It's Friday night and I’m lying in bed with my three year old daughter, cuddling her until she falls asleep. One of the hardest parts of being a teacher for me is turning my “teacher brain” off. So I’m lying there in bed, it's 19h45 on a Friday night and I think to myself “Self, one of your students handed in an amazing piece of work, and you only gave him a 3-. Why?!” So then I had to ask myself, “Self, on what are you basing that mark and is that what you should be looking for?” There was no easy answer. I work in a department steeped in tradition, and it's become ingrained into me. And I don’t like it. The guy showed a TON of learning, but based on the curriculum expectations, he only got a 3-. The product he came up with, a video with editing, and titles and subtitles, and images, and just jam-packed with creativity was way beyond anything I expected! He clearly learned more than his mark reflected. So what am I doing? If I’m going to stay true to my philosophy, and give him a grade based on learning, I’m going to give him a level 4 or 4+. If I’m going to fall into the “Curriculum Trap”, he gets a 3-. Now listen, a 3- is a decent grade. If it were me, I’d be happy with a 3-.
But here’s the challenge. I know this guy learned a lot because I know the guy. And in speaking with some colleagues of mine, a different perspective was raised. So I have two scenarios to think about:
Was this the best this guy could do? Or
Was this guy half-assing it?
Because I know the guy, and I think I know him well enough (I taught him in grade nine, and have him again in grade ten), this guy worked hard on this. Giving him a 3- based on curriculum doesn’t feel like enough when I believe and trust myself and my (here comes the famous saying...wait for it...) professional judgement enough, this guy demonstrated a lot of learning.
This teaching from home business, or more formally Learn At Home: Phase Two, is really tough. But I’ve found my groove. Because I trusted my guts. It took a few weeks for things to start working the way I had hoped they would, but as Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones sings: “I believe in my product, I love what I sell”. Here’s what I do:
Every Monday, I give my students a Big Question and then I get out of the way.
Virtually speaking, that’s really easy to do. Realistically, it's one of the hardest things to do.
I don’t tell them how to demonstrate their learning.
I do give them some additional resources, like videos or websites if I think they might be helpful.
I don’t have a minimum or maximum requirement. I just tell them I want their best answer.
But this is the hard part. Maybe their best answer isn’t the best answer. How do I sort that out? I’m still working on it, but one idea a friend shared, was why not just give them anecdotal feedback instead of a mark?
Every Wednesday I have a Google Meet, which is not required, obviously, where I answer questions about the work, if they have any, and about anything else if they don’t.
These question periods have gone pretty deep on some personal subjects, and it's been really great!
Every Friday, the question gets handed in and I spend the rest of the week marking.
It's A LOT of marking! But I really believe in the process, and so it's worth it to me, and because the questions are so open ended and have such little framework, there isn’t really a right or a wrong answer. It's so much fun finding out what these kids have learned, and finding out how they’ve decided to demonstrate that learning.
They submit their work into the Google Classroom and as I go through their work I give them their mark, a level that I input into MaMa, and then some anecdotal feedback. If they want to go back and resubmit their work, they can, anytime, and I’ll go reevaluate it...when I have the time.
I would say it's taken about three weeks, but the answers that my students are handing in are getting better and better. I think they’re starting to find their own science groove as well. They’re realizing that I don’t have expectations about what they should hand in, I’m just looking for what works best for them during these times.
If I’m being honest, and I don’t want to sound too morbid, but I’m thankful for this time. These school closures have come at a point in my teaching career where I’m just starting to find my identity as a teacher. I spent six years teaching in a Developmental Disabilities Program (DDP) at Hillcrest High School and then transferred back to the “mainstream”. One of the things I said in my interview at John McCrae to teach junior science was that in the DDP I learned all the soft skills a teacher is ever going to need. Working with those students at Hillcrest, I got an up close and personal look at what learning, and teaching, really is and should be. Have you ever thought about how many steps there are to making an open faced peanut butter sandwich? Could you imagine if you had to add jam to another piece of bread and close it?? The big takeaway for me was that it didn’t matter how many times I told my students how to make a PB&J, or showed them how to make a PB&J, they were never going to know how to make a PB&J until they actually had the chance to practice making a PB&J. Hungry yet?
So what did I do? I put out the required materials, I made my own PB&J and ate it while the students made their own. Did it take a long time? For some of them. Did everyone get a sandwich? Nope. But before you start thinking like a teacher, the parents all knew what the exercise was going to be, and they were all on board. If they wanted a sandwich, they had to make it themselves. And you wanna know what? It took some of them five or six years, but in the end, they made a PB&J! Was it up to my standards? I make a killer PB&J, so no, not even close. But did it look close enough to a PB&J that if they were ever in a situation where their parents were going to be home late from work and they had to make something for themselves to eat? Sure did!
