Sunday, November 28, 2010

How do you address late work?

Students submitting late is not a new phenomenon and is not something that will go away anytime soon.

People hold a range of opinions on how to respond to late work.  Some people say we should not accept late work at all, others say we should accept it and attach a consequence and finally, others believe that we should accept late work without consequence at all.

I believe we should accept late work from students without applying any consequence.

Here's why...

First, every task or challenge that we pose for our students is an important learning opportunity.  If we believe in the value of our students completing these tasks, we should engage in practices that motivate them to complete the work.  We should avoid providing students a reason or motivation not to complete the work.  Assigning a '0' or deducting marks for late work provides students just that...the motivation for  not completing the work.

As teachers, how do we know the length of time it will take each individual student to learn something new?  We establish arbitrary timelines all the time, but how do we know if these timelines suit the pace of learning of our students? Establishing timelines is necessary so that students have a guideline, but the timelines that we create must be flexible enough to meet the needs of all of our learners.  Surely we aren't going to demand that every student learn at the same pace as everyone else?

We know that people learn in different ways and at different rates.  Despite this, the factory model of schooling favors kids who 'get it' first or 'get it' right away.  In a rush to cover the curriculum, we often present material to our students and shortly afterwards, follow it up with a test.  Students who learn quickly perform well while those who don't learn quickly enough perform poorly. If we don't use these results to inform our practice and improve student learning then the test simply becomes another piece of summative assessment data that is used to generate a numerical mark or letter grade.  Unfortunately, this type of practice leads to major gaps in student learning, especially for those students who require more repetition and reinforcement.

As teachers, we help our students set reasonable expectations for themselves based on the progression of their learning.  So, following this same line of thinking, shouldn't we have different standards for late work for people who have already mastered a skill compared to people who are still learning a skill?  Should we be holding students, who aren't yet proficient or are still learning something to the same standard as people who are already proficient?

In the professional world, it is allowable and understandable to hold professionals to adult level competencies.  Adults possess greater maturity and are better able to establish earlier deadlines for themselves so that they ensure they will have their work completed on time.  This maturity comes from having made mistakes in the past.  On the other hand, when professionals are attempting to learn a new skill or develop a new idea, they are often afforded a considerable amount of flexibility when it comes to timelines.  The reason for this is quite simple, learning takes time and in order for deep learning to occur it cannot be rushed.

Many teachers say that they are preparing students for the 'real world' by not accepting late work or by deducting marks for late work.  The reality is that in the real world, one is allowed to be late more often than not.  Meetings, appointments, deliveries and flights all suffer from delays.  In the real world, we accept delays and do our best to understand these situations.  Whether we did not know how to complete some work, ran short of time or simply forgot, we have all been in the position where we have missed a deadline.  In these situations, we are still forced to get the work done in addition to the current work we are responsible for.  Did we lose our job? No.  Did we lose pay? No.  But, we did learn to prepare so that we can avoid similar situations in the future.

Allowing students to recover in full from 'not knowing' or being irresponsible about time management teaches more than if teachers slap a '0' on for late work.  For a student to have to re-do work or do work for the first time that he/she didn't do initially, while doing everything else that he/she is responsible for, he/she will truly respect and appreciate deadlines.  Students will come to realize that it is much easier just to keep up.  

So, how should we respond when students don't submit work on time?

First, we need to understand WHY our students did not complete their work.  Did they not understand how to do it? Did their schedules not allow them the necessary time? Did they mismanage their time? Were they lazy?

Our students' answers to the above questions should determine our response.

This may require that we spend some extra time to help our students understand the material.  It may mean insisting that a student stay in outside of class time in order to finish off their work.  Or it may be as simple as allowing them the opportunity to go home and complete the work on their own.

Regardless of how we choose to respond, we must insist that they complete the work because allowing students not to engage in a learning opportunity is unacceptable!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

From the Coach's Perspective - Questions for Educators

This year, I am once again fortunate to be coaching the Grade 8 Boys Basketball team at Delta Secondary.  Last week, WE held our first practice of the season.  Tired after a full day, I found myself energized by an evening of coaching. Afterwards, I found myself thinking that there are a lot of lessons from coaching that could be applied to teaching.

In the past, I have been a part of many different coaching arrangements.  I have been a head coach, an assistant coach, coached on my own and coached with others.  Coaching by myself was never a situation I favored.  It is a very lonely, isolating feeling when you don't have anyone with whom you can share and discuss your ideas.  This season, for the third consecutive year, I have been fortunate to be part of a team of coaches.  It is a very positive experience to co-plan practices, challenge each other's ideas and assess our team's progress together.  As I eluded to in a previous post, 'OUR ideas are better than YOURS and MINE'.

