Saturday, June 27, 2009

What I'm reading

Clash of Fundamentalisms by Tariq Ali (see interview on his even newer book). After he establishes his leftist credentials, he moves into a stunning and learned history of Islam from its origins to the present, particularly its abuses by murderous power-hungry despots and imperialists alike. That's as far as I've got, but it's heading towards an early (2002) analysis of 911. I'd like to follow up with Rushdie's The Satanic Verses!

Dressing the Assessment

I read an interesting op-ed piece in the PG CItizen... Student Academic Excellence Deserves Recognition, basically arguing that removing academic awards in favour of you-learned-alot awards is a bad idea; competition and achievement are valuable and relate to actual learning.

I'm 50/50 on the argument but the causal "debate" I detect is one I find very interesting and it reminded me of two questions that have been on my mind for a couple of weeks (well o.k. since 1994): What kind of people is our education system designed to turn out? What is the difference between schooling and learning? I've seen a spate of pro-d, school, district, and teaching & learning initiatives focused on the second question over the last 6 or 7 years, increasing in frequency with a recent focus on assessment-for-learning and varieties of the "PLC™" (professional learning communities). Given the chance to "jump in," I am torn, like many of my most respected colleagues, between the inherent logic of certain ideas (meaningful assessment, clear learning goals, the value of collaboration, the importance of coherent support strategies, etc.) and the willingness of educators to adopt structures and philosophies they haven't critically examined or taken the time to practice or understand. My own dedicated and caring staff seems to struggle with the basic difference between classroom (personal/relational) structures and school (institutional) structures. The idea of "moving forward" spellbinds leaders and followers alike, with the promise that a new set of packaged concepts will seamlessly bridge the personal and institutional domains. It's much like our political system... I believe in democracy but I'm not confident that most people know what it is they are voting for, or can navigate the span between self and society. I don't think my staff is any more reactionary or fickle than any other group, I just that our educational culture dumbs us down and erodes the middle ground between the two. The result is a fear of theory by folks who are otherwise skilled and learned. Anyways, I'm seriously digressing... I should get to my point.

I've been as guilty as the rest of shoving kids through the turnstile of schooling, of not equating success with learning. I think I've built a rich learning environment with many opportunities to demonstrate understanding, a place where the ecology of identity is as much the curriculum as "social studies." But too many of my students (always seems to be 1 or 2 per class but maybe it's more?)) who have scraped through with 50% or better would not be able to articulate a genuine response to 50% of my intended learning outcomes. That's O.K. in some ways -- many of the learning outcomes are and should be student-generated, some of them can not be found in the curriculum guide, and others relate to the great social functions of our education system (like training kids to follow instructions, be good workers, and stay off the streets so their parents can be good workers). So, I don't pretend that my panoply of learning outcomes (that I find interesting as a "Socials" guy) are necessary for students to be whole or educated or even employable; thus, many who do not meet expectations get a passing grade anyways. Nonetheless, I wonder if I underestimate my students I teach, maybe they will work to "pass" whatever level the bar is set at.

Hmm... I pause here to say that I've had a cynical week, emotionally and intellectually draining, so take all this with a grain of salt... I'm a lousy blogger, only writing when I want to vent. Also, I'll freely acknowledge that I've stolen many ideas here from friends like Rob and Ian and even Norm and Derk!

Solutions? Here's what I'm going to try next year in order to close this philosophic gap (success vs learning). I'm sifting through all the courses I teach, and I'm reducing the content to a short list of basic questions to be answered, although demonstrating mastery of the material will still require some serious thinking, working, and learning. I'll continue to use the formative assessments I've developed over the last 8 years, but I'll use two summative assessments (test & a project) to gauge whether a students has met expectations (2/3 of the learning outcomes) or not. Met the goal? Marks are recorded and all the rest is bonus. Did not meet the goal? No marks are recorded and the student has one more teacher-directed opportunity to demonstrate learning, followed by as many student-led attempts as he/she wants. I won't coerce learning from my students, but I also will not let them drift away for lack of opportunity. To force learning (especially as interpreted by the state or even a teacher) is arrogant, something that belongs in a taliban madrasa, not in a free society. I also want my practice to swing (wildly) towards an inquiry model, one in which students will challenge not only themselves and my classroom structures, but the group-think encountered in wider circles (school, community, beyond). Realistically, this means that 6 or 7 kids in every class are going to be confused when a minimal effort does not guarantee success, but are confronted with some new questions (for them) -- what am I learning? how can I express this? how'd that work out?

I predict that the net result will be both higher achievement, both in my "schooled" sense of success with learning outcomes and also in the self-esteem sense as students are able to answer questions (theirs and mine) with some confidence (maybe after multiple attempts). That brings it back to the Citizen article I guess; I believe the author was trying to connect these. There's more to this of course but this much at least I needed to get out... catharsis or whatever else comes of it.