So my journey now, and it continues, is how come I can’t treat chemical equations the same way? How come students can’t learn about ecology, or electricity or climate change with the same philosophy? The answer: They can. I’ve seen it.
Getting out of the way.
The hardest part though, in making the transition (in the mainstream) from teaching the way I was taught to moving way from the traditional model, is giving up control. Getting out of the way. To get out of their way, I had to get out of my way. I had to give up control. Man, as a teacher, have you ever given up control in your classroom? It's tough. And it's scary. And it's hard. And it's uncomfortable. But if you trust yourself, and believe in yourself, the outcome is AMAZING! These kids can learn without us standing at the front of the classroom telling them what they need to know. And maybe you’re the type of teacher who’s purpose, who’s why, is to help students and give them the tools that you think they need to help them get to wherever they are going, I get that this transition is even harder. But the paradigm has to shift when it comes to thinking about what tools we think they are going to need to help them get to wherever they are going.
Sugata Mitra said “...the age of knowing is obsolete.” What a crazy thought. But if you look at it. And if you think about the way we are teaching and how students are learning these days during these school closures, all the information we could be giving them is already on the internet. Now, there are some amazing teachers out there who make some really awesome videos about how to name a chemical compound, or how ions form, or anything on Khan Academy, so unless I think I can do it better, why would I try? I ask my students a Big Question and I let them find the information. In my opinion, that’s what our world looks like now, and it's what our world is going to look like later.
A.J. Juliani posted on his edu-blog (that’s what I call it) that it is not our job to prepare our students for something. Our job is to help them prepare themselves for anything. Richard King gives the example of learning a song on guitar, he goes to YouTube, same for changing a light bulb in his car. And sure, there’s the argument that there’s a lot of bad information on the internet. But the students figure it out. And maybe they need some guidance on how to decipher good and bad information on the internet, but isn’t that a more pertinent skill than copying a note on the differences between physical and chemical changes of matter?
There is talk about how we assess our students so that they don’t, at least, do too much Googling, or asking their friends. Thanks to these school closures, my question is why is that what’s important? Why is the question still about assessment? Why don’t we ask about what’s the best way to get students to learn? I would argue that there are a number of teachers who are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. They’re asking themselves “How do I bring what I normally do in the classroom into a digital world?” Why, in a time of social distancing and self-isolation and quarantine, are we trying to reduce and/or minimize interactions with other people. Why are we trying to find ways to keep our students from collaborating? I don’t think it's a secret these days that a lot of the education system is about teaching to the test. Giving students all kinds of information to copy down, memorize and regurgitate is all about teaching them how to be successful on a test. And when students are successful on a test, it's “look how well they did!” And if they do poorly on a test “they should have worked harder” or “they may be out of their league.” Being a student is a lot like being a goalie in hockey. When you win, the team plays well but when you lose, it's all your fault. Education should be about learning and not about standards. So why not, in these times where marks can’t go down, focus less on standards, and more on learning? The Ministry of Education says changes in grades should only reflect improvements in learning. So if a kid learns a lot, but doesn’t necessarily meet the standards, the Ministry of Education is saying we should celebrate the learning and not punish the missed standards.
We live in a world of instant feedback. It’s been that way for a long time now, and a lot teachers complain about students always wanting instant feedback and gratification. I would argue, teachers are just as guilty of this. I think there are teachers out there who love tests and quizzes because it gives them instant feedback on how they are doing as a teacher. If the students do poorly on a test, let’s make the test easier. If everyone gets a question wrong, let’s just take the question right out. But education, now, I think, should be more of a two way street. Teachers should be able to expect the best out of their students, and students should be able to expect the best out of their teachers. By that I mean, students should be able to expect teachers to meet them where they are.
When I try to explain my philosophy to academic types, they’re always worried about students not getting the information that they are going to need at the next level. This is when I have a hard time keeping my blood pressure down, because I don’t want to prepare them for the next level. I want them to learn things that are going to help them here and now. I want to give them a reason, right here and right now, for learning the things they need to learn. But in doing so, they’ll be developing skills that are going to help them here, now and always. At the end of the day, the opportunities for multiple entry points to a project or an inquiry, make it possible to bring up the bottom end of the class. In my experience, the “high flyers” of the class remain the high flyers, but its the students who sit at the back of the room and never ask questions who really get to get their hands dirty and try things that shine bright. They get the chance to prove themselves to themselves. It's really a beautiful system.