A number of years ago, I was fortunate to have a couple of my former players join my coaching staff.  It was a tremendous experience to work with them, hear their ideas and incorporate their thinking with mine.  Soon after, they took on their own teams.  Interestingly, my phone continued to ring as they would share their successes and challenges with me. The difference was that I was now the one offering my ideas and suggestions to them, only some of which they would choose to incorporate.  Most importantly, having a support network with whom they could share ideas, look for advice and receive some reassurance from was critical to their being successful early on.  For so many reasons, this was a rewarding experience: inspiring former players to become coaches, watching the influence they had on young people, learning with them and finally, mentoring them.

If you've ever coached kids, you can attest to the fact that kids connect differently with you when you coach them.  Why is this the case?  First, as players and coaches on the same team, we share a common goal.  We develop closer and more personal relationships with each other.  As coaches, we publicly demonstrate that we are pulling for our players and in return, our players try as hard as they possibly can not to disappoint us.  Most importantly, our players know regardless of whether they have a great game or make a mistake, that we care about them and will care for them, not just as athletes, but as people.

As a team, WE challenge ourselves to improve everyday.  Each practice we expect our players to take a step forward and further develop specific skills.  We design drills that challenge our players to execute a skill that they are not fully comfortable in doing yet.  At a recent workshop, Dr. Dennis Shirley said 'learning happens when we dive into an area we aren't comfortable in'.  Nowhere is this more applicable than in any one of our practices.  To ensure that our players are willing to take the risks necessary to learn new skills, we emphasize to them that practice is a safe place to make mistakes.   

The same applies for us as coaches.  Each season, we challenge ourselves to adapt to new situations and new players, devise new strategies and continue our learning of new coaching philosophies and techniques.  Whether it be developing our own new ideas, improving old ideas or incorporating ideas we have learned from others, we strive to be lifelong learners.  Similar to our players, in our quest to improve, we know we will make mistakes however.  As players and coaches, it is important to remind ourselves that often, the best learning come from making mistakes.

At this point I will return to the initial reason for this post...lessons for teaching, or should I say questions for educators?

What common themes or topics are you and some of your colleagues interested in improving? Would it be more effective if you worked together with others?  Where could you collaborate? When could you collaborate? How could you collaborate?  At school, common prep time, collaborative planning time, PLN...

Do you know a colleague who is teaching a new course, is new to the school or new to teaching?  How might they be feeling? How might you be able to support them?  Have you even connected with them? How might you learn from mentoring a colleague?

Nobody doubts you care about your students.  But, do your students know you care about them? How have you demonstrated to your students that you care?  Is there a student who you haven't been able to establish a positive relationship with?  What could you do to improve the relationship?

Are you meeting your students where they are? Are you providing appropriate level challenges for each of your students?  Have you created an environment where it is safe to make mistakes? Are you challenging yourself to continue learning?

I am committing to asking myself these questions on a regular basis with the goal of improving student learning.  Are you asking yourself these questions?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Are the students not suited for the learning environment or is the learning environment not suited for the students? How are you personalizing learning?

Consider this scenario...
A young teenage boy is walking through the hallways of a busy high school, textbook, binder, pencil case and calculator in hand.  He momentarily pulls the headphones from his ears in order to talk with a couple of close friends.  They are discussing what time they will meet online tonight to play video games with each other.  After the short conversation, the student puts his earphones back in his ears and pulls his smart phone from his pocket to check how much time remains before the bell will ring to start class.  He notices he has received a text message from a friend so he continues to read the message as he begins walking to class.  As he reaches the entrance to the classroom he is typing a message back.  
The bell rings as he drops his textbook, binder, pencil case and calculator on his desk.  He sits down on his chair, wedging himself into the small seat that is attached to his desk.  He checks to make sure his phone is on 'vibrate' and quickly shoves it into his pocket.  He yanks the earphones from his ears, allowing them to dangle from the collar of his shirt and then reaches into the pocket of his hoodie to switch off his MP3 player.  He turns to see what the excitement is that's coming from the crowd of students sitting in the rows of desks at the other end of the room.  They are watching a classmate post a comment on another student's Facebook wall.  

The teacher approaches the front of the classroom and the room becomes quiet as students focus on the teacher. Today's class is similar to most other days with the teacher providing instruction using a combination of a whiteboard and overhead projector.  Following this, students begin working on an assignment, periodically reading sections of information from their textbook and using their calculators to answer specific questions.  At multiple points during the 80 minute class, students' concentration levels dip and their attention shifts. They converse with classmates, turn to listen to a fellow classmate, daydream about what they will do after school and occasionally they leave the classroom to walk down the hallway to the bathroom.

Recently I had a conversation with a teacher about some students who he was concerned about.  He described them as restless, fidgety, easily distracted, occasionally disruptive and generally disinterested in their learning.  He explained that he is frequently forced to redirect these students to their seats to do their work and even when he does so, the students do not accomplish nearly what they are capable of.  Finally, he said "I just don't think these kids are suited for this environment, sitting in desks, listening to a teacher and working on pen and paper tasks."

