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  • John Fallon on reliable learning infrastructures

    by Gillian Seely

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    No two classrooms are alike, but all students deserve access to a reliable learning infrastructure. Pearson CEO John Fallon speaks with students, teachers and local citizens on a panel discussion at Texas Southmost College about education in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

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  • Pace of change means challenge and opportunity for FT and Pearson

    John Fallon

    by John Fallon

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    We have reached an inflection point in global media. The pace of disruptive change in new technology — in particular, the explosive growth of mobile and social media — poses a direct challenge to how leading media organisations produce and sell their journalism. They have a great opportunity — to reach more readers than ever before — but must also reimagine their business models.

    Great brands will seize the moment and embrace the digital opportunity. But to do this effectively, organisations will need significant investment, a global brand and an unerring focus. Given the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, the best way to ensure continuing success is to be part of a global, digital news organisation that is 100 per cent focused on making and selling journalism.

    So, after much reflection and analysis over many months, we’ve decided the time is right for a new owner to take the FT forward. Nikkei shares our commitment to the FT’s editorial independence; it has proved that in its own journalism, equally published without fear or favour.

    Pearson and the FT will continue to work together in areas like global business education and teaching English in countries such as China. Pearson is already the world’s largest provider of English language learning, reaching more than 33m students worldwide. But we’re still only meeting a fraction of the global demand — over a billion people will be learning English as a foreign language by 2020.

    The world of education is now changing profoundly, through globalisation, the emerging middle class in countries including India, China and Brazil, and the revolution of digital technology. The number of students going to university around the world is expected to triple over the next 20 years.

    And that is what the future of Pearson is about: the ever-growing global demand for better education — whether that means learning real skills that lead to a career, access to better teachers and learning resources, or more affordable and effective higher education. It is a big and fragmented sector — annual global spending on education is estimated at about £3tn. As a business that currently makes around £5bn in annual sales, that is a lot of space for Pearson to grow.

    We are accelerating our investment in digital learning and fast-growing economies — in the past five years we have invested in some of the most dynamic education businesses in the US, China, Brazil and South Africa. We are designing innovative digital technologies and new business models to help reduce barriers to learning and contribute to solving the world’s most pressing education challenges.

    Fifty-eight years ago when Pearson bought the FT, the spread of authoritative reliable news helped democracies to form and markets to function. While that need remains crucial today, I believe it is now the promise of education, not just information, that can be the world’s greatest path to equality of opportunity. Parents the world over say that the single most important goal for their children is to gain the skills that will help them forge successful careers and lives. This is the promise of education — and the future of Pearson.

    The writer is chief executive of Pearson, the proprietor of the Financial Times and the world’s largest education company

    (This story originally appeared in the Financial Times on Friday, 24 July.)


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  • Pearson and the Financial Times

    John Fallon

    by John Fallon

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    (Image courtesy of

    Today we have made a significant announcement, which is that we have agreed to sell the Financial Times to Nikkei. This is an important moment for both Pearson and the FT, so I wanted to share more about what’s happening and why.

    For fifty-eight years, Pearson has been the proud owner of the Financial Times. We’ve invested in its global expansion and digital transformation, through good times and bad; and all the time, protecting its editorial independence and championing the quality and breadth of its journalism. Both Pearson and the FT have benefited greatly from the relationship. The FT is recognised across the globe as an intelligent and authoritative commentator on world events, finance, commerce and economics.

    In recent years, we’ve developed an increasing focus on our biggest, most exciting opportunity – to help people make progress in their lives through learning. As that opportunity has crystallised, it’s become clear to me and the Pearson board that the scale of the challenge requires our undivided attention.

    The changing media landscape

    At the same time, we are at an inflection point in global media. The pace of disruptive change in new technology – in particular, the explosive growth of mobile and social media – poses a direct challenge to how the FT produces and sells its journalism. It presents the FT with a great opportunity too – to reach more readers than ever before, in new and exciting ways.

