Can we please stop…

I’ve heard it said that teachers tend to teach they way we were taught.  That was probably true for me, and I wonder why that happens.  I think (though I have no research beyond my own experience to back this up) that many teachers liked school enough that they decided it would be a good place to spend a career, and liked at least some of their classes enough that they look at their (now former) teachers as role models or standards to aspire to.  I know that I went to a very good school and had talented and creative teachers, and I’ve on occasion said I would be doing well if I could be “as good as” some of the teachers who taught me.  Having a good school experience, positive feelings about school, and role models is a good thing.  However, I think that we as a profession need to realize that…

  1. We are (for the most part) the group that school worked for. For far too many others, school was a less positive, less successful experience.  For some, it still is.  We need look no further than the the drop-out rates to confirm this.
  2. Things have changed since we were in school as students.  (Yes, no matter how recently you entered the profession; the changes will no doubt seem less drastic to new teachers, but things have still changed).  The classrooms we are in front of are not the same as the classrooms we were in.  “inclusion” wasn’t really on the radar 25 years ago.  The Internet and computing technology generally were in their infancy.  The demographics of our country and our province have changed.  And the world has changed, socially and economically.  Moreover, the changes aren’t likely to stop anytime soon.

What does realizing these things mean?  A lot.  One of the things it means for me is that our profession should let go of some things that might seem familiar or perhaps even sacred.  Things such as:

  • Worksheets.  The students that can do them don’t need them.  They won’t help the students that can’t do them.  That’s not to say that reviewing and applying what students learn is a bad thing.  But the sorts of higher level critical thinking and real-world application that we should be looking to develop are rarely found on a worksheet.  Some might say “but they need to practice the basics first”.  I don’t doubt that there is a need to practice key skills… but surely this “practice” can be done in a more engaging, authentic way than (most?) worksheets.
  • Averaging marks.  If a student writes the test for his or her driver’s license, and for whatever reason gets a 20% the first time, a 35% on the second attempt, and an 80% on the third attempt, what’s the outcome?  a. 20% + 35% + 80% gives an average mark of 45%.  The student needs to write the test again to “bring up his average”. or b. The student has successfully demonstrated the required knowledge to obtain his or her driver’s license.  That’s a drastic example, here’s a more likely one: if a student scores 60% and 80% on the assignments in a particular unit, and 90% on the test, assuming the assignments and the test focused on the same knowledge and skills, what should the student’s mark for the unit be?  77% or 90%?
  • Assigning projects to the class that result in 30 of the same thing.  Once upon a time, the ability to rigidly adhere to standards was important.  We needed workers that could follow specific directions and reliably do the same things over and over again.  Today we need citizens that can be creative, original, and innovative.  If there are rules for doing (making, creating) something, those rules can be discussed in the context of what students choose to work on, or they might come through in the process and through meaningful feedback.  Or the rules weren’t that important to begin with.  I’m not suggesting unlimited possibilities.  That can be  overwhelming to students and might be as big a problem as only one possibility, and many students need some structure to hold on to.  But surely there is room for some choice (perhaps to allow students to demonstrate their understanding using more than just the typical verbal-linguistic and mathematical intelligences that school traditionally favours).
  • Not meeting the needs of some of our students.  To be clear, this isn’t happening on purpose.  In my experience, the vast majority of teachers (think 99.9%) are caring, dedicated, and do their best for every student.  When governments and the education movement in Manitoba and across the country embraced a philosophy of inclusion, they did a good thing… but there wasn’t a really good answer for how to actually make inclusion work in the classroom.  What this often looked like was teachers planning and running one program for the (imaginary) “regular” students, and then “adapting” and “modifying” that program to account for students with individual needs, and managing an increasing number of educational assistants to do this.  So teachers often found themselves called on (and legally mandated) to plan and deliver 5, 10, 15 different variations of their classes while directing 1, 2, 3, more other adults.  Basic truth: ask anyone to do 10 things at once, and the quality is going to be less than that same person would have been able to deliver if he or she was only doing one thing at once.  Another basic truth: there is a limit to how many balls even the most talented juggler can keep in the air at once.  Add to that planning, monitoring, and reporting mechanisms which hold teachers accountable for keeping all the balls in the air at once… no wonder things like teacher workload and job satisfaction have become more common issues (well, there are many reasons, but this is consistently in the top 5).  The good news?  We’re starting to figure out how to do inclusion without killing ourselves.  For me, the answer to this “how do I meet the needs of all my students” question is Universal Design for Learning.  I’m sure that topic will get its own blog post some time soon.  I’m not saying that inclusion, even with UDL, isn’t a lot of work.  I’m saying that we don’t have any choice but to be inclusive, that in my experience UDL makes inclusion easier, and that there’s some pretty compelling research to support this philosophy and approach.  I like UDL (a lot), but whatever answer works, we need to teach all the students in our classroom.

