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  • Writer's pictureDerek Stoppels

Here's What I Learned

I just started teaching at a new school this year. I'm really excited about the new challenge and the fresh start! The last school wasn't a great fit for me, but I feel really good about where I'm at right now. This school is very different than my last one, and it's going to be a real challenge! The students are awesome, but the demographics here are unlike anything I've experienced, but this is what I'm so excited about: There is so much room for me to grow!!

And so here, now, I'd like to share a story of my growth on only the third day of school:


Yesterday a student in my class had a panic attack because she didn’t understand what I was asking her to do.

I asked them a big question about how the presence of mercury affects the environment and the lives of the people who live around the bodies of water in Northern Ontario where mercury is found, and then I gave them a few smaller questions, easier to answer that would help them answer the bigger question. The idea is to look at how to break down a big question by asking smaller questions and then putting all the information together and then coming up with a solution or a better way to mitigate the problem.

I’ve always said that terms and definitions are not important to me when it comes to demonstrating a student’s learning. But what I learned yesterday, the hard way, is that it’s impossible to understand a concept without being able to understand the terminology that accompanies it. It made me think back to the way I resisted creating a worksheet with terms and definitions because I was worried that in doing so it would lead a teacher to create more meaningless evaluations. However, now, I see that there is value to learning terms and definitions in order to access information to answer a big question.

The important piece, though, is that we don’t take the language aspect of a course and turn it into a meaningless assessment or evaluation. Terms and definitions worksheets should not be turned into a multiple choice question on an exam. Because while now I recognize the importance of being introduced to new words as they relate to new concepts, it is still the concept that is the most important. As a part of the public education system in Ontario, we want to help our students learn to speak English better, but that doesn’t, or shouldn’t translate into asking them to memorize a list of terms and definitions to spew back onto a test or fill out a multiple choice question as a demonstration of their learning.

I understand that there will be a time that someone has to answer a multiple choice question, whether it is to get your driver’s license, or on a college or university exam, but even still, I don’t think that multiple choice questions are a good demonstration of learning. I know that not all multiple choice questions are created equal and that some of them do require a certain level of thinking. I wrote a multiple choice exam in my second year stats course at uOttawa and it was one of the hardest exams I’ve ever taken. The prof asked 25 questions and I had to choose the right answer out of four possible choices, but I had to work through the words and the equations before answering the question. So with that being said, I want to make it clear that I still think that multiple choice tests/questions that require a student to simply memorize information is not a demonstration of their learning, or “what they know.”

One of the main reasons I don’t think multiple choice questions are good for high school students is because it perpetuates the idea that the teacher’s way of knowing is the most important, and most accurate way of knowing. While there may not be any bias in marking a multiple choice test/question, there remains an inherent bias in the creation of the multiple choice questions. The bias in creating a multiple choice question comes into play when the teacher gets to choose what the question is and what the answer is, and if the student doesn’t have the exact same answer as the teacher, they are penalized for that, in which case the student may have learned about the concept to which the question refers, but they haven’t remembered the teacher’s way of knowing the answer and thus get no credit for it.

But I digress. This is supposed to be about language acquisition as it relates to terms and definitions in science class.

I have heard on many occasions that to really learn something, a piece of information needs to move from the short term memory to the long term memory. And I believe that to be a good, while simplistic, way of describing the neurological process of learning. Which is why I understand the concept of repeatedly quizzing students on the same information. So that they are put in a situation where they need to be constantly reviewing material until it moves from short to long term memory. However, this method still perpetuates only one way of knowing. It still puts the student in a position where they have to memorize, and commit to memory their teacher’s way of knowing.

I understand that students might not love the fact that their teacher is giving them a list of terms to look up on the internet, because “how do we know if they are actually getting the right information?!” That’s where my job comes in. I want them to look it up on the internet and I hope that they find a definition that makes sense to them, or a number of definitions that they can put together to make it make sense to them. And I don’t mean to say that I give them the terms and forget about what they come up with. My job now becomes to make sure they are on the right track and that the definitions that they have come up with make sense, and then I, as the teacher, come up with something meaningful for them to do with the information I asked them to find. This to me, is where information gets moved from short to long term memory. The goal isn’t content acquisition, it is about concept acquisition. I want my students to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for nature when they leave my class, but it doesn’t matter that each student might have a slightly different version of their understanding.

All of this to say that I’m really sorry about what happened in my class yesterday, but I’m thankful for the experience because I’m a better teacher now. I believe that both the student and I have come away from this scenario in a good way, and we can get back to learning. And this experience demonstrates why I love project based learning so much, it allows for more entry points than you can shake a stick at and allows students to start from wherever they are. Some students know all about how toxic mercury is and how bad it is for humans, and others don’t even know what those words mean, but by the end of the course, we’ve all come a lot farther than from where we started!

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