    Nikkei has a long and distinguished track record of quality, impartiality and reliability in its journalism and global viewpoint. The Board and I are confident that the FT will continue to flourish under Nikkei’s ownership.

    I’ve every confidence in the FT’s ability to seize the moment, as it has done ably so far, in its digital transformation. The readership is at an all time high, with readers willing to pay more than ever for its journalism. But, after much reflection and detailed analysis of both the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, we have concluded that the best way to ensure the FT’s continuing journalistic and commercial success is for it to be part of a global, digital news organisation that is 100% focused on these same issues.

    The FT remains part of Pearson until we complete the transaction around the end of this year. I’m very pleased that we will continue to work together in areas like business education and teaching English to professionals in countries such as China.

    I know many people will have questions about what this means for our Professional line of business, of which the FT is a part. Pearson VUE and our English business remain incredibly important to Pearson, and are a big part of our future. 

    Looking ahead

    We plan to reinvest the proceeds from today’s sale to accelerate our push into digital learning, educational services and emerging markets. We will focus our investment on products and businesses with a bigger, bolder impact on learning outcomes, underpinned by a stronger brand and high-performing culture.

    This will help us progress toward a future where learning is more effective, affordable, personal and accessible for people who need it most. By doing so, we can help more people discover a love of learning and make progress in their lives.

    This is the promise of learning– and the future of Pearson.


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  • On the borders of American education

    John Fallon

    by John Fallon

    A student reading a book

    (Photo credit: Brad Doherty/AP Images for Pearson)

    “I am a human being in search of the American dream.” I was a bit taken aback after reading the first line in the essay handed to me by a student at Juarez Lincoln High School in La Joya, Texas – a school that sits less than 3 miles from the Mexican border. The new American Dream was what I planned to discuss in the commencement speech at Texas Southmost College the following day, before ever having met these students. But nowhere along this 4-day road trip through Texas did I feel the importance of this theme more acutely than when I met the young students at Juarez.

    Their stories all share a common thread: the drive to overcome challenges of poverty with a will to learn and as one young man very frankly put it, “be somebody.” The first student who spoke told me about leaving his parents behind at the age of 14 to come to the US. Another had ridden atop the “Death Train” from Honduras – a two-month-long journey, which, he wrote in his essay, all too many passengers did not survive. These students were among the most mature, humble and driven I have met anywhere in the world, and hearing their stories was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. As the teachers and parents thanked me for coming to their school, I felt a sense of inadequacy…that I had brought little to the table through my visit (although I know Pearson has been a long-term partner of the school), but had gained so much from the experience. I had seen firsthand what it really means to need an education. For many of these students, and students like them around the world, an education can literally be the difference between surviving and thriving. My conversation with these students reinforced for me the urgency and importance of the purpose that 40,000 Pearson colleagues share with our partners and customers around the world. The last line of that student’s essay reminded me that there is so much yet to be done to help people achieve their goals. He writes, “I am a human being in search of the American Dream of becoming a Spanish teacher.” As I left the school, I realized why these students had been happy to talk to me – they took comfort in hearing someone from outside their world tell them directly that through education, they can realize their own personal ambitions.

    I had the chance to address the graduates at Texas Southmost College the next day. I told them what they likely know better than anyone: education impacts not only the life of the student, but the lives of everyone close to them. In the photo above, little Makayla joined her father Mark on his big day, as he graduated with an associate’s degree in applied science. She was so excited, and understood that this was a happy time for her family. But what surely wasn’t clear to her at the age of 4 was that the moment would be a transformational one. His associate’s degree will mean an earnings difference in $400,000 over the course of Mark’s lifetime, and it will greatly increase Makayla’s chances of going to college and providing a comfortable future for her own children and generations to come.

