Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Our PISA Results. Good? Bad? Does it really matter?

The latest PISA results are out and the ratings on Canada's performance range from “This is on the scale of a national emergency,”  bad to "We didn't improve at all, but we didn't slide much" bad.  In others the reaction seemed confused, for instance  as Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail says here "Before everyone goes off half-cocked, as a few commentators already have, the OECD report contains both good news and bad." Yet later in the same commentary he claims that, "Given this need (to think about what is going on and make improvements) everyone in British Columbia should grab pitchforks and stick them in the educational “reform” proposals now on the table."  If throwing out years of work toward improving an already strong system due to results of one international test doesn't constitute "going off half cocked" I'm not sure what would.

Of course rating Canada as a single jurisdiction is pretty much meaningless anyway since education is strictly a provincial responsibility.  But whether it's hand wringing because of mediocre to poor results or jubilation due to having made 'great strides' the question still remains "So, what does it all mean?" The answer, as an increasingly large number of commentators are saying, is a resounding "Well, not much really," as Diane Ravitch outlines here.  Ms. Ravitch points out that the US has been doing quite poorly on these types of tests at the senior grades ever since they were started in the 60s.  Claims to be "slipping" are disingenuous in that American kids have never really done very well on international standardized tests, particularly at math.  Nobody would argue however that the US has been anything short of an economic juggernaut over those same 50 years.  It's also been a world leader in creativity, innovation and productivity over that same period.  According to Keith Baker in this 2007 PDK article, the predictive value (according to most 'quality of life' type indices) of any country's results on these tests is essentially zero.

That's not to say that these tests have no uses.  They do provide a very general indication of how our education systems are performing, at least in so much as how well we're preparing kids for tests.  But more importantly (and this is something that 'mean' measures don't address) they shine a light on differences in academic achievement across socio economic boundaries.  In other words, it's not the norm that's important it's the deviations from the norm that are a better indication of how we're doing.  In this respect Canada does very well, with fewer exceptions than most countries, rich and poor alike have access to quality education in this country.

To the kid in grade 9, tomorrow's math test can mean everything…as adults we know it doesn't.  To a kid in grade 12, those final marks can mean everything…as adults we know they don't.  To the Fraser Institute, FSA and other "ranking tools" can mean everything…as adults (I hope) we know they don't.  To countries (or provinces in the case of Canada) why does PISA seem to mean so much?…As adults why can't we believe that it doesn't?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Acceptable does your school achieve it?

Though details regarding what constitutes acceptable behaviour change from school to school, the big picture is pretty much the same wherever one goes.  Integrity, honesty, respect and any number of other "mom and apple pie" type traits would be the expectation.  What interests me is how acceptable behaviour is achieved.  There are two ways of establishing and maintaining acceptable behaviour, through rules or through cultural norms.  Of course the vast majority of people behave in socially acceptable ways the vast majority of the time regardless of rules or expectations.  I'm not talking about egregious transgressions here, we'll leave those to the police.  But in the schools of today, as we question much of what we've done pedagogically in the past, I'm seeing ever increasing confusion, and having many more conversations about what is and isn't acceptable.  This ambiguity affects students, teachers and administrators alike.

For instance, let's look at the "zero as a grade" debate.  Most educators I talk to now understand that a zero for incomplete/late/copied work is not fitting and does not indicate what the student knows, nor does it help in establishing more acceptable behaviour in the future.  When we dig down a little most people understand that the grade of zero is really nothing more than the application of a rule to gain compliance regarding completion of work on time.  When we question the validity and efficacy of this practice it breaks down, and so most educators (rightly so) no longer use it.  So what replaces it?  Well, nothing per se, but the teachers who have the fewest issues with student work are the ones who establish cultural norms in their classroom around the expectation of complete and punctual work.  They also make assessment for learning practices a common theme in their classroom, giving students multiple and/or differentiated opportunities to show their learning.  In other words, they elicit acceptable behaviour around work and assessment by establishing a culture of work, trust (through multiple opportunities) and high expectations.

Another perennial issue around secondary schools in particular is what to do about students who show up late.  Anyone who's worked in secondary schools can tell you that establishing rules around tardiness is one thing, enforcing those rules with consistency is quite another.  And no matter how clearly and comprehensively the "policy" is written, before the ink dries someone will show up with an exception that wasn't considered.  What happens if a student flaunts the rules around tardiness, or simply can't get themselves to class on time?  Should we suspend them?  In other words, have them miss more school for having missed a lot of school?  The most effective policies I've seen around students coming in late involve no hard and fast rules, perhaps a few guidelines around acceptable consequences but most importantly very clear and oft repeated expectations that "around here we do everything we can to get to school (and class) on time."  When students and teachers alike accept a cultural norm of punctuality "lates" still occur, but less frequently, and the students arriving late do so in a hurry with an apology on their lips.  Any teacher or administrator will tell that this attitude toward tardiness makes ALL the difference.

