Thursday, April 25, 2013
"Welcome to my class.
You will receive two tests, one half-way through the course, and one at the end. The first one will be worth 40% of your mark, and the second will be worth 60%. I will post your marks, but I will not return the test for 'exam security' purposes. I should tell you, whether you get a good mark or not, I am only allowed to give so many "A's" and "B's", so I will have to see how the rest of the class does. And you should be aware, 50% of my class typically fails. There is help available, but you need to go and access it because I will not be checking on you, you need to be responsible for your learning, and as you can see, I have 400 other students in the class. And whether you show up to my class or not is up to you, it doesn't really matter to me. Why? Because you are PAYING for this."
While not verbatim, this is very close to the words that comprised the first 45 seconds of my first ever class at university. It was Chemistry 104, and before I had even started into the course, I felt defeated. Unfortunately, when I went to my next class, Math 102, the message was very similar. Physics 111 was a bit better, but that was because there was only about 250 people in that one: it felt much cozier. But the philosophy was the same with each professor was chillingly similar--we are going to give you a couple of opportunities to show us what you know with very little feedback and support, and if you don't show up, well...that's up to you. And by the way, most people fail.
I bring this up because the other day, I was speaking to an outstanding colleague about a policy that they had created in their department. The policy said "NO REWRITES!!!" (yes, with three exclamation points). Interestingly, they don't actually follow this policy too closely, and as a result of their extra efforts, their department has one of the highest success rates in our school at just under 98%. And when I probed a little deeper him about this, (because at our school, we are committed to providing students multiple and varied opportunities to demonstrate the learning outcomes of a given course), he told me a half dozen different ways that their department ensured we maintained this commitment to our kids. He agreed with me that they needed to change what they had written to demonstrate how they support students to be successful in the different classes in their department.
This is very different than where we are at as a school, so I couldn't resist asking him: "Where did that come from?". His response? He said that his department developed that in direct consultation with a first year university professor because they don't allow re-writes there, and he told them this would better prepare kids for university.
Through clenched teeth, I told my colleague that "I begged to differ" on this philosophy (I am Croatian--so my words might have been a bit different, but you get the idea).
Interestingly, less than two weeks ago, I sat with a large group of counselors, transition coordinators, and numerous representatives from our local university to brainstorm new and innovative ways to attract and retain students at post-secondary institutions. Shockingly, the assessment thoughts espoused by this professor which would 'prepare students for university' did not make the list of high-yield strategies.
There are good professors at universities, I want to make sure that I am clear on that point. But there are professors that look at the way that schools and teachers in the K-12 system give students multiple and varied opportunities to demonstrate what they know as weak, watered-down assessment. "Of course they are going to get it if you let them try it five times!".
Groan. Don't we want them to get it? And if we acknowledge that there is the tiniest of possibilities that in a class of 400-500 students that a few of them could possibly learn at different rates and in different ways, should we not EXPECT that some of them might need to try certain bits of a course again? Is that wrong?
I am tired of hearing these sorts of comments, so here's my counter to criticisms aimed at schools with assessment practices that are tailored to give students feedback and multiple opportunities for success, or with intervention programs designed to invite and then dictate additional support for students:
"How's that working out for you?"
Perhaps the experience I described above was similar for you. And perhaps like me, you went from being a good student in high school to getting blown out of the water in the first year of post-secondary. And can tell you I nearly quit. I nearly became one of the 50% that my first year Chemistry professor described.
The statistics are well-known--a significant number of students leave after their first year of university. There is no one checking on them. There is no feedback given so even they themselves do not have a sense of where they are at. They fail that first high-stakes test. Then they fail one course. Perhaps another. Still no one intervenes. Or they get a letter saying they are on "Academic Probation". And then they start to think "Is this worth it?", "Should I just go to work?" and "Why am I wasting my money?". And then they go. They become a statistic.
"How's that working for you?"
"Not so well, hey?"
I don't want to prepare students for the university that I went to. Not because I don't want them to go, not at all--I loved university. It's because I don't want them to have to endure what I went through in my first (and even part of my second) year. I don't want them to only have one or two shots at demonstrating what they know in a class. I don't want them to have to demonstrate what they know using a multiple-choice test to do so. I don't want them to get a mark that is lower than what they demonstrated because the teacher is only "allowed to give so many A's". Those practices are archaic. And in a place which we call 'higher learning', I feel those practices need to stop.
I want a professor to challenge students to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that truly reflects what they know. And if they don't demonstrate that knowledge to a high standard, they get timely and frequent feedback and multiple opportunities to show what they know because it is really important to LEARN it. I want someone to care that they aren't going to class, or that they are struggling. I want someone to help them even if they don't seek out the help, because some students won't do that on their own without a little nudge, without someone reaching out to them. Because in first year, students are still adults in training. They are still...gasp...kids.
So instead of asking the question "Are kids prepared for universities?", perhaps we should be asking "Are universities prepared for kids".
Saturday, April 20, 2013
During the course of the day, we were fortunate enough to spend an hour listening to a panel of former students from our schools (including one from South Kam, which was great--wow, they grow up fast. Fourth year already!) who are currently attending TRU. There were some pre-planned questions to start the discussion, and then we were able to ask questions from the floor. One of the questions that came from one of the high school counselors was of particular interest to me. The question was, "If there was one skill that we could have done a better job of developing for you, what would it have been?".
The answer by one of the panelists that was quickly followed by emphatic nods from the rest of the panel:
"If you could have taught us how to network"
When I heard this answer, I was surprised...but once I processed it, I was not shocked. Surprised because I suspected that the skill might have been something different, maybe "time management" (which was mentioned later), or "self-regulation" (something that I might have found useful) or "how to research" (which I am still trying to figure out). But this group was made up of students ranging from freshmen to seniors, and they were already starting to think of their transition from their post secondary studies to the workplace, and how important connecting to others was in that process.
I began to reflect on how we value networking in our system. I thought about my own networking, and how it has changed in the past few years since I became connected through social media. How I have developed meaningful relationships with people that I have never met face-to-face, and when I have in fact been lucky enough to meet some my personal learning network face-to-face, the greeting is more likely to be a hug rather than a handshake. A sad fact that I also have come to realize is that I tend to network more with people that are thousands of miles from me rather than my fellow administrators who are just a few blocks or neighbourhoods away from me.
Prior to 'getting connected', I was usually (but not always) able to pluck up the courage to make a phone call to someone that I didn't know, to stop someone to chat at a conference, or to stop in to visit a school that I had always wanted to visit. But the actual skill of networking was never taught to me, and even with the myriad of tools available to connect with millions of people all over the world, 'network' and 'guesswork' still go hand-in-hand for me.
I can't imagine what it is like for kids.
Now right away, techno-lovers (including myself) would say "kids are on Facebook, they are more connected than they ever have been!". True. Many students ARE more connected. But are they making those meaningful and productive relationships that will help them to find what their passion might be, what their occupation might be, and to create the support networks in those areas that will allow them to become reflective practitioners of whatever it is they might want to do?
And if we in our schools do not teach these skills of making good connections, if we do not teach students about what it means to be a digital citizen, if we do not teach them to reflect upon what others may find when they are Googled, their Facebook pages, their Twitter messages, their YouTube channels, then what service are we doing to these students as they move forward. Or even worse, what are we saying when we do not allow them to use technology in our schools, when we lock down the wi-fi, and ban smartphones.
So, in your organization, do you teach these skills? Do you give students the chance to network with each other in the class, in other classes, and in other schools near and far? Do you find opportunities to allow them to connect to different members of the community? And along with teaching those skills in classes, do you have someone dedicated to teaching digital citizenship and digital literacy to students AND to other teachers and administration in your school with the idea of creating a network? Do staff meetings have a piece around this? At the district level, are you encouraging your administrators to develop networks to expand their perspectives? Do you have this as a part of district administrative meetings?
I know that the university focus group really hit me between the eyes, and made me ask myself
"How do you value networking?"
How do you?