Saturday, 27 November 2010

Subject-centered not Student-centered?

A few years back, I was attending a workshop on incorporating creativity into teaching and I passed by a display of books recommended by the workshop leader. I was drawn to one title in particular: The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life by Parker J. Palmer. It made me wonder what 'courage' meant in the context of teaching. I paged through it and decided to buy it on the spot. To this day, I still ponder what this fully means, but in at least one area that Palmer discusses, I believe I have tested my courage to teach. One chapter was devoted to being a 'subject-centered' teacher. This I grabbed onto immediately, because I had just begun teaching ToK and realized that 'subject-centered' is how I wanted to be approaching this vast knowledge area. Simply put, in 'subject-centered' teaching, you put the subject in the center and everyone is involved in the learning process. Everyone interacts with everyone else and this continuous interaction, no matter the 'knower,' is what leads everyone to better comprehend the subject. Anything can go into the center—it could be a concept, or it could be a unit aim—but regardless, everyone gains from what others discover/ uncover. It's a dynamic process and inevitably leads to a deeper understanding of whatever is undertaken. The courage to teach then seems to involve the teacher's willingness to be a co-learner rather than the possessor of knowledge who imparts what s/he knows onto the learner. I suppose courage comes in when control of the learning process is out of the teacher's hands—the courage to let it go and see where it ends up. Doesn't this sound like where we need to be going with student learning in today's technology-rich classroom?

Now 'subject-centered' contrasts both 'teacher-centered' and 'student-centered' learning. I was reminded that the ideal tech-driven classrooms today needs to be 'student-centered,' when I watched: Edutopia, about a model school in Key Largo, Florida. Principal Ammette Martimson celebrated the student-centeredness of all their programs and validated this by their high achievement. Whether there's a cause-effect relationship operating is always the debatable question found in claims tied to education. But at least it's suggested that there's a strong correlation to be found between student-centeredness and student achievement. This is where Palmer and I would disagree with Principal Martimson. Take a look at the chart above from Palmer's book that I embellished a bit to fit my ToK class. This co-learning framework is where I think we need to be going with Web 2.0 systems in place in our classrooms, rather than needs-based 'student-centered.' But before I go further, I do need to research what educators means by 'student-centered.' Geraldine O'Neill and Tim McMahon in "Student-Centered Learning: What Does It Mean...?" claim that people have different interpretations of student-centered, one being that it contrasts 'teacher-centered/ content-oriented' with 'student-centered/ learning oriented.' So, maybe this argument does boil down to one of semantics rather than involving a basic conceptual difference. Appealing to language limitations, however, sounds like a way to avoid looking a the fundamental difference. In any regard, it still bothers me to think that what drives the lesson are the needs of the students rather than the subject to be learned.

Principal Martimson further believes in teaching to student learning styles, i.e., more student-centeredness. "Brain research says... 'tailor to learning styles.'" But let's be realistic. Can anyone ever really teach to each individual's learning style, one, and two there's research that contradicts the value of learning styles. 'Do learning styles exists' by Hugh Lafferty and Keith Burley questions the very existence of learning styles:

We will see that Learning Styles do not exist because

· The forecast is wrong.

· That is not how the brain works.

We will see that Learning Styles are a 'bad' idea, because

· Matching the teaching to the learning does not work

· Learning styles are not measurable

· Changing teaching styles is not 'doable'

· Knowing your learning style does not make you a better learner.


· Knowing a student's learni. ng style does make the teachers better.

I do think many of us have made the leap away from 'teacher-centered' and rallied to the 'student-centered' approach in recent years, but could moving from 'student' to 'subject' be one of those paradigm shifts on the horizon as we Web 2.0-rich environments dominate our classrooms?

To apply these understandings, I'll speak to my experiences working in 'subject' vs.' 'student-centered' contexts. I find the courage to engage in subject-centeredness when I walk into a ToK class, but somehow I still revert to 'student-centered' when working with EAL students. (Am I losing courage here?) Do special needs determine a more 'student-centered' approach? What goes into the center when walking into an EAL lesson? I've tried putting 'theme' in the middle, and have had some success with all of us interacting with the theme, but the real 'centeredness' doesn't seem to work until I add the Web 2.0 ingredient. Last semester I watched the students in my English Language Workshop (ELW) class come to understand 'teen depression' through a three-week networking project on the novel Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. I definitely felt as though I was learning about teen depression by interacting with subject with the students, yet at the same time, I had to hand-hold the less-proficient learners in order for them to make gains in language and thus with the understandings of the content. Was I being 'student-centered'? 'Teacher-centered'? Uncentered? It seems the subtle yet powerful distinction between 'subject' and 'student' goes back to the role of teacher—the student-centered has the teacher as the facilitator, and thus as an 'outsider,' whereas with the subject placed in the center, the teacher becomes part of the unfolding of knowledge. With this underlying assumption established, I'd have to return to my original argument—this is where Web 2.0 dominated classrooms must head.

Referring again to the constructivist approach in my previous blog, it seems that 'subject-centered' (or one definition of 'student-centered') is more in line with this approach. So, it's complex once again. When Palmer wrote The Courage to Teach, Web 2.0 wasn't yet a concept. Could it be that wherever we head with the revolutionary classrooms today and in the future, that the teacher as a knower, instead of a facilitator in the subject-centered approach will allow all of us to better learners? There's much to consider: the courage and teaching style of the teacher, the needs of the learner, the subject at hand and the type and amount of technology available and incorporated into the learning. Maybe the student, the teacher and the subject all get time in the center, depending... and we have to find the courage to determine when, and all discover the illusive secret that knows to which Robert Frost alludes.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Grading for Learning & ISB21 Standards

About 4 years ago, I attended a workshop by Ken O'Connor held at Rumrudee International School. I have to admit that I'm pretty jaded when it comes to attending educational workshops after so many years of teaching—but I do look for new ideas and celebrate when I come across them. This particular workshop, however, I found to be revolutionary. It's the first time I found myself really questioning the deepest values held as educators—what is the learning that we are really grading? I couldn't believe I was asking myself this question! I couldn't believe I was really wondering if I was grading what kids were learning! Now, four years later, I'm more comfortable with these questions, although I find myself continuously asking them whenever I set up a lesson. I'm asking if the content I want the students to learn matches the standard(s) that's been defined. Of course, the assumption is that the standards have been defined. The scary part is that when I went into the descriptions of the curricula I work with, I found a variety of detailed categories and descriptors, aims and objectives and outcomes and illustrative examples, but no explicit performance standards.

So, essentially, I made up my own! It's not as bad as it sounds. I am an educated educator and have written enough curricula in my educational life, so felt (feel) competent in doing creating the performance standards I was essentially expecting my students to do. But, I should not be working in a vacuum. I should have a team of colleagues working with me on this. But given the constraints of varied philosophies, time, problems with the curriculum platform at ISB (i.e., Rubicon) and abandonment of it, I was forced to forge ahead on my own. In one course, I came up with two performance standards and set up formative and summative assessments to match within short order. I eliminated all the extraneous assignments from my gradebook. I accounted for what Ken O'Connor calls the 'halo effect,' i.e. grading the student based on his good (or bad) behaviors and not on his/ her demonstration of the standards, which today at ISB is known as the HAL grade. Now, connect to NETS-S and ISB's: ISB21 Technology and Information Literacy Standards. In looking these over, I'm back to the same considerations and questions I started with coming out of the O'Connor workshop. Here's a sample of the language of what students should be able to do by the end of grade 12:
Identifies independently the inquiry focus, data and information requirements and a range of information sources based on appropriateness to the task and reliability (e.g. recognizes the value of print materials, subject experts and online communities and coaches to complement searched information).
What I ask myself in regard to this language and in regard to how to grade for learning are three things: 1) where does the 'benchmark' end and the 'standard' begin; and 2) am I grading to the benchmark, or to the standard, and once that's determined, 3) how would I assess it in terms of a summative assessment so that I can grade it and determine student learning? I'm then led to another set questions: is this standard tacked onto the rest in my curriculum? Are the other 6 benchmarks/ standards also tacked on, or are these to be divided up among the other departments/ grades to be 'shared'? And if this is the case, who gets what standard?In ISB's past, similar benchmarks/ standards have been defined and attempts were made to embed them into existing core curricula: social studies, English, the sciences, mathematics. The IT coordinators of the time made decisions as to where which standard would best fit. For example, I was teaching English 10 at the time and I was responsible for teaching and assessing certain word-processing skills, specifically within something like a Works Cited page in the Gr 10 Research Paper. We were also tasked with searching for credible sources on the Internet, given that the paper called for researched information. I also supported EAL students in Modern World History at the time. We worked with the following chart to discern what technology skill fit with which outcome. This provided input to the coordinators to figure out a type of scope & sequence across the divisions:

You can see that resources were combined with technology, which demoted the value of 'technology'—so technology was sort of like an add-on. In some ways, at the time, this made sense, given the technology available to us. I know there exists a 'final product' developed by the IT coordinators at the time, but ironically, it's not electronic. I'm sure it's stored in a binder on a shelf somewhere--maybe even on mine, if I were to search for it. For awhile, we were sort of 'held accountable' for assessing/ grading the standards that were identified, but over time and with change in admin and changes to curriculum, etc., 'things fall apart.'