Though neither of these two issues is of earth shattering importance, they both serve to illustrate a point. If acceptable behaviour is achieved through rules it amounts to enforcement through coercion, yes it's effective in the present, and it certainly helps in preserving order, but if the enforcement flags, the reason to behave in an acceptable manner disappears.  Not only that, the following (or breaking) of rules does not necessarily lead to any appreciation of why the rule was enacted in the first place. The more effective method of establishing acceptable behaviours is through cultural norms or expectations.  Establishing these norms is never easy, it takes patience, skill and clear vision.  But to a certain extent, therein lies the difference between management in schools and leadership in schools.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Let Kids Make Decisions...and Mistakes

As both an educator and a parent I need to constantly remind myself to let kids, both my own and the students with whom I work, make as many decisions as feasibly possible WITHOUT my intervention.  This becomes most difficult when poor decisions are made and failure is clearly more than just a possibility.  Obviously this rule doesn't apply if any serious harm or damage will result from making an ill advised choice, but adults in the modern world seem to have largely forgotten what most of our parents knew, that making decisions is a big part of life and that wise decisions often come from earlier poor decisions.  I was reminded of this just the other day when my two year old son refused to wear his jacket, leading to a long discussion (don't bother trying to reason TOO much with a two year old) and eventually arguments and tears (some of which were his!).  But afterward I asked myself "why?".  It was cold out, but far from freezing, he may have felt uncomfortable but there was certainly no danger.  (...and I hope we're all beyond the belief that a "chill" is the cause of any illness).  Of course it was about him asserting his will, testing another scenario in which he might have some power.  So why not let him assert it in this case?  He'll be the one living with the consequences, either he'll be fine or he may learn that jackets aren't such a bad idea in October in Canada.  Either way, the results were his to discover from his choice, and even if he didn't learn (he is only two after all) he would get the message that yes, he does have some affect on his own life.  Choices like this are small pieces of the larger puzzle of self determination and personal efficacy.

As educators we need to follow the same guidelines.  John Abbott, in his work with the 21st Century Learning Initiative often talks about the "principle of subsidiarity" as applied to education.  Originally a term associated with the catholic church, the principle of subsidiarity refers to the notion that all decisions should be made at the lowest level of authority possible.  In other words, districts shouldn't make decisions that could be made at the school level, schools shouldn't be making decisions that can be made at the classroom or teacher level and (this is the one we too often forget) educators should not be making decisions regarding a child's education that could feasibly be made by the child.  Whether the decision is something as large as which course of study to follow, or something as banal as whether or not to do homework, we spend too much time and energy pushing, pestering, cajoling and offering unsolicited advice, hoping to help kids avoid poor decisions and mistakes.  We often tell kids that mistakes are a learning opportunity, but if we then go too far out of our way to help kids avoid them it becomes nothing more than a meaningless platitude.  Making wise decisions is a skill and mastering any skill takes practice.

We must also be aware that if learning by doing and erring  is valuable, we can't then stick with traditional "grading" practices that tend to punish mistakes.  Thankfully ever greater numbers of teachers are moving to assessment for  and as learning techniques that recognize the value in mistakes and don't punish students who make them.  By definition formative assessment exists specifically as a way for kids to test what they think without fear of failure or punishment.  Therefore educators we need to move toward models where formative assessment comprises the bulk of how we assess student work.

There are numerous reasons proffered for "bubble wrapping" kids/students from errors, but to me they all seem to boil down to three main categories, and none of them are valid.  First (and this is one that nobody will admit to) comes laziness.  Quite simply, it's often easier and faster to help kids avoid errors than to clean up or debrief (or whatever the case may be) afterward.  Next there's the pretty well debunked self esteem type arguments; kids will feel badly about not doing well.  This of course is not true in and of itself, kids only feel bad when there are value judgements attached to errors and failure, and that's on us, as educators and parents to rectify.  Finally (and here's another one people won't admit to on the surface) there's the purely selfish argument for helping kids avoid pitfalls.  We, as parents or educators, feel bad when our kids don't succeed. After all, it's natural to empathize.  But from hyper protective parents who won't let their kids climb trees to "helicopter parents" who travel with their adult children to college, deep down it makes us feel better to smooth things over.  None of these lines of reasoning are valid.  But we all know, whatever the excuse, that acting as "fixers" for all our kids' woes is simply setting them up for bigger and potentially more critical failures down the road.  More importantly, it leaves them unable to cope emotionally with setback and loss.  Protect your kids from genuinely dangerous decisions, and help guide your students without coercion or pressure, but remember that when all is said and done we all need to "learn things the hard way" once in a awhile.  When it happens, bite your lip, relax and keep telling yourself that it's a learning experience.

Monday, April 29, 2013

8 Characteristics of Strong Teachers

What makes a teacher strong? What differentiates the best from the rest? There’s no shortage of bodies (some dramatically misguided) attempting to solve this riddle.  The answers are nebulous at best. Below is a list of traits, some of which may be familiar but many of which will never show up on any sort of performance review.  Check them out and see what you think.

1. They Demonstrate Confidence
Confidence while teaching can mean any number of things, it can range from having confidence in your knowledge of the material being learned to having confidence that your teaching acumen is second to none. Though these two (and many other) “confidences” are important the most critical confidence a teacher can have is much more general, and tougher to describe than that.  It’s the confidence that you know you’re in the right spot doing what you want to be doing and that no matter what transpires, having that time to spend with those young learners is going to be beneficial both for them and for yourself.  It’s clear to students when teachers exude this feeling. Working in schools is difficult and stressful, and also immensely rewarding. But if you’re not confident that you’re in the right place when you’re teaching…you’re probably not.
2. They Have Life Experience
Having some life experience outside the classroom and outside the realm of education is invaluable for putting learning into context and keeping school activities in perspective. Teachers who have travelled, worked in other fields, played high level sports or enjoyed any number of other life experiences bring to the profession outlooks other than “teacher”.  From understanding the critical importance of collaboration and teamwork, to being able to answer that ageless senior math question “when are we going to use this?”, educators who have spent significant time and energy on alternate pursuits come to the profession with a deep understanding of where school fits into the bigger picture of life.
3. They Understand Each Student’s Motivation
Just as each student has a different set of interests, every student will have a correspondingly different set of motivators.  Many (or most) students will be able to reconcile their own outlook and ambitions with what’s happening in the class and take motivation from that relationship.  Unfortunately some students will rely simply on external motivators, but worse, we’ve all run into students who really can’t find a relationship between what makes them tick and what’s happening in the classroom around them.  These students run the risk of disengaging altogether.  This is where the master teacher knows each of her students and helps them to contextualize the work they’re doing to allow the student to make a connection with something in his realm of interest.  Teachers who can’t help students make this connection need to rethink what’s going on.  After all, what IS the point of work in which a student finds no interest and for which he can make no connection?
4. They’re People, Not Heroes.
Yes, all teachers are heroes.  Now let’s move beyond the platitude to what this really means.  Some teachers still have trouble showing any sort of vulnerability of fallibility.  These teachers will expend immense amounts of energy hiding the fact they’re frustrated at something, that they’re upset or perhaps even angry.  Why?  Other teachers get tied into logical knots to avoid admitting “I have no idea what the answer to your question is.” But teachers who genuinely connect with students are the ones who aren’t afraid to show emotions in class, who can admit that they aren’t in fact the repository of all knowledge. Of course nobody want to be a wallowing, blubbering mess in class, but what better way to teach empathy than to give the students someone to empathize with when we’re having a bad day? What better way to foster collaboration and to teach that it’s okay not to know something than to say “I don’t know, let’s find that out!”?
5.  They’re Technologically Capable
Let’s not belabour this point, after all, plenty of ink (or pixels as the case may be!) has already been spilled on this topic. As time passes, the statement “But I’m not very good with _________ .”(fill in the blank with any number of technological devices) is sounding ever more like “But I’m not very good with a telephone.” The ONLY time the sentiment above is acceptable is if it’s followed immediately by “…but I’m very willing to learn!”.  After all, we wouldn’t accept such weak rationalizations from students regarding their work.  In 2013, as a profession, we lose credibility every time we allow excuses like this to go unchallenged. Enough said.
6. They Model Risk Taking
We encourage our students to be risk takers, we’d all like to be risk takers, but let’s be honest, the nature of the beast is that many teachers are not naturally risk takers.  This point goes hand in hand with showing vulnerability, the teacher who’s willing to go out on a limb, to try something new, to be “wacky” in the name of pedagogy earns the respect of students, even if the snickers seem to say something different. No matter the success or failure of the risk taken, the experience will certainly be memorable for the kids in that class, and isn’t that what we’re aiming for?  After all, as the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
7. They Focus On Important Stuff
Whether it’s worrying about who’s late to class, collecting every little piece of work in order to “gather marks” or spending too much time lecturing to the class in order to “cover the material”, there’s no shortage of ways to distract teachers from the what’s important.  Strong teachers know that  things like chronic tardiness or skipping class are usually symptoms of larger issues and as such, spending precious time and energy trying to “fix” the issue almost never works.  That’s what administrators and counselors are for.  They also understand that efficient and effective assessment means eliminating busy work while giving targeted, meaningful feedback and that engaging the students, connecting the material to their interests and passions, is the surest way to maximize learning.  There’s plenty of minutiae and enough CYA (Cover Your…) in education to easily get sidetracked, strong teachers keep their focus on what’s important.
8. They Don’t Worry Too Much About What Administrators Think
This trait is tied in with many of the others listed above. Strong teachers do their job without worrying too much about “what the principal will think”.  They’ll take risks, their classes my be noisy, or messy, or both.  Their activities may end up breaking something (usually the rules) in order to spark excitement or engagement.  They understand that learning is not a neat and tidy activity and that adhering too closely to rules and routines can drain from students the natural curiosity, spontaneity and passion that they bring to school.  Worrying about what the boss may think can be draining and restrictive in any job, teaching is no exception. The best teachers live by the code “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

