Two Birds, One Stone: Critical Thinking and Collaboration Activity

Is my blog post title impolitically correct?  I reside in Redneck, Alberta where killing birds is pretty common-place.  You’ll live (Even if the birds don’t!)

I went “old school” today, which is odd for me, as anyone who knows me knows.  I used to push tech; now I’m open to students preferences. But today I forced pen to paper in order to make my point about the need for critical thinking and collaboration in our “learning community.”

I’ve taken to calling my ELA 10 class a community.  The students laugh at me but are slowly beginning to mimic me, even if it’s facetious for now.  I want students to believe that a community of learners will benefit them so much more than a class of students.  My goal for the class from the start of the term has been to build their critical thinking skills (see here), and now I want them to begin on collaboration as a critical thinking strategy.

My lesson today was designed around having students believe that collaborating together can actually benefit them by aiding them in their critical thinking.  For a bit more background into the current assignment, see this post and the end of this post.  Essentially, I want to move away from “essay” writing and replace it with more authentic “proposal” writing.  There are some major similarities, but there are also many significant differences. In order to do this, I am using a real life proposal straight from the desk of President Obama a mere 3 months ago.  The proposal deals with reducing gun violence in order to keep kids and communities safer.  The stated context of the proposal was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting this past December.  My students watched a powerful 15 minute news video produced by ABC to gain the needed context.  We discussed the tragic event, vented our outrage, and they brainstormed a list of 6 proposals individuals or groups might make in light of this event.

Today’s lesson introduced them to the proposal from Obama.  All we focused on for 80 minutes was the ~250 word introduction that contained a fantastic title, 3 paragraphs, a numbered list (the ideas), and a clear statement of purpose (the thesis).  I read the intro to them complete with appropriate emphasis and emotion (stopping to add some humour to the class with a photo to “explain” the 2nd Amendment of the American Constitution (We are Canadian, so it’s not common knowledge):

Bear Arms

Then the real learning began.  I slowly and carefully explained (and reexplained then drew a picture to visualize the explanation) what I wanted students to do:

  • Take out 2 blank, lined sheets of paper (What if I use a notebook?  Then tear one out and leave the other in.  Can I use my iPad?  No, this needs to be paper today. Can it have other stuff on it?  No, blank sheets, please.)
  • Today you will be completing a critical thinking activity and should come to understand that asking questions is encouraged rather than criticized.  Hence, I don’t mind your questions at all . . . but they should be thoughtful questions!
  • When I tell you to, you will skim back through the introduction.  As you skim through, think of two questions you would want to ask The President if he was here right now.  Keep in mind these questions should make you sound smart and thoughtful rather than, you know . . . (. . . like we actually are Mr. Groff?  No, no.  You are all smart and thoughtful and you’ll prove it today.)
  • You will write down your two questions on both sheets of paper, at the top, nicely, not all huge and stupid like, like the grade 11’s insist on constantly doing.  (laugh laugh laugh) [but they all got it right].
  • Again, once you have your two questions, you’ll put them both on both sheets of paper. (So both my questions go on both sheets?  Or question one on one sheet and question two on the other?  Both on both.)
  • Here, let me show you.

