computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

"When I hear the words 'Formative Assessment', I reach for my gun...."

As a schoolteacher, I have a couple of main functions: helping people learn and evaluating what they have learned. These are not necessarily complementary functions. The grade you get at the end of the year may not increase your learning in any way. How could it? In fact, it may decrease your motivation for future learning.

The way this is being dealt with is increasingly to distinguish between ‘assessment of learning’ and 'assessment for learning’, with the latter being given pride of place. The rage now is to have a tight focus on the teacher’s assessments of pupils’ work with the goal of improvement. Children are to be given clear criteria, to be engaged in the assessment of their own work, and to be given feedback that clearly points the way forward.

I sat recently through a two-day seminar at work with a hired gun expert to help us work on ‘assessment for learning’. It used to be that Dylan Wiliam with his ‘formative assessment’ was the hero of the school authorities in Norway, now it’s John Hattie with ‘feedback’. Pretty much along the same lines. So now we’re all to become experts in helping pupils understand the criteria for good work and in giving feedback that is useful for improving.

The teacher clearly pointing to the path forward
Sounds good, doesn’t it? We have lots of solid research that supports the idea that working with these things will increase pupils’ scores. Sorry, sorry – I mean of course pupils’ learning. How could I as a teacher not support such measures?

The Norwegian professor of education Solveig Østrem talks about how teaching rests on a paradox (most recently talked about this on the radio program ‘Ministry of Truth’ [in Norwegian]). Teaching is a wish for change in someone else. That “someone else” is, however, a person, a subject of their own. A subject with certain rights and an innate value as a human being. By wishing and working for change in other people, we risk having an instrumental approach to others, treating them as objects for pedagogical work instead of as active subjects of their own.

This the bad feeling I had in my stomach for two days while I was supposed to be happy that we were thinking about how we could help the students learn more: our enthusiasm for  ‘assessment for learning’ risks letting assessment permeate everything we do, resulting in a highly instrumental approach to other human beings. We risk creating a school day that is inhumane and inhuman when our point of departure is always assessment, always improvement. Our pupils are people first, active subjects of their own, not objects for our pedagogical measures.



Sunday, March 16, 2014

Would you stay drunk for 3 weeks right before your final exams?

It might seem like an odd question, but it isn't a random one. In Norway, it's the tradition. Or, it is in Oslo west and in the wealthy suburb Bærum. The 17th of May is Constitution Day in Norway and the beginning of the exam period. As the date approaches, school life dissolves into a peculiar Vann Gennet-style rite of passage called 'russ'.

A uniform (red overalls) is worn for the whole period and for many pupils, it's a period of partying. Many of them have prepared for ages for this, investing vast amounts of time and money in buses that take them to various parties and compete for 'best-bus' prizes. Norwegian students are unwilling to save for their education, but many work part-time jobs (sometimes for years!) to save up for the 'russ' party period.

It's cold in Norway at this time of year, so it isn't unusual for the entire final year at a school to get sick at this time. Schoolwork often suffers from constant partying and drinking even if pupils manage to stay healthy. Not surprising, then, that adults often complain about the insanity of the whole affair. What is surprising, however, is the lack of any real will to do anything about it. One of the few solid attempts to address the problem lately has been a suggestion to move the exams to a different date. Really. I don't make this stuff up. I don't have to.

Much of the drive for this celebration is a small number of firms that do really well selling various stuff connected to 'russ' to the kids: overalls, hats, sweaters, lighters, openers, underwear... there's a whole catalogue. Since the target market is already collected for them, it's easy for them to get their material to their customers. It's odd, really, because otherwise, Norway is extremely restrictive about allowing school to be used as a marketing forum. When it comes to russ, the doors open pretty wide. This is a picture of a group of pupils at a non-random school in the fall trying on the uniforms they will order as part of a package of russ material for the spring. This picture was taken during school hours.

(missing picture)

Photo credits: ronny-andre, Geir Halvorsen, random teacher

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pedagogy as the art of withholding information

I had a colleague who enjoyed great respect from his fellow teachers. He would often be the one who dared come up with a critical and often conservative view in meetings. He once complained about the practice of having the entire year visible on the school’s learning platform. “Pedagogy,” he said “Is sometime the art of withholding things.”

I must admit I didn’t understand him until much later. On a weekend climbing course, a participant asked about fall factor, a crucial theoretical concept in rock climbing. I felt obliged to give a full answer, and a full answer takes some time. Many of the other participants heard us talking and came over to hear, necessitating starting anew several times. An outspoken assistant objected to my explanation and then I really had my hands full with damage control.

The right thing to do would have been to say: “That’s a really good question. Fall factor is an important topic, so we’ll talk about it in detail tomorrow.” Tomorrow when it fits in with the progression of the course, tomorrow when I can create a situation that suits the topic, tomorrow when I've managed to awaken their curiosity and previous knowledge in advance. It’s not about taking things when it suits me, but about taking things when it suits the students. And the best person to judge the student’s needs is usually …the teacher.

The pedagogy of fall factor will be discussed in a different post.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Hook-up Generation

Mercifully, I don't think much about my own teenage years. A bit odd, perhaps, since I work with teenagers every day, so you might think I get reminded of my teenage self all the time. There are several reasons that this doesn't happen, but important among them is the fact that my pupils don't seem to be having an adolescence much like the one I had.

