taking over studying for comprehension and inference-making.

To quote from the abstract:

The advantage of retrieval practice was observed with test questions that assessed comprehension and required students to make inferences.


Our findings support the theory that retrieval practice enhances learning by retrieval-specific mechanisms rather than by elaborative study processes. Retrieval practice is an effective tool to promote conceptual learning about science.

I wonder about retrieval practices versus meaning-making ones. I’d agree from experience that asking students to do something with new learning is better than asking them to put it away. However, I’m curious about how the learning gains from retrieval practices compare to those from applicative, synthetic, and evaluative practices.

While I’m sure the Times article will stir a little hubbub and give rhetorical weight to the already hefty testing regime, we should remember here that we’re comparing the learning effects of note-taking to test-taking. While this is science, it’s not rocket science or any kind of higher-order thinking. I am constantly bemused by the tautologies of testing: students who test more do better on tests. Well, yes, of course.

The tests started in the military and now the military bemoans the “products” of a school system built on testing. So does the academy. So do employers. So do we. Paradigm shift, anyone?

In trying to “produce” graduates that do what we want, we’re failing. It’s time to graduate students who are capable of doing what they want to support themselves, their families, and their communities.

I just deleted a half dozen paragraphs about where I find myself these days. To summarize:

  • The decision to follow students’ learning is a deliberate one, not without cost.
  • School divisions should share that cost with teachers, students, and parents by working to create a system that incubates amazing, joyful, original work.
  • School is not a fetch quest.

Retrieval is an appropriate end for viral marketing, but it can’t be the de facto end goal of any school system that wants to build happy schools, protect our democracy, strengthen our neighborhoods, or save our planet. If we could just do a better job of protecting kids’ curiosity, creativity, and sense of justice, we’d be well on our way to the lives and communities we all deserve.

One suggestion: decentralize big schools into handfuls of inquiry, service, and community-based schools-within-schools that enroll statistically insignificant numbers of students for AYP sanctions. Let teachers, students, and volunteers self-organize by interest, philosophy, readiness, shift, and structure. Let the schools be run democratically and represented by lead disruptors who are otherwise at present siloed in their schools and classrooms. Let the lead disruptors and any interested parties attend monthly colloquia on action-research happening in the schools. Count learning on- and offsite as seat time, since the government has already established that the two are one and the same.

This isn’t that big a shift. We already have departments. We already have tracking; all public schools that track have their own internal test-prep charter schools – they just won’t admit it. We already have PLCs.

Let’s repurpose how we atomize our efforts to better serve students’ diverse learning; let’s stop insisting that students serve us. Students are not retrievers and should not be treated as such, no matter how cute retrieval classrooms look. Students are us. They are the inheritors of our successes and failures.

We won’t move schools out of the failure column by concentrating on the tests. We won’t have successful schools by insisting someone fail.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


13 thoughts on “School is not a fetch quest

  1. Yes, this is a good point that the NY article doesn’t make. Again we come to where our major disagreement lies with the “education reformers” which is with the purpose of schooling in the first place.

    I’ve been reading a lot of John Taylor Gatto recently and finding his argument pretty persuasive. What I like about your model is that the influence of the individuals and the smaller groups will make easier to shrug off the effect and desire of the state for conformity.

    Posted by David | January 22, 2011, 12:17 pm
  2. In the olden days, viewing kids as consumers of information produced by an elite few may have worked for some folks. We have to realize that we are living in times now where EVERYONE can be a new source and EVERYONE can have an audience. We also have to realize that many “facts” change over time and traditional school resources don’t reflect those changes for YEARS. Whether or not a textbook has been updated to include the “Is Pluto a planet or not?” debate is dependent upon textbook adoption cycles.

    It is, nor do I think it ever was, not enough for kids to fetch information and call it learning.

    Posted by Becky Fisher | January 23, 2011, 2:00 pm
  3. Hi Chad,

    I appreciate this post, my friend. I referenced the NYT article and the study it cited in a response to Zoe’s last posting and only just realized it was the subject of your post as well.

    To reiterate, the study seems to have concluded that those that participated in a recall test of facts did well when taking another recall test on the same material a week later. It is not surprising that testing for recall promotes better testing for recall, is it?

