I learned about 21st century competencies nearly two years ago, and from that moment my teaching practices began to transform. These competencies provided answers to many of the questions that I was asking regarding the disconnect between what I was currently doing and what I believed I should be doing in my classroom. I had been questioning my practice of copious note-taking, or rather note-giving, of how I was handling the assessment of group work, of providing answers to students and thus creating dependance, and of the use of technology in my classroom (and more). I was unsettled, discouraged, and desperately wanted answers but didn’t know where to turn. I felt trapped teaching in a style that I didn’t believe in. And I continued this way for a long time, clinging to the teaching methods I grew up with in school, and must admit was never really told not to use throughout my university education courses.
Then I learned about Twitter. I remember the edtech for my district offering an online crash course for any interested teachers, and I thought, “Why not?” It was a bit of a risk for me at the time; those who know me now often think of me as a “tech guy,” but prior to this moment a couple years ago, I wasn’t. I was actually scared to participate in this session. I’d never participated in an online learning session before, and although I’d signed up for Twitter some time prior to this, it was so confusing that I never went back to the site. But Jen Clevette, Peace Wapiti School Division 76’s edtech at the time, was extremely helpful. She made Twitter easy to understand. Deciding to take this risk changed the course of my teaching.
Twitter led me to QR codes, Qr codes led to me taking initiative and posting them at Teacher Convention, which led to me being invited to Peace Wapiti’s Community of Practice, which led to me flying to Calgary with Jen Clevette, where, while sitting in the airport waiting for our flight, I was brought up to speed on this new concept of 21st century competencies (at least it was new to me). And this, as I’ve said, began to provide some answers to the apprehension I was feeling about my teaching.
Now, after 2 years of growing and changing and learning, I have noticed some of these feelings returning. They are, in part, based again on my own teaching practices, but just as much they are because of broader practices in education. One of the main sources of my current apprehension revolves around assessment. It seems to me that we are teaching for the 21st century, yet we are still assessing students based on methods from the past.
This became staggeringly clear after reading a passage from Alberta Education Action Agenda 2011-14: “Transformative change refers to changing the education system by re-examining student needs, how we teach students, what we teach them, how to better engage communities in educating students and how research can be harnessed to inform change.” I quickly noted the absence of reexamining how we assess students. Essentially we are being told that we should teach the curriculum through the 21st century competencies, but that we, and the government, should and will continue to use outdated and now inconsistent assessment methods. From the same website as above comes this statement emphasizing that we should be teaching students the required competencies needed for life in the 21st century: “We need a curriculum that focuses on the competencies young people require in the 21st century.” So, we are to teach the competencies, but then we are to administer standardized tests that forbid collaboration, time to think critically and creatively, and utilization of digital literacy? Implicit to this then is the need to prepare students to write these types of tests and to provide ample practice, which for many teachers means midterm and final exams in the same format from grade 10 through grade 12. I see the unsettling contradiction between how/what we teach and how we assess as an ethical dilemma as I strive to uphold the TQS for Alberta teachers. On the one hand I’m obliged to “function within a policy-based and results oriented education system” (TQS standard b) and administer standardized tests (TQS standard i), but on the other hand I’m to “engage in ongoing, individualized professional development” (TQS standard b) and “use the results [of student assessments] for the ultimate benefit of students” (TQS standard i). The results oriented education system demands that my students perform well on standardized tests; however, my professional learning is telling me that I am to teach students to learn in ways that the standardized test not only ignore, but oppose; consequently, I believe assessment consistent with what I teach will provide results I can use to the ultimate benefit of my students. I’m left wondering how to ethically juggle these competing demands.
A final quote from near the end of the Alberta Action Agenda 2011-14 states that “curriculum, including assessment and education supports, will be comprehensively reviewed and modified as needed to incorporate holistic perspectives that allow for timely evolution to meet changing needs.” I’ve seen a lot of changes being discussed regarding curriculum and education supports: Government-funded AISI projects have been initiated (and now discontinued due to a new budget) that focus on research to support 21st century learning, and discussions for modifying curriculum are occurring, in addition to a restructuring of the competencies; PWSD brought a 21st century focus to district PD, as well as initiated a cohort of inclusion, AISI, and high school curriculum coaches (I’m the ELA coach for the district); and Mighty Peace Teachers’ Convention sessions also had a very strong focus on 21st century learning. However, what I have not heard about is any proposed changes to standardized tests. So now what? Do I just sit back and wait patiently, hoping change comes, hoping my students can somehow manage to walk the fine line between what they’re taught and how they’re assessed, hoping that things turn out the way I believe they should? As we approach the midterm point for this semester, I am reflecting on where my grade 10 ELA class has been and where we are headed. I am strongly considering the possibility of radically revising my final exam for this course from a diploma style structure to a more collaborative and critical thinking based model. I’m not certain yet exactly what this will look like, but I do know that my students are thoroughly engaged in the collaboration and critical thinking opportunities I’ve presented them with so far this year. They are building these skills and seeing how these 21st century competencies improve their understanding of texts and their text creations. I shudder to think that after all of this I might revert back to the way I’ve always done things in order to prepare my students for government tests that have not yet been “modified as needed.” At what point do we demand that assessment practices shift to match the changes in teaching and learning?