Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How much do you value student voice?

This year our school board joined the global New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL) initiative, and at a day-long event to launch the project we invited students and parents from participating schools to join our discussions about how we envisioned transforming education in our schools. It felt refreshing to have students and parents at the table with teachers and administrators. This was the first time that I had been at an event where all stakeholders were present, and the resulting change in the flavour and focus of our discussions was positive. Near the end of the day, the room was filled with positive energy and the teachers and administrators felt ready to go back to our schools and do some transformative work. Big dreams, big ideas, big questions.

We were all brought back to Earth abruptly when a student (who had been invited to reflect on the day) shamelessly stated his opinion about the event. To paraphrase, he had not had a good day, and stated specifically that we had spent too much time sitting, talking, watching videos and listening to presenters. (He may have gone so far as to say that the day seemed pointless, though I may not be remembering this clearly.) The student's comments took our breath away, but we knew he was completely correct before he had finished speaking. On that day, the presence of the students had been valuable to us and enriched our discussions but the day was not designed to be particularly valuable to the students. We listened to some of their ideas and their presence helped us stay focused on our purpose but in their eyes they had been little more than decorative. Not good.


This morning a colleague and I had the pleasure of sitting down with some students to do some planning for our next board-wide NPDL event. We did our best to listen to their concerns and ideas and let them lead the way in creating a plan for the 40 students who will attend our event next month. With their help, we will be able to provide an experience that students will value and we are certain that their voice will not be lost in the stream of 'edu-babble' that often saturates days like these. I don't want to give anything away about the specific plans (more to blog about after the event!) but was compelled to write this post because of the questions that bubbled up when I reflected on my day:

How often have I asked students 'big questions' about what they need to help them learn?

How many students in our schools think that their opinions about their learning are valued?

How much value do I place on student voice in my classroom?

If I say that I value student voice, how can I show that I have used it to inform my teaching?

What role does student voice play in driving key decisions at the system level?

If you're looking for inspiration or for the motivation to make a change, take a moment in the next few days to ask some students their views on their education. Ask them what they need from you to improve their learning experience and make sure that you really listen to their answers. Use the students' ideas to make your classroom, school, or system work better for them. 

 Not sure if this is a good idea? In the words of a wise father of a dear friend: 

"Can't hurt. Might help."

(Good advice in many situations, including this one.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Makerspace Musings

This past weekend I helped some of my colleagues host a GAFE (Google Apps for Education) conference in Barrie. When jobs were being assigned I leapt at the chance to help run a makerspace for kids, in part because I am intrigued by the multitude of maker stories appearing in blogs and on twitter, in part because I identify as a maker, and in part because I knew that my own kids would love it. We ended up hosting about 15 kids in our space who ranged in age from 6 to 11 years. Button-making, knitting, weaving, robots, Makey-Makey, squishy circuits, LEGO, art-bots and more were on our ‘maker menu.’

We set up our makerspace in the front foyer of the host school (for optimum visibility) and although it was sunny and spacious it was also cavernous and noisy. The best part? On four different occasions a child told me that they were bored. Each time this happened, that same child soon found something to occupy their attention for at least another hour. At the end of the day I practically pried the button maker out of one girl’s hands as she raced to complete her ‘forty-somethingth’ button.

Standing back and taking in the view on Saturday, things in the makerspace appeared to be very organic. Kids were camped out in bean bag chairs or sprawled on the floor; standing at desks or chasing robots up and down the hall; grazing at the snack table or engaged in constructing a marble run. They explored new media with curiosity and the benefit of minimum adult intervention. Here are some images from the day:

There are a number of schools in our board that have expressed a desire to incorporate makerspaces into their learning environments. After my experience on Saturday I have a better idea of what ‘mass making’ entails, but many questions remain:

  • Would it be possible to free up students in a school to explore, unfettered, for an hour (or hours) at a time?
  • How could we arrange these spaces to help kids get the most out of them?
  • What amount of teacher guidance is appropriate in these spaces?
  • How do we manage the continuous generation of mess that comes with creation (and encourage kids to take ownership of this space)?
  • What is the role of curriculum in a makerspace?
  • How would we manage to maintain a continuous supply of consumables without putting a significant dent in school budgets?

I know that established makerspaces have answers to some of these questions and a good deal of advice to offer, but I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to dabble in a makerspace environment and experience the urgency of these questions for myself.

If you have never visited a makerspace, I would highly recommend the experience. As an alternative, take the plunge host a ‘maker day’ at your school to get a feel for the wonder and excitement that it can generate. One of our secondary schools (Stayner Collegaite Institute) recently hosted such a day, and although I was not able to attend it is clear that it has generated ripples of curiosity.

Finally, tech (in the form of ipads and computers) played only a supporting role in our makerspace. We had several iPads that remained untouched for the entire day. This was not what we had anticipated, but it was wonderful to see how much the students thrived from making with their hands and learning from one another. There was a vivid sense of community in the space that all of us embraced.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

#TTOG: An Important Conversation

One of my greatest guilty (?) pleasures these days is searching #TTOG on Twitter and reading some of the rich discussion happening among educators. The beauty of TTOG - Teachers Throwing (or Taking) Out Grades - is that it cannot be discussed without exposing raw emotions and opinions about the very nature of education.

As a secondary teacher I have often expressed regret that I have to report a percentage at the end of each semester. It is clear to me that students’ focus on grades distracts them from their job as learners. It is particularly difficult to address student concerns as they apply to post-secondary programs and implore me to raise their grades by one or two percentage points to increase their chance of acceptance. I resent having to have these discussions with students because I am there to teach them Chemistry, not to ensure their admission to university. I often wish that students could simply trust me to prepare them well and that the universities would use alternate criteria (entrance exams? portfolios?) rather than ask me to be the judge of a student’s suitability for a program or scholarship.

For me, the best part of TTOG is that teachers are talking about creating a culture of learning that focuses on meaningful teacher-student relationships. Growing Success says that “the primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning.” How often have we heard that phrase? How much does a grade distract from this 'primary purpose?'

Sports analogies help underline the absurdity of some of our common classroom practices. If coaches handed their athletes grades at the end of a practice, how helpful would that be? What would ‘7/10’ mean to someone who had just completed volleyball practice? If the grade is also accompanied by feedback, then what purpose does the grade serve? Why assign a grade at all?

This conversation is important, and we are having it at the right time. Check out #TTOG (or #scdsbTTOG) on Twitter to follow the conversation yourself. You can also read what our stakeholders are sharing at the #scdsbTTOG blog: http://scdsbttog.blogspot.ca/