Perhaps one of the greatest shifts in my thinking about education was the result of experiencing the drudgery of assessment. Recently, I had this view confirmed while reading The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros.
I have never heard a teacher say, “I can't wait until we get to write report cards!” When you think about who is doing the work, often it’s the teachers spending countless hours collecting evidence to show others what our students know and can do. If you can write a report card that a student can do something in October but they can't do it in January, is that report card still relevant? Teaching students how to assess themselves, rather than just do it for them, provides them another opportunity for reflection. And they will take ownership of their learning.
Couros is speaking specifically about student self-assessment, but the point he is making is similar to my thinking. No doubt, assessment is necessary for learning, as feedback is essential for anyone to make any progress; we need to know when we are doing something properly, or whether we need to revisit or change our thinking. What strikes me, however, is that in many situations, it is the teacher, not the student, who is responsible for the learning. In its simplest form, the teacher delivers the curriculum and the student follows along as best they can. Of course, there are some minimum standards that the student must meet in order to demonstrate that they have understood material, but rarely is the student held accountable for meeting, let alone mastering, those standards; this is education's Holy Grail.
Most of the reasons we have continued to implement teacher directed instruction are systemic; curriculum is delivered to aged based groupings, held in time set blocks, and assessed at the completion of a topic of study. What if we changed the system such that students were offered a set of criteria and asked to complete it at their own pace, only moving on once they had demonstrated mastery? Imagine the situation where a student actively looked for the teachers and lessons in order to proceed with their studies. Once they have the prerequisite skills and understanding, they would book time with a teacher (preferably in smaller, tutorial size groups - see 6 is a magic number) and get the instruction they need, when they need it. My hunch is that lessons would be considerably shorter given the material would be within the zone of proximal development of all attending students. What might take longer, of course, would be the projects, labs, papers, and presentations that would demonstrate understanding.
Rarely are students held back because they have not met the minimum expectations. This is due to the idea that the social implications of keeping students from their similarly aged peers would have lasting and damaging effects. Although (possibly) true, there are also the lasting effects of pushing students into arenas where they are not competent enough to perform. Just think of those who may have developed a phobia towards mathematics because they did not understand the previous concepts necessary to build upon. My belief is that until students, not teachers, are held accountable for their learning, many students will just plod along, doing the minimum, and not really learning what is expected. They are 'doing school', and that is a shame.
NOTE: This post was originally created in June of 2016, but then updated in March of 2018, and shamelessly reposted here. For the original, check out this link at the Spark Curiosity site: Education's Holy Grail.
A student completed a video recently for her Year 9 Design class taught by my colleague, Mitch Norris. The task was to explain the purpose of our school's digital portfolios. Here's what she created.
This video is uplifting because many teachers feel that students do not understood the purpose of the school blog (Portfolio) and yet, for the most part, as this video's demonstrates, they do. Students tell us that, given the chance, they are happy to document their learning, as long as they feel they have choice in doing so.
Inspired, I decided to address the purpose of the blog or portfolio with my students. They have been told, often, why they are asked to post to their portfolio, but I really wondered if they had thought about why they are blogging. In all 8 of my classes the responses generally fit into three categories:
To the students who sheepishly said the posts were obligatory, I heartily agreed; to the shock of many (as much as you can shock a Year 8 or Year 9 student). Many things are forced upon learners and this is often received rather less than enthusiastically. Practicing an instrument is rarely fun. The same goes for athletes who find the thrill of the game much more satisfactory than the preparation. The drudgery of rehearsal is only matched by the euphoria of being on the receiving end of a standing ovation for a drama or dance performance. In short, we are often forced to practice something that takes time to bear fruit.
Documentation is also a worthy purpose. Rarely does one enjoy the process of making a photo album, but we all love going back, reminiscing and looking through our pictures. While updating his portfolio, one student looked back to a Year 4 post of his where he made a picture collage of himself showing different emotions. Encouraged by his ‘find’, others in the class promptly did the same.
The lesson this week was all about sharing our work by adding subscribers. Again, the students grudgingly 'invited' their parents to visit their portfolio. Excuses like, 'My parents never check email' and 'They won't be interested in my posts' were quickly muted when 3-4 parents responded DURING CLASS. It was an absolute pleasure to see parents joyfully reading and commenting about their excitement to have access to their child's learning.