    Education is a powerful driver not just of personal and family growth, but also of community growth and economic prosperity. Before visiting Texas, I spent two days in DC, during which time I drove three miles from the Capitol to visit an adult charter school in Ward 7 in southeast Washington DC, one of the most destitute parts of the city. Pearson has supported the Community College Prep Academy since its inception with digital learning and tutoring support to help get students ready for college and the workplace. The charter school’s founder, Connie Spinner (pictured below), described Ward 7 as an “underdeveloped nation within a city”, one of the “last bastions of great poverty” in the nation’s capitol, and an area where internet infrastructure is nonexistent. It takes an exceptional leader like Connie to overcome these challenges and see the impact that a school like this can have upon the community. The students ranged in age from 20-50 and older, but they were learning the very basics of literacy and numeracy. (In fact, the 40 year-old man I met with was only just learning whole numbers.) In just the few years since she opened CC Prep’s doors, Connie has seen hundreds of students leave, armed with the qualifications they need to take the next step in life, and ready to give back to their own community and push forward the positive cycle of education in Ward 7.

    CC Prep Visit

    These stories reinforce the desperate need for access to high quality education in our poorest communities. The students at CC Prep, Juarez Lincoln High School, and Texas Southmost College, rely every day on a combination of great teaching, inspirational leaders, and world-class tools and research to make progress in their lives. Our responsibility is to provide those world-class tools and research, and what matters to my colleagues and to me is that we’re doing right by the people who most need it.









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  • How to make teaching the career choice for Millennials

    by Kathy McKnight

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    Ask a group of American kids what they want to be when they grow up, and odds are you’ll hear “teacher” less and less. In the US there are some disturbing indications that teaching is increasingly falling out of favor as a career choice. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13, there was a massive 30% drop in enrollments to teaching preparation programs; while The New York Times reported that applications for Teach for America, a well-respected program to recruit elite college graduates to teach in high poverty schools, declined by 10% from 2013 to 2014. It is perhaps even more troublesome that teaching also seems to be falling out of favor with teachers - a 2013 MetLife survey indicated that just over one in three teachers reported to be “very satisfied”, down by almost 40% in just four years.

    One of the reasons put forward for this trend is the perceived narrowness of the teaching career path, especially amongst Generation Y ‘Millennials’. This is, according to research, the demographic that’s impatient to realise their ambitions, demanding of choice and opportunity, and certain that their careers will move forward on their terms - features they do not relate with teaching.

    So three years ago Pearson, with several key partners, set out to understand how the teaching profession can evolve to meet the 21st century career expectations of those who currently teach, and those that might one day.

    In that time we’ve studied eight teacher career advancement initiatives in the US, and found there’s much to be encouraged about. From urban to suburban and rural districts; in areas of affluence and high poverty; and in schools with and without strong union presence - there is plenty of evidence for how to improve teacher career pathways, and what happens when you do.

    Here are some of the key highlights from our observations. You can read the full report here.

    Districts observed improved trends in the recruitment and retention of teachers: All districts with teacher career advancement initiatives reported an increase in applicants to teach, and increased retention rates - notably of effective and experienced teachers.

    Creating time for teachers to meet and collaborate is an ongoing challenge for districts: One of the most commonly cited advantages of teacher career advancement initiatives was more collegial interaction, with teachers working with colleagues across grade levels and subject areas. In part this is due to the significant costs associated with releasing teachers full-time for instructional coaching, meaning that mentoring and coaching is often done ‘in-house’ by other teachers. Some districts have even adopted 'hybrid' teaching/coaching roles. The benefit is felt by both mentee and mentor. One mentor teacher from Knox County said to us: “I’ve told so many people that they need to be mentor teachers because just what you learn about yourself is much. I feel like I’ve gotten more back from doing it than I’ve given to my people that I coach.”

    However, we also observed that it takes time and effort to change the culture of isolation to promote sharing of practice and collaboration.

    There is some evidence of a positive impact on teacher effectiveness and some short-term student learning outcomes: There is limited 'hard data' about the impact of teacher career advancement initiatives on student achievement, although there is much anecdotal evidence. Teacher and administrator focus groups almost universally cited the positive benefits on students of teacher collaboration, focused conversations on curriculum and instruction, lesson modeling, and taking time to reflect on teacher effectiveness.