There are other things I’m thinking might need to change too.  I wonder whether we should have marks at all.  And I wonder whether tests and exams should be a part of school today.  But for now, at least, the system requires both of these, at least for some teachers in some grades and subjects, so I can’t very well say we need to scrap them.  That, and I’m still in the “wonder” phase about both of these (though I’m leaning towards a thumbs down for both).

The other things, though?  Worksheets.  Averaging grades.  The same project from every student.  Not meaningfully including all the students in our classroom.  They need to go.  I doubt they were ever good practices, but they’re certainly not good practices today.  I understand the attachment to them.  The way things have been done in the past has tremendous inertia.  That’s why brakes were invented, though, and I think it’s time we stopped.

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Is “memorize” becoming a dirty word?

I’ve been finding myself thinking a lot lately about the value of students knowing things from memory.  I’ve heard it argued, from more than one source, that with the proliferation of electronic devices and the wealth of information available online, knowing things from memory is a dead skill.  The argument goes something like “Students don’t need to memorize anything anymore, if they need to know something they can just Google it.”.  And I’m skeptical.

First of all, I am NOT saying students don’t need to know how to locate information, think critically about that information’s bias, validity, and fitness for their purposes, synthesize information from a variety of sources, and so forth.  Clearly these skills are important.  However, I think these things are easier to do and done better if students have some background knowledge.  Knowing some basics about a subject is a great help in crafting good questions and searches, in understanding the results, in identifying suspect or incomplete information, and in placing the information found into context.  It’s not an either / or – either we teach students how to find good information or we teach them the information.  This is in my view a false dichotomy.

I wonder how the “no need to know anything today” perspective meshes (or does not mesh) with what science knows about learning and the brain.  This is a gross oversimplification, but the research I’ve read suggests that learning is making connections between the neurons in our brain, and that the connections which get used often become stronger, while those that aren’t used become less prominent and are eventually pruned away.  What does an education system where “memorize” is increasingly a dirty word mean for brain development in light of this model?

In my view, the whole “40 days, 40 weeks, 40 years” notion is a less controversial but still somewhat problematic perspective in the debate around memorization.  For those who haven’t heard this before, the logic is that some things we teach are totally irrelevant, and can safely be forgotten by students as soon as they walk out of the door the day they were taught (need to know for “40 minutes”).  Some things students will need to commit to memory for the duration of the course or school year (presumably due to a final exam, so need to know for “40 weeks”).  Some things are “big ideas” and important for students to know for a lifetime (“40 years”).  It makes sense to emphasize the “big ideas” in what we’re teaching, no argument there.  The controversy, though, is that there are a wide range of perspectives about exactly what those “big ideas” are.  Is “matter is made up of atoms” a 40 year idea?  Probably (though it wouldn’t be hard to find someone willing to say “I lived a perfectly happy and successful life without knowing that”).  Is “atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons” 40 year stuff?  Are the basic properties of these particles?  Is how to read a periodic table?  Well, it depends, doesn’t it?  For anyone who pursues a career in the sciences, yes. For some people, maybe not.  How precisely are we to know?