Monday, April 22, 2013

How do you make your students feel?

Research is starting to show pretty conclusively that the answer to this question can have a profound effect on the learning that occurs within your class or school. More specifically, children who are anxious about their learning, about their abilities, about their homework…about just about anything, will have elevated levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress. Though cortisol has its benefits, a perpetual state of elevated cortisol levels, or even regular spikes in levels are damaging to the body in numerous ways, including impaired cognitive abilities.  Studies also show that increased instances of elevated cortisol levels leads to lowered cortisol levels down the road, which is also problematic. The other, more immediate effect is that the physiological energy needed for the body to regulate stress hormone levels detracts from the energy available to focus on learning.
We’ve all seen children in obvious states of emotional distress, and it’s well known that students in such a state are incapable of much learning. But students with less visible, perhaps lower levels of stress or anxiety are also affected. The notion of stress in this case is very broad, and many kids, parents (and educators) are unaware of the effects of these stressors. Things like too much video game time, too little breakfast or tension in the home can have profound effects on students’ levels of stress which can mean an imbalance of cortisol.
As educators we need to not only be cognizant of how our behaviour and expectations are affecting our students, increasingly we need to work to counteract the effects of outside stresses which may hinder success in the classroom. Of course we have no way of discerning the emotional state (and thus the readiness to learn) of each of the students in front of us. But with ever increasing numbers of kids who have difficulty self regulating most teachers can bet on the fact that some (or many) of the students in front of them on any given day are in either a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused emotional state. Here are 5 simple things that teachers can do to help students self regulate.
1)   Monitor the Physical Surroundings
Avoid clutter, including too much visual stimulation in the form of bright colours and other visual distracters. Yes it’s great to have some decoration, and displaying student work is a must, but avoid having your classroom space look too “busy”.
2)   Allow for Movement and Fidgeting
Sitting still simply isn’t an option for some kids, and for many others it’s doable, but at a high cost in terms of attention and focus. Some teachers have had great success experimenting with exercise balls instead of seats, disc cushions or simple “fidget toys”.

3)   Reduce Extraneous Noise
Some noise is good, it’s productive and rhythm exercises are great for development. But some kids shut down in the presence of “disorganized” noise.  Reduce the number of hard reverberative surfaces where possible, and keep the music area to one corner of the classroom, with a simple divider where possible, so that those not participating can focus on other tasks.
4)   Build in Time for Transitions
Most teachers area aware of, and do this, intuitively. But sometimes we try to hurry from one activity to the next. Kids who have difficulty up regulating from a “lighter” activity to something requiring more focus, or down regulating from a busy activity, can get lost in the shuffle if we don’t allow time (and perhaps provide a little guidance).
5)   Make Your Students Aware of Their Own Mindset
Tools like The Alert Program encourage students to be aware of their own readiness to learn. Young kids will always need some guidance and help to self regulate, but if students are made aware of how they’re feeling, and if teachers are aware of how they (and their classroom environment) are affecting students, classroom management issues will be reduced and student learning will be improved.