I could list many examples (my Norwegian pupils look nothing like my friends and I did in 1980s Ontario, for instance), but one obvious one is romance. For us, pairing up was a major obsession. You wanted to have someone to kiss in your breaks and hold hands with in the corridors. This kind of visible behaviour exists in the school where I teach, of course, but there is relatively little of it. Surprizingly little, really. Not that my pupils don't hook up, of course. Many of them seem to have hopping social lives that certainly include getting close to the opposite sex, but much of this happens in the context of parties and other social groupings and doesn't necessarily include pairing off over time.

Now, I can't say I spent much time thinking about this until last week when a piece in Patricia Vanderbilt's blog caught my eye. She's a senior at Whitman college in the US, but the situation she describes seems to be one many of my pupils could relate to. Vanderbilt's fellow students hook up, but they don't form romantic partnerships much, certainly not over time. She mentions the role of alcohol (in this kind of situation, there isn't much sex without alcohol) and talks about how the tendency is to have casual sex, or not to have sex. There just isn't much in between.

So maybe we're looking at some kind of broad cultural change here. Where does it come from? Vanderbilt says: "We're ... image-conscious and self-absorbed. It's hard   not to be; we showcase our amazing lives via Facebook and judge our peers by the way that they present themselves online." She argues that among other things this constant self-awareness and self-staging makes people almost too self-concious to talk and that it is anxiety that drives many of her peers to half-drunken casual sex or celibacy.

Could Facebook be helping to change the nature of romance?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Digital natives my #¤%!

(Update and explanation: This post was originally published as part of my 'Sick of Gurus' series. Several people read it (I have good information that this included people who read it of their own free will and were not under the influence of mind-altering substances at the time) but no-one commented. Partly because this is a topic I have taken up with a couple of my sociology classes, I re-posted this as a class exercise in English, getting the pupils to comment as we discussed the art of internet comments. I was so impressed by my pupils' contributions that I have now done it again here, simply re-cycling the post.

In the time since the original post, however, I have wondered if things are changing. Is there a culture change afoot amongst teenagers? Interestingly enough, after I had published a more positive post, Ann Michaelsen, who works at my school and is far more gung-ho about teaching with Web 2 than I am, published a post surprizingly in line with my original, more sceptical one.)

Overestimation of how plugged-in our pupils are.

If we repeat “our pupils are digital natives” often enough, will it become true? This is part 2 of the series “Sick of gurus”

I feel left out of much of the discussion on the web (and at conferences). The party line just doesn’t match my experience in the classroom.
Our students are citizens of the 21st century. They read, communicate, collaborate, socialize, work, explore, and learn with personal technologies. They are the Millennials, who share ideas and dreams on social networking sites, follow streams of information from web page to web page, and use technology, reading, writing, and critical thinking skills in almost every aspect of their lives.
This is an extreme example, but the web is full of this ‘digital native’ stuff. I’m sorry, it just isn’t so. It seems to me like a classic case of the Bellman’s fallacy (from Carrolls’ The Hunting of the Snark’) : “What I tell you three times is true”. Cut off from the classroom, the gurus just keep repeating this kind of thing to each other until they believe it. I’m sorry, but while my pupils are literate, media-interested, highly privileged, at-least-4-computers-at-home, online 24/7  types, the large majority of them do not use social networking to learn anything or collaborate and they certainly aren’t out there using ‘critical thinking skills.’

They don’t use cloud computing, they don’t use social bookmarking, few of them blog, very few of them have ever uploaded anything to YouTube. They read Wikipedia, but don’t know what a wiki is and have never contributed to a wiki, looked at a history page or subscribed to changes. None of them know what a podcast is. They may know what RSS is, but almost none of them use it on their own. They don’t tweet. They don’t even use stuff like Digg.  They just don’t use modern technology for what we would like them to and even resist adults trying to get them to approach digital and social/digital media in the ways we think are productive.

My pupils are plugged into ‘Web 2.0’ (asked if they have FaceBook accounts, they look at you strangely - it’s a bit like asking if they have noses) but they use it for social connection, not for collaboration. Their approach is fundamentally passive. Their use of things like wikis and YouTube are good examples – these things are deeply embedded in their everyday lives, but in they don’t use or approach these things the way I do (or - aha! - the way I would like them to).
For me, wikis are one of the watersheds in human history: the emergence of massively collaborative systems for organizing information. You read the Encyclopedia Brittanica, you participate in Wikipedia. My pupils read them and use them in the same way.  
I am starting to love services like YouTube and its imitators and spin-offs. The ease of embedding content all over the place is another real watershed.
embed_codeMy pupils, however, do not share my mania for mashing it up. They just like the access to pictures and music that the modern web affords.
It’s also interesting that, while many of them know what RSS is, they don’t use it. For me, this is again a fundamental change in the way the internet fits into my life: what I am interested in comes to me. This isn’t an interesting approach, it seems, to a generation that has grown up zapping their way around.

We don’t like it, but the most popular Norwegian social networking site for teens ( I teach in Norway) is this. (Don’t click if you’re squeamish or easily depressed – it’s the Norwegian version of 'Hot or Not') I know that the ages of contributors on the first page are high, but don’t be fooled. What teenagers are doing here is indeed uploading and sharing content, but this isn’t what I think of as collaboration or useful learning. They are posing – and competing for attention and approval. They also seem to be participating in their own objectification.

My point is: if we want a generation that “shares and collaborates” on the web and that “uses critical thinking” in its interaction with media, we’re going to have to work hard to produce it. The idea that technology produces these things by itself in some magical way is so hopelessly out of touch with reality I’m amazed I’ve managed to write so much about it here…

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Catchy title: because

How pathetic we all are at blogging. I'm trying to refrain from adding anything - just click the link.