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EdTech Update





Three comments on testing

From the “Local South Metro” section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 17, 2009

Buy books instead of tests

In considering spending for education let's all take a good look at the high cost of testing. As an example, let's assume that each test taken by each student costs their district $30. If a district has 20,000 students, that is a cost of $600,000. What really is the best way to impact learning with that $600,000? Is testing students, compiling scores and reporting scores to the state the best way to enhance student learning? Would students be better served if the district spent that money on textbooks, providing a $30 textbook for each student to use all year? If that 20,000-student district were allowed to reduce the number of tests by half for one year, there would be a savings of $300,000. Following our example, if a district has 1,000 students, the cost of testing would be $30,000. If the district were not required to spend $30,000 on testing that money could support an additional staff member in the classroom. What are students getting for our thousands of dollars of testing? Would we impact student learning more by providing textbooks instead of tests? What do you want for your child, a textbook or a test?

The writer is a chemistry teacher at Apple Valley High School.


I want a nation of citizens who are less inclined to think that the “truth” can be captured in one of four feasible answers—a,b,c, or d. I mention “feasible” because in constructing such tests it is crucial not to have one “right” and three absurd alternatives. They are designed to produce differentiated responses. There’s a peculiar science/logic to this arrangement. On both IQ/ability and traditional achievement tests we’re promised ahead of time a population that fits a normal curve. We’ve replaced these in K-12 schools with judgments about benchmarks, which must still rest on a numerical rank order based on a, b, c, d. The big new invention is that there is often no technical back-up for the validity or reliability of such exams. Many big-name psychometricians shun them.

from "We Need Schools That 'Train" Our Judgment" by Deborah Meier on Bridging Differences


From First Grade Takes a Test by Miriam Cohen, illustrated by Lillian Hoban

Someone in the Obama administration said that crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Might our current crisis in education and educational funding be an opportunity to look hard at the value received for the money spent on standardized testing?

I am enjoying and learning a lot from Sir Ken Robinson's book The Element. It's one of those books that every politician, parent and educator should read, but sadly few will. Book report soon.


Theory into practice - Rolf Erkison on third place libraries


I am not always sure if comments to blogs ever get the attention they should. My last post about libraries as third places garnered some really fine observations and experiences. Librarians Scott Eskro, Katy Manck, Kenn Gorman, and Jane Hyde wrote to tell about how they were making their libraries in places where socialization was the norm in existing spaces. Go back - re-read.

But I was also delight to find my esteemed collegue and genuine library facilites expert, Rolf Erikson, leave this extended comment. With his permission, it is reposted here:

School libraries as a “third place” – what a great way to describe what those of us involved with 21st Century school library design aim to achieve.

The newly renovated Chelmsford (MA) high school library has, from students’ comments at the school, become for many their “third place.”

As I worked with Valerie Diggs on this project, I realized two essential elements were in place that contributed to the project’s success. One element was space: the library is 12,000 square feet, so deciding what to eliminate was not much of an issue. There was sufficient space to provide for the “academic requirements.” And there was space to provide a casual area with café and restaurant-type seating, sloped-shelving for fiction to facilitate ease of browsing, and a number of other interior design elements to make this area of the library visibly different. The second element was the desire on the part of the project’s stakeholders – library staff (led by Valerie’s vision, her open and creative mind, and her willingness to take chances), student and faculty representatives, administrators, and consultants – not to be bound by past traditions, but to create a truly innovative, 21st Century learning commons environment that would be inviting to students (Coffee in the library! Comfortable furniture!) – a space with a “playful mood,” where kids can hang out with friends. This is not your father’s school library. The educational role of the library program is not overshadowed, but the provision of “third place” zones has contributed to the overall success of the facility.

I realize that not many school librarians have the luxury of working with such large spaces. Nevertheless, I believe it is still within the realm of possibility to achieve similar, although perhaps less grand, results. As I see it, the need is for school librarians to think progressively, and accept the fact that maybe some space in the school library can be allocated for “third place” spaces by, for example, rejecting the notion that we need to maintain such large (and often outdated) print collections. Let’s create environments that students want to be in and use. Students at Chelmsford say that in the past, if they wanted a book, they would go to the public library because the school library was so unappealing. Now, the school library is the place to be.

We need our newly designed school libraries to be more like the one in Chelmsford. Of course school libraries have a serious academic mission, but the academic mission is more likely to succeed and be fulfilled if we create social environments that are relevant and comfortable to today’s students. We can find a happy medium, and school librarians must steer this trend; it is not likely to come from administrators or architects. If you are anywhere close to Chelmsford, MA, I urge you to visit. This is a model for our future.

Great sounding theories come at the rate of about two or three a day it seems. But it is thrilling when a good theory is actually turned into practice. Now THAT takes genius.

If you are interested in library design, be sure to check out Rolf's book Designing a School Library Media Center for the Future and the long interview he and I did: Imagining the Future of the School Library (with Christian Long), DesignShare, November, 2006.


School libraries as a "third place"

The third place is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. - Wikipedia

Coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book A Great Good Place, the term "third place" has come to describe an area for informal social gathering outside of home (first place) and work (second place). Oldenberg suggests such environments are necessary for a healthy society.

A lecture by Constance Steinkuehler introduced me to this term. Steinkuehler's assertion was that online game environments like those in World of Warcraft become third places for the users*. Since I am not a gamer, I more or less forgot the term.

Until I started doing some reading and thinking about library design in the secondary schools. Might, just might, the school library serve as a "third place" for students and staff, especially in locations where other "third places" such as teen-oriented libraries, coffee shops or YMCAs do not exist?

This idea has been explored by public and academic librarians.** Several of the criteria of a third place are evident in how Valerie Diggs transformed her high school library into what she calls a "learning commons***."

What are some of the characteristics of the third place? Oldenburg writes:

"The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…They are the heart of a community's social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape."

Chiarella describes her attempt to create a third place atmosphere in her public library:

We are working to encourage a teen presence at the library in a number of ways. We have a “Teen Zone” section of Youth Services dedicated to teen (grades 7 through 12) fiction, a non-fiction browsing section, manga, graphic novels, music CDs, magazines, and teen-oriented DVDs. We are planning to expand our regular book displays to periodic “issue” displays featuring books and take-home literature on teen pregnancy, teen drinking, drugs, eating disorders, etc. We have tables/chairs and soft rocker-type chairs in the Teen Zone where teens can hang out with friends. Computers are close by and are available to all students under 17.

Yes, yes, I also understand that school libraries have a serious academic mission. And that one runs the risk of trivializing the school library program if efforts to create a social environment overshadow its educational role.

Is there a happy medium? Might the school library be the third place outside of regular school hours? Might some sections of the library be third place "zones"?

A comment by a student many years ago (and to which I often refer) has stuck by me - that the school library was his "home away from home." Schools do have the societal charge of helping teach social skills to students. Might actively working to make school libraries the students' third place do this?


* Steinkuehler, C. & Williams, D. (2006). Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as “third places.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 1.

** From the NSLS website:

*** Loertscher, The New Learning Commons Where Learners Win! Reinventing School Libraries and Computer Labs.