Recent findings in neurophysiology and psychology (to name but two) are emphasizing the importance of self regulation in children. For a reasonably comprehensive and very practical resource on this topic check out Dr. Stuart Shankar’s “Calm, Alert and Learning”.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Habits of Effective Administrators

1.    Balance management with leadership.
School administration involves both management duties and leadership opportunities. The management side tends to be the stuff that one has to do. Leadership is the stuff that one chooses to do. It’s very important as an educational administrator (especially a rookie) to remember these two things i) to be a leader you need followers and ii) to gain followers one must complete management duties in a timely and efficient manner. Teachers will not care what you have to say about educational leadership if you don’t manage effectively.
2.  Envision the ideal, but focus on the doable.
Effective school leaders have a vision of what their “ultimate” school looks like. This vision helps create the culture and atmosphere of the schools in which they work. But a clear path directly to this goal is rarely, if ever, discernible. Leaders must pick their way toward this goal one small step at a time, focusing on ideas and changes that can be implemented now, ones that may take a year or two and ones that may take 5 years. The ideal is never achieved because it always evolves, but it’s the incremental changes made working toward the ideal that improve learning for students.
3. Act as a representative for the missing voice.
A big part of being an administrator is helping sort out other people’s conflicts. Parents will come to complain about teachers, teachers about kids, kids about teachers etc. With interpersonal issues, getting one side of the story never suffices in shedding enough light on the situation, of course it’s imperative to get views from all possible sides in these matters. But in the interim, while listening to the initial report of any conflict, effective leaders try to understand the missing person’s point of view, and keep that in their mind as the discussion progresses. Adopting and, where necessary, representing the missing person’s point of view helps in keeping the discussion focused and moving toward settlement. Too readily accepting the initial complaint at face value often leads to more awkward situations later on.
4. Listen and interpret.
People will usually say what they mean, but often mean more than what has actually been said. Often they’re simply shy about “sharing everything”. A student who admits to going to bed too late can be expressing numerous things, from anxiety issues to more esoteric ailments like “screen addiction”. A teacher complaining about too much marking may be asking for help in planning or looking for ways to work more efficiently. Effective administrators pick up on this and, using communication techniques such as paraphrasing, try to elicit the full meaning of what is being communicated. It’s only after frank discussions with all necessary information available that effective feedback, and help where necessary, can be provided.
5. Reflect constantly.
After every action, interaction and decision, the best administrators will always ask “How could that have been done better?” Whether something has gone extremely well, or the flaws in planning and/or execution were evident for all to see, a cycle of constant reflection upon their work allows these administrators to improve their practice every day.
6. Plan for your own departure.
It’s nice to think of one’s self as indispensible, but the aim of an effective administrator should be the opposite. After all, the essence of true leadership is building capacity within an organization.  If there’s a process or procedure that’s important to the running of a school, strong administrators will ensure that they are not the only people within the building capable of completing the task.  Whether it’s something as mundane as turning off the bells for a holiday or as complex as building a timetable, building redundancy into the system is a critical part of creating a robust and sustainable leadership structure.
7. Improving student learning is our sole guiding principle.
This may seem like a truism, but nevertheless we often find ourselves asking “What’s best for ________?”. I’ve seen this simple question work miracles, from diffusing extremely tense conversations with both teachers and parents, to kick-starting what seems like a stalled professional development conversation. Everyone in the field of education works from the premise that we’re here to help students, we all just need to be reminded once in a while.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Ideal of Intrinsic Motivation for All Learners

Here's a question we don't think about often enough. "What motivates students to be engaged at school?"  The answers to this vary dramatically and have a huge impact on each and every student.

Let's start with the obvious line of answers. "everyone goes to school," or "everyone needs an education in this day and age".  Though there is a certain amount of truth to these cliched responses I would posit two thoughts.  First, though yes, most jobs do now require at least a high school education or the equivalent, there are ever increasing ways to achieve "the equivalent" without spending days in the traditional bricks and mortar secondary school.  Second, and most importantly, if one of these "'cuz everyone does it" type of responses is the best reason a young person can present for going to school, it's no wonder these same kids do not engage and simply do school because school is the done thing.

Senior students often invoke the "I have to do well at school in order to get into university" mantra when asked about reasons for attending and doing well.  This can be a genuine motivational factor, especially around here where the familial and social expectation is academic and career success.  But again, is this the answer we really want when we pose that question?  Doing well simply to get to the next level is fine when playing video games, but it hardly seems inspirational as an educational goal for a secondary school student.