I think that there is a certain body of knowledge that is foundational to any subject.  Without knowing that “arteries carry blood away from the heart and veins carry blood towards the heart” and “the heart is a four-chambered pump made up of two atria and two ventricles”, there are huge pieces missing in understanding the human body.  To the point that I feel pretty comfortable saying that a student without this knowledge does not understand the circulatory system.  Will they ever use this knowledge?  I say probably (because it might impact their future health and medical situation or that of someone they know, and because it helps inform healthy lifestyle choices).  Others say “no, they can Google it if they need to know”.

I also think some knowledge of basic facts (yes, from memory) is essential for active and responsible citizenship.  In my view, it’s important to know some dates and names in history.  I think that if students leave high school without knowing some basics about “Louis Riel” or “World War II” or “residential schools”, that’s a big problem.  Do they need to memorize the date of every significant event in the history of our country, the specific battles in World War II, the names of all of the fathers of confederation?  No, and I don’t go into any of that in great depth in class either.  But I think that having some level of knowledge is important and valuable.

I’m not saying Googleing things is bad… I regularly pull out my smartphone or fire up a web browser to check things I’m not sure of.  I do it in front of students.  I model how to search effectively and how to assess the quality of the sites that pop up.  I’m the last one to say that we need to memorize everything.  But I think that it’s equally dangerous to say that we need to memorize nothing.

In the past, I think the education system probably tended to overemphasize the importance of memorization. The whole “teacher lectures, students write notes based on the lecture, students memorize notes for the test or exam” thing.  And I think some of what students were asked to memorize was, well, to be polite, of questionable value.  But I’m a little bit wary of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction.  Today, you can Google anything.  Surely that doesn’t mean students need to know nothing?

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Yes I am still alive…

Well, I set up this blog over the summer with the best of intentions.  And then life happened, as is usually the case.  Something about my house needing to be completely rewired, then all the drywall repaired, then painted… I’ve been living in somewhat of a disaster zone for the last couple of months, but fortunately the holiday break gave me the time to get things (mostly) back in order.  All’s well that ends well, but I will say that if I never sand drywall again, it will be too soon.  That certainly hasn’t been the only thing I’ve been up to… teaching, working with cadets, and a fair few committees have also kept me pretty busy on the professional side.  The point is, writing here ended up being a fairly low priority, which was probably necessary, but I wish it wasn’t the case.

While I haven’t been saying much here, I’ve been fortunate to be part of some great professional conversations on Twitter through #mbedchat and #cdnedchat.  I remember when Twitter first launched I thought “well this is useless, who would want to text to the Internet?”.  Well, I was really, really wrong about that.

Also on the subject of things I might have been really, really wrong about…  When I first heard Alfie Kohn speak a fair few years ago, I wasn’t buying his message about grades being a “bad thing”.  Lately, though, I’ve found myself thinking that maybe he was right.  I’ve noticed that my own students seem very focused on their mark, and wonder whether that’s what I want them to pay the most attention to.  I used to think that high standards and a clear grading scheme helped to promote student learning… but now I wonder whether placing a grade on something often means the end of learning on a particular topic or task.  I’ve also found myself thinking about what exactly high school is for students, I’ve come to the realization that a lot of the time it is “I have assignments which have due dates, and I need to make sure I do my work so I am caught up and have no missing work”.  And it troubles me a little bit that “learning” doesn’t appear anywhere in that description.  Plus, I wonder whether boiling down a semester of hard work, learning, challenges, and triumphs into a two-digit number might be a bit silly.  This is definitely something I need to do some more reading about.

I’m not sure what I think about New Year’s resolutions… I don’t often make them, and I note with interest there are stats which say that 90% of them get broken.  Having said that, blogging here with greater frequency is definitely something I want to do in 2014… not a resolution so much as a plan.  So on that note, Happy 2014 Internet, and I’m hoping I’ll be writing more often this year.