2 paper example

  • Okay.  Do that now.  [It took a while.  I warned them to keep their work covered and private because if their neighbour has the same questions as them their lives will soon get very difficult.  Students struggled to think critically and come up with two thoughtful/insightful questions to ask The President.  BUT they refused help.  They understood the task and insisted that I do NOT offer them a suggestion.  [Of course, I wandered the room looking over shoulders.] After most had their questions down, on both sheets, I let them get a drink and relax while the others finished.]
  • Now, listen carefully.  When I say “go” I want you to pass ONE of your sheets to the person on your left. [They are in a semi-circle, all community-like.] (Which way is left? That way [picture me pointing left].  Which sheet?  I don’t care, choose one.  Maybe the neatest one. If you have one in your notebook, pass it and keep the loose page.  But then people will look through my notebook.  I want to pass the other one. No you don’t.  Trust me.  And they won’t have time to look through your notebook.  Do I need to put my name on it?  No, you don’t.  What?  Just trust me.
  • When I say “go” I want you to pass one sheet to the left, the neatest, or the one in your notebook.  Left.  That way. [picture me pointing left . . . again.]
  • Then, read the two questions on the page you get.  So Jimmy is going to get up and take his paper across the gap in our circle (I have to get up?  Fine, I’ll take your sheet over) and he’ll get a sheet from Sarah.  Jimmy is going to read Sarah’s two questions.  Then he’s going to reread his own two questions–the ones on the extra sheet of paper he kept (Oh, that’s why we wrote it out twice.  Yes.  Wow! You really thought of everything.  Yes. Yes, I did.)  Then he’s going to determine whether Sarah’s questions are different than his, or the same.  If they are different, he’s going to write his two questions out on Sarah’s paper.  He’s. Going. To. Write. HIS. Questions. On. HER. Paper.  IF, they are different.  (What if they are the same?  [Ignore and continue]) If Sarah has one, or both questions the same as Jimmy’s then Jimmy gets to think up one or two more questions to add to Sarah’s sheet. (Oh, no.  It took me forever to think up the first two.  This is why I told you not to copy your neighbour’s questions.  I didn’t.  Then likely you’ll be okay.)  When you’re done, do nothing.  Sit back and relax.
  • Ready? (Yes) Any more questions? (No)  Gopher! [students begin to pass papers until some laugh and chide their friends because I didn’t actually say “Go.”  [They get their papers back] Goal! [same] Goat! [groans and no movement] Go!!! [And they do.]
  • [Sit back and watch the work happen.  Critical thinking and collaboration everywhere.  First they thought critically about the introduction of the proposal, getting to know it better without realizing it. [Not the real point at all.  I couldn’t care less how well they understand this text–but understanding will happen regardless]  Then, they are considering whether or not their neighbour’s questions are the same as theirs. (Mr. Groff, I think this question is the same, but one of the words is different.  Let’s take a look, but I bet you’ll be writing a new question.  Oh, nope, okay.  The word that is different actually changes the meaning of the question.  “Reduce” and “Eliminate” are not the same.) [A couple more close calls happen but in every circumstance the questions are slightly different in their meaning.  Stop the class and mention that they are now understanding the importance of word choices.  It is critical that you use the best word to get your message across accurately.  [unintended learning] Write a draft, then go back and rethink your word choices.  You often won’t be there to explain that you meant one thing but mistakenly wrote another.]
  • Now, pass the paper you received to the left again.  Keep yours, but pass the one that isn’t yours.  (Why don’t you just say “get ours back again?”  Because Rick, you need to learn your left from your right.  You don’t want yours back. [this one didn’t really happen, thank goodness!]
  • Repeat what you just did.  Read the four questions on the page you just got, the last two should be the same two you just read but not necessarily if your neighbour had to write a new question.  If any of the questions are the same as yours, you need to write a new question.  If all four are different from your two, add your two to the list to make six questions.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat
  • [Before the end of class, have students collect their original paper, which now has 10 or more questions on it.  They will know which is theirs because the first two questions on it will be the two questions they have on the other sheet in front of them.]
  • So, how many of you had to write new questions at some point. [Very few hands]  Isn’t it interesting how you struggled to come up with two questions from a 250 word introduction, yet most of you came up with different questions?  Were any of the questions terrible? [No, they weren’t.  They were all acceptable questions, many were thoughtful, and a few were insightful.]  Sharing your work with others, and getting to see theirs, can truly help you see a text or a situation from a different perspective.
  • As you walk out the door today, you’re going to throw one of your sheets in the recycling bin.  I don’t care which one.  That choice is yours. [Stand by door and recycling bin and watch students throw out the sheet with only two questions on it.  Nod in agreement and save their rationale for tomorrow’s class.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Content Knowledge Vs. 21st Century Competencies: The Battle Begins

I had an interesting conversation today with @tstarkey1212 that began with a question from @appeducationfox regarding how to respectfully reply to teaches who don’t have time for tech with students, and ended with me questioning the dichotomy of knowledge and competencies.  And the battle between content knowledge and21st century competencies was spawned.  The conversation spanned a few different educational areas but these two focuses (knowledge and competencies) continued to be in opposition to one another.  For example, we “debated” which focus would provide students with better future prospects; whether or not a content focus creates students who expect answers rather than students who discover answers; whether or not competencies should be the focus of education; and whether or not content is only beneficial for standardized tests or whether it serves another function.  Each of these ideas kept coming back to content knowledge being at odds with 21st century competencies.  By the end of the conversation, I think both Thomas and I had some points to reflect upon.  This post is the result of some of my reflection.  I know I will have a lot more to do on this issue.

