Sunday, January 12, 2014

Give Students More Credit

This past Friday, I was fortunate enough to be in beautiful Kelowna, BC to attend the British Columbia School Superintendents Association Conference on Innovative Practices.  It was an outstanding day of learning, marked by brief keynotes, short and direct breakout sessions, and plenty of opportunities for questioning the presenters, each of whom was a practitioner that was proudly sharing their innovation with smaller groups.

But most the most impressive and impactful piece from the conference took place in the first hour of the day. Hugh Gloster, Superintendent of Schools in Kelowna, had arranged for each of the 45 or so tables filled with educators to be paid two fifteen minute visits by STUDENTS from his district.  Each of these middle school students gave a brief presentation about how problem-based learning had impacted their educational experience to a group of complete strangers.

They were unbelievable.

Two different students came to our table and candidly described the pros and cons of PBL and how it had made a difference to they learned in their classrooms.  And after the students had finished, they answered every question that we could possibly ask them.  And they answered the questions well.

Each of the students was able to clearly articulate the attributes that they were required to develop and demonstrate.  They were

  • learner
  • thinker 
  • collaborator
  • innovator
  • contributor

I was impressed that each student was so keenly aware of what it was they were supposed to learn.  However, our time with the students got better:  each of them described how they saved artifacts of their learning in a digital portfolio, and then had to select a representative cross-section of them so they could best demonstrate each attribute through a Presentation Of Learning (POL) that they (and every other student) was required to do at the conclusion of each course.  And to top it off, they had to select a community member (which could be their parent, but didn't have to be) to be a part of the audience to whom they would present.

One of the students' set of responses was particularly intriguing:  she said she hated PBL.  More specifically, she hated problem-based learning AT FIRST.  She liked what she called a 'traditional class' with lecture, a video, worksheets, and a test at the end of the unit.  Why, I asked?  "Because it was easy.  You were always looking for one right answer.  So I could learn something for the test, and then forget it and move on."  (these were her words). But now, she was dreading heading back to a more 'traditional' style class (still her words)--she felt like in a traditional class, she would have little or no choice in what she was going to learn about, how she was going to learn about it, and how she was going to demonstrate her learning.

Wow.  This was a STUDENT speaking.

She said with PBL, she would never forget what she had done in her class because of the deep learning that she had done and the numerous reflections that she did over the course of the term.  She described how in the past in science, her whole class would have made a 'cell cake' to replicate a cell in Biology.  Everyone would have.  In her class, students needed to create their own analogy (she chose her home city), and as a result, the whole class made different ones and then learned even more ways to think about the cell from each student's presentation.  And then she said "I don't think that will happen in a traditional class.  I wish all of my classes were problem-based learning classes."

Again, I want to be clear, these were HER words. That is truly how she was talking.  She was speaking about HER learning.  She was not only able to critically evaluate WHAT it was that she had learned about in her project, she was able to critically evaluate HOW she learned best--a level of metacognition that I can say without equivocation that I have NEVER heard from a ninth grade student.  And the best thing was, the next student spoke in very similar terms.  And when I spoke to other educators who were at the other 40 plus tables in the room, they said the same thing about the students that had come to their tables.

How did this happen?  How could each of these students be able to speak to a group of adults about their own learning with such clarity and conviction?


I began speaking to some of the adults in the room from the Kelowna district.  And when I spoke to them, each of them spoke of the five competencies.  Each of them knew what was happening in many of the classes at the middle school level.  And each of them believed that they were seeing success.

I asked an administrator where these competencies came from.  They told me that a process was developed to involve every partner group from support staff, teachers, administrators, students, parents and community members in the examination of research of the skills that students would need to be productive members of the future workforce.  They developed a mechanism for students to store authentic archives of these competencies (a digital portfolio).  And they created an evaluative tool that would allow students choice and the opportunity to showcase their learning in a setting that would further their skills in presentation and allow them to learn about how others approached the same problem.  And then they dedicated (and continue to dedicate) resources and professional development to make it happen

In my experience, it would not be uncommon when we have these sorts of committees to meet, to come up with ideas and methods of implementation, to put it out there, to get traction in small pockets, and to see very little evidence of that work coming to fruition.

This was not the case in the Kelowna district.  And to use Instructional Rounds parlance, my evidence is that, without coaching or a script, STUDENTS were able to demonstrate the products of the committee in their 'interviews' with the educators in the room--they were educating the educators.  There was a direct line from the work that was done in that group at the district office to the classroom. And it was amazing.

After this past Friday and a great deal of reflection on the way home, I have decided that, in my time as a teacher, I did not give students enough credit.  I thought I needed to be the person out front.  The one to sift through curricula and find for them what was truly important.  I gave them tasks that challenged them to do little more than find one answer that could be found on page 26, in boldface, near the end of the third paragraph.    I gave them tasks that had a single answer, or that created a single product like a poster at the end of a unit.  I evaluated them using a single instrument that, at least in some cases, worked best Something that was likely relatively easy to mark, but was probably quite exclusionary in that it required students to demonstrate their learning in a specific way, not demonstrate their learning.

I did not give students enough credit for being able to direct and demonstrate their own learning.

For me, this does not mean that tomorrow, we are going to simply throw our students and our educators out there on their own and say 'go find some problems, solve them, and show me what you learned'.  Not at all.  At Sa-Hali, we spent a great deal of time articulating the attributes of a Sa-Hali graduate that would help them meet the challenges that will confront them in their future.  We have started some of the leg work.  However, we need to get more stakeholders involved.  And we need to look at the existing structures and constructs that we have in our school that both help us and inhibit us in moving forward to create a model that allows students choice and flexibility in meeting and demonstrating the learning outcomes of their classes.

This will require time.  This will require resources.  This will require in-servicing and training for staff and for students. But most of all this will require a clear vision and subsequent commitment to that vision that we as educators will be co-learners and co-creators of the educational experience at our school with our students.
And at our staff meeting on Monday, we will get started on the process of giving students more credit for their ability to determine and demonstrate their learning.

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