Some folks in education like to think the old, dusty, paper grade-book of numbers and slashes has given way to a new and improved method of grade tracking complete with clarity and transparency.
Gone are the days of the instructor being the omniscient holder of knowledge and values in the classroom and now parents can SEE all that is behind the grades can understand how their student is doing. Participation, homework, quiz and test scores can communicate what a student is or is not executing and families can get on board in the education of their children.
Right? Well, kind of. The paper is gone, but one basic question remains: what are our grade-books actually communicating?
"Well sir, aren't we supposed to teach more than just our content? I want these kids to be good citizens, right?!?"
True, we must wear many hats as educators and I agree that what some researchers call 'soft' or 'executive' skills and functions must be taught and assessed but does our grade-book communicate these and especially how students can get better at them?
Should we begin to focus as an educational entity on Competency-based learning? Standards-based learning/grading? Non-graded practices? Common Core and College Readiness skills and problem solving only?
What and how should our grade-books communicate?
What does your grade-book communicate?
I had the recent pleasure working with two educators, at two different levels, to navigate uncomfortable situations after student assessments.
One a college professor, one a high school teacher, both in the sciences, both frustrated that students were not performing up to course standards. Both educators felt students were blaming them as instructors for the poor scores and they were trying to figure out how to reach their ultimate goal; all students motivated to perform at their best in each respective course.
With each of them I began with one question, "Are your tests assessing what and how you are teaching?" Both talked through it a bit and agreed that their tests are not full of 'trick' questions and are available and taught either in their lectures, websites, textbooks and/or daily activities and labs. Regardless of the 'straight forward' assessment their students did very poor and were clamoring to drop their class while accusing the teachers of poor instruction.
I ended up giving the same suggestion for both educators, give the tests again with open notes, lectures (the college instructor has flipped lectures online), textbooks and any labs or activities completed in class. The only stipulation for the students is they not only had to answer the questions on the assessment, but beside each one they had to state WHERE they found the answer. Last, survey the students as to one thing they can do to improve their scores in the course between now and the next assessment as well as make one suggestion for the instructor to help their learning.
This is where fear and anxiety as well as denial can set in for many instructors (although these two welcomed the challenge).
"Well we know the students won't take responsibility for their learning, they're just lazy"
"I taught them everything, it's their responsibility to learn it."
"It's not a real test if they have open materials...in the REAL world you have to know this stuff!"
"I don't want to hear I did something wrong, I did MY job!"
In the case of these two science instructors they took a leap of faith and the suggestion did wonders. First the re-do of the test allowed students to reflect that they had access to all the information tested, and in fact, it had been taught and available in multiple modalities. In addition, the teachers received the powerful feedback reviewing these tests. Being transparent and allowing their test to be broken down by what way they taught the information will now allow for slight modifications in their instruction to be sure that what was being taught was covered multiple times. Both instructors also could see what types of questions were being asked as if they were available freely in notes or the textbook they were often lower order thinking or just memorization questions versus those questions that best related to activities which aligned with higher order thinking skills. Students also learned how to best prepare for future tests in these courses going through this item breakdown.
The survey, while leaving the teachers vulnerable to student attack, revealed some great feedback too. First students were very honest and many stated that they need to put more work into taking and organizing their notes as all information was readily available and taught. These educators received some kudos for allowing students to learn about themselves with quotes like, "thank you for helping me to examine how to learn best in this class..." and "...you are a great teacher and I just need to try harder and organize my learning more..." This allowance for meta-cognition will help these students well beyond this course.
Also, while it will take a couple of weeks to reveal the improvement of relationships between these instructors and their struggling students, I am willing to bet students will feel much more comfortable to discuss their needs and questions either in class or during office hours now that these lines of communication have been opened. Lastly, these instructors did internalize the few students who pinned their struggle on these teachers, allowing for personalized instruction for these student and the need for more 'review' type materials to guide these students.
While I was more than happy to help these educators find a successful path for them and their students it did make me stop and think to myself, "how often do other teachers, professors or educational leaders make themselves or their products transparent or vulnerable?" More importantly, "Why are we scared to collaborate with our students and peers in a way which allows for critique?" "Is it fear of the evaluation/review process in colleges and K12 schools?" "How can I as an educational leader support growth of students AND educators in my building and district?"
