Monday, November 18, 2013

Uphill Battle

After a few professional conversations in the last while, I've come to the conclusion that we face many uphill battles when it comes to student-centered learning and other tenets behind what dominates the Ed Reform Circuit (e.g. the BC Edplan). I do believe these are battles worth fighting, but it is not without casualties.

I'd like to visit of few of these battles... let's start with Active Learning/Student Ownership:

Why we do it: we've come to associate passive learning with "the old ways" of doing school, receiving learning rather than constructing meaning, and we've spent a lot of time talking and trying to introduce more active learning. This takes many forms, but usually starts with students getting their own grasp of learning intentions, and designing many of the ways by which they will meet these intentions, with a focus on participation at each step, no sitting back and simply taking it in. This effort is often associated with critical thinking, constructivist learning, self-regulation, and authentic inquiry. It is done to combat apathy and increase relevance.

Casualties: it is hard work for students to be "on" all the time at school. This doesn't necessarily mean they are apathetic, it usually means they have enough on their plates (their interests, concerns, drama, problems, dreams, goals), that they are not willing to invest all of their "presence" and energy to your creative exploration of grammar, your innovative math lesson, or your backstory on John A. Macdonald. They are polite, though, so passive learning often seems a reasonable compromise. "We'll sit here and do most of what you ask as long as you don't push us too hard." I see this same sentiment among adults in the meetings, PD sessions, and public lectures I attend. Few have the capacity to sustain full engagement and active participation; we are simply not used to it and need to have breaks, sometimes just to listen for a bit, watch a video, doodle in the margins, get lost in our thoughts. As we raise the bar (e.g. expect and facilitate more self-direction and engagement), many of our students will jump higher, push themselves more, but it is also clear that those not reaching the bar find despair. This is the fundamental reason why so many teachers design banal, completion-based assessment for students -- it provides an easy way out for disengaged students. Easy to mark, students rarely complain, only the most truant and reluctant learners ever need to know course failure. If we truly expect students to own their learning, and are willing to back this up with interventions, support systems, etc. in exchange for high standards (e.g. the kinds of performance or evidence or learning that comes from engaged students), we need to be ready for the mess when students give up. School can indeed be a place of wonderment, discovery -- entertaining and engaging -- but it is also a place of work, some of it hard and uncomfortable, and a place of deferred rewards, requiring grit and patience. This second part is missing from most ed reformers lingo when they describe the magic of 21st Century Learning -- it is assumed that student-centered learning automatically engages students and leverages their passion. This is why it is an uphill battle -- students will often default to their comfort zone, and are more than happy to drift along without being challenged by their teacher or others. Maybe the years of compulsory schooling have done this to them, maybe it a basic human trait to seek comfort and safety (and boredom). We should also recognize that disengagement and perceived apathy does not have to be the fault of schools -- we live in a messed-up society rife with nature deficit, idiotic role models, corrupt rulers, corporate cynicism, engineered class divisions, sexualized media, digital addiction, and enablement of many kinds. That's for mainstream kids, for all. Add the lingering (and ongoing) impacts of colonialism, drugs, and abusive scenarios and it is no wonder that so many of our vulnerable students suffer from toxic stress and mental illness. Disconnect in all its forms happens long before they get to my class. Nonetheless, one must do what one can, and we can laugh at ourselves a little bit, acknowledge that the road ahead is steep, and carry out the idea that one of the best tickets for a better future is to get the most out of high school and emerge with both a diploma and a skill set for life, study, and work. Of course, it would help if they just showed up (ok, attendance is an uphill battle all on it's own).

Needed to win: persistence. Teachers need the license (permission from themselves, support from their community & employer, time to do it) to experiment with their designs for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. For example, I think we need something intermediate between failing a course and simply shunting kids through who are "close enough" (had some ideas about this last year) -- this would take some real time and collaboration to figure out, though, and this is hard to squeeze into a teacher's schedule (and too few administrators take on these challenges). In most schools, it is one or the other for reluctant and disengaged learners -- fail or squeak out a close pass -- often with indistinguishable effort. The fear of making kids sad or engaging their parents means that the quick pass is pushed as the default. We need to get over the widespread use of cursory interventions designed to push kids through to "minimally meets expectations" -- it sends all the wrong messages and does not lead to engagement. It teaches students that a little more or less than their mediocre effort is all it take to get by, just put in some time, complete whatever "work" you have with you, and we'll pretend that you've mastered some learning outcomes. We need to patiently persist, drop our own mediocre lessons and disengaging activities one by one, and collect our own data about the projects, trajectories, and assessments that build understanding for discouraged learners and also challenge our top performers. More than that, if we value critical thinking, constructivist learning, self-regulation, and authentic inquiry, then we need to build our assessments to measure these things. Along with other members of the Pacific Slope Consortium, this has been almost the sole focus of my PD over the last 3 years (e.g. Time for a New Exam). I'm sure others have more succinct ideas for how to navigate the challenges of engagement, the seemingly natural tendency of students to expect passivity in their school experience. Love to hear them. UPDATE: I came across this awesome blog while thinking about how teachers can shift the focus in their class to active student engagement --  a frank account of one teacher trying to unlearn bad habits and try on some new ones I think we need more of this kind of honest self-reflection and willingness to experiment.

Other "battles" I'd like to visit: AFL, Digital Learning, "depth vs breadth" curriculum change, personalized learning, PBL, and flipped classrooms.

Image source:

No comments: