Saturday, March 12, 2016

Learning for Learning's Sake

This blog post is part of a 10-day blogging initiative started by @tina_zita back in January. I saw some amazing blog posts from many colleagues during the initial challenge, but wasn't able to contribute, myself... until now! This is blog post number 2/10.

Learning for learning's sake has often come up as a topic of conversation in education circles. Students should be learning because they want to learn, we say. Grades shouldn't drive students - the desire to improve and become really awesome at something should be what provides the drive.

Think of all the students who become awesome at Minecraft, or playing an instrument, or playing a sport, or building things. They love what they do and want to become better. They find the time and the intrinsic motivation to become experts, and apply what they've learned. Wouldn't it be great if school was like this, too?

But it's not. It's far from it.

One reason is because we are sticking to a set curriculum - we have an expectation of what students should know by the time they graduate high school, so that's what we teach. And not every topic appeals to every student. It's also because we are used to teaching in a system where the basics are practiced until a certain level of mastery is achieved (say, 50%), and then students are permitted to move forward. How they achieve that mastery, is usually through accomplishing what the teacher has set out for them to do.

Playing the Game

This is a game that some of my grade 9 students have learned to play quite well: complete what is required of me, using as little effort as possible, so I can make the grade and move on. Because in school, grades are all that matter, right?

Just in the past two weeks I've gotten into arguments with students who claim that "taking a note" means they can take pictures of textbook pages/slideshow slides, paste them all together, and then hand it in. When I ask them to summarize what they've learned, they reply "Well, I didn't exactly read it..."

I've caught students who blatantly copy an assignment off of others, just so they can hand it in and have their progress through the requirements of the course acknowledged. 

Last year, some of my students found an online assignment from which I based an activity, copied down the provided answers (that didn't actually match mine, since I had modified it), and handed it in, with no guilt or remorse when questioned about it. It's so mindless that it breaks my heart. These students aren't even attempting to learn.

Let's Bring Learning Back

How can we reverse this? How can we take the emphasis off of grades and place them on the learning instead? Here are some things I'm trying:

More observation & conversation. When the Ministry of Education placed more emphasis on this in Growing Success, I wasn't a fan of it. I liked my assessment to be "concrete" - a distinct mark out of 20. But in a flipped setting, the more I circulate the classroom and interact with students, the more I see that this is the best way to judge whether or not they are learning, and what they understand. I ask casual questions about what they're doing in the lab, or get them to explain or extrapolate based on the activity they're performing. I check in with everyone, see what they are thinking (or what they are questioning), and assess from there.

Pop "quizzes." Not pencil-and-paper quizzes, and definitely not formal. I'll go around to groups of students and ask them to perform little tasks: draw a schematic diagram of a circuit on a portable whiteboard; describe what they are seeing in a little demo I do for them; use manipulatives to demonstrate their understanding (from a collection of objects in front of them, point to the conductors, or the insulators). They can collaborate to form their answers, and I quickly get a sense of who has learned the material, and who hasn't.

Insist on creativity. This is tough with grade 9 students (though it worked well with my grade 12s last semester). I'm trying to create tasks that demand some originality in order for students to demonstrate what they've learned. Making a photo collage of objects meeting certain requirements, or having them apply the learning goals in situations they create - at least this removes the ability to copy, and gets them thinking more outside the box.

Rich tasks. Though bigger in scope, I've seen impressive results when groups of students work together to solve a big problem. The conversations among the students are rich, and with no set final outcome, they are pushed to draw on their learned experiences to come up with a solution. I've had a lot of success with projects created using the "ditching effectiveness" model

What works in your classroom? How do you get students to shift away from a "just get it done" mentality, to one of actively learning? I would love to hear your ideas.

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