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Do Your Students Take the Red Pill?

Is the devil you know better than the devil you don't?

I want to thank my friend and colleague Andelee Espinosa for providing me with the topic and inspiration for this blog post.   

As outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero begins her story as an individual who may feel out of place in the ordinary world.  A spiritual aid will come to the hero and give her a call to adventure or quest that is usually initially refused, leading to disaster.  After this disaster, the hero has no choice but to embark on the adventure.  It is the spiritual aid who gives our hero the tools to complete the quest, but the hero must finish it on her own. Through the journey our hero faces a series of tests and at the end she reaches the Supreme Ordeal, or the ultimate test.

The film The Matrix follows the hero's journey to a tee. In the film, Thomas Anderson, a.k.a. Neo, is living in a world that appears to be normal, but he keeps questioning if there is something more that explains why he does not fit in.  He is given a choice by his spiritual aid.  Someone who is above the laws of nature.  This character is embodied by Morpheus.  Morpheus gives Neo the choice to accept his world as it is and take the blue pill or take the red pill and dare to see the world he inhabits for the construct it is.  

In the film, Mr. Anderson takes the pill and awakens the true hero that lies inside of him, Neo.  He finds that the world he thought was real was an artifice designed to make humanity more docile.  The Matrix is a complex film with a plethora of different lines of social commentary, including education, which I would love to explore. But the film has been mined to its core by some of the greatest philosophical minds on the planet via books, articles, and even audio commentaries. So, I'll leave it there.

The other day, Andelee and I spoke with a student about summative assessments. This student is not a strong performer on tests. Traditional testing does not accurately represent her mastery of the course objectives. But when asked whether she would like to be assessed on a traditional test or a project that covers the same objectives if given the choice, she said she would choose the test.  When asked why, the student didn't have an answer.

A project is one form of alternative summative assessment that can be part of a classroom.  Projects take a variety of different forms.  They can be the written word, the spoken word, visual images, a physical artifact, or a combination of these elements.  There are no limits to what an alternative assessment could look like other than the teacher's willingness to see how it aligns to the course objectives.

Why would a student choose a performance measure that they know does not accurately represent her content knowledge? That is the question we as educators need to face. Why do students take the blue pill if they know the current state doesn't serve them best? How can teachers help students make the choices that are best for them? How can teachers get them to take that red pill?

Teachers are our students' spiritual aid.  It is the teacher's job to help students accept the call to adventure.  How do we do that? The first job is to make the path clear. The main reason students won't embark on an alternative for of assessment is because it is new and different. It is the unknown. Students know what a traditional test looks like.  They vary from teacher to teacher, but few go out of the bounds of the norm.  So although content may vary, the format is relatively the same.  

So, the teacher needs to model for our students what an alternative assessment looks like.  By the time students get to high school, they have had almost a decade of traditional testing.  As a spiritual guide, teachers must light the path with a clear rubric of what content must be covered.  Also, the rubric must be clear about what skills will be evaluated.  For example, if an alternative assessment is a presentation, will the rubric just assess content or will it also assess the style of the presentation?

A good alternative assessment rubric, should not limit students to only one format. The rubric should allow any student to present mastery of objectives.  This doesn't mean that the rubric can't include skills, such as creativity and collaboration, but these must be explicit course objectives.  If they are not, the teacher has no right to add it to a student's course grade. This assessment also allows a student to meet the objectives in the format that presents no barriers between what she can demonstrate on the assessment and is able to demonstrate outside of the assessment.  

So what happens to students that refuse the call?  Those students that don't see the value in an alternative assessment may fail the traditional assessment.  It is then the teacher's duty to discuss with the student why she did not take the alternative assessment and give her the opportunity to do so.

When the hero enters the unknown, she is crossing the threshold  as it is termed by Campbell) of the alternative assessment. When any student chooses to take a chance on the unknown, it is important that she feel safe.  So when designing alternative assessments be sure not to leave your students hanging out to dry.  Daily check-ins with appropriate feedback are a must. The student must meet success on these daily trials which help determine progress towards the goal.  When students fail to make progress, the teacher must guide but not lead the them through the issue.  When students have effective collaborative groups, these peers serve as helpers (Campbell's term) in the process.

In the end, the choice to take a chance on an alternative assessment is the student's.  Teachers need to serve as mentors for our students as they decide what pill to take. Give them a true choice.  Your students know what a traditional test looks like, but probably have no idea what an alternative assessment looks like or entails.  Without knowledge, there can be no real choice. If a student fails, it is the teacher's job to help them learn why and send the student back on that journey to mastery.  When I explained to the student Andelee and I sat down with that a project would allow her to show what she learned in the way that best fit her strengths. There was no question,she said that she would do the project.

And for those teachers out there who are not giving students alternative ways to demonstrate mastery, don't ask why should you be doing it. Ask why am you are not doing it.  Your students will never become heroes unless they are truly tested by more than a Scantron.

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