I Have the Solution to Education’s Problems

Okay, MAYBE I have the solution to education’s problems.  More likely I’m just going to open up a big debate and more problems.  If you haven’t been to my blog before, please scroll to the bottom and read my disclaimer.  I think I may need it for this post.  (I saw a question on Twitter the other day questioning whether or not those disclaimers are still necessary:  I’m thinking they are.)

I spent about 2 hours this evening talking to my principal about education:  where we are headed as a school, a district, a system overall.  I appreciate my principal’s willingness and encouragement to have these conversations with me, and this one was quite accidental. (It took place in our school hallway after she came in because myself and a colleague each locked our keys in the room we were working in.)  Near the end of the conversation she commented, off-handedly, that we pretty much covered the entirety of education and had begun over again.  That was our informal cue for closing arguments, and when we finally wrapped up we noticed two hours had flown by.  It wasn’t until my short walk home from the school that I thought a bit more about that off-hand remark.  We really had talked our way around a lot of issues.  Yet, we kept coming back to just a couple main points.  I truly value these types of conversations, with her and with others, not because they are necessarily accurate representations of what we each truly believe (because speaking in off-the-cuff conversations often don’t allow for deeply considered remarks), but because of the thoughts they inspire afterwards.  So please, leave some comments and help me consider new perspectives.

This post is about one of those thoughts I had on my way home. I was playing back some of the comments I made to see where I truly stand.  I thought about some of the challenges to my perspectives.  I stood for a bit on my porch to considered the points I conceded to the other side.  One point I kept coming back to was the idea of differentiation.  At one point my principal commented something along the lines of “but that’s just my experience.”  Several times through the conversation I recall thinking that about my own experiences and trying to keep an open mind.  But that comment struck me as important.  That’s just me.  That’s just me.  That’s just me. 

THIS IS NOT A RESPONSE TO MY PRINCIPAL.  THIS IS A DEEPER REFLECTION THAT GOES BEYOND THE OPINIONS WE SHARED WITH EACH OTHER. THE STATEMENTS I SEEM TO VEHEMENTLY DISAGREE WITH DID NOT COME FROM HER.

What if the answer to all of education’s problems lies solely with students?  I don’t just mean students as an overall group of participants in the grand scheme of education.  And I don’t mean one set of students, at one point in time, in one place.  I mean, what if every single student provided the answer to education’s problems in a way that resonated with her and himself?  Of course, that means the answer may change even for that student from year to year (or more frequently) and by subject to subject and from teacher to teacher.  But what if every single aspect of a child’s education was focused on what was best for that child?  Not a group of children who happened to be born into the same age-cohort and reside in the same geographical location.  Not statistics who live in the same province or country.  Not peers who are part of generation x or y or whatever letter of the alphabet we may generalize them into next.  What would happen if we gave education back to those it actually affects?

Some benefits to giving education to the students: 

  • Students could learn in a style that best suits their needs:  tests, right/wrong answers, m/c, project-based learning, authentic learning tasks, etc.  
  • Students could receive the type of feedback they want:  grades, rubrics, written feedback, oral discussions, etc.
  • Students could seek motivation to learn in the manner they prefer:  grades, awards, rankings, scholarships, competition, proud moments of success, the satisfaction of perseverance despite no external rewards, teamwork, sheer thrill of learning.
  • Students could study the content areas they are interested in: math, science, English, social studies, physical education, drama, dance, art, computer programming, health, foods, music, hunting, race car driving, etc. (This list could go on forever.)
  • Students could learn at the rate they wanted/needed:  outcome by outcome learning, life-long learning, fully comprehending the content because there is no one to belittle them by telling them a “normal” student would have been done by now.

Some of the criticism to giving education to students:

Kids don’t know what’s best for themselves.

To some degree, I understand this argument.  I have my own kids.  Do I let them do whatever they want?  No, of course not.  Their desire for immediate gratification and lack of awareness of consequences comes without thought to their own safety or well-being.  But is all of this childhood innocence or am I partially to blame for not letting my children make their own mistakes and face the consequences?  Is our incessant need to caudal children stifling their true capabilities.  I’m not talking about asking children to grow up too fast and make wise decisions.  In fact, I might be saying the opposite; a child’s desire to play should not be frowned upon because they have homework to do.  I believe children are capable of so much more and of being so much wiser than we give them credit for.

