A different kind of magic
I found myself doing a lot of biking during lockdown, and now that professional racing has started again, I’ve been thinking about bikes a lot. Fifty years ago, cycling fans had no statistics about bike racing in real time; just getting results, rankings or times was a challenge. Without live coverage, or the internet, just reading about race results days or even weeks after the event still felt magical. In 2020 we have immediate access to so much information: real-time data on a rider’s heart rate, how many watts an individual cyclist is putting out at this very moment, how far ahead the leaders are and the average speed of the peloton. With all this data at our fingertips, we need a different kind of magic. And that’s where the stories come in. Journalists share a race leader’s superstitious breakfast routine, tell about a rider’s childhood passion for cycling, or explain a particular grape cultivated in a small village the peloton is passing through.
Likewise, as teachers we also have immeasurable amounts of student data at our fingertips today. Standardized assessment remains a kind of magical science: measuring learning and identifying individual progress. The allure of ostensible objectivity, and the tangible quantities offered by large-scale assessment instruments are the bedrock foundations on which instruction can be built. And just like cycling, fifty years ago we didn’t have access to this amount of data. At that time student scores, percentiles and performance measures seemed like magical tools to improve learning: alchemic algorithms created by psychometricians and statistical models conjured up by test developers. And now, as the science of assessment has matured, reliable and valid tests provide a wealth of data that educators take for granted. We can access student scores on our smartphones, and data dashboards create visualizations to quantify student learning in real time.
So just like cycling, schools need a new kind of magic. Even though we have data to help us measure or compare students, we need their stories. We need to understand their passions and learn about their pets. We need to talk to their families. We need to recognize the individual assets and unique experiences that each student brings to our classrooms, and echo these student voices for our colleagues. While assessments provide valuable information, they only provide part of the picture. When we create unique student portraits, we explain what students can do, who they are and who they hope to be. We tell about their learning journeys and help colleagues understand how to leverage these talents and interests.
So as you start the school year, and assemble the requisite foundation of data on which to build your classes, be sure to include the stories. Listen to your multilingual learners and help amplify their voices. And when we are working virtually, we know it takes more effort to connect to the tiny person in the corner of the screen. In this newsletter, we’ll discuss ways to create a virtual community, build relationships and share stories. Maybe all we need is a different kind of magic.
Jon Nordmeyer, WIDA international programs director
*Finnish: until we meet again