This is why I like the inquiry and project based learning. It offers students more entry points than they can shake a stick at! My favorite example is in my grade nine science class, for the electricity unit, we watch The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind in class (takes two days) and then we spend three weeks building a windmill that generates enough electricity to power a light bulb. The day after I laid out the project, one student came in with a circuit board, components and a soldering gun, and another kid sat dumbfounded with no idea where to start. The student with the soldering gun got started building right away and made it happen but was missing a lot of the theory. The student who didn’t know how to get started had to learn about the different components and how they worked. But now they both had a reason to learn about electrons and different kinds of circuits and resistors. Eventually, the work that both students came up with was incredible!
But it wasn’t easy for them, or for me. I had to stand there and watch both of them struggle. All I wanted to do was give them the answers they were looking for. But I knew that if I did that, the spirit of the learning opportunity would be lost. I knew they had to struggle. I had to be okay with them being mad at me and thinking I’m a shitty teacher because I’m asking them to do something that I had never even taught them about. But I knew they had the resources, and the technology, to help them get to where I wanted them to go, and I had to get out of the way. The idea behind project, and inquiry, based learning is as George Couros mentions, it’s more than just finding information. You have to give them an opportunity to find the information, but then give them a meaningful way to use that information. That. Is where the learning happens. And in the end, they laughed when I asked them if they still thought I was a shitty teacher. They ate their words, and it all came around in the end.
Also, something to keep in mind, you have to set the stage. The switch can’t happen “just like that” (should be read with a finger snap). And it shouldn’t. Not for the teacher and not for the students. The teacher needs to find a way for the students to understand that it's okay to make mistakes, it's okay to not know something, and it's okay to ask for help. With project based learning, the student needs to know that the teacher is not going to hang them out to dry. And in my experience, a lot of them feel like I’m hanging them out to dry or expecting too much from them. That’s when students shut down. We have to avoid that, because powering them up again is not as easy as flipping a switch or pushing a button. Then it takes some cognitive massaging and some confidence building.
The grade nine electricity unit was my first foray into project based learning. This is because they never see electricity again. I’ll tell you about it.
The first time I taught the unit I got asked “sir, why do we have to learn about this?” And first of all, if a kid is asking this, the purpose for them doing the work isn’t clear and chances are good they’re going to check out, if they don’t just do the bare minimum or work hard only to get a good mark on a test. Secondly, my answer was “uh, because one day, you might have to know about this when you need to fix something in your house.” What a terrible answer, right? I taught the unit the traditional way with a ton of notes, and worksheets, some demos and activity stations all culminating in a unit test that was supposed to test their “knowledge and understanding” of the content. I was directed that tests should be knowledge and fact based because that is how we can provide the most accurate and equitable test results. Really, it means that no matter who writes, or marks, the test, the outcome should be the same. It takes professional judgement and any subjectivity out of the assessment. Like all good scientists, if two teachers marked the same test, the kid should get the same grade. We were supposed to be encouraging our students to memorize and regurgitate facts so that parents don’t call and complain that one kid did better on a test than their kid.
The second time I taught the course, I took more of an inquiry based approach. However, it started with taking a page out of Peter Gamwell’s book The Wonder Wall. I started every day with a question period. I’d walk into class and ask “What questions do you have for me?” I told my students that we got to where we are today, in life, because people all asked the best questions and got the best results. Maybe it didn’t all happen on the first try, but asking questions is how we make the best discoveries and I really want to instill that “inquiring mind” mindset into my students. I want them thinking about questions more and finding answers less. I wanted students to be asking more questions, instead of me running a pseudo-Socratic seminar where I would ask questions for clarification, wait three seconds or until the smartest kid raised her hand and then kept going with the note. Really, though, all I did was give them the same worksheets as I gave them in my first “round”, but in a big package, and photocopied some textbook pages, put my slideshows onto a google website so they could go through it at their own pace. Then, I gave them a project where they had to make a house out of a cardboard box and wire it. The house had to have four rooms, with one power source, and wire the house in parallel. Not true experiential learning, but it was a start and got my wheels turning. Then I gave them a unit test at the end, because I thought I was supposed to, and everyone else was doing it.
The third time I taught the unit, I gave them the unit test on the first day and gave them two days to work through it with a partner. Then I just did the same thing as the second time I taught it, but instead of finishing with a unit test, they had to hand it in, with a different kind of assessment package (a bunch of worksheets stapled together) to demonstrate their learning.
But the fourth time I taught it, I went full-on Project Based Learning. Where we watched the movie as I mentioned above and they made a functioning windmill. This was when I was introduced to experiential learning, and Cam Jones, and his life changed forever.
