Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bowling for Test Scores

The white soles slide without effort across the hardwood.  A film of disinfectant spray covers the multi-colored leather uppers.  Left leg bent one-hundred and thirty degrees, right leg tucked neatly into the back of the left knee.  Bend at the waist, as the arm descends like a pendulum, release the ball onto the floor and wait...
My students took the AP Psychology Exam yesterday, so we won't find out the end of this story for a few months.  Many of my colleagues have already laced up their rented shoes and selected a ball, but they won't have a turn to bowl for another week or two.  But then, they'll be in the same place as me: waiting.

There are two kinds of bowlers.  Type I releases the ball and either watches its path or simply turns away checking the results after the pins fall.  Type II will stand at the foul line, shaping the balls path with concentrated mental effort and intentional body contortions-- staying active in the process until the last pin falls.

Type II bowlers waste too much energy trying to control what is out of their control-- just release the ball and let it work.

The same is true for teachers in this era of testing.  I know the stakes are not as high for me as for those teaching "core classes" with state mandated testing, but the analogy is true for all of us.  We teach, we release, we wait.  We trust that we've done our best and realize that now our students are sitting in front of the test (and later waiting for scores) it's up to them to finish the job.

It's hard to find good analogies; metaphors that don't break down somewhere.  Here's where the bowling/testing comparisons end, so let's change the story a bit to make it fit.

...release the ball onto the floor and wait...

The ball starts off just right of center, on target to hit between the
one and two pin.  Perfect release.  But the ball looks ahead, those pins look different than in practice-- two red stripes instead of one-- distracted, the ball veers a bit off course, but there's still a chance.  Half-way down the lane, the ball realizes it's off track, trying to get back to center it over-corrects, setting it further off-track than before.  It still has a chance of hitting four or five pins.  As the ball gets closer it sees the extra pins.  They don't count for a final score, but the alley needs to test them out to see how they react in a real game.  The ball doesn't know this and sees the extra row of four pins in the back and realizes it is impossible at this point to even salvage a spare for the next ball.  The ball rolls without effort to the end and manages to knock over five pins-- but only two really count.  The crowd boo's the bowler.

Too many people think this testing game is just like bowling-- teach, release, wait.  Use good technique, practice well, and the outcome should be predictable.  They don't realize the bowling balls have brains.  Not just rational, thinking brains.  Real human brains-- subject to physiology, environment, events of the day, events of the past, emotions, etc.

Rather than a bowler, a teacher is more of a coach-- a coach whose team owner hopefully doesn't insist on keeping a high profile and/or micro-managing the team.  The overall success of the team is largely the responsibility of the coach.  But the coach can only take so much responsibility for a bad decision from a player (like an elbow to the head), bad calls from the refs (remember the fifth down), or a player who doesn't take practice seriously (I mean we're just talkin' 'bout practice).  It is a shared responsibility.

So in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week (and National Charter Schools Week and the ten year anniversary of Iverson's "Practice" Speech), Happy Testing Season teachers.  May your bowling balls roll straight.


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