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Great Video Clip on Multiple Intelligences

I’m in the middle of planning out my grade 10 English course based on a Universal Design for Learning approach (more on that later).

This video is definitely getting shown to the class on day 1.  It’s very well produced, and provides a brief yet clear explanation of the idea of Multiple Intelligences.

Thanks and credit go to MsHMcKnight.

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Having technology does not make you a twenty-first century school

So, as part of my university course, we were asked to present something to our peers.  Five minutes max, as an exercise in public speaking.  I figured, what they hey, why not speak to my colleagues about something I believe in, and maybe leave a bit of a message.  So I had fun kicking hornets’ nests.

Good afternoon.  Colleagues and students who’ve spent any amount of time around me know that I am passionate about how technology lets us create really rich learning opportunities.  So the topic of my presentation today might be a bit of a shocker.  You see, I’m tired of hearing about “twenty-first century schools”.

The phrase is kind of ridiculous when you think about it.  It’s 2013.  We’re in the twenty-first century.  As a matter of definition, every school open today is a twenty-first century school.  And every teacher is a twenty-first century teacher, every student is a twenty-first century student.  If there are any eighteenth-century teachers still around today, I’d like to meet them.  The history geek in me would love to talk to them about what life was really like before confederation… not to mention that would be a pretty neat trick and I’d like to know how they managed it.

My main issue with the term “twenty-first century school”, though, isn’t the title.  We can go ahead and call things whatever we want.  It’s not the name that matters, as long as the name is accurate.  There’s an ad playing on TV, showing a teenage girl sneaking out of a window at night and being caught by her father.  A banner drops from the wall saying “I was going to the library”.  Cue upbeat music track, spotlights, and dancers.  The closing line?  “Dressing it up does not make it true”.  Some of you have probably seen the ad I’m talking about.  It was produced by Advertising Standards Canada to draw attention to the issue of truth in advertising.  What does that have to do with “twenty-first century schools”?  Well, it seems to me that we have an issue of the advertising, the name, not being entirely true.  In fact, when we look at what’s going on in a lot of schools, not much has changed aside from the presence of lots of fancy gadgets.

Here’s a basic truth: having technology does not make a school “twenty-first century”.  It’s not the technology that matters, the technology is inert, it alone doesn’t do anything.  It’s what we do with it, and what we ask students to do with it.  If all you do with a computer is word process documents, you’re using a really expensive typewriter.  Yes, I know that’s not entirely fair, computers can do a lot of fancy formatting and editing tricks that typewriters couldn’t, but the model of usage is still the same.  One person, by himself or herself, pushing keys to create a document that will end up being printed on dead trees.  There’s nothing terribly twenty-first century there.  Nor is a SmartBoard that is used to take notes functionally much different from a plain old whiteboard, or for that matter a blackboard.  And we’ve had those in schools for a hundred years.

Now to be clear, I’m not saying that computers are always used like typewriters or that SmartBoards are always used like blackboards.  Both of these tools can be used for some incredibly rich learning activities.  I’m suggesting, though, that far too often, they’re not.

And here’s another truth.  With rare exceptions, technology is not an outcome.  Making videos, creating web sites, using Google… those aren’t outcomes.  Communicating effectively to show understanding, enhancing the artistry of communication, accessing and organizing information for a particular purpose, those are outcomes.  Even in specialized tech courses, the end goal is still that students will develop the skills to use technology as a tool to accomplish some worthwhile purpose.

And while we’re on the topic of “worthwhile purpose”, why is it that so often students are asked to do things as assignments that have zero connection to life outside of school?