Kids don’t know what they need for their future.

Again, I’d have to agree with this to some lengths.  What happens if a child attempts math at a “grade 3 level (when it starts to get hard), hates it, and wants to quit?  It’s a valid concern.  To what extent will children need this knowledge later in life?  My rebuttal is this:  A student will only get so far in the study of what they want before realizing they need other knowledge in other areas to progress further.  At that point, the child who may dislike a certain subject will realize they need it to be happy.  This need will provide the motivation to acquire the knowledge they need.  If that point never comes, then what harm is it really to the child/adult to have never learned that particular content?

Kids won’t receive a well-rounded education.

In the grand scheme of things, who truly is a jack of all trades, let alone a master of any?  There is so much I don’t know, about so many topics, that I can’t even begin to fathom what it is I don’t know.  Yet I am living the life I want to live.  It’s just plain wrong to tell someone that if they’ve never read “this classic” then they haven’t truly lived.  I’m not going to go on and on about all the different things we have the audacity to judge other people for not having done, or for not knowing.  People know what they need to know to have the life they want.  And if we fix our education system to provide ongoing learning opportunities no matter what age an individual is, then I don’t see why everyone needs the same shape of education.

Final thoughts

I know I’m sounding a little naive right now.  I do know there are many many more concerns with handing education over to the students, and none of the concerns, even the ones I addressed above are easy to solve.  But I also know there are far more benefits than those listed above.  And those benefits are also farther reaching than I’ve done justice to.  I don’t know exactly what the answer to education’s problems are, but I have a gut feeling that it must lay in the fact that we are all individuals.  Education has begun to emphasize differentiated learning and I think this is a step in the right direction, but this needs to apply to every student in our classrooms, not just those who excel and those who struggle.  It also needs to go that extra step to give students a voice in their own education.  Teachers can’t keep doing “things” because those things are easiest for them.  We can’t even keep doing things because the standardized tests say “these things” are working–who are they working for? (governments, universities, teachers, society’s expectations?)  We need to do the things that will allow success for every student in our classroom, as success is defined by each individual student in our classroom.  After all, isn’t that why we all got into education in the first place?

***I know the blurb at the bottom says I’d love to hear your feedback and opinions, but I wanted to personally challenge you to leave a comment.  If you’ve made it this far, you must have something to say.  A question, a challenge, a disagreement to voice, an Amen!  You’re thinking something right now, and I truly would love to know what it is.***

Why Do We Make Our Students Write Essays?

My blog post is a response to this blog post by the same title, written by Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton, an educational leader, researcher, author, and professional speaker.

The question at hand:  Why do we make students write essays?

Dr. Eaton’s response:  Because writing essays teaches students the skills needed to write and argue effectively.

My response: We shouldn’t!

I’m a little nervous disagreeing with someone who is so accomplished; however, this is a subject that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately and I relish this opportunity to organize my thoughts.

When I saw the Twitter link for Dr. Eaton’s post, I must admit that I thought I’d find confirmation for my newfound disgruntlement with essays. . . Instead I found a defence for why we should make students write essays, a defence I have some concerns about.

If you still haven’t clicked the link above to read Dr. Eaton’s article, I’d encourage you to do so before continuing.

