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.
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