But these reasons pale in comparison, in my opinion, to the real reason why students should be posting about their learning. As part of a course, I, too, was reluctant to post my thoughts online (apparently I have gotten over this reluctance ;-) ). Who would want to read what I was saying? Then I read a post by Shelly Blake-Plock (Why Teachers Should Blog) where his argument, summed up, is that people should blog because it forces them to think about their thinking. In other words, it doesn’t matter what others have to say about what we are thinking (although it often helps), what really matters is that blogging forces us to justify opinion and really think about what is important. To me this was profound. Equally, I think it applies to students when they post to their portfolios. By going through the process of documenting their learning, students should get a much better sense of who they are, know their strengths and interests, and what they need to do to get better.
I often admired and envied my peers who knew what they wanted to do at an early age; those that knew they wanted to be a doctor, artist, or lawyer. Me? I had no clue. I think most high-schoolers don't question what they are doing and just 'do school'. They graduate from high-school and then go blindly into their next chapter of work, or more school, all the while not knowing themselves, let alone what they’d like to do.
This is where I think it is imperative that educators regularly ask students to reflect on their learning in order to help forge long term goals. Do they know what they are good at? What do they enjoy or find interesting? Have they considered looking at the skills they'd still like to develop?
No doubt, creating a portfolio is extra work, but it just might end up being the most important work they do.
NOTE: This post is an extension of another post done almost 7 years ago called Reluctantly Blogging.
‘Schools are efficient, but are they effective?’ This phrase has been going through my head a lot recently and, funnily enough, I am hearing it used in many different contexts.
For example, while listening to one of my favourite podcasts, The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, I heard an interview with Dr. Mintzberg speaking about what he calls a collection of treatments that masquerade as the Canadian health care system (or what some call sickness care system). During the interview, Dr. Mintzberg mentioned that hospitals should be more effective and less efficient. Listen to the except I have included below (I recommend listening to the whole interview here if you have the time: Medicine is a calling, not a business: Henry Mintzberg)
As you can hear, he looks upon professions like health and education as needing different types of metrics than those more commonly used in businesses. Our goals, he says, are different. The bottom line in a hospital or school are health and learning, respectively, not profit.
Schools have got caught up in the growth model and, I believe, being too big has significant drawbacks. It forces the institution to become more efficient at the expense of being effective. Every school I have worked at that has expanded the number of classes to ‘reduce class size’ inevitably sees the recently added classes swell to 24 or more students. That threshold, I believe, forces the classes to a point where we are managing curriculum often at the expense of engaging and empowering learning.
The institution of school has become quite efficient in keeping students in classrooms for 7 to 8 hours a day. My question is how effective is this model for each and every student? Do we, as educators, really know how effective our methods are beyond the test scores and report card grades? Is there a way to measure personal fulfillment?
Image credit: Inside airplane CC0 Pixabay
After school on Friday the 16th of February, I was asked to help supervise a student’s video project. The student had booked the theatre, ensured there were the correct props and costumes, found two students to act and another to be the videographer, got all the equipment, and scheduled everyone to be ready at 2:40pm. The students worked solidly for 2 hours until 5pm when one had to go to a movie. During this time, there was not one argument or disagreement. The worse that happened was two of the team pretended to have a sword fight with a prop; it quickly ended 30 seconds after it started when one got an uncomfortable poke. Throughout the filming the students collaborated to problem solve without one argument.
Did I mention it was after school on Friday?
I ‘supervised’ with another teacher, but truthfully, I did very little other than make sure they were safe. Weeks before I had prompted the student in charge to consider creating a short video for the Across Asia Youth Film Festival. He was reluctant to rush his current project, but I thought he could enter a short film in the under 3 minute category. We discussed possible topics and when we got to the possibilities of humorous stories around the game of chess; he was hooked. Two days later he had a script for a short video entitled 'The Move' and was consulting the DP Film teacher about the storyline and setting.
As I sat there in the theatre marvelling at how well the students were working together I couldn’t help but think that this is how school should be. A place where student find projects they want to work on and then complete those activities until they are finished. If this were a class held during the normal school day, it would have taken 3, 60 minute periods (because set up and take down would consume 15-20 minutes each time) over at least a week; a momentum killer.
