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...


  1. Heather,
    I commend you for your enthusiasm and the amount of sheer labour you have put into converting your classes to self-paced instruction. As I recall, the last time the Education Wheel of Fortune landed on this slot was 40 years ago (Yes, I was there, in your role!)
    It was useful then, and may be useful for you now, to explain (to both students and parents) the process as: Science Ideas are food for the brain. your students learning to cook their own science meals... with a debit card for the grocery store of ideas. YOU make sure there are plenty of items on the shelves, but THEY get to pick the foods and follow the recipes. Your "distracted" students are similar to ones addicted to junk foods and candies. YOU know that what they are using their debit card for is not nutritious, so it is your responsibility to select healthy food for them and supervise their cooking until they are able to make wise choices for themselves.
    It is very important to make them aware that their "different" learning conditions are a result of their conscious *choices*, and all they have to do is to decide (or learn) to make the right choices and they can return to the main group.
    It will help grade 9s if you use such a "concrete-operational" analogy. And even later, you can remind the ones that slip into old habits by "naming the game" ... Sally, I hope you aren't going to spend *all* class eating Sugar Pops...
    Her peers will appreciate the joke and she will roll her eyes and get back to work.
    No strategy works for everyone, but some of your students may respond to the analogy.
    Good Luck! You'll need it and you deserve it!

    1. Hi Doug! Thank you so much for your comment :) I LOVE the food approach that you take with this (I even used the same analogy with my VP, and he loved it too!). It's been a bit of a strange week as I had one day of the "new routine" with my disengaged students - where they flat out refused direct instruction and chose to work quietly on their own - before I was away for the last three days of the week. It will be interesting to see how they adjust this week. Hope all is well with you! Has spring arrived in your neck of the province yet? :)

    2. Well.. we had snow two nights ago, but the snow tires are coming off tomorrow... no matter what! FB posted a picture taken 6 years ago yesterday with snow in the driveway, but full green leaves. This year the maple blossoms have just appeared... so we seem to be 2 weeks behind!

  2. I get some of the same attitude from students in the post-secondary classrooms, with comments like:
    "don't treat us like high school students"
    "you're supposed to be teaching US, not us teaching each other:
    "just teach normally"

    It can be tough to take, as I put in so much effort to make the course material engaging and interesting, but the idea that university education = lectures is hard to break.

    I look forward to hearing more about your experience with this!

    1. It really seems to be that students are okay with learning independently as long as it's not too hard. The moment it gets challenging, they want to revert back to being taught (which is fine - I have no problem teaching, but it bothers me that it then becomes the excuse as to why they are not passing). I wonder if I have to re-examine either the order in which the material is taught, or how the material is introduced, in order to make that transition a little more friendly and/or manageable. It's amazing to see you're hearing the same things in post-secondary. It definitely is a tough cycle to break!


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