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  • Writer's pictureDerek Stoppels

What if we didn't emphasize the content?

I'm glad we're having this conversation! I found the article below interesting regarding the success of Project Based Learning. While I admit to not having all the answers, and the research on PBL is not the most complete because it is 'relatively' new, I think it offers really interesting opportunities for our students to learn and demonstrate their learning. I would like to mention, however, that there is a lot anecdotal evidence that speaks to a different kind of assessment and evaluation as well. I've read books by Peter Gamwell, Hal Gregersen, Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, Sir Ken Robinson, Simon Sinek, John Ratey, Daniel Pink, Ross Greene and George Couros to name a few and they offer some really interesting and exciting ideas about what learning (and assessment) could look like! All of this to say that I have some anecdotal evidence of my own, from my own experience as a teacher as well. Here's a crazy idea: What if we didn't put so much emphasis on the 'content' of the course and focused more on teaching our students research skills such as determining what information is good information (fact vs crap, I call it digital fluency - a board term)? We still provide opportunities to meet the curriculum expectations, but we don't necessarily focus on them. What if we taught our students to collaborate, and make ethical decisions, think critically, or think globally and act locally? What if the emphasis wasn't on the grade that we have to put on a report card? I know we have to do it, but I've read articles, and discovered in my own practice, that as soon as there is a mark on the page, the students want to know what they got right, not what they got wrong, which I would argue is where the learning happens. What if we only gave them a grade on their report card at the end of the semester? What if the emphasis was on creation and not consumption? Last year I was reintroduced to Bloom's Taxonomy and it really spoke to me (I've attached some files). Challenging our students to achieve the upper levels of Bloom's Taxonomy (Create and Evaluate) is one of my goals as a teacher and then assessing that work against the curriculum documents/expectations, as well as our school board's exit outcomes, instead of asking them simply to "Remember" or "Understand". Again, I'm trying this out this year and it might not always be perfect, but it's fun for me to try new things and expand my pedagogical repertoire. I am also open to reading any research anyone has to offer. If I want to know how to change a light bulb in my truck, I'll go to YouTube, or learn to play a song on my saxophone or guitar, YouTube, if there is a weird looking bug in my house and I want to know if it's going to hurt me or my kids I use my phone to take a picture of it and then use Google Lens to tell me more about the insect. We needed to memorize our times tables because it's not like we'd be walking around with calculators in our pocket all the time! Now we have actual computers in our pockets...we literally have the whole world in our hands. Anxiety, stress and overwhelm rates are way up, and I would say it's because the current education system isn't working. If getting the students to 'learn' the content, then rote and factual memorization and direct instruction is one way to do it (but sometimes I wonder if getting the students to memorize all kinds of facts promotes cheating on tests because they either don't have the time, or the desire to commit all that information to memory only to forget about it as soon as the test is over). But I think if we take a look at the kids sitting in front of us day in and day out, and realize that we only teach high school science, and that the real world is already happening all around them day in and day out, we should be offering them opportunities to grow and develop skills that are going to help them outside of science class (as well as skills that are in the curriculum documents)...I almost hate to say it, but some things are more important. They've got three other classes a day that they have to worry about and probably do some memorizing for, and homework, and then they have to go home and deal with whatever they've got going on there. I'm not saying we throw the curriculum out the window, I understand we are bound legally to perform our duty, but, I think our students are lacking in several social and emotional areas such as being self-starters, and self-directed, knowing how to jump in to a problem and solve it, being able to see a problem as it applies to the big picture, they can't take criticism, they're afraid of failure, they are stifled by the fear of making a mistake. I may not have empirical data to prove those things, but if we take a look at the students in our classrooms, I spent a lot of time talking to professionals in other industries who hire the students that graduate from our system and they all back up my sentiments. One of my friends who works in the high tech industry says he doesn't know of a job that isn't project after project, after project. I was talking to a police officer who mentioned that the Police Foundations course won't help a person get a job as a police officer, they want to recruit people with varied life experiences. A teacher with five years experience is just as likely to get a job as someone who has taken the Police Foundations course. A colleague of mine hired someone recently not because she was the most qualified, but because she had the most and best skills to offer his team. In my own experience, and research, that is what employers are looking for these days. They understand that because everything can be found on the internet, people coming out of our school system need stronger soft skills. They need to be able to figure things out on their own. They need to be able to find their own resources and information, managers don't have the time to do this for their employees. They need to collaborate and think critically about what they are reading, learning and doing. So, I hate the terms, but if I'm "getting them ready for what comes next" and "getting them ready for the real world", then I am going to move away from the more traditional style in favor of a model that I think suits the needs of the modern student/teenager. I don't want the students in my class to be focused on memorizing anything, or be worried about the grade on the page. I want them to make mistakes and then I want them to learn from those mistakes without feeling like they're falling behind. I think the "one and done" tests we give our students have value, but only offer a one time glimpse at what our students can do in that time on that day and they don't give us a full (holistic, if you will) picture of what the student really knows, they might work really well for some students, but not for all of them. It is my mission to provide students with deep, and rich, learning opportunities as well as various ways and moments to demonstrate their learning. I will argue that someone can express themselves better speaking about a topic than they can writing about a topic and so I believe that the conversations we have with our students are just as valuable, if not more valuable than the tests that they write. Some anecdotal evidence of this is a guy I had in my 2D class last year, William Fish. He hated writing. Hated it. His tests would come back virtually empty and he failed most of them. In speaking with him and asking him to answer the questions orally, I got SO MUCH MORE information out him. I have more similar stories from that class last year as well. I knew the answers, he just couldn't, or didn't want to write them down. One might argue he was being lazy, but I'm not here to evaluate lazy. I want to get the best out of my students, and I know that we all do.

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