These questions will have to wait till another time I feel like being vulnerable and making my own thinking transparent.
I had the amazing pleasure to attend the NovaNow 2016 conference at Kent Innovation High School this past weekend. For those who are not familiar with the conference or location, you can best describe them in one word: collaboration. Kent Innovation High School is a fully Project Based Learning (PBL) 9-12 school which in collaboration with their students, host a yearly set of conversations (not traditional presentations) centered PBL and other current educational topics. I greatly enjoyed leading a conversation on "Empowering Teachers and Students through Blended Learning Environments" where I learned more from my attendees that they probably did from me! Below are a few other highlights and reminders I will take from #NovaNow16 to chew on later:
1. There is a difference between application and authenticity in Project Based Learning.
There were two separate /conversations sessions I attended which helped me remember there is a big difference between scenarios/application in a lesson and true authenticity. The latter motivates practically all students while the earlier motivates some.
Good: Engaging lectures, video clips and allowing students to dialogue about what they are learning.
Better: Presenting the learning in real life scenarios, story problems, and possible situations and allowing students to collaborate in discovering answers to guiding questions.
Best: Pairing standards and learning with problems students learning from and solve for current practitioners in the field.
Instead of posing "what would a (fill in the profession) do?" students should actually ask them and then help them solve a problem or share their story. Here is a great example of the students from Kent Innovation High and how they told the stories of WWII veterans.
The big questions I'm bringing back to my work is:
Are we hooking critical thinking back to how it will be used in a work space some day? How can we have students practice as if they are professionals in the field? Even better, how can we have them do this with the actual professionals?
2. The business world wants something much different than higher education and our standardized testing regimes.
The talented organizers of NovaNow had the forethought of bringing in current business and human resource officials to speak during one of our breaks about what they are looking for in current and future applicants. Some eye-opening quotes from these experts were:
"What we want to know is do you know how to learn....that you want to learn something new"
" The most important work skills are an eagerness to solve problems, curiosity, attention to detail, and flexibility to change behaviors when they must be addressed."
"I don't look at G.P.A. or test scores when I do hiring of engineers or other team members..."
So, if 'soft skills' listed in the first two quotes are paramount to being hired and keeping jobs, and tests scores and long lists of content standards are our focus as teachers, when will we all get on the same page?
3. The Diatribe is amazing and so is purposeful emotional and self-regulatory support for students.
Also planned for the conference was a day two presentation by "The Diatribe", an eclectic group of slam poets and performance artists. These engaging performers captivated our room of educators and helped us to feel some of the emotions our students go through sometimes silently and sometimes outwardly in our schools. Their work is to come into schools and help students open up emotionally and become a community while also being a supportive safety net for them. Their message and passion helped to remind us all while we need to have procedures and protocols to support self-regulation through student-led projects, we also have to meet the Maslov or emotional needs of students first.
Interested in the work of The Diatribe? They are on Facebook and you can check them out below:
Below is my testimony on House Bill 4971:
Michigan Education Voice Fellow
4429 S. Clubview Dr
Adrian, MI 49221
Testimony: SOCIAL MEDIA POLICIES BETWEEN STUDENTS AND SCHOOL PERSONNEL
House Bill 4971 as introduced
Sponsor: Rep. Adam F. Zemke
My name is Matt McCullough and as a Michigan Education Voice Fellow and current high school administrator, I feel it is my duty to give credence to revisiting House Bill 4971. While I commend this committee for visiting the topic of social media in schools and in use by educators, I feel it is unnecessary to create laws and layers of bureaucracy to police it. Corresponding through social media is no different than talking in person and should be covered by any board policy that concerns face to face communication. To separate social media use from 'real life' communication only confuses students and staff in thinking that what they do online is governed by a separate set of morals and values. In addition, the cost and time that will be necessary to construct and maintain a policy of this type along with time and cost of legal consultation and fees will be counterproductive to the ultimate goal of educators, using their energies toward teaching and learning. Therefore, I urge you to reconsider the need for a law of this nature.
Just a chance to reflect over educational articles and ideas that float through my head.