There are myriad other reasons students give for attending school, all of them valid.  As with any question around motivation, answers to this question can be divided into two categories: intrinsic reasons for attending school and extrinsic reasons.  By now many people will have read Dan Pink's book Drive or at least viewed the related TED Talk, so most people understand that extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are not equal.  Intrinsic motivators have a profoundly greater effect on engagement, it's through intrinsic interests that people achieve great things, including great learning.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this phenomenon of total intrinsic engagement in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  The ideal class would have every student engaged in productive, stimulating and interesting work 100% of the time.  Of course that's purely an ideal, but ideals can act as guides and though I believe that with the BCEdplan we're headed in the right direction here in British Columbia, there are many education systems which still rely too heavily, and to an increasing degree, on extrinsic motivators to entice kids to engage in school.

Prevalent assessment practices are probably the most obvious example of how we rely too heavily on extrinsic motivators.  As long as we evaluate more than we assess and as long as we provide grades more often than we provide feedback, student motivation will come from the collection of this "currency" that we call marks.  Those richest in this currency will be afforded the best opportunities come the end of high unfortunate but true fact of life as things stand.  We've all run across the students who are "mark sharks" these are the kids who focus solely on their grades, often to the detriment of true learning.  But they're simply the ones who have truly taken to heart our message that good grades, as opposed to quality learning, are the primary goal of our systems.

There are also more subtle ways in which our current paradigms hinder the incubation of intrinsic motivation.  Whether it's being forced to teach to standardized tests or being bound by overly prescriptive curricula, teachers are often restricted in what they do in the classroom.  Prescribing curricular content any more than absolutely necessary robs teachers, and students, of the freedom to choose material that truly engages and inspires them.  Rather than demanding that teachers "cover" material, to be of much relevance for the future our goals must be focused around higher order thinking outcomes, leaving as much of the choice of course material as possible to the teachers, and the students to decide for themselves.  This will facilitate far greater engagement and hence far greater intrinsic motivation amongst students.

Lack of motivation is the reason that any of us quit anything, school is no exception. Extrinsic motivation is far preferable to no motivation at all, we've all needed it to get us through one thing or another.  But extrinsic motivators don't get student truly engaged in their learning.  They make school analogous to a's something that has to be done.  If we want our systems to be as strong as they can possibly be we need to talk about and explicitly foster an intrinsic motivation in each of our students.  Only students who are intrinsically motivated to be engaged in school will end up truly challenged, enriched, energized and ultimately fulfilled by their experience.  Yes it's an ideal, but it's worth keeping in mind.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The BCEdplan: I like what I've seen so far.

For the people of BC, particularly those in education, the existence of the BCEdplan is old news by now.  After getting off to a bit of a shaky start thanks to some unfortunate timing (the roll out coincided with teacher job action)  and the premature publication of some tentative and unrealistic timeline goals (which have since disappeared) the plan seems to be gaining genuine momentum.  Most tellingly, people and bodies who had initially been skeptical of the plan (many of them reflexively) have been increasingly silent as time has passed.  I can't help but take this as a sign that the open and collaborative approach being taken by the ministry is gaining converts.

The ministry has been actively seeking feedback using discussion forums on the web as well as hosting a series of feedback gathering sessions in numerous regions across the province.  Having helped organize the session in Richmond, and collate the feedback, I experienced first hand the genuine interest of our community in the directions that public education will be taking in the future.  All the feedback gathered so far has been summarized here.  Reading this report, I realized that the silence from those who had previously been naysayers in this process stems from the fact that the ideas expressed and the proposals being aired make sense.  In other words, there's been precious little to argue against.  I'm particularly heartened by this sentence from the "Next Steps" section;

"We recognize that transforming our education system involves more than just giving you a space to talk and then writing fancy reports. We must also act on what you’ve told us.  And we’re doing that."

Those who know me understand that it's my nature to be, shall we say, "suspicious" of government initiatives, especially as they pertain to education.  With that on the table I do have to admit that I've been very impressed thus far with the openness and candour with which the Ministry of Education has approached this initiative.  And though I don't often use "the T word" the direction that the ministry is taking promises to be truly transformational for the education system and for future students in the province.

The wholly unofficial word on the street is that it will be at least another two years before this plan is presented as a cohesive whole, and that's a good thing.  Reimagining and transforming something as large as a public education system, particularly given the stubborn tenacity of some of our industrial age structures and paradigms, does not come quickly or easily.  There are still far more questions than there are answers, and given the ever changing nature of society's expectations of education, I don't imagine that we'll ever have all the answers.  But if the ministry remains dedicated to this process, as the quote above would seem to indicate, then whatever's coming promises to be challenging, exciting and, to some "traditionalists", a little worrying.