And there’s another incredible irony in how the education system handles technology.  Schools spend all this money on shiny new gadgets, and then paradoxically they make them as difficult to use as possible with filters and firewalls and policies and codes of conduct.  Now some of this is necessary.  I’m not saying that nothing should get blocked; there’s some content that students should not be exposed to… there’s content that should never exist in the first place.  And there’s a legitimate need to protect and manage school networks and systems to ensure security and reliability.  But many schools go overboard, and they block everything.  And then what happens?  Students go home and are free to access all of the sites we’ve blocked.  Alone.  Often without much supervision or guidance.  Does that make sense?  Kind of like telling Johnny or Suzy that they can take your shiny new car out of the driveway without any instruction or supervision.  They’ll figure it out.  I’m going to stick my neck out and say that maybe cyber-bullying isn’t a problem because schools allow students to access social media sites.  Maybe it’s a problem partially because they don’t.

And where the technology is located tells us a lot…  A lot of the time, computers in school are found in “labs”.  What does this say?  It says that using a computer is somehow a separate activity from the learning that takes place in the classroom.  It says that everyone needs to be ready to use a computer in their learning at the same moment in time, and often for the same purpose.  It says that some students, some classes, and some subjects get to learn using technology, and others don’t.  This almost never happens in the real world.  Do we have a room dedicated to just hammers in a woodworking shop, and if the carpenter needs to use a saw, he has to go to a different room?  Would that make sense?  We do this for MRI’s in hospitals, they have their own rooms, and doctors need to book them… but an MRI machine costs seven figures, and most hospitals only have one or two.  Do we really need to do that with tools that cost hundreds, not millions?

My laptop is open on my desk all day.  I use it when I need to, as a tool that helps me accomplish the tasks at hand.  Why should I expect students to work any differently?

Yes, we need computer labs.  There are courses where every student needs his or her own computer pretty much all the time.  Students taking a course in digital multimedia, or computer programming, or desktop publishing can’t do those things without a computer.  So labs of computers have a place.  But I think, and it’s just my opinion, that if the only places we find technology in our schools are in labs and on teachers’ desks, that’s a problem.

As I said, though, being a “twenty-first century school” is not, primarily, about the technology.  It’s about the learning.  So what does that learning look like for the average high school student today?  What are students’ days like?  Well, from 9 a.m. until 10:15 a.m., students might have, let’s say, Biology class.  Then from 10:20 until 11:35 they might have English class.  As if Biology were separate from English.  We don’t draw arbitrary distinctions between disciplines anywhere else that I know of other than in schools.  Imagine a patient who has come in to see a doctor with a health concern.  The doctor is not going to examine the patient, and then say “Well, I can’t communicate with you right now, and I can’t listen to you explaining your symptoms, and I definitely can’t consult a medical reference.  You see, right now I’m scheduled to do Biology.  I have English at 10:20.  If you wait around until then, I’ll be able to speak to communicate ideas and listen and read to enhance understanding.”  You’re laughing.  Isn’t that precisely what we ask students to do in school?

I’m not being fair.  I know I’m not being fair.  In five minutes, I’ve run around and kicked up a bunch of hornets’ nests.  I’ve posed lots of questions, and said more than one or two things that you probably find controversial.  Good.  That was by design.  As professionals, I think we need to pay attention to this stuff, because this is the world we live in and the world our students live in.  And I know there are awesome schools and teachers all over that get this stuff.  But perhaps we ought to stop talking about “twenty-first century schools” as though they’re something special, as though they’re the exception.  We owe it to our students to make every school a twenty-first century school, because we should want all of our students to be as equipped as possible to succeed and thrive in this world.

Full disclosure: This was the presentation I prepared, but I don’t read word for word when I present.  I cut some stuff out on the fly as I was presenting, because this is way more than 5 minutes of material and I did not want to run over.  The old “prepare more material than you think you’ll need”.

I think this is an idea worth discussing and sharing, so I thought I’d put it up.

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What I don’t blog about

I mentioned in my last post that I’m currently taking a summer university course.  This is the last course before I’m done my PBDE, which is a 30 credit hour diploma for practicing educators (PBDE stands for Post-Baccalaureate Diploma in Education).  I’m excited about the course I’m taking and the people I have the privilege of working with for the next two weeks.  And I’m not going to blog about the day to day detail.