    I’d like to see more of H. Gardner’s response. Seems like he was unnecessarily apologetic for the study’s results.

    You’re right the real question, ignored in the study is what is the goal? If the goal is simply to recall facts, then by all means let’s practice recalling facts. I, and many here I’m sure, would suggest it is far more important to think about what are we to do with these learned facts. As Zoe suggests, how can we use them to create a more just and humane world. Otherwise, said facts are worse than merely irrelevant.

    Nothing wrong with assessing for recall as long as we don’t ever confuse success on such tasks as successful education. Not the least of what is being left out here is education for wisdom, compassion, caring, leadership, creativity, and imagination (to name a few.)


    Posted by Paul Freedman | January 23, 2011, 6:07 pm
    • Paul, thank you for your clear-sightedness here. Recall, especially of facts that adults choose in political processes, isn’t the point of education. Rather, the point of education is to react to the facts gathered through inquiry and to create something new – a work of art, a workable solution – that inspires more learning and action.

      I’m off to work tomorrow wondering, as always, how best to approach the problem.

      Best wishes,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 23, 2011, 8:47 pm
  4. “Let teachers, students, and volunteers self-organize by interest, philosophy, readiness, shift, and structure. Let the schools be run democratically and represented by lead disruptors who are otherwise at present siloed in their schools and classrooms. ”

    Yes, sign me up Chad! I long to be given this opportunity. My district started a problem-based learning school within a school at the 9th grade building, but I could not get in. I would love to work in this kind of environment and I agree it would not require much of schools to implement.

    Posted by Mike Kaechele | January 23, 2011, 7:38 pm
    • Mike, one of my hopes for such a diversified system is that it would help adults create joyous workplaces and classrooms. Thank you very much for your comment – if you can’t get in, can you start a school or program in your division?

      I’ve been thinking about how dozens of small schools-within-schools would impact a division’s AYP and accreditation. I think that AYP would be AYP – total n is total n, and whatnot. If all the micro-schools in a building could share some core services, I bet meeting standards of accreditation would be doable, as well.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 23, 2011, 8:37 pm
  5. Chad, This is a good, old-fashioned Saul Alinsky strategy. I love it. Fall below the level of federal control, without directly challenging compliance measures.

    And then the work would not be a fetch quest.

    How would you start?

    Oiling up my elbow for my first drink with you at EDUCON,


    Posted by Kirsten | January 26, 2011, 4:08 pm
    • Well, since you asked, Kirsten . . .

      I think we’ve learned a lot at our school that would be useful to districts interested in this approach. Our hurdle is accreditation since we share some services, but have to be creative about other programs and don’t get all the accreditation points for test scores that a school serving a different population would.

      Therefore, I would first suggest that a division go one or two schools at a time for a few years both to find ways to overcome obstacles and to avoid state notice of the overall strategy. The first schools should address obvious needs in the community – this is the right thing to do and it gives each school a clearly politically understood raison de etre.

      Then I’d suggest that a team be assembled for each school – a team of educators, parents, and community leaders dedicated to the school’s mission, its publicity/outreach, and to one another. It will not be easy. You need to work with people with whom you know how to be happy and angry in productive ways.

      After that, I’d involve those stake-holders in school design, policy, and the writing of a recruitment plan and an alternative-assessment plan. Everyone involved should have a clear idea of how they will work with students to to fulfill the school’s vision of learning and to ensure the long-term survival of the school.

      I think that in five years a division could have half a dozen schools started that could act as a pressure valve lessening the harmful effects of standardized-testing and high-stakes accountability. The micro-schools would help their populations learn more joyfully and perhaps pass the tests, while letting the kids (hopefully) temporarily stuck in relic schools continue on with their traditional successes until more need- and wants-based schools can be developed.

      The total n for the division of test-takers and test-takers per reporting category would remain constant. If the micro-schools could survive, but still kept a whole division from hitting the AYP rate, the division could have a useful public conversation with its state DOE about why a division of fully accredited schools is being penalized when it has created micro-schools that are accredited and acting as Tier 2 and 3 RTI interventions for all attendees. Some kids will need years of such scientific AND creative interventions to perform well on traditional measures. Why not create strategically sized schools to deliver the scientific interventions and pioneer the creative ones if it puts your division in a stronger position vis a vis the AYP/accreditation dilemma?