    “This is about closing achievement gaps, and you don’t close achievement gaps by doing the same … things that you’ve done for 50 years,” one Denver administrator told us. Another, from Scottsdale, commented: “It is because of that career ladder culture [that] every single teacher is vested in getting that student growth, doing the best thing they can for their students on campus, in their classroom, at their school… it really has created a culture within our district.”

    Teachers in leadership roles report greater job satisfaction: The general consensus of teacher leaders we interviewed was that motivation and job satisfaction were positively affected by opportunities for collaboration and professional development, recognition as leaders in their district, and opportunities for additional compensation. Interestingly, we also heard that another significant positive feature of the teacher career advancement initiatives is that teachers can take on leadership roles without stepping into formal administrator roles.

    “I knew in a flash that this new [multi-classroom leader] model would bring me my dream job… a teacher who continues to teach while leading a team of teachers…” a teacher from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools told us.

    Teacher/administrator relations and the roles of principals change in positive ways, but present new challenges: Our studies found that, as teachers and administrators collaborate more, there becomes a need to manage teams of teacher leaders who now require new skills, and also additional support for principals. A Seattle ‘career ladder’ teacher described her experience to us: “Oh, you’re going to be on this professional development committee which is going to meet every other week on top of the building leadership team, on top of leading your own PLC. It becomes you’re one of five people that are doing everything in the school and that’s not the point of the role.”


    For all the positives coming out of our study, the reality is that sustaining these initiatives is hard work, requiring stakeholder support (teachers in particular), a school/district culture that can deal with change and ambiguity, and external support—either monetary or technical assistance. Funding in particular is the greatest challenge to continuity. Grants, either district funding sources or from external bodies, are typically designed to launch programs, not sustain them. Our study sites are navigating this treacherous territory in different ways, and with differing success. Denver, for example, offers a vision of flattening the organizational structure of schools and replacing some highly paid administrative positions with teacher leaders. A teacher we spoke to there made the point that this was not just about sustaining funding, but also maintaining the right culture.“This needs to be a teacher-led initiative, a teacher supported initiative, because it is about elevating the craft from the peer perspective…”

    The next few years will be critical in determining whether these teacher career advancement initiatives will continue, expand or be modified. With the new ESSA legislation and the focus on developing teaching and the profession, we hope that the lessons learned and recommendations contained in the full report will help propel more schools and districts to implement innovative, sustainable teacher career advancement initiatives. And to make the profession top of the list of what kids want to be when they grow up.


    Follow up with Kathy about this research - @McKni8

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  • Intelligence Unleashed: an argument for AI in education

    by Michael Barber

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    For thirty years I have attended conferences where speakers have spoken to slides comparing images of an early 20th century classroom with one from today, and have pointedly asked: ‘why so little change?’ The modern variant goes something like this: smart technologies have already transformed so many parts of our lives – from how we date to how we book a taxi. It would seem that there is no doubt that AI (artificial intelligence) will also significantly influence what we teach and learn, as well as how we do it. And yet...

    Adopting a puzzled stance as to why things have not changed more has some value. It prompts us to examine our assumptions, our habits, and our routines. It only takes us so far, though. More is needed.

    What we need – what we should demand – is an explanation of why and how things could be different. First, we need to be empowered by an understanding of what artificial intelligence in education (AIEd) is, what it delivers, and how it goes about doing that.

    Second, we need a clear explanation of how the field of artificial intelligence can connect to the core of teaching and learning, so that we can avoid general-purpose technologies being used in ways that do not deliver the step changes in learner outcomes we seek. For example, smart technologies that adapt to what is liked, rather than what is learnt, or that deliver more efficient administration, but not more efficient learning.