Friday, March 1, 2013

6 Common Misunderstandings About Assessment and Evaluation

Over the past two decades there has been a lot written, and much discussion, around the use effective use of assessment in the classroom.  Unfortunately many educators, particularly at the secondary school level, continue to cling tenaciously to “traditional” practices which are, at best ineffective and at worst, counterproductive to the goals of modern education.  Here are six common misconceptions about assessment and evaluation that we need to abolish.
1.    “Assessment and evaluation are the same.”  No they’re not! Too many people, particularly those not employed in the field of education, conflate these two and too often within the field we evaluate student work and tell ourselves that what we’ve done is assessment.  Assessment involves timely, detailed  feedback based around clearly defined learning outcomes.  Evaluation is “giving a grade” to a piece of work, usually based on normative criteria, but too often in comparison to the work of other students.
2.    “Most assessment is summative.”  Well, unfortunately that may still be true in many quarters, but it should not be.  As we’ve learned over the past two decades or so assessment can be a very powerful learning tool in and of itself.  As Dylan Wiliam has been saying for years, we need to constantly assess both student work and our own teaching, adjusting as we go, such that by the time we get to the end of a unit of study students have already had an opportunity to rethink and revise their work.  There are still far too many teachers who rely too heavily on one single summative assessment at the end of each unit and then move onto another topic no matter the outcomes.
3.    “Assessment is one way communication, the teacher gives feedback on student work”.  Well, yes that’s true, but the most productive assessment should be a dialogue.  In traditional assessment and evaluation models students complete a task, the teacher assesses the work and tells the student how they’ve done and, in formative cases, how to improve the work.  But when students engage with the teacher to discuss work, talk about what they’ve done and why, both student and teacher stand to gain far more from the experience.  Modern technology makes two way communication between teacher and student much easier and far more ubiquitous, let’s start using it more effectively.
4.    “Assessment is for grading purposes.”  This is one of the most pervasive and potentially damaging holdovers from bygone eras in education.  Yes, final grades should reflect some of what has gone on between student and teacher regarding assessment.  But the “collecting of marks” to arrive at the final grade is counterproductive in many ways, here are just two.  First, the collation marks too often includes work which was done before students had mastered the material.  As has been said by others, when we redo things like driving tests we don’t “average” the results, why do we do this with school work.  Secondly, every teacher, especially in secondary schools, is aware of how the pursuit of ‘marks’ often distracts students’ focus from the work at hand.  This is doubly damaging because neuroscience is telling us that brains under stress from external stimuli can have significantly diminished learning capacity.
5.    “Student work should be given a mark”.  In summative situations, or where marks are necessary, this assertion is true.  But too often we put a mark on student work when we’re hoping to use the work formatively, which is a mistake.  As soon as students see a grade on a piece of work, be it a letter or number grade, the focus is immediately taken off of any meaningful feedback and, in the student’s mind, that piece of work is complete.  It’s time to move on.  No matter what the teacher intends grades imply a finality that’s hard to overcome in students’ minds.
6.    “If assignments are late I deduct marks.  There is no pedagogically defensible reason for doing this.  This is simply trying to modify behaviour using coercion through grades.  There is nothing wrong with having some consequence for late work, but the assignment of grades (when necessary) should reflect student learning, nothing more.  Put another way, if a student hands in work worthy of an A today, is that work somehow different if it were handed in tomorrow?

My experience has been that when teachers rethink and reform their views about what assessment is about, and what its primary purposes are, their feedback is invariably positive.  When we pry the “mark book” out of the collective hand of those in the teaching profession, and allow individual teachers the freedom to use assessment in more productive ways, we find that assessment becomes far more authentic and fruitful and far less about the drudgery (and judgment) of marking.

Monday, February 25, 2013

"B+, great work"...or Is There More to It?

Like many schools across North America, especially here in BC, our school is wrestling with assessment and evaluation.  The differences between the two and how each is best used seem to be the general theme of many of our conversations.  As school staffs go ours is fairly well versed and quite open minded about discussing, rethinking and restructuring our practices to make assessment more useful and more meaningful for students.    Our teachers are starting to genuinely understand the differences between assessment and evaluation and, more importantly, are beginning to use more authentic forms of assessment, and evaluating only when necessary.  Given what research has told us over the past three decades about learning and motivation, "Assessment for Learning" and "Assessment as Learning" need to become our primary focus when assessing, with evaluation best left for when it's time for something more summative.