      Or we could acknowledge that kids learn all the time, that some of them would rather be experts in areas other than the ones prescribe, that some of them take more time than we’d like to read on grade-level, and that all of that is okay. But that’s too simple. I want micro-schools, dammit.

      I’d keep the schools within the schools from which they draw the most students to avoid creating a situation in which it seems like the micro-school teachers are extra FTEs burdening the system off-site from the neighborhoods they serve the most.

      Anyone practicing administrators want to weigh in here? 😉


      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 26, 2011, 4:51 pm
  6. I am slowly catching up on posts on the Coop I haven’t had a chance to read yet but this made my day:
    “School divisions should share that cost with teachers, students, and parents by working to create a system that incubates amazing, joyful, original work.”

    Whatever the new schools end up looking like, they have to be open and inviting to everyone — family and community included. I step in one of our local community centres almost every day to take my older daughter for swimming, guitar, tennis, ice skating, piano, dancing, ballet, rhythmic gymnastics, in-line skating, preschooler science, “you-name-it” lessons. I often join in activities like swimming or ice skating myself and sometimes we mesh in as a family including my wife and two year old daughter. I find the community centre a place that bristles with learning and other fun activities. It warms my heart to go there after a busy day at work. The school on the other side is a place where I feel my feet leading me out as soon as possible after dropping or picking up my daughter.

    As I was entering the swimming pool last night to have fun with my daughter before she went off for her lessons, I couldn’t shake a thought from my head: Why this is separate from school? Why don’t we merge schools and community centres into hubs of learning and community activity? In such places it is learning that is valued, not test scores, marks, grade levels and such!

    Posted by kima | January 27, 2011, 1:42 pm
    • One of my mentors and I worked for months on a independent community-based school green paper proposing schools as community hubs for all kinds of learning, on-site and off-site, via classes, seminars, webinars, apprenticeships, internships, mentoring – you name it. We imagined the “school” as a match-maker for learners of all ages and learning opportunities, and as a site for hosting the classes that either met entirely at the center or started there before heading off into the field. We suggested private, philanthropic funding with zero tuition. We wanted shifts so that class would stream throughout the day for kids and adults. We talked about a library as learning commons. I hear a lot of desire for such a school in your comment, Kima, and I desire schools like that, too.

      The maudlin compartmentalization of our education by public schools is too much, sometimes.

      I just finished two books, one recommended by Kirsten, that have me thinking about our school’s inflexibility. The first, recommended by Kirsten, is Someone Has To Fail by David F. Labaree, and the second is Reading Against Democracy by Patrick Shannon. Both are good histories of our schools, though they differ in how they view Dewey’s legacy. What I took away from both is the idea that our schools are set up both to take in every child and to make sure that those who come in at the top stay there through programmatic structures, including scientific reading instruction.

      A community-center school that valued experiential learning in which parents and children from all walks of life could take part would seriously threaten our schools and the people who benefit from them the most – and we know that the people who benefit the most from school are not those students placed in scientific reading programs.

      Even getting one community center school started would be a big step forward for transforming education.

      Here’s to it.

      PS – On the bright side, I’m going to start Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken and learn more about the 1,000-year long game to save the world.

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 27, 2011, 3:27 pm
      • … imagined the “school” as a match-maker for learners of all ages and learning opportunities

        Interesting metaphor 😉 … I don’t like the word match-making as for me it implies someone going after both the learners and the opportunities and offering them “best-matching” choices, which can be limiting if the learner is not empowered to make the choice.

        In reality many people would seek for opportunities and would bring their passions and interests with them when deciding which opportunity sounds appealing.

        For the lack of better world, I think something like “match-enabling” would better describe what I hope to see one day and what you seemed to have had in mind with your mentor.

        Btw, count me in for the 1,000-year long game to save the world! Haven’t read McGonigal’s book, but something tells me stuborn persistence is one of the “qualities” required and I promise you I have plenty of that 😀


        Posted by kima | January 28, 2011, 4:36 am

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