    Third, we need concrete options that will allow us to make the potential of AIEd real at the system level – that is, at the scale that will allow it to support the teaching profession broadly and impact positively on the learning experience of each and every student. And fourth, we need to ask and answer some profound ethical questions – for example, about the acceptable uses that can be made of the data that AIEd collects.

    In other words, what we need is a degree of specificity about AIEd that allows us to assess, invest, plan, deliver, and test. This is what our new research paper, 'Intelligence Unleashed', offers – a useful primer on AIEd and a compelling argument about what it can offer learning.

    From what AI is and how AIEd-driven learning systems are built, onto its potential role in addressing the profound issue of robots and machines taking over more and more current jobs, it covers a vital range of topics with ease and elegance. It is also a good read, with entertaining references from PacMan and Stephen Hawking, sci-fi and ancient philosophy. And, yes, it is understandable to a non-technical reader!

    To make my own case for reading this paper, let me move to a more local, anecdotal, level. Recently a member of my Pearson team talked to me about a phonics learning app he had bought for his young son. We could easily identify the affordances that the technology brought – perfect pronunciation of 42 phonics sounds, infinite patience, and a healthy spillover of engagement from the software to learning.

    Yet, it was equally easy to identify ways in which some basic AIEd techniques could have made the app so much better. Content was re-presented even after it had been mastered, which led to boredom. Other content was accessible even though it was much too difficult, leading to frustration. And there were no speech recognition capabilities present to verify the learner’s pronunciation, or blending of sounds.

    Asking for these features is not asking for science fiction. Instead, it is asking us to incorporate findings from fields like the learning sciences into AIEd tools so that these insights are realised in cheaper, more effective ways. This paper offers a long-list of where we should look for this combination of learning insights and technology – for example, collaborative learning, meta-cognition (or knowing about one’s own thinking), useful feedback, and student motivation.

    Funders and founders, policy makers and philanthropists – in fact, anyone who takes seriously the urgent need to embark on the next stage of education system reform – should read and debate this paper. Only then will we (finally) make good on the promise of smarter technologies for learning (and, as a side effect, get rid of those boring slides).


    Read the full report - Intelligence Unleashed: An Argument for AI in Education

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  • The Pearson Affordable Learning Fund: combining social need with business know-how

    by Kate James

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    Tens of millions of children and young adults are missing out on their education due to conflict, threat of attack or the after-effects of natural disaster, some for weeks and months, still more for years at a time. When world leaders came together at the UN in September 2015, this challenge was top of mind as discussion focused on the Syrian refugee crisis and the need for both immediate action; and also with the launch of the 17 Global Goals, long term sustainable solutions to the world's biggest humanitarian challenges.

    At Pearson, we’ve chosen to work with Save the Children to pilot models of sustainable, quality schooling for children in conflict zones, but we also want to address the ongoing education crisis that can be less immediately apparent than that brought about by war - 59m primary-school-age children out of school and nearly 800m illiterate people across the world. For those learners who are in school, there are many other trenchant challenges that plague education systems in sections of the developing world: lack of teachers, poor teacher development, insufficient materials, out of date resources...the list goes on. As we focus on Global Goal 4 - to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning - we are looking at ways to ensure every learner has access to a high-quality, affordable education.

    One of the ways we are looking to do this is through the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF), which invests in entrepreneurs who are helping to meet the demand for high-quality, low-cost education in the developing world. In PALF’s first annual letter, learn more about the impact and reach of our ten portfolio companies as they set out to improve the quality of education for people everywhere.

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  • The case for "unbundling" the teacher

    by Michael Barber

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    For most of the past century we have bundled a very complex set of disparate skills into a single role we call the ‘classroom teacher’. Teachers must have deep content knowledge to understand the scope and sequence of a curriculum, and pedagogical expertise to plan effective lessons and evaluate student comprehension and mastery. We also ask them to be charismatic presenters, a coach/mentor to provide support and motivation for students to persevere, and project managers able to keep track of each students academic progress.