Now I’m at the point where I’m trying to find ways to make all of my grade nine and ten courses experiential, project and inquiry based learning. I’m going to mash all three of those models and call it “The Stoppels Show”. More on that in a little bit.
Seriously though, It's been really tough. Like I said, the philosophy has been there since I moved from the DDP at Hillcrest back into the mainstream, and it “all sounded good to me, but…” The thing is, for me, it's not just about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If you’re making the transition, hang on to your baby until you’re ready to let them go. There needs to be a culture shift in your head and in your classroom. When students walk into my classroom, they’re walking into The Stoppels Show. It's a little schtick I like to use so that my students know that things are going to be a little different in my classroom. It's my philosophy, my classroom management model and the culture I want to promote all wrapped into one.
As a side note, when I was in my first practicum in teacher’s college at Brookfield I was teaching a grade eleven (I think) health unit. And I was standing at the front of the class waiting for them to be quiet so I could begin and one kid yelled “Hey guys, shut up and listen, it's The Stoppels Show now!” I’m 100% sure the kid was making fun of me, but I decided to own it, so I took it, and ran with it, and it continues today. I get teased all the time by students and colleagues (and my wife), sometimes for fun, sometimes I think it might be malicious, but either way, I’m owning it. The students get a kick out of it...I think.
The culture shift really started to happen when I started the question period. And if I’m being honest, and I am, the question period was a bust. Even after months of questions, they always went back to “what you’re favorite…” or “would you rather…” But the positive thing that happened, which I didn’t expect, was we all got to know each other on a really different level. The questions they asked me gave me some insight into the things that were important to them, and it opened the door for me to ask them questions I might not have otherwise had the opportunity to ask. Sometimes it got personal, sometimes it got inappropriate, sometimes it got rude, sometimes it got existential, and sometimes it was just hilarious. So now, I’ve changed the model a bit, so that I start the year with a question period so that we can all get to know each other, and once the questions start repeating themselves I’ll stop the questions and just start class by saying, “okay, get to work.” There are often times when students will ask for a question period just for fun, and who am I to stop anyone from asking questions? Another positive is that the students are a little less afraid to ask me questions and ask for help when they’re working on an inquiry or a project. I’ll often answer their question with a question, but the dialogue is happening. And because I have gotten to know them a little more personally, I can find ways to get through to them that aren't necessarily “traditional.” I can find ways to explain things to them on a level to which I know they can relate.
In my class, students know I don’t have all the answers. They know that if I want them to be trying something crazy, I have to be trying something crazy. But they also trust that I have their best interests in mind, and that I see them as the young people they are, not test grades and statistics. Students know they are going to be making mistakes, and failing...and so is their teacher. I tell all my students they are all going to fail, and that I want them to fail, and that I’m going to try to make them fail. But if you’re picking up what I’m putting down, I want them to find ways that don’t work, and learn from them. They’re going to remember those things. Not memorize them. They’re going to have had an experience and they’re going to remember what they learned and how it made them feel. They know that I know that science isn’t necessarily the most important part of their day. They know that I know that some of them hate science class, and they know that isn’t going to change the way they are treated by me. I have found ways to let them know that I understand that being a teenager sucks sometimes, or all the time. They have three other classes this semester, and three other teachers. They have hormones, and puberty, and significant others, and parents, and siblings, and jobs and bosses, and TV shows and social media. They can never disconnect.
I guess, the point of the story is that experiential, or project, or inquiry based learning is not easier. I have found that some teachers think that it isn’t rigorous enough and the students don’t actually learn anything. I can tell you from my experience, which I realize (if you’re a science teacher) is only anecdotal evidence (since I don’t teach science, I teach students), they learn a lot. Maybe they can’t tick off all the curriculum expectations, but they understand the big picture. At the end of the documentary Most Likely To Succeed, one of the teachers says that he would rather his students cover 60% of the standards and remember 40% of it than have them study 90% of the standards and remember 20% of it. Sounds like a win to me too. But you gotta set the table for the students if you want them to eat. That’s the tough part, and it takes a lot of work. Remember that we’re working with people here. Real, live human beings. We have to teach them, we shouldn’t be teaching curriculum. The curriculum will happen, but it shouldn’t be the focus. I hate to say it, but they don’t need me, or us. We (teachers) are a dime a dozen. So that’s why if we focus on learning and not on teaching, they’ll never forget how we made them feel, and they’ll remember, at least, some of what they learned in our class. Give ‘em a question and get out of the way. Toss them the ball, and let them play. They will figure it out. They’re smart.