Small Changes

Small changes, seemingly inconsequential acts, can have momentous repercussions. Dead birds set off the environmental movement. An assassin’s bullet protesting an exhausted empire started a world war that brought down the ruling monarchies of Europe. A tax on tea turned into a revolution. Such a small change occurred in America’s classrooms a little over a half century ago. School desks were unscrewed from the floor. That seemingly small change, which on its surface seemed to be just about furniture, precipitated a major reduction in class size and a revolution in expectations of good teaching. Desks bolted to the floor, locking students in straight rows facing a teacher in the front of the classroom, optimized the use of space.

My 5th grade Chicago classroom with fixed desks held 51 students in 6 rows with 8 desks per row and three portables. It also defined Miss O’Hearn’s teaching style. My 6th grade suburban classroom with moving desks had 25 students. Desks could be rearranged, students could interact with each other, learning in groups was enabled, and teachers could give students individual attention toward student-centered learning. Small changes can have great effects even in education.

We have the opportunity to make such a small, seemingly inconsequential change that could profoundly transform our schools by allowing students to use the internet on their Common Core Math tests.

We need only change the wording in the test’s directions to allow and not prevent student use of a computer/tablet/smart phone. The tests are designed to be given online already. They give the students digital tools to use to solve some of the problems. What if we simply extended that existing open technology requirement to every question and enable students to use most any available program or website? What if they could use Google search to solve an arithmetic problem, or open Excel, Sheets, Numbers, Wolfram Alpha, Khan Academy, Wikipedia or any website they wanted to find an answer? What if, as the PARCC initials stand for, we are serious about the tests assessing “college and career readiness?” A realistic 21st century college or career problem would quite naturally expect the solver to have internet access. College tests are generally open book and every online course must, by its very nature, allow internet access. So why not really prepare our students for college and career?

The consequences of such a minor change in the assessment directions would be far reaching and revolutionary. Teachers would stop teaching the algorithms and stop giving students arithmetic and algebra algorithm worksheets. Why teach long division if the tests don’t require it? Why spend all of that classroom and homework time on operations on fractions if students won’t be tested on it? Why teach students to factor equations using paper and pencil algorithms if they can get the answer online? This mechanical symbol manipulation that today makes up the bulk of student practice time would simply vanish. Creative experiences using technology to solve math problems would naturally replace it, for those will be the “basic skills” required by the tests. Spreadsheets and other quantitative technologies would replace pencil and paper. Mathematics would become more interesting to students for they would no longer need to ask, “Why am I learning this stuff for when I can solve this problem on my old phone or calculator?” Math classrooms could be filled with creative “What if…” experiences.

Not only would there be more time for authentic problem solving in math, but there would be more time for the other STEM subjects, and more time for the arts, for physical education, for history, for the manual arts, for project and performance oriented activities. So many of us dream of an educational system that is rich and creative, but we are overwhelmed by a system seemingly sluggish to innovate, overwhelming in complexity, and demanding in tradition that it seems to make substantial change all but impossible. Yet there are times and circumstances when small, seemingly inconsequential acts can have monumental impacts. Allowing students to use the Web when they take their Common Core math assessments could well be as revolutionary for students today as unscrewing the desks were in the 1950’s.