Imagine if students came and went from school as and when they needed to. No required hours, no bells to mark blocks of time, no forced deadlines to complete tasks. Instead, students organizing their activities and working on them until they are done, the only deadlines and criteria being the ones that they value.
This anecdote heightened my sense of the potential for the future of learning and education; it gave me hope. Is it any wonder that this activity occurred after school hours?
Image Credit: Checkmated - Chess Figures CC0 - Pixabay
The week before last, I had the pleasure of working in an English as an Additional Language class with Gillian White. We were introducing the idea of a digital scrapbook to capture a reader’s thinking while reading. The lesson went well with students following closely, giving thoughtful responses to prompts and asking for clarification when needed.
After the mini lesson, four students immediately set off and started their digital scrapbook for their Book Talk novel. Two others, however, got involved in a playful disagreement instead. The two were having a great time ‘arguing’ with one another and, after 30 seconds, Gillian asked why they were not getting started on the task. Both, with smiles on their face, shrugged. They were then asked to focus and get to work. One, playfully, tried to continue. The other, however, responded by saying "We’re over this.”
Within minutes all the students were working away and Ms. Gillian and I were able to check in with each student at least twice offering clarification, suggestions, technical help, and encouragement. One student even helped Ms. Gillian with the technical aspects of her scrapbook.
Nearing the end of the lesson, a girl approached me and asked about her laptop. She’d finished most of the assignment, but her machine had a problem with the contrast making part of the process really difficult to navigate. I spent 6-7 minutes going through all the potential software and system issues only to conclude that it was the hardware that was failing her. I then instructed her to see tech support and gave her the language to ask the technicians the information they’d need to know to solve the problem.
After the lesson it struck me, imagine if the friendly disagreement and requests for help had happened in a normally sized classroom? Would the animated discussion between students have been addressed, or even noticed, swiftly enough? Could even two teachers in a classroom see all the students not once, but twice during regular class time? And what would happen if I had taken 6-7 minutes to attempt to solve one student’s technical issues?
Educators throughout the world have been grappling what is the ultimate learning environment. Depending on whom you consult, you will likely get different answers. In terms of efficiency, the common understanding is that 20-24 students in a class is a healthy balance of critical mass to keep things interesting while anything greater can often slip into chaos. The upper number is often pushed higher to accommodate more students, but I would question whether our goal is to accommodate or help students learn.
In past conversations with teachers, many hover around an ultimate student number between 16 to 20 — and this tends to be for grouping purposes. Prior to this experience, I would have said the best number of students for a class was 12. Now I think that number is 6.
Six students in a class ensures that any misunderstandings and other issues can be addressed almost immediately. No longer would a student be able to avoid work simply by lurking in the shadows with their time tested tricks; can I please go to the bathroom? It would take two, maybe three, lessons for a teacher to quickly get a sense of abilities, attitudes, and skill level while fostering a strong working relationship as well. I understand there are times, drama and PE for instance, when a larger number of students is not just desirable, but necessary. For those instances, I would suggest joining two or three 6 student classes as needed.
There are some teachers, many whom I have had the pleasure to witness, who are masterful of managing 24 or more students in a class. They set up centres, break students into smaller groups, have systems to check in to ensure understanding, and share the leadership and teaching with the students. Despite their success, these teachers can't do everything and I would question how strong the relationships can be with each and every student; few can pull that off.
I realize that in the current school environment class sizes of 6 are likely a pipe dream, but what I am stating here is both an observation and an opinion. My feeling is that if we notice that the most effective education is done is smaller groupings where stronger relationships are built between student and teacher (advisor, coach), then we will get creative to allow the smaller grouping to happen.
If you are an educator, have you a preferred size for student groupings? What strategies have you initiated to allow for the desired size groupings?
Image Credit: CC0 - Pixabay
Catching up on my summer magazine reading, I just read the July 2015 editor’s comment from Wired Magazine. Mastering the Work-Life Mix, by Scott Dadich, showed a perspective on an aspect of the current work environment that I had been grappling with for a while. To paraphrase, after being given a promotion during a lunch meeting, Dadich was told by his boss that;
This job will become you, and you will become this job. I will expect you to always answer the phone when I call, and I will expect you to always behave in a manner befitting your position. Always.