It’s important to me that you know a little bit about where I’m coming from.  I have been teaching junior/senior high school ELA in Alberta for 6 years.  I attended junior and senior high school in Alberta.  I attended university in Alberta.  And I have always loved essays.  Coming to understand that the essay was my opportunity to explore a text and offer my own opinion was exhilarating   It was my only solace in an educational system I had come to abhor from early elementary school.  Through university, I continued to love researching and forming unique, convincing arguments.  As a new teacher, I was excited to read my students’ essays, but when my first class failed to meet my expectations, I stopped to consider how to actually teach essay writing.  I guess I should have done this before assigning an essay, but I honestly can’t remember ever being formally taught how to write an essay and therefore assumed it came naturally.  This setback did not dampen my passion, though.  I promptly set out to create a document I entitled Essay Writing Laws.  This document contains the 6 “Laws” I (still) believe are the basics necessary to produce a well-written essay.  Determining these laws was as simple as reflecting on the process I took through university to write pretty outstanding essays (I’m sorry for bragging, but they were, according to professors who asked me to read my work for the class, and even scrawled “brilliant” across the top of a particularly brilliant paper I wrote on the first Harry Potter novel for my Children’s Lit class.)  After a couple years, I made the effort to video record The Laws instead of reading through them all as a class–students were getting bored with that.  I figured if I created a video, they could chunk the reading over a weekend.

I hope I’ve been able to make it clear that I’m not opposed to essays because I hate them.  Even as I write this post I find myself nostalgically thinking back to the first real essay I remember writing in grade 11 on “The Great Gatsby.”  Man, was I ever proud of that piece.  No, my newfound opposition to making students write essays is not based on anything to do with the essay form itself or their purpose of persuading a target audience or the excellent skills in research and sentence construction they allows students to build.  All of these features and benefits are excellent.  If you took the time to read Dr. Eaton’s article (maybe you should go do that now), you’ll notice that these are also a few of her arguments for why we should have students write essays:

We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write. The topic and content areas are secondary. Knowing how to write cogently and construct a written report that has elements like an introduction, a body and a conclusion is a useful skill to know. It is also useful to know how to construct sentences, form an argument and persuade a reader.

So, if the above quote seems to be Dr. Eaton’s main point, and I seem to agree with her reasoning, then what could I possibly have an issue with?  My disagreement comes from Dr. Eaton’s statement that “We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write.”  My initial response to this is to echo another one of her own declarations: “But really, that’s not good enough.”

There are many different forms of writing that students can create in order to learn how to write and argue effectively.  In fact, Dr. Eaton continues her own article by listing several of these forms:  “[W]hen you leave school and get a real job, you may have to write something. A report. A letter. A policy. Whatever.”

The reason I do not believe teachers should be making students write essays is because essays are a highly inauthentic form of writing.  Before teaching my students how to write an essay, I often share with them some of my own experiences.  I tell them how essay writing knowledge has helped me to write a letter to my boss to justify a raise, to craft a cover letter when applying for teaching positions, and to verbally defend an extended curfew request to my parents.  But I also share my disappointment that, since being out of university, I haven’t written a single essay.  Until this year, the true impact of that realization escaped me.  If I, an individual who loves writing essays, and a teacher who teaches kids to write essays, haven’t found a reason to actually write an essay in the last 6 years while living in “the real world,” then why the heck am I teaching students to write an essay?  How important can it really be?  Of course, I already stated why they’re important.  Or did I?  I did state that they have benefits. But really, that’s not good enough!

Our students won’t grow up and write essays.  As Dr. Eaton pointed out, they’ll grow up and write reports, and letters, and policies.  They’ll grow up and write proposals, engage in debates–both formal and informal, deliver speeches, and write newspaper articles, magazine articles, and even blog posts!  But they won’t write essays.  For a more humorous example of this, check out the video I added to this other post.  It’s this video that pushed me over the edge, led me to cancel the essay I recently had planned for my ELA 10 class, and instead forced me to begin an in-depth examination of proposal writing through the study of one by President Obama a mere 3 months ago.

At this point, many readers may already be screaming at me through their computer screen:  WHAT ABOUT THE DIPLOMA EXAMS!?! (or whatever standardized tests their students may be forced to write) HOW DARE YOU RUIN A STUDENT’S CHANCES OF GETTING INTO OR THROUGH UNIVERSITY!

Oh my. . . I think it’s clear by now that I dislike the inauthenticity of essays, but that’s nothing compared to the abhorrence I harbour toward the inauthenticity and unfairness of standardized tests.  For an inkling, you can take a look here. Hopefully you’re still reading as I attempt to explain my position.  First, individuals who are going to scream the statements above are focused primarily on marks.  I’ll address that a bit more in a moment, but suffice it to say that students who do well on whatever you do in-class will still walk away from the course with a decent mark (and much better prepared for life) even if they do “poorly” on the diploma exam.  Second, if we are going to argue that teaching an inauthentic essay format will prepare students for writing more authentic letters, reports, policies, etc. then the reverse should also be true–teaching those forms should result in students who can produce a great essay.  Which would you rather your students be better practiced in:  The type of writing they’ll need long-term or the type of writing that will temporarily benefit them?  I choose the life-long skills.  Third, many of our students aren’t even headed off to university and, consequentially, their need for amazing diploma exam marks is virtually non-existent.  For those students who are headed to university and will need essay writing skills for four to eight more years, that’s where differentiation comes in and we teach the minor formatting differences after they are well-grounded in more authentic writing styles.  This should satisfy those teachers who believe that the government and society as a whole have the right idea about education being about marks more than it is about students actually being involved in relevant learning.  I do fully intend to ensure this happens, but not because I’ll make students do it; it’ll be because they recognize the need to learn essay writing in order to jump through the hoops of an inauthentic and broken education system.  Even with my grade 10’s, I’ve been diligent in pointing out the similarities and differences between proposals and essays to help prepare the ones who will need to know them.

The fourth and final reason I’ll expound upon as to why I’m not doing a diservice to students by not making them write essays* is that even the diploma exam refuses to demand that students write one.  I find this curious.  I’ve been to mark the diploma exams four times, twice for the -1 stream and twice for the -2 stream, and every student writes a formal academic essay for the -1 Critical/Analytical Response To Literature, and the vast majority of -2s for their Literary Exploration.  It seems that every teacher in the province knows what the diploma exam creators expect, even if those creators are not bold enough to demand it themselves.  It even seems obvious that the creators do in fact expect an essay to be written:  The omission of a question in the planning section, the question seeking to know what prose form the student plans on using, speaks loud and clear.  This question is asked for the personal reflection, where students can choose any prose form including narrative, but not for the critical analysis assignment.  I can’t help but wonder why this is the case.  Is an essay the only form possible to critically and analytically explore a text?  If so, wouldn’t that mean that “in the real world,” where essays are rarely written, texts are never explored critically?  Anyone holding to that position better be able to explain why we need to teach kids to think critically about texts at all then.  However, if we agree that this notion is ludicrous, and “the real world” does in fact demand critical exploration of texts, then is it true that essays are the only way to do so, or even a primary way, heck, are essays even used at all in the real world as a means of stating an opinion?  If not, then why expect students to write one?  Why force them to learn a skill they don’t actually need when more authentic forms of text creation can accomplish the same task?

Towards the end of her article, Dr. Eaton makes a statement that I agree with 100% and have begun to implement in my own teaching practice.  She introduces the following quote by stating that we shouldn’t have students write essays just so they can get a grade, which, by the way, supports my comments above about grade-focused teachers.  Instead, Dr. Eaton argues that school is about learning:

What would happen if we said to our students, ‘OK, folks, your grade is based on learning, not just on production, or on completing an inane assignment. Show me what you’ve learned, how you’ve learned and it and why you think it has any relevance at all to the real world.’

I must admit, when I reached this part of the article, I was optimistic that perhaps I had misunderstood Dr. Eaton’s point and that she truly was advocating for the abolishment of the essay.  I read this quote and thought, “this is exactly what school should be.”  I told my ELA 10 class this very thing a couple days ago:  “School is about learning, not about marks.”  As soon as I finished the statement one of the boys in the class scoffed.  I asked him if he disagreed.  He asked me why teachers give marks then if my statement is true.  He forced me to revise my statement to “School SHOULD be about learning, not about marks.” I’ve been on a quest since then to learn more about how to abolish marks from my practice right alongside the abolishment of essays.  It was something that I’d already been wondering about, and we set aside the rest of the lesson that day and, as a class, figured out a fairer assessment strategy for this term, with the promise that I would continue learning more about this topic for next year (I’ll teach the same group again from grade 10-12).