Why?  For the same reason that I make a conscious effort not to blog about the conversations I have with colleagues in my division or on the committees I serve on.  I don’t want to be the person that has a conversation with others offline only to turn that conversation into a blog post.  It doesn’t seem respectful to continue one side of a conversation with the other individual not present.  Plus I don’t want people to filter what they say around me because the conversation might end up here.  And I am conscious of the fact that everyone is entitled to their privacy.  I’m choosing to share some of my thoughts and perspectives, but that doesn’t give me the right to share things that aren’t mine.  And in most conversations or interchanges, what’s mine to share is at most 50%.  That’s also a big part of why I’m very guarded about what I share about my work with students, and why I don’t write about family or friends here.

It’s not that my discussions with colleagues, coursemates, fellow committee members, and students, etc. aren’t important enough for me to write about.  I am very fortunate to have regular opportunities to connect with others in really rich and meaningful ways.  I have great discussions with amazing people, and they’re tremendously enriching both professionally and personally.  It’s precisely because these connections and relationships are so important and meaningful that I want to respect and value both the conversations and the people by not turning them into something else.

Does that mean I will never write a post about a topic I have discussed with someone in another setting?  Well, that would be almost impossible.  I’m sure I’ll end up writing about some of the “big ideas” that have been the subject of ongoing thinking, but this is a synthesis of thoughts spurred on by many experiences and exchanges.  What I want to avoid doing is trying to continue a particular offline conversation in this realm.

This blog was always about connecting with a broader community, learning from others,  joining another conversation, and perhaps contributing something the community might find valuable.  It was never about supplanting the wonderful connections I have with friends and colleagues through offline means.

I’m not sure if others will see this as a correct or even a logical stance to have.  It’s what feels right to me, though, so I’m going to run with it.

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The curse of too many choices

My summer university course starts tomorrow, and instead of enjoying my last day of relaxation before a very intense three weeks, what am I doing?  Working on my grade 10 English course.  I can basically shape this course into whatever I want it to be (well, within the framework of the curriculum, but students are going to be reading and writing no matter how I choose to structure those experiences so I have a lot of freedom).

I got this course back from a colleague after not teaching it for several years.  I wanted it back because one of the things I enjoy most about my work is designing and developing.  I could, if I wanted to, run this course with only minor adjustments.  But I think the course as it stands right now is too “independent” – all of the assignments are pieces of writing that students complete individually, culminating in students assembling writing collections as their final project.  There’s nothing wrong with that approach, necessarily, and it leads to a final project that is a logical conclusion to the semester.  But I’ve had really good experiences with students working on major group projects and collaborating using digital tools, and it seems to me that an entire course where students never get to collaborate with one another is, well, lonely.

So the two questions I’m pondering are…

  1. How many collaborative projects should I have?  How many different groups are students going to be able to manage at a time / throughout a course, and what is a good balance between individual assignments and group assignments?  Or, from another lens, how much of students’ final grade should be composed of individual work versus group projects?  I could make this course 100% collaborative, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily a better balance than an entirely individual course.  And yes I know, I should only give assignments which have meaning and purpose behind them… but my brain is full of meaningful and purposeful ideas, so I need to do some winnowing down.
  2. What does this course lead to as a final project?  If I’m doing a lot of cooperative projects, asking students to assemble individual writing collections of their work during the semester no longer really makes sense.  So what does it lead to?  A group writing anthology?

I’m also contemplating doing something with grammar… I do a really thorough job of novels and essays in grade 9, and traditionally my grade 10 course includes an equally thorough job of short stories, Shakespeare, and poetry.  But looking at our students’ writing over the years, their command of the conventions of the English language is… uneven…. and I wonder whether that’s a piece that might be missing.

I’ll figure it out… and as with anything new I do, it will probably take me a couple of runs through to refine it.  It’s great to have the freedom to design something, but it’s also a curse because there are so many cool possibilities!

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