As much as I agree that these students are not particularly well suited for their learning environment as it currently exists, I believe the better questions to ask are:  Is the learning environment suitable for these students? And, what changes need to be made to the learning environment and the learning opportunities to make them more suitable for these students?

This has made me reflect on the importance of meeting our students where they are, differentiating our instruction for all learners and personalizing the learning for our students.  There are pockets of innovation occurring in many schools that are personalizing the learning experience for students.  Unfortunately, many of these innovations are tied to specific teachers and quite often these ideas are not shared with the larger educational community.

So, if you are involved in or have witnessed an innovation that is personalizing learning for students, I encourage you to share it with others by commenting on this blog.  Thanks.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rewind, Reflect, Redesign - OUR Ideas are better than YOURS and MINE

The inspiration for writing this entry comes from a recent conversation I had with a teacher.   Last week, she expressed concern that some of her students were struggling to grasp a specific concept.  I'm happy to say that despite some frustration, instead of blaming her students for failing to understand the concept, she was questioning aspects of her own practice.
As we talked, it was clear that she was rewinding her recent lessons and reflecting on the informal formative assessments she had conducted. By the end of our conversation she didn't have all the answers, but she did walk away with some ideas.  She continued to contemplate these ideas before redesigning her next lesson to ensure that she met her kids where they were.

A few days later she said "I have to tell you something great! They get it now.  My students really understand it."  Her assessments definitely supported what she said!  While it was obvious that she was very excited for her students' success, I was equally excited for her success.

While this is a celebration of a committed, caring teacher experiencing success with her students, it also points to an important process of what I call rewinding, reflecting and redesigning. What improved the process in this case is that rather than conduct the process in isolation, we worked through it together.  I credit this teacher with having the courage to share her concerns and frustrations with me.  It was her initiative that led to some powerful professional dialogue and ultimately to gains in her students’ learning. 

Teachers all have busy schedules and a myriad of responsibilities.  It’s easy to use a lack of time as an excuse to continue with the status quo. However, if we place a priority on student learning, we must also make the time to rewind, reflect and redesign collaboratively.

As school-based administrators, we also have busy days.  A day can easily be consumed fighting fires, dealing with the immediate issues of the day and simply trying to keep our heads above water.  And once all of the fires are extinguished, the pressing issues have been dealt with and the dust has settled, ultimately what will we have accomplished? Will we have taken any steps towards improving student learning?  Probably not.  At best, we will just have managed to maintain the status quo.

Each of us has a vision for how we can improve student learning. Realizing this vision requires forward progress.  And as we all know, change is not easy. The path to realizing a vision is never simple. It requires planning, commitment, hard work, patience and coordination in order to generate positive momentum. It often takes unexpected twists and turns.  And so, it is important that we too, collaborate with our colleagues and stakeholders as we rewind, reflect and redesign.  After all, OUR ideas are better than YOURS and MINE.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Is this for marks? A need for Engagement!

"Is this for marks?"   This is a common question asked by many students in today's classrooms.

"It's worth a lot of marks, so it's important you do the work!"  This is a frequently used line by many teachers in order to motivate their students.  I too, can admit to having used similar lines in the past.

And what is the result of applying these extrinsic motivational strategies?  We have created a majority of students who are compliant learners.  Some of our students are reluctantly compliant.  They complete just enough work and study just hard enough to achieve a bare passing grade.  Others are obsessively compliant and spend countless hours striving to achieve a perfect grade.

As educators, we must not be misled by our students' compliance.  Even though students are performing well on all assessments, we must not get fooled into believing they are deeply engaged in their learning.
At a recent workshop I attended, Bruce Beairsto said that 'the use of marks is abused often in schools' and 'marks aren't always being used in a way that induces deeper engagement or increased intrinsic motivation'.   We need to help students believe that they can accomplish things so that  they have the confidence to step into and take control of their own learning. 

So just how can we use assessment practices to support student engagement?
First, we need to provide students with challenging but reasonable tasks that our students can experience success on and build their own perceptions of  competence from.  We should focus more on formative assessment and less on summative evaluation.  We should assist students in their areas of difficulty and provide constructive, encouraging and specific feedback about what they can do, rather than what they can't do.  Our goal should be to increase our students' self-efficacy beliefs and avoid the impression of incompetence. (Beairsto, 2010) Students who believe they can change and improve their abilities are far more likely to deeply engage in their learning.

Beairsto spoke of four levels of engagement: compliant, attentive, connected and fulfilled.
In order to move students along this continuum we must get our students interested in what they are learning, help them connect what they are learning to their lives and help our students see the importance of what they are learning.  

Students who care about what they are learning and continue their learning beyond the classroom...isn't this our goal?