Unfortunately, Dr. Eaton concluded her article with these words:

We have students write papers so they can learn the art and craft of writing and more importantly, to “learn about learning” and to learn about themselves as students and human beings. Hopefully they grow and expand their own minds in the process. If students’ minds aren’t expanding, we are not doing our job.

This conclusion almost had me screaming to her through my computer screen the title of her article:  BUT WHY DO WE HAVE TO MAKE OUR STUDENTS WRITE ESSAYS?  Why do students have to write an essay to “learn about learning”?   Why do students have to write an essay to show what they learned and how they learned it?  Why do students have to write an essay to learn about themselves as students and human beings?  Can they truly prove the relevance between what they’ve learned and the real world through such an inauthentic form of writing?  I don’t think they can.  Or, at least it’s not the only way.  And it doesn’t justify making students write essays.  I strongly believe that every teacher needs to carefully consider what they teach, how they teach it, and how they assess it in order to ensure that school is relevant and meaningful and not a huge waste of time.

*The Alberta High School ELA curriculum, in a very understated manner (through the use of an asterisk, as I’ve utilized here), requires students to create an essay.  Because I love teaching, I will comply with this requirement in the most minimal, yet acceptable manner I can.  As I clearly argue in my post, I do not believe I do my students a diservice by refusing to focus on or inflate the importance of essay writing.  The authentic text creations my students will complete will more than make up for this.  Complying certainly does not mean I agree with the demand.

To Praise or Not to Praise? Is that the Question?

I have the immense pleasure of being the Senior High ELA Curriculum Coach for PWSD 76 in Alberta, and today that meant the opportunity once again to get together as a coaching cohort.  During our meeting we viewed a previously aired webinar by Jim Knight (@jimknight99).  I enjoyed tweeting what I was learning throughout.  One section of the webinar that caught my attention was regarding the need to praise students more than we correct them.  (Hopefully I’m not putting too many words into Jim’s mouth.)

These statements reminded me of some thoughts I’d heard a while ago that emphasized the idea that praising children may not be the best approach if we want to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing rather than doing it because of the attention they receive from doing so.  I didn’t have the sources of these quotes with me at the moment, but I tweeted a couple questions out based upon the impact of these statements.  The idea of not offering praise is one that I’ve actually tried to put into practice (when I remember to do so) with my students and my own kids.

When I got home today, I had a couple replies from Jim Knight about what I had tweeted. Jim had a question for me that I didn’t have a ready answer for.  He asked, “Re: praise. Do you think teachers should only give corrective feedback? I think both, but we often overlook positive.”  I went back to the webinar link and listened to this portion again.  Here’s one statement that made his tweet reply begin to make sense:  “The bottom line is, that you want to make sure that you’re giving more positive attention to the students than negative attention.  If all you do is correct students, pretty quickly the students know ‘If I want to get that teacher’s attention, the only way I can get it is by acting up.‘” I’m assuming correction is being viewed then as negative attention; we correct when a student has been “acting up” in some way.  This dichotomy of praise and correction is something that I didn’t see addressed in my reading about “the pitfalls of praise,” as Joe Bower (@Joe_Bower) puts it in his blog post If I Don’t Praise Children, What Can I do?

Joe’s post was the first I read on this matter.  At the time, I remember, it didn’t feel right to hear that I shouldn’t praise my own son or daughters when they do something great.  But the logic makes sense: “If I praise Amber by saying “good job”, it’s the equivalent of patting her on the head and throwing a mirror inches in front of her face – like the praise, the mirror would encourage Amber to focus on how her good-will benefited her.” I realized I didn’t want my children to be motivated to do good in order to feel good themselves; I want them to do good because it’s the right thing to do.  And I certainly didn’t want to manipulate my children or create praise junkies or steal their pleasure, make them lose interest, or reduce achievement as Alfie Kohn (@alfiekohn) writes about in Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’  These writings and others inspired me to look for alternatives to praise my children and my students (though I must admit I’ve been rather inconsistent and that’s probably worse than picking a side and sticking to it).  A couple suggestions that I really liked as alternatives also came from Joe and Alfie:  Say nothing, state what you saw, and talk less–ask more.  Joe’s question to Amber, “Did you see the smile on that ladies face?” seemed to be a great alternative to “Wow, that was such a nice thing that you just did!”  Though, it may be argued that this question still encourages Amber to do good because it will impress others, if not her teacher.  Perhaps a better question would be something along the lines of: “Can you tell me why you chose to help that lady.”  This would require Amber to think about her own motivation and the results of her actions, and it may lead to follow up questions.  I believe my response to Jim Knight lies buried somewhere in this last alternative.

