It never changes, does it?

I “start” reading too many books.  I don’t finish enough of them.  My last post focused on my early reading of The Digital Principal.  I am afraid, I have not read much more.  Too many other demands on my time, too many other things to do, especially at this time of year.  The too many things included a trip to Sault Ste. Marie for a principals’ meeting, (not that I minded, I love getting together with my colleagues, talking shop and hockey and other things…) at which I was given two new books to peruse, “A Fresh Look at Grading and Reporting in High Schools” and “Quality Assessment in High Schools, Accounts by Teachers”.  The former, edited by Anne Davies, Sandra Herbst and Katy Busick, with a foreward by Rick Stiggins, the latter written by Sandra Herbst and Anne Davies.  I am familiar with Anne Davies’ work and I am familiar with the name Sandra Herbst, but do not know much about her work.

In “Quality Assessment in High Schools”, the foreward paints a fairly critical canvass of assessment practices in schools, and their ultimate role in creating and perpetrating the hierarchy or our post-industrial world.  While I am not interested, right now, in this space, debating the merits of the arguments, there is no doubt there is a great deal of reality in what he says.  It reminded me of some of my own experiences as a student, many, many years ago.  Practices like handing tests back in reverse order of achievement.  Yes, that really inspired me to do better, didn’t it?

While I realize, or at least hope, that such practices have long been relegated to the proverbial dump heap of ineffective pedagogy, I still think a lot about assessment, grading and its ultimate purpose and consequences for so many students.  I have two children, both of who do very well in school.  Both are undoubtedly intelligent, hard working and have heard ad nauseum from their entire families, how important education is.  So, they figured out early, that colouring inside the lines gets you an A…However, I have seen many a student who either cannot, or more likely will not colour in the lines, but is still a pretty smart kid.  However, more often than not, we know where that kid goes, and it usually is not to the front of the “line up for your academic award queue”.

Wow, 402 words already.  I just cannot make these things succinct, can I?  I suppose writing at 10:47 on a Monday night does not help either, but as my francophone friends say, “c’est la vie”!  So, to get to the point, here is what I was thinking.  I was thinking about how I felt in school over the years, or even in my professional life, if I felt dumb, or incapable, or not trained or skilled well enough to succeed.  If it was in school, I found a way to avoid.  Once math classes were done, no more math for David……no body in those days told me about Growth Mindset, they just advised me to stay out of math.  In my job, I do not sign up for committees that contain stuff I find hard….avoid yet again, much easier to be involved in something I can do better in, and not have to work as hard in, right?  And more importantly, not have to appear dumb to anyone.

That is how many of our kids feel, in many different situations.  Kids who cannot read well feel that way in English class, kids who are not yet as skilled as their friends feel that way in math and science.  So, we let our kids stream themselves, and some of them become teachers.  Teacher of English, if they were not great at math, teachers of math, if they were not great at English.  Yes, this is simplified.  As well,  I must say, I have come across in the years many teachers of math who are excellent and insightful writers, artists, musicians and athletes, as well as the reverse.  I think they have stumbled upon Growth Mindset, but that is for another day.  There are teachers, who excelled in the arts, or English, or other social sciences, who steered completely away from math and science. As a result, they are working in an environment where they are comfortable.  They feel quite fine with their subject matter and at times, this comfort and command of their subject and its requisite skills, causes them to lose sight of those who are not so comfortable, in particular, students.  Have they then lost their empathy and understanding of the struggles some students are going through?  (This also happens in reverse, with math and science teachers).  Do their grading and assessment practices encourage students to experiment, to fail, to learn over time, or do they drive them into doing the bare minimum and running away, just as the teacher themselves may have done from their own “anti-subject” matter?

So, I wonder, what if we could somehow change that?  What if an English or History or Geography, or Sociology teacher had to be forced into learning and being tested in mathematics or physics or organic chemistry?  What if a math teacher, who excels at creating confusing multiple-choice math questions, instead had to face the embarrassment of a piece of writing that was not well received by its grader?

Now, before I finish, I must state some personal philosophy.  I abhor the thoughts above.  I do not believe for a minute that any of that sort of motivation works.  It is clearly punitive and mean spirited.  I hated it as a student.  I went to school in the days when “teach the best, forget the rest” was a common theme.  While not one of the “best” I could hold my own in certain areas and scrape by in others.  I was so unmotivated by ranking and comparing to others.  I was so unmotivated by shame and embarrassment.  However, I still see vestiges of this behaviour, or perhaps more like vestiges of these theories.  So, I just wonder, if we could at times have teachers see how some kids feel, and how it affects their willingness to take risks, learn and progress, then maybe we would find more students succeeding.

Now, in closing, it is no longer 10:47.  It is now 11:32 and I do not go to be late on weekdays, but today I am.  I will copy and paste tomorrow, but I am not editing and am not rereading….just going to copy and paste and post…..I know my thoughts are not as succinct and coherent as they could be, but somehow, that fits with what I am saying, or at least I think it does.  Hope you enjoyed!  If I am not back on my little cyber soapbox before December 19th, I wish all my educational friends out there a great break.  I do not know about you, but personally I need it and am looking forward to it!  Have a great holiday season!  Perhaps I will actually finish some books over the holidays and write a more cohesive and complete reflection, but if I can write over 1000 words after reading a few pages of a foreword, I shudder to think of the verbosity that will come from reading an entire book.

David

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