dimanche 29 janvier 2012

Assessment practices? Who needs them?

As much as we like to get a good laugh out of some of the wildly ridiculous skits on the behaviours of teachers, we must wonder if we can see ourselves, even a bit, in the jokes we make about them. I laughed out loud at the  shortcuts made by the "brilliant" teacher in the attached video, but the very sad truth of it is that I have known a teacher who graded in the exact same way. I am often appalled by some of the assessment practices used by teachers despite our knowledge of the most recent research.

I am not advocating a Big Brother system here, but we are not held accountable for our methods nor do we need to justify our current practices. The school I teach in is rural and very community oriented. I have the trust of the students, the parents and my colleagues. I am confident in my assessment practices (although I am continually searching to improve them) but I could easily hand out marks unquestioned. I also wonder how common this is? Who would know?

What is crucial here, beyond teaching and assessment practices, is the breakdown of professional integrity. We have an obligation, if we are to call ourselves educators, to guide students through their education and to invite them to be equal partners in the acquisition of their lifelong learning skills. Neglecting this objective is equivalent to sabotaging their futures.

I know that this sounds extreme, but we have seen a breakdown of the moral and ethical fiber of society over the past several generations, where Family Guy becomes the model dad and "good enough" becomes the norm. I am not ready to let go of the ethics my parents have instilled in me. I am a believer and if I abandon them, what chance will my students have?

I repose the question: Assessment practices? Who needs them? If I need to answer that, then I hope you are not a teacher.

mercredi 25 janvier 2012

Real Learning

All over North America, we have curriculum documents to guide us in our attempt to cover various course content in every grade and in every subject. These documents are filled with more than content but when we refer to them, the most common reference seems to be to the next topic we are to cover. It is essential that we be on the same page and that we head in the same direction when it comes to the healthy and timely development of the minds of our children. Content is the means to develop the greater underlying skills with which we want our students to be equipped.

What I am trying to get at here, is that content is the least of our worries. What do we really want our kids to know and be able to do? Are the recommended concepts important or should we focus more on the skills and attitudes that lead to that lifelong learning we claim to strive for in all our students?

What does it matter if a child can memorize the name and location of each African country or that he or she knows the lakes of a given region? I'm not sure that I could do this. But I can use a map and other various research tools to find the information I need or want to learn. If we dig a little deeper into the resources that are available to us in the form of provincial guidelines, we would find that these attitudes and values are highly stressed as being the real learning outcomes.

I have always wondered why some students are required to memorize all the formulas used in a geometry unit. If you need this in the future, who will stop you from looking it up? My high school Physics teacher believed in this. Every test was an open book test. He told us we had to know where to find the information we needed or we would spend most of our test time looking for it. He was preparing us for an inquiry based future where questions trumped answers and the skill to find them prepared you for any subject, any job and any life situation.

This being said, what should rubrics look like? What portion of the rubric should focus on content and what portion should we devote to skills? If we can come to an agreement on this point, how do we implement such a system in a way that all students are being equally prepared to have the survival skills needed in an ever changing world? I am not preparing my students for a future job. Most of them will end up in jobs that don't even exist yet - so what could I possibly have to offer them that would be of use? The answer: Adaptable skills such as questioning, reading for information, reading for pleasure, synthesis, analysis, and evaluation of everything they see and hear.

I need to teach my students to think for themselves so that when they are faced with challenges, they will have the courage and competence to accept them and know how to address them. I know what I want to do. I know what I need to do. I need to figure out HOW to do it right so that students understand the outcomes as well as the usefulness of the skill they are developing as they explore a wide variety of topics. Armed with this information, they become equal partners in their learning. They then are more likely to become engaged in their learning and accountable for the progress they make.

Isn't that what real learning means after all?

dimanche 15 janvier 2012

Destinations and Road Blocks

About a year and a half ago, I heard the first whispers of the impending provincial report cards. Mixed emotions abound when the word "mandate" is combined with any kind of government-inspired initiative. Some say nothing good can come of decision-makers stepping outside their field of expertise and dabbling in someone else's pond, but here we are, nearly two years later, knee deep in the thick of things, and planning the next steps of the journey.

I have been fortunate enough to have been invited to pilot the recommended report cards this year. Many would not see this as a stroke of good fortune. The demands it places on your time and your teaching philosophy can be taxing, but with an open spirit, many new learning opportunities present themselves. I immediately volunteered to sit on the committee to learn more about sound evaluation practices and the best way to implement what was non-negotiable at any rate.

Eventually, I was accepted and my learning curve has spiked. This is largely due to the fact that I have had a very supportive administration team and professional development opportunities to deepen my understanding of assessment and evaluation in order to put these new methods into practice. The freedom they accorded me allowed me to test the waters and to bring my students along on this journey of discovery. They have benefited from it greatly. It is only with the opportunity to dive in that we can learn to swim.

This year is now half done and I am already thinking of those that will follow. Next September, the remaining 22 schools in our division will join the ranks of participating in the mandated initiative. I accepted the challenge willingly because I am at a point in my career where I have knowledge, experience and great leaders to guide me.

Many of the teachers who will now have this thrust upon them are not at the same place in their professional development. Some work in schools where sound evaluation practices are not even on their radar. They have adopted the "It was good enough for me, it'll be good enough for them" mentality. Many are not even aware that some of their practices are working against progress and can even be detrimental to their students.

A solution has been proposed for this impending problem. Guidance must be provided and teachers must be accountable for their professional practices. If what we are doing is known to be wrong, then why are we allowing it to continue? How can we defend our professional integrity when we are doing nothing to strengthen the foundation as it crumbles?

Unfortunately, politics play a big part in all this and much of what is desperately needed is held up by decision-makers who have the interest of dollars over the interest of the children who stand to shape the future. Let's think investment here. The sooner we start - the stronger we become. And isn't this what we are always trying to encourage in our students.

When we ignore what we know is problematic and stick a bandaid on it that does not allow us to see through the coverup, we lose sight of the problem and it is consequently never addressed. This is our responsibility. This is our duty. This is our real mandate!