There's some exciting stuff going on here at Steveston-London.  Our science department has been relying primarily on formative assessment based around their 7 "Essential Learning Outcomes" for science 8-10 for some years now.  It's only when the students move onto the more content heavy and more closely prescribed curricula of the senior sciences that our teachers move to more "traditional" grading practices (i.e. actual grading rather than more meaningful feedback).  Our English Department is moving in this direction as is our ESL department (which I've written about before), who are trying to get away from "grades" at the lower levels altogether.  We've also recently received some money from our district to allow interested departments some release time to revise their thinking and implement authentic assessment models of their own design.  Our Social Studies teachers are keen to get started with this, and fingers crossed, they'll have developed an authentic assessment model of their own in time for implementation next school year.

We all have our idealized model of assessment and evaluation in mind, and for most of us it's a long way from where we are now.  There are many more discussions to be had and a lot more thinking that must go into this vital topic.  For instance, one thing I believe that needs to be addressed is the possibility and the flexibility of having completely different models and grading schema to better account for the differences between subject areas.  There's nothing wrong with a 7/10 on a mathematics assignment where a student clearly had 7 correct answers and 3 incorrect, but 7/10 is essentially meaningless feedback for a piece of writing.  All around me people are having truly meaningful discussions and rethinking their own concepts of "assessment" and "feedback".  Let's encourage this and help keep things moving in the right direction.

Friday, February 15, 2013

“A majority of students are telling us they are nervous or anxious all the time,”

The title is a quote from Maria Yau, research coordinator for a study that was recently released by the Toronto District School Board.  The study asked 103,000 students questions about various aspects of their lives, including their daily levels of stress and anxiety.  However, stress and anxiety were merely one aspect of the comprehensive census, the results of which are summarized here in a powerpoint.  Now, I would agree that it's rather disquieting (though not necessarily shocking) that today's teens are as stressed out as they are, and I will get back to more thoughts about that later.  But looking at all the findings of the study, I was struck by the irony inherent in how the results were presented in the media.  Virtually every news story about the census focused almost exclusively on the 'stress and anxiety' findings, but a visit to the TDSB site reveals these other findings;

  • 92% of students feel safe at school
  • There's been a 10% increase in students eating a proper lunch, thanks in part to school food programs put in place because of the 2006 survey
  • There been a 14% increase in attendance at parent teacher interviews
  • Over 90% of students feel that their background is respected by adults in the school
So where's the irony?  Does focusing solely on stress and anxiety, while completely ignoring positive findings from the same survey not increase the level of stress and anxiety?  Given the full scope of the survey results, it's more than just a little disingenuous for the various news people to go all "chicken little" over this narrow band of findings.  Yes it's worrisome that stress levels are so high, but would it not serve the public interest better to also include some information about what schools, and students, in the 21st century are doing better at than they've ever done in the past?  Let's celebrate kids' (and schools') successes, and let's be aware of elevated anxiety levels, but let's not exacerbate anxiety issues in the service of selling papers.

So teenagers are stressed, that in itself is not necessarily a good or bad state, it depends on the source of the stress.  Findings in neuroscience indicate that stress can have either a positive effect or a negative effect on learning, it seems to depend on the source of the stress.  Generally speaking, a brain that's stressed by the material at hand (i.e. a kid worrying about the content on a test or a difficult assignment) has its learning capacity slightly enhanced by the anxiety.  But a brain under stress from external sources (i.e. a kid worrying about her home situation or worrying about grades rather than the material at hand) will have diminished learning capacity.  This last point makes intuitive sense, we've all experienced trying to learn while being distracted by negative forces in our lives, it tends not to go very well.  Unfortunately, the overall results of this census would seem to indicate that it's the external stressors that are affecting young people today.  Indeed, the census indicates that students seem to be pretty happy with the way things are going at school.  It's the rest of the world that's having the deleterious effects on student anxiety levels.  The chart below has some thought provoking numbers.

There's no doubt that we live in a stressful world, but surely we can do better than to create a culture where learning is disrupted by the level of anxiety in young people's lives?  That external anxiety is anathema to learning is not a new idea, Csikszentmihalyi, Vygotsky and many others have come to the same conclusion. We need to start using this knowledge to design educational systems that do everything within their power to reduce stresses on students.  Worrying about "marks" is one area in which we could make improvements, and at our school we're tackling that (slowly).  Post secondary direction is another area in which we should do more to alleviate worries.  We need to convince more kids that it's okay to not be a "white collar" professional.  (In fact, it's very arguable that skilled trades are some of the few professions that simply cannot be outsourced).  Of course there are external pressures on today's teenagers that we can do precious little to change.  But we need to always be mindful that the more external stress we put on young brains, the less learning we can expect them to achieve.