My journey into 21st century competencies is summarized here, along with some of my concerns with how we are evaluating students.  I have a hard time separating the use of standardized tests from what our current education system is.  I see the tests as the main focus for the government and, unfortunately, for many boards, admin, and teachers.  Whether my teaching focus is on content knowledge, as mine was for the first several years of my career, or on 21st CC, as the latest several years of my career have been, these standardized tests have been the bane of my teaching.  I don’t understand how the Alberta PATs (grade 3,6,9) and DIPs (grade 12) relate to what I’m teaching.  I know the “what” is the curriculum, and that this is also used to create the PATs and DIPs; however, where I teach my ELA students that writers write from a personal desire to express themselves and readers read with a personal context (I find new meaning in texts every time I reread them based on personal context) the standardized test expect students to identify “the correct” multiple choice answer as determined by a group of expert ELA teachers, in a timed test situation, without the option to read and reread or discuss or research or defend their answers.  For me, these tests are the epitome of “Content Knowledge” as opposed to critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and contextual information.  One of the questions Thomas asked during our Twitter conversation was “Do you find that teachers where you are equate knowledge with ‘stuff needed to pass standardized tests’?”  My answer was a resounding YES!  I know I do.  I believe that in order for my students to do well on these tests, they need to strictly focus on the knowledge-based questions they will be asked, that they must be taught NOT to think for themselves or to bring themselves to the texts they read.  And I’ve refused to teach that.  Of the five major ELA General Outcomes, the diploma exam focuses on two, and barely scratches a few of the “less important” (IMHO) outcomes of a third.  Curious as to what has been left out?

  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to explore thoughts, ideas, feelings and experiences.
  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to manage ideas and information. (inquiry and research)
  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to respect, support and collaborate with others.

What’s left out are the hard-to-assess-with-a-standardized-test-non knowledge-outcomes.  What’s left out are the outcomes that ask students to think for themselves, to inquire and question, to collaborate.  What’s left out are the outcomes that begin to address what students need to be able to do in the 21st century.  So my answer to Thomas today was this:  “The fact that inauthentic standardized tests exist, perpetuates a negative equation of knowledge to the test.”  I believe that the very existence of these tests suggest that testing is the point of knowledge.  This is what our students come to believe, and many teachers as well.  Teachers teach to the test.  The test focuses on a small portion of the curriculum but is used to rank districts, school, teachers, and students to the tune of 50% of a grade 12 student’s final grade.  Teachers prioritize the curriculum to try to determine which outcomes are worthy of focusing on (for the test), suggesting that the other outcomes are not necessary.  The standardized test sacrifices competencies for the sake of inauthentic assessment of content knowledge.

My conversation with Thomas has led me to question how I truly view knowledge. What if I got my wish and inauthentic standardized tests simply vanished from existence?  Would knowledge then be given a place of honour in my teaching practice?  The obvious answer is “Of Course!”  I teach ELA because I love ELA.  I crave a well-written text, characters who make me cry or cry out in rage (though if anyone else is around I’m only crying because there’s dust in my eye), poetry that can make me see the beauty in our all-too-often selfish world, and persuasive texts that make me question my perspectives.  I relish the opportunity to create these texts myself.  I NEED to be able to share these passions with students.  It’s why I wanted to be a teacher.  I shudder to think that my students may not see the necessity of boasting of the knowledge of how to correctly place a semicolon in their writing, or that they lack the knowledge to comprehend an allegory from Greek Mythology.  I will admit that knowledge is not merely a requirement for career paths but also for witnessing the beauty of the world around us (and for you math teachers *yuck* I can now begin to understand your abhorrence with me for not knowing my multiplication tables–perhaps I’ll cherish the opportunity to gain this knowledge just as a means of self-improvement). For this realization, I owe you a sincere “thank you,” Thomas.

