Friday, July 27, 2012

Fruitful Reflections on Learning

Earlier this week, I ventured to a local blueberry farm to pick some blueberries. What a great day to have been outside. It wasn't easy picking today as the farmer sent us out to a section of the field that had obviously already been picked over. Nonetheless, it offered me lots of time for reflection.

In my previous post I also wrote about perseverance. Let me tell you, picking blueberries definitely tested my perseverance. The berries were harder to find than usual and the plants were short, which meant for lots of crouching and kneeling. My knees ached, my shoulders were sore and there were a number of times where I felt like calling it a day and simply buying some ready-picked berries from the stand. But I had committed to picking a boxful and I wasn't going to leave until I had finished. Now, what is the connection to education? When students arrive at reasonable and manageable challenges, we must demand they persevere to the point of completion. On the other hand, we must not criticize their lack of perseverance when they lack the skills and ability necessary to complete certain challenges.

I observed blueberries of all different colours. sizes, shapes and other unique characteristics. Some were very ripe and barely required my helping in falling off the bush. Others were nowhere near ripe and even with a gentle tug resisted falling off the bush. Again, how does this relate to education you ask? Each of our students is unique in his or her own special way. And much like berries, each of them matures and develops at his or her own pace. As educators, it is our responsibility to judge each student's development and gently pull them on to new challenges when the time is right.

Look Beyond the Obvious
Initially, it was discouraging not to find berries very easily. But I quickly learned that when I took a moment to look under some branches and peel back some leaves that there were many ripe berries to be found. I believe this is another important lesson for each of us who works with children. Rather than making judgments and assumptions about children based on what we see them demonstrate on the surface, it's important that we make the effort to get to know our students, find out who is truly behind the eyes we see on a daily basis and recognize each student's individual abilities and potential.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Perseverance & Resilience - A Responsibility

Ask teachers to describe some of the concerns they have for their students and it's quite likely they'll begin by describing specific portions of their course that students find more challenging than others. They may refer to students who consistently fail to complete work, are unprepared for tests, appear distracted by other interests or are very much disengaged. The list of concerns and frustrations can go on and on.

I often hear teachers compare the students of today with students of the past and claim that our present students 'just aren't the same as students were in the past'. They claim kids today simply aren't as responsible and lack perseverance and resilience in the face adversity or challenge.

I cannot deny the importance of students developing a sense of responsibility, perseverance and resilience. These are important qualities for students to develop and take with them into adulthood. However, some questions I'm pondering are:

  • Is our assertion that students would be more successful if they demonstrated more responsibility, more perseverance and more resilience simply an excuse for us not to examine and be critical of our practices?
  • Are we 'forcing' students to persevere through their learning when we should be looking for ways to engage them more in what we're asking them to learn?
  • Is increased responsibility, perseverance and resilience the answer for some of our most vulnerable learners?
  • What are 'we' doing to create an environment where students can develop personal responsibility, perseverance and resilience?

These are obviously big questions. Not ones that can be answered in one blog post. For the purpose of this post I'm going to focus on our assessment practices and how they may impact what we observe in our schools.

If you were a student who struggled to achieve learning mastery because the pace was too quick for you, the content was too difficult for you or you were lacking the skills to accomplish a task, what actions do you think you would demonstrate? To start with, you'd probably struggle to meet deadlines.
But if you took your teacher up on his/her flexible timelines, and sought out his/her assistance in helping you learn the necessary skills and knowledge, great! Your teacher would probably compliment you on how your commitment and handwork led to your achievement!

But, what if your teacher stuck to rigid deadlines, didn't 'insist' you come in for extra help and assigned you zeros when you failed to complete work on time? You'd probably get discouraged, your confidence would be deflated and gradually you'd probably resign yourself to failure. Over time, you'd likely appear disengaged. Your teacher might describe you as lacking initiative, lazy or as someone who gives up too easily. And just imagine if you'd been enduring these struggles for the many years you've attended school. Of course the lack of success would leave you feeling beaten down and you'd be far more likely to wave the white towel at the first sign things weren't going well! So while you'd have heard many people tell you that if you just 'worked harder, stayed up-to-date and learned from your mistakes' you'd be successful, you'd find it much harder to do so because the odds were stacked against you.

So if we insist on rigid timelines for the submission of work and apply punitive measures (zeros, late penalties) when students fail to submit work on time, what more can we expect to see other than seemingly irresponsible students who lack perseverance and resilience?

Is it really 'right' for us to be critical of our students and insist they will ALL be successful if only they were more responsible, perseverant and resilient? Or, do WE also need to look ourselves in the mirror and examine whether our assessment practices are enabling students to become more responsible, perseverant and resilient?