    It is incredibly difficult, and perhaps unrealistic, to expect to find such a diverse skill-set in a single individual. As a result the past few years has seen various attempts to “unbundle” the teacher. While much is made of the developed world’s experiments with unbundling, most notably flipped classrooms and MOOCs, some of the most interesting innovations are occurring in the developing world where the dual constraints of limited financial resources and a weak labor pool make the need for new solutions all the more pressing.

    The Pearson Affordable Learning Fund has invested in some exceptional entrepreneurs that are tackling this challenge head-on.

    For example, at SPARK, a school chain in South Africa, a highly trained teacher is in charge of the whole group and guided practice portions of the typical learning cycle, while the independent practice portion of the learning is done primarily with the aid of “e-learning labs.” Here students work to reinforce and extend classroom instruction with personalized computer programs overseen by a more junior assistant.

    This allows the extremely valuable time of the master teacher to be dedicated to the more complex tasks of implementing best-in-class instructional methods and overseeing classroom management. As a result, the cost of delivering high-quality education is substantially lower, while quality is maintained.

    Another example of the same trend is provided by Bridge International Academies, who dedicate the bulk of their six-week teacher training program to focusing on techniques for classroom management, student engagement, and checking for understanding, while a team of world-class educators based in Boston and Nairobi write a rigorous, student-focused lesson script which the teachers read on an e-book during class.

    Visiting a Bridge classroom you will see students being pushed to perform more challenging cognitive tasks (for instance, instead of simply writing down a list of map symbols they will be using these symbols to draw a map of their own neighborhood) with teachers circulating the classroom carefully checking students work. Both of which are rarely found in a typical classroom in Kenya.

    My prediction is that 2016 will see much more piloting, experimenting and testing of these new models. Some will be taken to scale, most obviously through new public-private partnerships that are able to see the value in moving away from the old model of a single, jack of all trades, teacher. This division of labour will allow expertise to be deployed where it is most needed, and where it can best be found - and the impact on learning will become increasingly visible.


    Read more about the work of SPARK and Bridge.

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  • Standardized testing. What is it and how does it work?

    by Kimberly O'Malley

    Standardized assessment is a lens into the classroom. It sheds light on why a child might be struggling, succeeding, or accelerating on specific elements of their grade-level standards. Results from standardized tests help inform the next step in learning for our students. But, sometimes it isn’t always crystal clear to students, parents and the public how and why the tests are developed. Let’s delve into that.

    As it stands, most states are still administering end-of-year tests as required by federal law under No Child Left Behind. For the most part, this means students take annual tests in English Language Arts and Mathematics in grades 3-8; they are tested at least once in high school. Science is tested at least once in elementary, middle and high school. Additional testing in high school often is seen after completing specific courses, like Algebra or Biology, or as a gateway to graduation.
    Each state plans the specifics of its testing program, deciding elements like how many questions to put on a test, the dates for testing, whether tests are given on paper or on computer, to name a few. But, some similarities in the creation of the tests cut across the board.

    Standardized tests undergo a very rigorous development process so here’s a bit about the five major steps that go into making a test.

    States Adopt Content Standards

    This is where it all begins. Everything starts with the content standards developed by states and/or a group of states, as seen with the Common Core State Standards. Content standards outline what a student should be able to know at the end of each school year. These standards are the foundation for instruction in the classroom as well as the assessment.

    Given the huge range of knowledge and skills each student is supposed to master by year’s end, the assessment development process includes a determination of what will be assessed on each test for each grade. Because we can’t test everything covered in a year (no one wants the test to be longer than necessary), decisions must be made.

    Item Development

    Here’s where we get into the nitty gritty. Experts, most of whom are former or current teachers with experience and knowledge of the subject matter and grade level, create “items” that test the content selected in step two. These items can be multiple-choice questions, essay prompts, tasks, situations, activities, and the like.

    Of note, significant time is even spent deciding which WRONG answers to make available for multiple-choice questions. Why’s that? Every item is a chance to identify what our students really know. Incorrect answers can actually tell us a lot about what students misunderstood. For instance, did they add instead of subtract? Multiply instead of divide? Every bit of data helps disentangle what kids really, truly know, which makes the assessment process complex and the final product a very powerful education tool.

    Once the items are developed, then teachers, content experts, higher education faculty, and the testing entity at the state level review them. This diverse group of stakeholders works together to create items that are fair, reliable and accurate. Lots of revisions happen at this stage. And, during this process many items are thrown out — for any number of reasons — and never see the light of day.

    Field Testing or Field Trials

    Now, we test the items by giving them to students. Items developed in step three are “field tested” to gauge how each works when students respond to them. Here, and I can’t stress this enough, we’re testing the item itself – not the kids. We want to know that the question itself is worthy of being used to assess skills and knowledge appropriately. Students’ scores on these field-test items are only used to evaluate the items; they are not used to calculate a student’s score for the year.

    By doing these trials, we can see if gender, ethnicity or even English proficiency impact a child’s ability to successfully perform the task at hand. All of this is done to verify that each and every question is fair. Yet again, a range of stakeholders and experts are involved in the process, reviewing the results and making decisions along the way. The reality is this: if an item doesn’t meet expectations, it’s cut.

    Build the Test

    Using field-tested and approved items, systematically and thoughtfully the test takes its final form. Easy and hard items, tasks, and activities are incorporated. Items that assess varying skills and content areas are added. This part of the process helps us understand what a child really knows at the end of the assessment. As they say, variety is the spice of life. Same goes for an assessment. A mixture of challenging and easy items enable a range of knowledge and skills to be assessed.
    Setting Performance Standards – Finally, states with teachers and their testing partners to make decisions about how well students must perform to pass, or be proficient. For example, performance can be defined as basic, passing, proficient, or advanced. These “performance standards” provide a frame of reference for interpreting the test scores. They help students, parents, educators, administrators, and policymakers understand how well a student did by using a category rating.
    After – and only after – this rigorous, multi-step, multi-year process involving a range of stakeholders is complete, do the tests enter the classroom.

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  • NPR Says Learning Styles Are A Myth…

    I’m on several listservs. I enjoy watching the dialogue between instructors and administrators about everything from the coolest new techno-widget to research questions and answers for at-risk reports. The conversations are typically interesting and challenging.

    One that I’ve been watching for the past 48 hours is no different. There is a pretty significant debate going on with regard to Learning Styles. NPR ran a story a few days ago suggesting there is no such thing as proven learning styles (NPR story) and that educators are wasting their time trying to use them in teaching.

    The listserv I have been watching began with a light-hearted response to the NPR story and it soon turned downright ugly! Professors wrote in explaining how over-joyed they were to hear a story about something they knew to be “crap all along” (quote from the listserv – name withheld). The visceral rhetoric talked about ridiculous trainings on the subject and that differentiation equates to edutainment (which essentially is teaching to the lowest common denominator).

    (It was interesting that many of the anti-learing sytlists ignored a component of the story that explains how, “Mixing things up is something we know is scientifically supported as something that boosts attention…”)

    So, several posts centered around the idea that we should all go back to lecturing as it has never been proven to be ineffective…

    I’m quite troubled by this conversation. (I don’t typically blog about other digital conversations I’m watching.) Although I must admit that I’m not surprised. As a faculty member and someone who speaks about the future of education, I come across a fair share of educators who disagree with topics of all scope and sequence. And I hear often about the lack of evidence for Dale’s Cone, Learning Styles, and the need for differentiation.

    But as I watch and listen to the debate, I have to ask myself some basic questions of motivation. Who has a stake in the fight and why?

    It certainly does not surprise me that faculty would want to replicate the manner of teaching that was modeled for them. Most people parent the way they were parented. Most people use manners as they were shown to use manners. And so, it makes sense that most people teach the way they were taught. Especially considering that the overwhelming majority of instructors have never had a single class on how to best teach or educate anyone. (We’ll not talk about the assmption that because someone is a subject matter expert they inherently know how to teach others for now…)

    But, as stakeholders in the debate, I believe it is important to ask about their motivation. Now please don’t get me wrong, I LOVE to lecture. I actually won Lecturer of the Year at Metro State before my Pearson days. I enjoy the attention, the control, and the challenge of connecting to the crowd. I like trying to find ways to challenge, engage, focus, inform, and persuade. I really enjoy a good lecture. But that actually leads to my first point. As much as I like lecturing, I have to admit that it’s easy in contrast to creating differentiated learning modules for my students. And there is a major semantic elephant in the room…I said “good lecture” above. I would argue that most lectures are NOT good. I know there are a few great lecturers out there, but most instructors are not them. (Yes, I read Nudge and I know that most instructors believe they are in the top 10% of eductators…but I have bad news for most of you…) Want me to prove it?

    Go to a conference. ANY conference. I’m particularly embarrassed by my own disclipline of communication in terms of conference presentations. You all are probably nodding already, because you know what I’m going to say. 90% of the presentations are just awful. They are boring, uninspiring lectures (sometimes more appropriately called a reading…) where the presenters (aka instructors) do not connect to the audience, the material, or the event. Most conference presentations are lectures and if you scan the room during one of these lectures, do you know what you see? You see OTHER EDUCATORS who are sleeping, texting, Facebooking, or otherwise not paying attention.

    So, it seems to me that the first reason a person would want to go back to lectures all the time is because it’s known and easy. Haven’t we all wondered if a college instructor just rolled out of bed and stood before the class expounding on things they “just knew” without any prep? And even if a lecturer does prep, how much prep actually takes place? While it may be days or weeks for a precious few, it’s likely less than an hour for most.

    OK, so why else would teachers not want to differentiate instruction? I think it’s actually simple. People hate change about as much as they hate for anyone to tell them what to do. And college educators (I believe) are particularly hard on those who give an opposing view. Think about it. Professors give red marks for a living. THEY are the ones to tell someone else that what they have done or thought about is wrong…not the other way around. So, when someone says, “I don’t think you’re teaching these students in the best possible way…” they tend to get pretty defensive.

    Finally, one more thought around the motivation of anti-learning style debaters that may come into play here. It’s actually a fallacy, typically known as the fallacy of tradition. It’s the idea that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – or more appropriately here, “We should do it this way because we’ve always done it this way?” In these listserv conversations, I watched faculty say that everyone on the list went to college and made it through lecturers, so it must be fine. Hmmm….I’ll let go the problem with educators loving education far more than non-educators. But, there is a problem with the whole line of reasoning. The reason people started asking questions in the first place was because it was NOT working. The cracks in the armor first showed up in K-12 and then quickly moved to higher education. Our students started doing poorly on local tests, national tests, and finally world tests. Our students stopped being as employable as more and more white collar jobs went to foreign-educated graduates. So, to say that it isn’t broken is wrong. And going on the old addage about insanity being an action of doing something the same way twice and expecting different results, it doesn’t seem to fly here.

    So, let me wrap up what has become a very long posting with two final thoughts. First, I will concede that the term “learning style” has become so bastardized that it may no longer be meaningful. If we need to think of better ways to express our research and to explore the extraordinarily complex human mind, so be it. While I believe we will someday understand how individuals learn better, I also feel that the brain is as complex as the cosmos and we just don’t have the technology yet. But researching and framing are two different things. A learning style framework, regardless of the author, is at its core, a way to promote differentiation. And again, differentiation HAS been proven to be better teaching.

    Second, if you doubt that learning styles exist, talk to parents. Specifically, talk to parents of two or more kids. I am willing to bet that 99% will tell you that their kids both learn quite differently. So, from a very practical standpoint, let’s start using effective teaching and learning techniques that promote the BEST learning in all situations, for all students…not just the few who can manage to stay with us as we lecture. It’s time to change the conversation…

    Good luck and good teaching.

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