If you’re reading this post, chances are you keep up with the trends in education. You are aware that a grassroots movement is underway to turn education up side down right side up. Impromptu discussions, professional development sessions, twitter posts, TED talks and blogs (much like this one) have all been drawing teachers together with a focus on 21st century learners. What do these learners need? What can we provide for them? How does education need to be changed, reformed, or revolutionized?
These questions almost inevitably lead to (or include) discussions of assessment. There is disdain for standardized exams, and desire for individualized assessments. Many discussions have gone to extremes, suggesting that facts are not important; that assessments should only be authentic, individualized, and assess higher order thinking. Even the history of my own twitter posts may be interpreted to mean this. Don’t buy into this thinking too fast. Consider a world where knowing facts is not important. Seems scary to me.
Sure, our education system needs to culminate to more than just facts and figures. It’s not enough for our Chemistry students to be able to name the chemical with the formula H2SO4(aq), or for History students to know the significance of the year 1767. But knowing these facts is valuable. In the lab, not knowing that H2SO4 is a strong acid can lead to serious injury. Knowing the events leading up to July 4 1767 (or July 1 1867 if you’re from Canada such as myself) gives us perspective, an appreciation for our great countries.
My point is that acquiring a large number of facts is valuable even if it isn’t the only reason to send our kids to school. Sure, students need to synthesize and evaluate; but synthesis becomes really hard when you don’t have any pieces to assemble. Facts are the individual parts that students use to compose, to synthesize. So, how do we respect students needs of higher level thinking and 21st century skills, yet honour the necessity of possessing a diverse wealth information? Maybe the solution is a dual track assessment system.
Track 1: We need to accept that facts are important, and that an efficient way of assessing a massive amounts of information is through multiple choice and short response exams (quizzes, tests, assignments, call them what you will). This first track of assessment would happen periodically throughout a semester to assess how much raw knowledge students have gained. We essentially have this infrastructure in place, though we may need to cut back. There is also a need to have professional development on item writing. From what I can tell many exams, including ‘standardized exams’ have some poorly assembled questions.
Track 2: This is the track that doesn’t yet exist in most cases. It should be more of a continuous assessment that happens along side the daily grind of learning vs the periodic assessments as described in track 1. Assessments here should be authentic and meaningful, based off of student performance of various skill sets (including 21st century skills) as well as high levels of thinking. Tasks should be highly engaging, and allow for student judgement and creativity. The focus will not be on facts, but more on enduring understandings. Here, students won’t be required to have memorized the 4 main greenhouse gases, but they may be required to take on an authentic role in the study and solution searching of global warming.
Ok, so obviously I haven’t worked out all of the details. Maybe I am completely off beat here, I’m not certain. I am certain that the world (including myself) isn’t ready to give up teaching facts and, simultaneously, students need to focus on so much more.
What are your views on the need for facts in our schools and our assessments? Should we be tossing out all assessments of facts, and focused purely on performance assessments? Maybe you think we should go the other extreme as we’ve had through most of the 20th century? Please, share your ideas and opinions below, I’d love to chat!
While watching Sir Ken Robinson’s latest Ted Talk I began reflecting upon my own teaching practice. When I was a newer classroom teacher I spent serious time and effort developing and implementing performance tasks. I enjoyed developing activities for students and was proud of my achievements. After all, it’s never easy to use “projects” in Senior High Mathematics and Physics, while maintaining Academic Rigor (something I felt confident I was doing). The activities I developed did a few things
- Tasks had clear directives yet didn’t hand hold students forcing them to choose their own pathway to solutions.
- exemplars were provided, good and bad.
- Rubrics were clearly matched to the directives and written in language my students could understand
- Projects were efficiently implemented, giving me enough time to give lectures, notes and exams in preparation of provincial testing.
As mentioned I was very proud, especially after being invited to share my experiences at provincial conferences. But then (at about 12:50 in the video linked above) Sir Ken Robinson said
It’s about Passion, and what excites our spirit and our energy. If you’re doing the thing that you love to do, that you’re good at, time takes a different course entirely.
Now, as I look towards the future, I realize that my performance tasks were missing the point. I hoped that by providing students time to do these fancy ‘projects’ for their academic courses they would get excited (it never worked that well in the end, students still were concerned with marks and not learning).
But Ken makes it clear. We need to adapt tasks and curriculum to our students, and build opportunities to reach their passion. A performance task isn’t what we need to be providing our students. Making an “advertisement’ about environmental issues (for example) isn’t going to excite science students. What we really need to develop for our students are authentic performance tasks in the truest sense.
Unfortunately my curriculum is provincially mandated, so I can not change it. But the conditions and environment provided for my students; those are created by me. I have complete control over the learning experiences of my students. I need to provide opportunities for students to do meaningful, real life tasks. I need to create the conditions that will foster student growth, and let them flourish. Authentic performance tasks, in my future, will mean open-ended opportunities for students to embed their own passions into their experiences, cultivating their learning and keeping them engaged and interested.
Thank you, Sir Ken Robinson, for helping me stay off ‘track’, and giving us all support to provide an organic education.