Coming back to a reality that still worships inauthentic standardized tests is hard for me, but I love my job, so I am forced to ask myself how I can continue to hold knowledge in high esteem while not falling into the traps set by testing.  I think the answer may be found in ending the battle between content knowledge and 21st century competencies and finding some common ground where the two can work together.  I do believe that much of the knowledge we expect kids to know can be “looked up.” However, I also believe that we can’t be looking up everything all the time or we risk looking incompetent (likely because we would be).  Consider this video shared with Thomas and me by @appeducationfox.

What would this video look like if the job candidate had been educated in a solely 21st century competencies classroom?  Would it really be that much different?  Reading and writing skills would suffer, basic mathematical equations would be time consuming, and science concepts would be unknown.  Clearly the two must work together.  I also believe that knowledge is tied to testing in the minds of students, even though it is the basis for life-long learning.  Education has become (or maybe always was) about testing and specific career prep.  In recent years we’ve tried to tell kids that school is about learning, but we haven’t separated it from the traditional methods of education.  The result is students who are beginning to hate learning.  I speak here from experience with my own children.  They used to love learning and school.  Now they view learning as something that should only happen at school (which every year they dislike a little bit more).  Just the other day, talking with my son at home about using his iPad more for learning than for games, he retorted that learning is done at school and home was the place for having fun.  I was repulsed.  Learning should be a life-long activity, embraced at every opportunity.  Learning should be fun.  My son has separated the two, and I blame a content-focused system that doesn’t value learning as a life-long goal but rather as a levelled activity, grade by grade.

So how can knowledge and competencies work together?  Where is the common ground?  What do our students need?  I’m sitting here thinking about what practical application this is going to have in my classroom when Easter Break is over.  I know I need to put some more emphasis on the knowledge, not that I haven’t been teaching it, but to actually make it more obvious to my students.  They need to understand that knowledge is important.  However, I also need to make it clear that it’s not knowledge OR competencies.  Everything we’ve done all term is still important.  I also think that I know exactly how I’m going to do this.  Before the break my students handed in a (more) authentic assessment task.  The focus of this task fit in with an ongoing term-long project where students are creating a meaningful opinion to share with others.  This assessment task was meant to highlight the importance of understanding the purpose of the writing.  Ironically, looking back at the project and rubric, this focus was not even mentioned.  Sure, we discussed purpose and studied a few texts with this focus.  Yet, my assessment of this task was 100% on 21st century competencies, linked back to the curriculum, and not on the knowledge I needed my kids to know:  That purpose will be shown through the presentation choices they make.  Skimming through their work, I know this is a problem already.  I received a few letters, and many academic essays, all of which seem to have the purpose of stating/explaining/defending a theme song choice for the film, but the presentation does not match the purpose at all, nor is it authentic to the situation.  I failed to put enough emphasis on the knowledge that was needed to produce authentic work, choosing instead to focus on the competencies that were needed.  I will need to correct this major oversight on Monday and use this work as a rough draft.

As a conclusion, I’d like to quickly share a chart from Alberta Education’s proposed Curriculum Redesign.  I’d like to discuss this shift in much more detail sometime soon, but for now, this visual depicts what I believe should be the common ground for knowledge and competencies.

curriculum shift

While the content-focus is lessened, so is the prescriptive curriculum and summative assessment.  What this means to me is that the knowledge the students and I deem as important (local decision making) will lead to greater depth of study and formative assessment.  There will be less focus on testing and more focus on learning.  This should benefit both sides of this battle!

(More) Authentic Assessment Tasks

I’m a supporter of authentic assessment tasks.  I came out of university 5 1/2 years ago with a project-based teaching style all ready to implement.  I created projects for my junior highs that were fun and meaningful and (more) authentic than most assessments and evaluations I endured growing up. I say (more) authentic because for the most part I am still the main audience for their work, even if I try not to be.  I know I need to work at getting their projects in front of a more authentic audience but thus far I haven’t consistently done that.