I have to say, fundamentally, it makes sense to do a curriculum analysis to see where the new benchmarks/ standards best fit across divisions and across curricula. And, some sort of 'built-in' place for change. Change not only of the benchmarks/ standards, but change as to where they should be learned/ assessed. These questions on assessment come from ISTE's site: 'Lesson Plan for Implementing NETS-S Template':

Assessment (What will students do or produce to illustrate their learning? What can students do to generate new knowledge? How will you assess how students are progressing (formative assessment)? How will you assess what they produce or do? Who will be the audience for a digital product or presentation? How will you differentiate products/outcomes?)

Maybe these can help, but this is all quite messy, which is ultimately good, if chaos does lead to order. However, returning to the original argument—given our current state here at ISB—our need to establish academic-based benchmarks/ standards so as to be grading for learning, are we putting the cart before the horse, to be expecting a grading (if we are expecting a grading) of the new benchmarks/ standards before we really know as a school what learning we're grading? Maybe the cart needs to come before the horse, and Web 2.0 skills can show us how it's all done!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Reverse instruction

I'm certainly certainly one to acknowledge the trends in education—the ones that we're challenged to try out to see if they advance student learning and understanding. So, Michael B. Horn, who apparently coined the term, 'reverse instruction' at the recent NAIS Annual Conference seems to have stirred up educators et al. who keep seeking the ideal approach to teaching and delivering instruction. Just giving reverse instruction a brief read reminded me of the principles set forth by Madeline Hunter over 20 years ago and whose lesson planning strategies I quickly found with a google search. First are establishing the objectives and standards, followed by the lesson itself: the 'Anticipatory Set' (AS) where the teacher 'hooks' the learner with an interesting start to the lesson, and then...
Teaching: Input
The teacher provides the information needed for students to gain the knowledge or skill through lecture, film, tape, video, pictures, etc.

Teaching: Modeling
Once the material has been presented, the teacher uses it to show students examples of what is expected as an end product of their work. The critical aspects are explained through labeling, categorizing, comparing, etc. Students are taken to the application level (problem-solving, comparison, summarizing, etc.).

These and the rest of the model: checking for understanding, guided and independent practice and 'closure' were drilled into teachers' heads back in the 80s/90s. These were the 10 commandments of good teaching.

Now this bedrock is about to be challenged. It appears that we can simply bypass the AS and 'input' altogether with reverse instruction. It's hard to say whether 'modeling' is also to be abandoned, since the 'problem-solving' might also precede the actual lesson. Or, maybe this where the lesson actually begins? Scary stuff.

There are many assumptions at play with 'reverse instruction': 1) that the content and understanding it can be found somewhere online; 2) that the teacher has set up such instruction online; and 3) an underlying assumption that the content of a given lesson exists online and can be accessed by students prior to the actual lesson. Is this approach in line with the constructivist approach?

Effective teaching connects isolated ideas and information with global concepts and themes.... Students need time to process 'how' as well as 'what' they've learned.... Experiential learning is most effective.... Teaching must be multifaceted to allow students to express preferences... Teaching that heavily emphasizes rote learning does not promote spatial, experienced learning and can inhibit understanding.
Not that everyone's bought into the constructivist approach, and certainly in the high school at ISB, some are not even following the standard Madeline Hunter model for that matter. But it is interesting to consider just where reverse instruction fits in. It does seem as though we are at a crossroads in education, given Web 2.0 access. We can no longer sit comfortably drilling facts into students and assessing them on their memories of these facts believing that this is learning. When students nowadays can access facts within seconds, how can we realistically believe that spending time with our students discussing that which can be researched within seconds is what we should be doing? Is this at the expense lost learning? But where to facts end and the rest of the content begin?

I like the revolutionary thinking that reverse instruction seems to suggest, but like all claims, we need to consider counter arguments before jumping onto the bandwagon. So, is this a complete reversal or a judicious one? The other day after our last COETAIL session, I was sitting at my desk watching my ToK students work in groups wondering if I should've had them 'research' the text and do the 'online' activity at home instead of using class time to do the research. But within minutes of suggesting the students divide up the reading with their partners, and after they had a quick look at the link I provided on a philosopher's game involving the arts, I was convinced that I had done the right thing. There was a buzz in the room as students collaborated on what was art, and on which criteria could best be used to determine what art was. Although I could've set up some sort of forum or chat ahead on Panthernet and then spent the lesson discussing the content researched instead, this live F2F interaction at the initial stage of researching the content was what was so precious and vibrant. So, this was not reverse instruction—nor was it the standard Madeline Hunter lesson either. Yes, I did do an AS to start the lesson, and yes I did spend 5 mins. or so with 'input' but I bypassed modeling, checking for understanding and guided practice and went right to independent practice. At least it was experiential learning, so a constructivist would be satisfied. But, was it a good lesson? I have a sense that it was. (I certainly know when I bomb a lesson!) The only way to tell is to find out from the students if they moved away from 'what' and were able to get at the 'how' from that lesson.

It does seems that we all need to do a serious reassessment of where we stand with teaching, because if we don't, we may have 'reverse learning' instead of reverse instruction!