Friday, May 27, 2016

Thinking about Going Gradeless

I've taken some pretty big mental strides recently toward the idea of a gradeless classroom - one where everything is assessed (given feedback) but not evaluated (given a mark). It's an idea that appeals to me, for a variety of reasons, but there's still a big part of me that is reluctant to give up my initial hold on grading.

I'm a numbers girl. I take comfort in data (provided it's been collected properly) and am constantly on the lookout for trends that hard data can provide. 

I shared this with my math class last week - I love what the numbers can tell us!

As a teacher, for the longest time I was of the view that if I wanted to know exactly how much of the material my students had mastered, a hard and fast grade would be the way to find out. You got three questions right and two questions wrong. You completed three of the four steps needed to solve this problem. You didn't properly communicate your answer: -2 marks.

This was also something that was easy to show a parent or the student themselves if they wanted to know "why their mark was the way it was." It was (in my mind) reliable, calculatable, and foolproof.

The Shift Begins

The past few years, though, I've moved toward assigning levels rather than grades, as outlined in Growing Success, and was surprised to see that I actually liked it. I liked being able to assign a qualifier ("The student predicts a result with considerable logic") rather than a quantifier (75%).

After a decade of teaching, I found I had more trust in my professional judgement... a trust I didn't have when I was a new teacher. I didn't have to rely on a hard and fast number to report on the success of the student - I became more comfortable using a spectrum to identify strengths and next steps.

With a writing workshop on rich task assessment last year where we broke down the rubric-writing process, I also became much more comfortable creating good rubrics - ones with solid spectra for assessing specific success criteria. 

Now, most of my gradebook is levels, with unit tests being the only numerical evaluation I record. I've seen how feedback can have a greater impact on success than grades. But I'm starting to wonder about taking things one step further...

Going Gradeless?

Last week, I tried something new - I returned a worksheet to my grade 12 math class with no grade, and no level written at the top. There was lots of feedback though - from checkmarks and happy faces to encouragement to try again or ideas of how to rethink their approach to problem solving. I recorded a level for myself, but wrote nothing at the top of the page for the students.

Would the students notice? Many of them are very concerned over their grades... would the students demand a mark? It turns out very few of them did. A couple of them asked "what they got" on the assignment, which then turned into a conversation about how they did based on the feedback embedded in the worksheet. It was actually a nice way to place the emphasis back on the feedback.

I'm feeling good about starting to go gradeless. But can I give up grades & levels completely?

I've been talking with Jonathan So (@MrSoclassroom) on how he ditched grades, meets curriculum expectations with his students, and how his students self-grade. I think it's fascinating how well he works with his students to develop not only success criteria, but also their ability to assess themselves. If his students can do all this in grade 6, surely mine can do the same in grade 9 or grade 12, right?

Along the same lines, at OAME this year, I heard about about one school that gives entire classes "I" ("insufficient") on the midterm report card, so as to not give false hope (some students stopped working figuring they could coast to the end of the year) or to dash hopes (by having students feel that there is no use in continuing to try). They are essentially providing a gradeless report card. Could I do that?

Jonathan suggested that I check out Starr Sackstein's book: Hacking Assessment. She was able to go gradeless with an AP class - I'm looking forward to reading about how she did it, and continuing my own exploration on feedback over grades.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Exploring a VUCA World Context

At the Ministry's Provincial Mathematics Learning Day last week, where the renewed math strategy was rolled out to board supervisory officers and coordinators, I was introduced to a new-to-me acronym. 

Alright, as a newbie coordinator, I was introduced to a LOT of new-to-me acronyms, but one in particular really stuck with me...


It was used not as a noun, but as an adjective... for describing the world context for which we are preparing our students.

We've all seen videos like this one, relating just how quickly society is changing:

For me, the biggest takeaway from these videos is always that many of the top-ten in-demand jobs within the next few years have not even been invented yet, or are trying to solve problems we haven't even dreamt of. 

Into what kind of world will our students graduate? 

That's where VUCA comes in. The future will be:

  • Volatile: rapidly changing, unstable and transitory
  • Uncertain: not likely to follow past trends, unpredictable
  • Complex: having many facets and interconnectedness
  • Ambiguous: open to many interpretations

And it is our job as educators to prepare our students for this new work force. How can we do this? How can we expose our students to this kind of context, but still maintain a safe atmosphere - where it is okay to take risks and even fail as we learn and improve - in our classrooms?

A little more poking around online turned up this graphic, which can help give teachers a focus when it comes to helping students adapt and thrive in a VUCA environment. It is written from a leadership perspective, but has a lot of good direction for me, when I am giving my students 21st Century-style problems to solve, or rich tasks to conquer. I often wonder if I am being too "hands-off," and this will help:

VUCA is a new lens through which I can view and guide what we're doing in class, all to prepare my students for this brave, new world. It will be interesting how this guides my job next year as a coordinator and coach for teachers also preparing for this new future of education.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

New Challenges

I am happy to announce that there are some big changes for me on the horizon: beginning in September, I will be stepping away from the classroom as I take on one of two Math Coordinator positions (for grades 7-12) in my school board.

It is a one-year, interim position where I get to work with other teachers in the board and help them achieve their numeracy, inquiry and innovation goals in their math classes. I'm beyond excited about the new challenges this will bring, and the new perspectives I will be able to bring back to the classroom a year from now.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Spiralling: Spinning Around in my Head

Perhaps my biggest take away from last week's OAME2016 conference, was the idea of spiralling the curriculum in my math classes. 

It wasn't a new concept to me - I had been following well-known Ontario spirallers Alex Overwijk and Mary Bourassa for a while now - but before this past week, I hadn't had a chance to really think how it could be applied to my classes, or how I would go about doing it.

To spiral, is basically to delinearize the curriculum. Traditionally, a unit of proportions, a unit of linear functions, a unit of graphing, and a unit of geometry might be taught in that order, with a unit test after each set of lessons on that topic. 

With spiralling, aspects of each unit (or, at least, several of the units) would be presented to the students either through lessons or inquiry-based activities. Any given task might require some basic concepts from graphing, some work with proportions AND some elementary geometry, among other topics.

Progression through the course occurs in cycles - seeing all the concepts for the first time at a basic level, revisiting them in a harder setting, and then seeing them all a third or fourth time in a yet more advanced manner, as mastery is achieved.

In a sense, we already do this in the Ontario system with math, but the cycles come around every year - with grade 10 math building on grade 9 math from the previous year, and so forth. This approach looks at building on curriculum within a single semester or school year.

What's so good about it?

There are a few advantages that seem to stand out to me right away:

  • All the material gets visited more than once. If a student doesn't quite understand a concept the first time through, they will get to see it again. It's not "done and gone" as in a linear curriculum. It might make more sense in a different setting.
  • Applications of the concepts are implicitly provided, as in the third cycle, students would actively use concepts explored earlier on in the course to solve "real-life" problems.
  • Spiralling can easily fit in with the mastery-based, self-paced learning we already have in our math classes. There would be no need to change how my class is set up, just the order in which I deliver the content.
  • In grade 9, where the students are preparing for the EQAO standardized test, spiralled curriculum ensures that everything is covered (more than once, even), and that the students are constantly reviewing concepts. There is basically no need for dedicated review - or the stress that goes along with it - going into the test.
From Mary's blog, outlining how she started spiralling, who in turn got it from Alex:

What I still have to wrap my head around:

  • Tracking what has been covered becomes trickier when you're jumping all over the curriculum (at least in the way it's laid out in curriculum documents). I would need to find a method that works for me to track both student achievement and progress through the course expectations.
  • I'm not sure how long each cycle should take. I know, from experience, how long previous units took when presented linearly. I anticipate it might be tough to plan out, time-wise, the first time through.
  • I'm a bit worried about finding good activities that naturally hit various expectations from the curriculum. So many teachers have offered to share what they have, though, and I hope to be able to take advantage of that.
  • Grade reporting might be tricky, as we are expected to report on knowledge/understanding, thinking/inquiry, communication, and application throughout the semester. If application-type problems aren't investigated until the third cycle, how will this affect grades reported early on (for progress reports or midterms)?

Alex, explaining his tracking system, in a session on spiralling at OAME2016.
Activities are across the top (running vertically) overall expectations are along the
side (running horizontally), and specific expectations are colour-coded by unit.
Thank you, Heather Lye, for the photo!

Where I'd like to use it

There is one course, that I teach regularly, that I think would be a perfect fit for this type of content delivery: MCF3M (grade 11 Functions & Applications). The course is broken down into units of quadratic functions, exponential functions, and trigonometric functions. In each, we look at the basics of the functions, then transformations of the functions and finally applications of the functions. 

If we're teaching the same concepts throughout, why not break down the walls between the "types" of functions and teach them all together? I'm looking forward to giving it a try, and collaborating with a new PLN of spirallers discovered at OAME.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Clawing Back the Freedom

The new semester allowed me the opportunity to teach grade 9 science again this year. This course (SNC1D) is one of my all-time favourite courses to teach - it's got a great mix of hands-on and theoretical content in the curriculum, and grade nines are often a group you can have a lot of fun with.

As with all my other courses now, classes were set up in a mastery-based, proceed-at-your-own-pace way. It was a new way of learning for most of my grade 9s, who were used to lecture-based teaching. 

We did a number of introductory activities - getting onto the Google Classroom, trying out various GAFE tasks, learning how to make notes from various sources - before jumping into the content. We started with the Electricity unit, which has lots of great tactile labs and experiments, so students didn't have to rely too much on a lot of new-to-them technology.

To make it a bit more manageable, I reduced the number of choices to start, made some tasks mandatory, so everyone was completing them and they could work together. But students still had to figure out what worked best for them individually, and apply that to being able to succeed in an open-class setting.

For many of these students, all of a sudden it was a LOT of freedom.

What Happened?

Some blossomed immediately. Students who love science and love learning really enjoyed the fact that they were not restricted by the pace of the rest of the class, and could get creative with some of their work. 

Many students have taken the full two months since the semester started to really discover how they learn best. The first unit was a huge flop for many of them, mostly because they weren't sure how to pace themselves, or how to structure their time in class. I am absolutely thrilled at the progress they have made in the second unit (and I share my excitement with them!); I can really see them growing into independent learners. 

While our second unit was much less hands-on (which may have helped with their adjustment - mental note for next time I teach this course), I am confident going into a new unit with more labs next week that they will continue to improve.

But for some, the freedom is still too much. They continue to get very little done in class (for some, their productivity worsens as time goes on), and what does get done is rushed and done only so that they can say the task is "complete." They spend most of their time chatting, and the excuses as to why they aren't working are unending. There seems to be no intrinsic or extrinsic motivation that I can offer to help them make their way through the course material. As a result, their progress is slow and their resulting grade low.

I've been blamed for not teaching.
I've been told I'm "not doing my job." 
I've been told that I am the reason these students aren't learning anything.

But some students, no matter how many times I offer help, or sit down to explain a concept, or offer to fetch materials for them, or check in with them to see if they have any questions, they still refuse assistance. They enjoy the freedom and casual nature of the class (perhaps a little too much?), but they cannot function within it.

A Fresh Start

I have tried changing where the students who struggle congregate in the room to work together (though more often than not, together, they get distracted and get nothing done). I have tried isolating them and providing them with resources to work on their own (though when apart, some take offence and refuse to do anything at all). I have provided digital activities, analog activities, creative activities, rote activities, hands-on activities, bookwork. I've tried strategizing with the students, as well as with their parents... but nothing seems to engage them in learning. 

So with the new unit next week, comes a new tactic. 

For the students who are truly not able to succeed with this much freedom, I am going back to lecture-based teaching and set assignments. But not for the whole class - with a peer teacher in the room, I will be able to take the few students aside, individually, and present them a 10-minute lecture on the day's topic. They can take the note (as they are used to), ask questions, and then be guided to complete a task by the end of the period.

Part of me feels defeated going back to "traditional" teaching. And part of me dislikes the idea of "forcing" teaching on students. I would much rather have them come to me when they are ready to learn. But part of me is happy that because the rest of the students have such good momentum going in class, I now have the time to sit down with these individuals and truly tailor a lesson to them. 

As uncomfortable as it feels to be seemingly "moving backwards" from a dynamic class, I don't think I really am. I have to remind myself that true differentiated instruction requires knowing the learner, and adjusting the lessons so that they can meet with success, and that's exactly what I'm trying to do. 

With luck, as we progress through this unit and into the next one, we can work on independence and transfer skills from this particular lesson setting, to a more autonomous one. We'll see how it goes...