Here are some examples of the projects I’ve created for my junior highs:  My grade 7 students wrote and (randomly) presented instructions on a topic of their choice.  We’ve had instructions about how to properly groom a miniature pony, and the pony came to school to be groomed; how to put on hockey gear (always “randomly” assigned to a girl); how to do your make-up (always “randomly assigned to a boy); how to make a disgusting sandwich (and the boy who followed the instructions actually ate it–yuck!); and how to woo a girl (so cute with the writing of a poem and set-up of a picnic).  The 7’s have also created menu’s for a restaurant of their creating and in recent years some menus have been created online.  My grade 8’s have created tv ad storyboards for a company of their choosing to pitch to someone they actually thought was an ad agency rep.  They also created trading cards of the characters from The Outsiders again thinking they were actually being sent to a company who was holding a contest to promote their new line of educational trading cards. (I love how gullible grade 8’s are, and it leads to awesome authentic tasks.)  My grade 9’s have created CD inserts for a band and album they create from the ground up, writing all the “lyrics” (poetry) to go in it, based on a theme of their choice.  They’ve also written and mailed letters of complaint/compliment to actual businesses of their choice.

But that’s junior high.  When it came to my high school classes, I must admit I struggled greatly with utilizing authentic assessment tasks.  Despite believing that these types of assessments better engaged my students, required more creative and critical thought, led to deeper understanding of texts and concepts, and brought meaning to the tasks, I balked at the high school level.    That’s not to say that I didn’t create assessments that weren’t creative and interesting, but they lacked that authentic feel, and if I’m being honest they were much fewer and farther between.  Part of the problem has been the curriculum I have to teach and assess; I’ve struggled to envision authentic assessment tasks that relate to Shakespeare (comment with your suggestions) or how academic essays are in any way authentic (when’s the last time you wrote one???).  The time frame has also been an issue.  My senior high ELA classes are semestered 84 minute periods daily.  However, there have been years where I have had junior high classes that were also 84 minutes daily, but all year.  In order to cover and assess all the outcomes, plus prepare for diploma exams worth 50% of their overall mark, I just didn’t feel I had the time to assign authentic assessments that allowed students choices, opportunities to significantly revise ideas mid-stride, or deeply explore texts and concepts.  I felt they needed to be taught and assessed and shoved off to their next class.

This year I felt that a stronger focus on 21st century competencies might replace my guilt about not offering authentic assessment tasks to my high school students.  We did some really neat stuff last term in my ELA 20 and 30 classes, mostly revolving around collaboration and critical thinking, with some creativity and tech tossed in for good measure.  I tried to differentiate, allow for personal choices, and encourage deeper thought about the world in which they live.  And things were great.  Students actually said they enjoyed the atmosphere and purpose of the class and even some of the texts; although, the notion of ELA still depressed some of them.  It had been my hope that prepping kids for the 21st century would result in improved diploma exam grades.  I no longer believe this to be true.  (You can read THIS post of mine for more explanation.)  Reflecting on the diploma exams got me to thinking that 21st century competencies really aren’t enough if these competencies are going to be assessed through inauthentic assessments.  I’m not saying that critical thinking, for example, can’t be assessed unless it’s through an authentic task, but it would certainly help.  What I am saying is that very few people write essays or multiple choice tests in the “real world.”  I know professionals don’t create in isolation under ridiculous time limits.  So why do we expect these things from our students?  The more we can prep our students for their lives when they leave our classroom, the better.  For that reason I am hoping to bring better assessment opportunities to my students.  My goals are to remove as much inauthentic assessment from my courses as possible, including my final exams; to focus even more on the 21st century competencies; to incorporate more (more) authentic assessment tasks; and to find ways to bring my students’ work to more authentic audiences.  Please, pass along any suggestions you might have.

If you have the time, I’d love for you to take a look at a (more) authentic assessment task that I created for my ELA 10 class.  They are currently working on this project, but any feedback you can offer would be great!

See No Evil:  A Film Adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil”