Chicago Green Jobs

Can You Teach Gumption?
December 20, 2010, 9:34 am
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change, Innovation in Education

Well, not *these* cool kids.

All the cool kids these days are interested in figuring out how to teach problem solving and critical thinking in schools. So how do you teach these things if you do if you don’t have a copy of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer or a mom as rad as that guy from Groupon has?

According to the New York Times the new chief accountability officer of the NYC Department of Education, Shael Polakow-Suransky, thinks part of the answer is overhauling standardized tests. Polakow-Suransky’s take is that since teachers are already under pressure to teach to the test we might as well give them a test that promotes the learning of useful skills. Take a look at this sample question from the NYT piece:

“Students would be asked to calculate the diameter that a straw needs to fit through a juice box’s hole, then write to a juice box manufacturer whose straws keep getting stuck in the hole to explain why its diameter should be changed.”

This is a great test question. Not only does it elicit information about math and writing skills, the structure of this question teaches three important ideas:

1. Context is everything. This problem is built around a situation in which being able to calculate the diameter of a circle would actually be useful (if not exactly thrilling). When I was a kid I delighted in claiming that I would never ever use math when I grew up, so why bother learning it? I was sort of right in that I really don’t swan around doing long division for kicks. But I was mostly wrong because now I’ll never get to be a roller coaster design engineer.

2. Problem solving is interdisciplinary. The structure of the problem communicates that having both technical skills AND communication skills will get you farther than either on their own. This is certainly true in real life where the really interesting and well paying jobs tend to be held by the well rounded. *

3. Ideas are worth sharing. Look how this question just assumes that the student has every right to start a conversation with a business executive about solving a problem. This is a subtle way to teach students that it’s a good idea to take your ideas out for a walk in the world and see how it goes.

It’s not that a kid would see this one question and be instantly inspired to devote her life to a fulfilling career in juice box design. But I bet that the cumulative effect is to make the point that a good education gives you the tools to solve problems and effectively communicate ideas rather than to memorize a bunch of the right facts.

*I can get away with this generalization because being Justin Bieber is not interesting.


2 Comments so far
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Very interesting. I like the direction that this kind of question is taking, especially with regard to holism.

How would you “score” the student’s work? Also, just to play devil’s advocate, what if all of the tested juice boxes are deemed “holey” enough for the straws to pass through unimpeded? (I was going to say unmolested, but that is going too far).

Comment by Duane Johnson

Scoring writing, particularly something as subjective as persuasive writing, certainly poses some difficulties. You’ve heard about how it’s possible to accurately score AP writing tests from across the room? The longer the piece, the higher the score.

I think the answer to this problem is to use an easy to score multiple choice format with each segment consisting of a cluster of math and writing questions. Math is easy to do in multiple choice and for the writing you’d present several sample sentences and have the students chose the ones with no grammatical errors and business appropriate phrasing. Although if I were writing the options I’d have a lot of fun with the “wrong” answers. “Dear Capitalist Swine, your failure to grasp simple mathematics proves the flaws in your business model. I anticipate your collapse with glee. Your friend, X”

On the juice boxes, my understanding was that these are theoretical juice boxes and that students are given dimensions that do not work.

Comment by Kate Eyler-Werve

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