His boss was challenging the idea of separating work life from personal life. Many cringe at the thought of work-life overlap, but Dadich notes that the overlap is one of the main differences between a career and a job. A career often requires stretching beyond the 8 hour workday. Agonizing over keeping our current work and personal selves separate is not only stressful, but unattainable. And this blurring between our different roles is only likely to become more pronounced with new technologies allowing us to become more available and productive.
And it goes both ways. Of course we need time to re-charge, escape, and re-invent ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that we only do that on holiday. Work can also be a time to explore options that benefit ourselves more than the organization for whom we work. Taking the time to connect, play, network, rest, and challenge ourselves is often encouraged while at the place of employment. The only metric being that the tasks get completed.
The best organizations know this, however, many of us spend far too long trying to define the work life balance and the truth is, there is no easy and complete definition. We all have to manage our time on our own by being as flexible as we can. Using the phrase Work-Life Mix might help us acknowledge that need for flexibility.
Note: I wrote this post on a weekend return flight from a conference - the mix in action.
The usual comments about buffets - excessive, fattening, wasteful - though true, really don’t get to the heart of why buffets should be on their way out. They are mass produced troughs that, ironically, satisfy neither the consumer nor the producer. The consumer thinks, isn’t this great, I can choose whatever I want. Then, after a gorge, they realize that the food really didn’t satisfy and only succeeded in making him feel sick.
For the producers - the chefs, bakers, even the wait staff - they end up feeling they are more responsible for the volume of food rather than the quality. By making it for everyone, they make if for no one. A very lonely experience, I would think. Instead of making a steak cooked to someone’s preferred specifications, they are producing meat that is most likely to be palatable to the largest audience. And audience it is. People look at the options and simply choose based on a quick visual inspection.
Lastly, there is the waste. Every night in a city like Bangkok, where there are dozen of hotels offering full all-you-can-eat buffets, the excess on display is mind boggling. Rarely have I seen an item on the menu out of stock. On the contrary, there ALWAYS seems to be more. The only thing stopping the stream of food is not supply, but time. The restaurant closes, or the buffet hours end, and the food is hauled off, presumably, to the dump.
Waste is part of the ecological cycle. There are organisms that rely on the waste of other organisms to survive. But in the case of buffets, I fail to see how this deliberate display of excess can be beneficial to anyone other than those hungry teenage boys whose insatiable appetites would have them go out for pizza after 2+ hours at an all you can eat buffet.
I think we need to re-assess the need for this type of consumption. Who does the buffet really satisfy? Does quantity really have to be the metric we use to measure food? Is this just a reflection of a greater issue of conspicuous consumption?
Image credit - CC - Jeremy Brooks via Compfight
flickr photo by RW PhotoBug http://flickr.com/photos/rwr/345985074 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license
For the last few years I have been looking long and hard at the words convenient and convenience. Something about those words made me uncomfortable. I recently looked it up and, besides being interpreted by the British as being a toilet, these are the two definitions that confirmed my understanding:
Convenience - noun (Google)
Convenient - adjective (Merriam Webster)
Here is the reason I have been struggling with these words. Basically, the idea of convenience is looked upon as a positive thing, but I am learning more and more that convenience should be seen with some trepidation; if it is convenient, there is likely to be a cost.
Recently, due to a medical issue, I was in a situation where I was losing weight as my ability to swallow was limited and painful. The doctor recommended using Ensure shakes 6 to 7 times a day to put on, or at least maintain, my weight. Ensure is very easy to make, just add water to the powder, stir, and consume. The homemade alternative involves a process taking at least 5 to 7 minutes in preparation and cleanup. Ensure is definitely convenient, but at what cost? A look at the ingredients provides a clue. Ensure's top 5 ingredients are: hydrolyzed corn starch, vegetable oil, calcium cassinate, sucrose, and vitamins and minerals. The tagline for Ensure's website are Nutritional Products for Your Health.
flickr photo by Carol Green http://flickr.com/photos/carol_green/3530943331 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license
Examples of the use or idea of convenience are everywhere in our modern lives: owning a motorized vehicle, fast food, and, of course, convenience stores. But what are their costs? Driving a car gets you from A to B quickly, but you are more likely to become unfit, pollute the air, and miss the benefits of seeing things slowly. And this says nothing of traffic. Fast food is convenient, but again, at what cost. Nutrition and cooking skills are just two things that come to mind. And finally, convenience stores - take a look at what they house and, if they are open 24 hours, what about the store's employees?