Everyday, everywhere, our children spread their dreams beneath our feet. And we should tread softly. Sir Ken Robinson
Many of the professional development sessions I have attended in the past year have been in the United States or have been delivered by a teacher from the US. I find it interesting that so often keynote speakers discuss criteria for developing curriculum. Coming from Alberta, this is foreign to me. As a science teacher (General Science and Physics) in Alberta I believe I am provided (and mandated) an awesome curriculum (I’ll provide the grade 10 Science curriculum as an example). Sure, it is not without fault, but the structure and layout is excellent. It is written in a way that encourages a shift towards a 21st century classroom.
The curriculum is divided into four foundations.
1) Science, Technology and Society; and understanding the interactions and developments of each. These emphasis give teachers the framework and focus for each unit of study. This makes it easier for teachers to understand the bigger picture, or the point of learning the facts. This brings us to the second foundation
2) Knowledge, which includes the key concepts and actual content that students must learn. These outcomes are well written and logical. For example, students learn about careers in chemistry. This is very straightforward and fact based, so the outcome is written as, identify examples of chemistry-based careers in the community. The word identify tells teachers that students simply need to know the facts. Another outcome in the curriculum states, describe how advancements in cell theory have been enhanced as a direct result of developments in microscope technology. From the way this is written I know that students need to understand an interaction between technology and theory. I know that the point isn’t for students to list 15 different historical microscopes and a dozen different individual discoveries. The point is to synthesize all of those facts into a much more advanced understanding.
3) Skills, which is broad and varies from collaboration and communication to laboratory and mathematics skills. This is pretty awesome. Right within the curriculum you can find (or interpret) an entire set 21st century skills. Students need to collaborate, communicate effectively, build models, display information visually, analyze and interpret. All of a sudden all of those 21st century literacy activities fall perfectly in place in the science classroom.
4) Attitude. It is interesting how these outcomes are written. They are the only outcomes in the curriculum that are written as teacher actions instead of student actions. The curriculum recognizes that it is near impossible to expect students to change their attitudes towards science, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the job of the teacher to at least try to develop positive scientific attitudes within students. To me, this is where the curriculum makes room for digital and global citizenship lessons. It clearly states that students will be encouraged to demonstrate sensitivity to societal and environmental needs, have mutual respect for people from different cultures, and even take part in collaborative activities.
As you can see, the Alberta Science Curriculum really does allow for all sorts of activities surrounding 21st century skills and attitudes. It also demands that students become aware of the bigger picture of their learning, and focus less on the facts and figures that are memorized along the way. If you are a part of a team developing curriculum for students and teachers, please, take a look at this fine example.
If you happen to be just another teacher, like myself, wondering how to fit all of these new 21st century skills into your existing curriculum, take another look. I’m sure somewhere in your existing program of studies there is room to shift the focus from facts and figures to valuable skills, attitudes, and deeper understandings. Just read a little closer.
Literacy Gurus such as Bernajean and Angela advocate that students should be telling new stories instead of writing the same old reports. I’ll consider a unit of study on Nazi German, and a report that may follow numerous learning experiences. Anybody with a library card or internet access can find a vast array of existing information, so why would students care to regurgitate what is already there? Instead of creating a report, students could be telling survivor stories of the Holocaust. The same factual information can be presented in both formats, but with the new story readers gain perspective. The history becomes more meaningful.
A few weeks ago I was working with some teachers to develop student learning activities using Glogster. I was anticipating questions the teachers may have so went searching for some sample glogs, and came across two that make a powerful point. The first poster I found was a very simple report on eating disorders. Click through to it and you will see that the report uses proper written English and necessary vocabulary to share the information with the audience. The background is simple (and I thought rather happy), and no images are provided.
The second poster covers the same topic, but is drastically different. It uses powerful images and a first person narrative to tell the story of a girl who suffers from an eating disorder. From the images one can interpret the pain felt, the thought process, the obsessive daily rituals and skewed self image. From the text you can understand the types of interactions and relationships that may play a role in the development of such a disorder. Its not the perfect example of a flawless assignment but the contrast between the two posters is important
The first poster is well written with accurate facts, but its existence seems pointless. I can find the same information, and probably with detailed references, in many other places online. The only purpose to make this poster is so the teacher can read it and mark it. A much more authentic assignment for students is to create a poster, a form of communication, that someone else will actually want to read and will take the time to read. The second poster offers such an experience. I shared these two posters with teachers before they began development of their own student activities.
(prepare yourself for a cheesy movie quote here)
I am reminded of a line from the movie Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams’ character says to his patient “I can’t learn anything from you I can’t learn from a book unless you want to talk about you”. Don’t get me wrong, students need to learn to write reports. Many people write reports as a part of our work. But none of us prepare reports for clients or superiors based off of well known and easily accessible facts. We report on something relatively unknown or unique.
If you are going to have students post on any social media site such as glogster, consider this idea of new story vs old report. After all, Glogsters slogan is Poster Yourself, not poster something you found on wikipedia.
Please comment below, and share the types of 21st century literacy activities your students are doing in their class. I’d love to hear how you are using glogster, or any other social media site.