As I mentioned, Jim’s perspective of praise comes from the relationship between praise and correction.  His webinar suggests a 5:1 ratio of praise to correction.  Thinking about my own practice, I think I’d be lucky to have a 1:5 ration in my classroom.  Jim notes that it’s not uncommon to find ratios of 1:10, 1:15 or even 0:28 in one Australian classroom.  What is the impact of this on students?  I can’t imagine that constant correction without praise will result in a positive self-image for a child.  And I believe this is Jim’s point.

I think I’m going to have to argue that if we are going to continue to provide students with correction, then we are going to have to also provide them with praise.  But is this the answer?  I’m going to step out on a limb here (hoping it doesn’t break away from under me) and suggest we stop doing both?  Through the course of researching and writing this blog, I continued to reflect on Jim’s question to me: “Do I think that teachers should only give corrective feedback?” My answer is this:  I believe praise is harmful to children, yet I also believe that constant correction without praise would also be harmful.  The only option I’m left with then is to abolish both.  Is this possible?  Can we teach without the use of correction?

A short time ago, I would have said no, of course we can’t!  However, my focus on critical thinking and collaboration is beginning to lead me to believe that students are capable of correcting themselves and each other.  I had an experience recently that reinforces this for me.  My ELA 10 class was working on getting commas and semicolons placed correctly within their sentence structures.  They were collaborating with a partner to write proper sentences based upon particular criteria I provided.  I was hovering, observing, refusing to answer questions (instead, helping them find the answers in the handouts they had in triplicate from a variety of sources showing the info in different ways).  Then I began to take pictures of the sentences they were creating.  I paused the activity and displayed their own examples on the board, using polleverywhere.com to ask the class whether the sentence used correct punctuation or not.  The results came in, and were not unanimous.  This let me know there were still some students struggling to figure things out, and it provided the opportunity for students to try to defend their answers.  The ones who were incorrect were unable to do so, but those who were correct provided justification from the notes and helped the others see why.  This is one example of how questioning students and providing the time for conversations and critical thinking could help us eliminate the need for correction in our classrooms and allow me to sleep soundly with the belief that praise should also defer to questioning and self-reflection.

 

***Amendment***

I couldn’t sleep last night and continued to reflect on this issue.  Here’s my problem:  My mind tells me that what I wrote is pretty solid; however, my heart wants to disagree.  I want to offer praise.  I want to offer correction.  Where does this desire come from?  Am I conditioned from growing up in a system that has told me this is what we do, or am I feeling a desire inherent in all humanity?  Where I ended up is admitting that perhaps I’m being too black and white about the issue.  I tend to do that (you’ll see it if you follow my blog and I’m hoping you’ll help keep me in line).  During my second year teacher’s evaluation, this was also the critique of of my acting principal.  I blame it on my strict religious upbringing where things were either right or they were wrong.  I’ve begun to mellow since then, wanting to be open to other perspectives and looking for common ground, but I tend to fall back on the “draw a line in the sand” approach when first confronted with a new issue.  In this case, I’m looking for common ground.  I see value in praise, which is why I’ve had a hard time not doing it.  I see value in correction, you can ask my own children about that.  As stated above, I see value in withholding praise and correction as well.  Perhaps that’s the answer I’m looking for.  Perhaps it’s a matter of analyzing the context and making a decision of what’s best for this child in this situation.  Does that sound like a cop-out?  I hope not.  I’m finally beginning to view education from this point of view, striving to individualize and see the gray areas where perhaps much of my time should be spent.

Teaching for 21st Century but Assessing in the Past

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?