Please take a moment to read through the short list below and reflect on your own assessment practices. If you feel you could do more in any of the following areas as part of your daily routine as an educator, then I encourage you to make the shift.
  • Provide 'flexible deadlines' to meet the needs of the range of learners you teach. (I'm not suggesting you eliminate deadlines!)
  • 'Insist' that students see you for help outside of regular class time when you notice they are lagging behind or struggling in a particular area.
  • Abolish '0'! Communicate with your students. Ask them 'why' they didn't complete their work, insist that they do so and if necessary, insist they do so in your presence so you can offer support and troubleshoot their mistakes.
  • Involve parents in the conversation early on! Describe what you're observing in class, what their child needs to do in order to be successful and how you are supporting their child in achieving these goals.
And yes, I do realize that if you embark on any of these shifts in your practice, it may not be easy. It will require some intentional planning, hardwork and likely some adjusting as you reach some challenging moments and possibly some adversity. But if you commit to the shift, please stick to it. After all, isn't it our RESPONSIBILITY to do what's in the best interest of our students? And shouldn't we model the same PERSEVERANCE and RESILIENCE we demand of our students when things don't go perfectly?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Assessment Confessions & Apologies

Let me begin by making some confessions. When I started my teaching career 16 years ago as a Science teacher, I wanted students to believe that every class was important. So what I did on most days was assign work that counted for marks. I marked a lot of assignments, I entered a lot of numbers into spreadsheets and I frequently updated students with their marks. I sometimes assigned zeros when students failed to submit work and I sometimes assigned late penalties when students submitted work late.  This system seemed to work for a good majority of my students. My most motivated students appeared diligent about completing high-level work and most others seemed to comply to and complete a reasonable amount and level of work. Unfortunately, at least one group of students for whom this approach didn't seem to work for was my struggling learners...those who often appeared to lag behind. The other question that I now realize I should have asked is 'what was motivating my students to learn?'

Fast forward to just over a week ago and I had the opportunity to participate in an online panel discussion using Google+ and share my perspective on the 'no zeros' policy that has recently caught the attention of educators and the general public. While I don't consider myself to be an 'expert' on this topic, the chance to join the panel of Tom Schimmer (@tomschimmer), Tom Hierck (@UMAKADIFF), Joe Bower (@joebower) and Lorelie Lenaour (@LLeanaour) and respond to questions from a PLC organized by Rose Pillay (@rosepillay1) proved to be an excellent learning experience for me. I'd like to thank Rose for inviting me to participate and for challenging me to further clarify my thoughts and ideas on this high profile subject.

In the days following our discussion I have had the opportunity to reflect on my previous assessment and grading practices. I now feel I owe many of my former students some apologies.

I apologize if...

I assigned you a 'zero' when you failed to submit work.
A 'zero' signifies that you knew 'nothing' about the topic in question. If it really was the case that you knew 'nothing' about a given topic after I worked with you, then the person who should have received the 'zero' is me. After all, it was my job to help you learn. Each time you failed to fully complete work on time, I should have asked you 'why?' instead of assuming you didn't care, couldn't be bothered or forgot.

I discouraged you from learning or provided you an excuse not to learn.
If you had truly tried, struggled to understand a concept and consequently failed to submit work, receiving a zero would have been very discouraging. Instead of incenting you to continue trying, I likely demotivated you by signalling to you that you were unable to learn 'on time'. And at some point, when your discouragement contributed to your disengagement, I provided you the ultimate excuse not to continue learning. You probably told your friends and parents that there was no point in completing the work because I had already assigned you a '0'. I should have provided more flexible timelines and more opportunities for you to demonstrate that you could meet the learning outcomes.

If I didn't make learning mandatory for all of you, all the time.
When I witnessed you failing to complete work, I shouldn't have allowed you to walk away without insisting that you learn. Whether it meant spent additional time during class or outside of class, I should have sat with you, supported you and demanded that you learn.

I emphasized point-gathering rather than learning.
So many of the tasks I assigned you had marks attached to them. Each time I told you how many marks each assignment was out of and explained how to achieve those marks, I shifted the emphasis to point-gathering, not learning. In doing so, I used grades as a motivational tool to encourage you to complete work and not to communicate your progress towards learning outcomes as I should have. In some cases I may have extinguished your genuine passion and inspiration for learning and turned you into a desperate and competitive point accumulator. Instead of spending so much time marking your work with numbers, I should have spent the time providing descriptive feedback so that you would have known what and how to improve. This would have shifted our conversations towards 'learning'.

I assigned you an inaccurate grade.
Each 'zero' I assigned for work you didn't submit, was invalid, inaccurate and contributed to a distorted representation of what you actually knew. The zeros may have said more about your work habits and less about your ability to meet some of the learning outcomes. Needless to say, the grade I assigned you was likely a confusing combination that reflected your work habits and your ability to meet the learning outcomes. 

I made you feel like you were being judged and ranked.
Far too often and far too quickly I assigned numbers to your work. I know you compared numbers with your classmates and determined where your mark ranked within the class. For some of you, achieving a  high rank in the class became your motivation (which it shouldn't have) and for others, knowing you consistently ranked towards the lower portion of the class must have been extremely discouraging. Simply put, school should not be about surviving punitive grading practices. It should be about LEARNING!