My thinking is that we need to re-evaluate the meaning of the word convenience. If something is easy or 'without trouble', is that always a positive thing? Unless there is a symbiotic relationship, we should be very skeptical about something being convenient.
What are your thoughts on the idea of convenience? Is convenience just a product, or a goal, of society to make things easier? Do we need to balance those things that are convenient with those that we need to put some effort or work towards? Can you think of some other examples of a misleading convenience? Or, conversely, where does convenience really deliver a positive result?
Many people have heard me say recently that I believe the Holy Grail to education is turning it around to make the students, not the teachers, responsible for their own learning. I feel this way on so many levels: attendance, assessment, grade level assignments, mastery instead of just passing, self directed learning, to name but a few, but now there is an(other) excellent article in Wired Magazine (October 2013) that provides an example in one of the world’s poorest classrooms. The article, How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses by Joshua Davis, describes how Sergio Juárez Correa changed his teaching methods to allow the students living next to a dump in the Mexican – US border town of Matamoros to direct their own learning. His method? Pose a question and then get out of the way. The results were astounding. All the students improved on standardized tests by considerable margins, while the top 10 got into the 99.99th percentile for Mexico and one little girl got the top score in the country. flickr photo by Digital Explorer http://flickr.com/photos/aeroworks/97338266 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license
I highly recommend reading the article to get a sense of the teacher’s changed methodology (based on many other educators’ philosophies including, most recently, Sugata Mitra of the ‘hole in the wall computer‘ fame), but I really wonder if others have the guts to change their teaching approach so radically. It is easy to think that Sergio Juárez Correa really had little to lose given the community he was serving, but his courage is admirable.
I have battled over the issue of letting students determine what they learn a great deal recently as I learn more and more about the dissatisfaction with the current education model. Almost daily I am reading about how our methods and practices are outdated and teaching students for a passed century and not the current one. And I get it. Why do we start our school day at 7:30am when most teenagers do not really function until 9 or 10am at the earliest? Why do we base our schedule on equal blocks of time for each subject when the time should fluctuate as we need more time in one and less in another? Why do we teach a prescribed curriculum based on content an authority deems important rather than finding out students’ passions? Why do we keep students in groups based on their age rather than their capabilities? Is our resistance to change entirely based on tradition? Perhaps there are reasons why many students are disenchanted with their current education.
So how do we change this? Most of us have been brought up, trained and are committed to the system we find ourselves in. Have we painted ourselves into the proverbial corner? Who has the guts to set the curriculum aside and ask the students, “what do you want to learn?” How can we set up a system that encourages students to think more deeply about problems and issues that concern them? I must admit, as proud as I am of the Digital Connections (DCo) course I helped get started in our school, it is only a small step towards students engaging in independent learning. DCo allows students to choose from a set of activities, and even allows students to create their own activities (with approval), but it still does not go as far as ‘What do you want to learn?’ Steve Crane via Compfight
Perhaps one of my biggest fears is that if I give students the option to do what they like, they will just do nothing, and, honestly, that would reflect badly upon me as their teacher. I know, I know, there is the voice that says a good teacher would motivate students to want to learn what they want to learn about. But I feel like I am bucking the trend of current education and that given the chance, students would just take the opportunity to dodge around having to do anything in my experimental class because they just need a break from the rigors of ‘school’. Maybe that is OK, too.
Which brings me around to the statement which opened this post. If students were held accountable for their own learning, the motivation to complete the work would be their own, not their teachers’. I would love the opportunity to be able to offer up tough questions and then just get out of the way. When we get to this point, I believe students will not only surprise us, but love learning as well.
What do you think? Are you on board with trying to change what we call education? Are small steps a better approach, or do we need to have a radical and sweeping transformation? Would your community openly accept the method that was used in the Matamoros classroom?