Baby and the Bath Water

Okay, so I just had a short Twitter conversation with a colleague in the western portion of Superior Greenstone.  It was prompted by my retweet of Marc Prensky, on the idea of letting kids arrive at expectations in their own way.  With apologies to Marc if I should not be quoting him in this forum, his tweet read:  “Outdated: Having students all do the same thing at once. Better: assigning goals & letting each kid reach them in their own way.”  Marc Prensky, Twitter, April 18th, 7:30 AM.  @marcprensky.  (No idea how I should be citing this…when I graduated from Western in 1991, Jack Dorsey and his gang were in high school, likely unaware of their impending role in the development of social media sites…).

The resulting conversation, while short and to the point as only Twitter talks can be, was interesting, because while I wholeheartedly agree with Marc, Jenni also made an important point that I often think about too.  That point, I think, can be part of a “baby and bathwater” conversation.  Jenni correctly pointed out, that depending on the subject, the type of assignment, the goals of the project, the assessment, and many other variables, that theory may not sit as well.  Her example was related to an accounting course.  Accounting being a relatively exact science (to the best of my knowledge, but please keep in mind, in my house, I “don’t balance the books”…..and we will leave it at that) I agree with Jenni.  There are surely very specific skills that have to be learned in very specific manners.  I cited a similar thought in a tech course and tweeted, with typos and all, that really there is only one way to cut a large piece of lumber in a shop and that is on a table saw. Now, I could not examine this further in Twitter, but I do realize that this statement is not completely true.  If one wanted to rip a large piece of plywood, (if that was the task assigned, and the kids could choose their method), there are multiple ways.  A student could grab a hand saw and do it by hand, use a skill saw, or a jig saw, and complete the task.  However, assuming all those tools are there, the table saw makes the most sense.  It is the most efficient method, and in my limited experience, by far the method that will most likely result in the best product at the end.  One could argue for using a flush bit on a router on a router table and the outcome could well be similar, however, the table saw is designed to do many things, and in particular is an excellent tool for ripping and cross cutting large pieces of wood, as well as making more exact and fine cuts.  So, in a tech class, it would not make a lot of sense to suggest to a group of students that they each rip a piece of plywood into a very specific dimension, but to choose how to do it.  (unless it was a discovery activity, but I do not think the “discovery method” is probably the safest in a shop….)  While it might be interesting and fun, if the goal is to do it as well as possible, as efficiently as possible and theoretically to do something further with it, then the table saw is the real deal….Plus, one must practice using the table saw to get good at it too…

Now, woodworking is just my hobby, not my teaching area, so I will examine something for a moment before finally getting to my point.  As a former history teacher, and lover of history, I can see how it would work in my class if I was in one.  I would ask myself:  “what is the goal I am trying to get at here”.  Let’s say we were looking at a topic like Canadian Confederation, or the Russian Revolution.  Let’s pretend we had gone through the information and the students should have an understanding of the “factors that influenced Canadian Confederation” or the “events that led to the Russian Revolution”, and my goal is now to have them demonstrate their understanding.  This is really a simple task, low on the taxonomy and hardly more than recall.  However, as a history teacher, I need to know that kids understand the basics of these topics and can explain them.  So, I could tell them they have some choices as to how they do it.  Essay for the writers….oral presentation for the speakers, visual presentation for the visual ones.  So long as I had made it clear to them what I want them to be able to communicate, then it does not really matter to me.  Now, keeping that in mind, I am being very simplistic in my goal here.  The goal is recall of facts, and some explanation.  However, if my goal is to see how well they can put these thoughts into writing, and I am evaluating the writing as part of the activity, then creating a diorama is not going to cut it, and neither would creating a “Confederation Song” song for the musicians in my class.  It would be the same if I wanted them to create a multi-media presentation (assuming I taught them how to do it and gave clear expectations about what I wanted in the product….you know, a learning goal, success criteria, descriptive feedback along the way…) I would be evaluating not only their information, but also the delivery of it, the medium they have chosen.  In that case, again, choosing the medium would not work.  However, would it not make more sense, that if I wanted to evaluate their ability to create something in a given form (essay, oral presentation, media presentation, etc), that the topic is no longer that relevant?  If it is a history class, give them some leeway within the realm of the class and course, but go to town on whatever you want to do, but show me you can make a really kick-ass presentation, or write a ridiculously fantastic essay about a topic that excites you!

So, in getting to the point after a long and drawn out build up, what I believe is that as teachers we all have to make the commitment to always be thinking about the products we are asking our students to produce.  If in our expert opinion, all students need to create a certain type of product, and we can justify it and explain it and the reasons are clear, then this is not a problem.  Perhaps if in the entire semester there are no choices or options, then maybe we have to think further.  As well, courses that have a 4 and U in them, are often courses that directly prepare our kids for universities.  The last time I checked, introductory English courses at university do not suggest to first year students that they can “make a diorama to exhibit their understanding of Macbeth” instead of an essay, so in these cases, it is our responsibility to ensure that kids are prepared and do these things.  Likewise, first year chemistry requires lab reports in a typical paper form, not an iPhone video with music to explain the reactions of magnesium and water, so we cannot forget these things either.  However in these two isolated cases, the reasons for the same thing done by everyone easily defensible and even more importantly, part of our moral duty to teach and evaluate.

As well, some subjects as mentioned above, especially in introductory courses, may lend themselves to the rigidity of very similar assignments.  It is all about professional judgement and openness of teachers to always consider varying the products we ask for, when it suits the situation.  All classes are different, subject areas lend themselves in different manners to these theories, but so long as teachers are willing to open their thoughts and apply it as best as they can, then that is what makes a professional.  Furthermore, reflecting on our experiences is also important.  We may have decided a certain approach works, and then fails miserably.  We have to think about how and why and make changes.  In a similar manner, just because a group of kids hit it out of the park in one activity, by choosing their products and methods of learning, does not mean that it will work in the next activity/lesson/topic.  There is so little of this job that can be put down to a template, so it all about thinking about what we are doing…and collaborating… to one another….seek out the optimistic one on the staff and talk about it and also seek out the “less than optimistic one” on staff because those ideas hold value too and may help you to frame your own attempts and thoughts.

I think if we empower teachers to make these decisions based on their professionalism, so long as there is a willingness to always be open and to work differently when appropriate, then those who are in a subject area, or grade, or even a certain class who require more of the “everyone does the same thing” will be okay and will not feel as though they are somehow not living up to the new standards.  It really is all about thinking about what we are doing, being able to justify it and keeping it as varied as possible, to suit our students’ needs, when appropriate.  

Well at least that is what I believe.  Alas, my less than interesting and engaging duties are once again calling me away!  I wish there was another way to get laundry done, get bathrooms clean and floors washed, other than the traditional ways, but despite my attempts to find such alternative ways, the final products, as evaluated by someone in my house, never live up to the standards that were clearly laid out in front of me prior to attempting the task… I must rely on the old ways and actually do what has to be done!


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