Ask teachers to describe some of the concerns they have for their students and it's quite likely they'll begin by describing specific portions of their course that students find more challenging than others. They may refer to students who consistently fail to complete work, are unprepared for tests, appear distracted by other interests or are very much disengaged. The list of concerns and frustrations can go on and on.
I often hear teachers compare the students of today with students of the past and claim that our present students 'just aren't the same as students were in the past'. They claim kids today simply aren't as responsible and lack perseverance and resilience in the face adversity or challenge.
I cannot deny the importance of students developing a sense of responsibility, perseverance and resilience. These are important qualities for students to develop and take with them into adulthood. However, some questions I'm pondering are:
- Is our assertion that students would be more successful if they demonstrated more responsibility, more perseverance and more resilience simply an excuse for us not to examine and be critical of our practices?
- Are we 'forcing' students to persevere through their learning when we should be looking for ways to engage them more in what we're asking them to learn?
- Is increased responsibility, perseverance and resilience the answer for some of our most vulnerable learners?
- What are 'we' doing to create an environment where students can develop personal responsibility, perseverance and resilience?
These are obviously big questions. Not ones that can be answered in one blog post. For the purpose of this post I'm going to focus on our assessment practices and how they may impact what we observe in our schools.
If you were a student who struggled to achieve learning mastery because the pace was too quick for you, the content was too difficult for you or you were lacking the skills to accomplish a task, what actions do you think you would demonstrate? To start with, you'd probably struggle to meet deadlines.
But if you took your teacher up on his/her flexible timelines, and sought out his/her assistance in helping you learn the necessary skills and knowledge, great! Your teacher would probably compliment you on how your commitment and handwork led to your achievement!
But, what if your teacher stuck to rigid deadlines, didn't 'insist' you come in for extra help and assigned you zeros when you failed to complete work on time? You'd probably get discouraged, your confidence would be deflated and gradually you'd probably resign yourself to failure. Over time, you'd likely appear disengaged. Your teacher might describe you as lacking initiative, lazy or as someone who gives up too easily. And just imagine if you'd been enduring these struggles for the many years you've attended school. Of course the lack of success would leave you feeling beaten down and you'd be far more likely to wave the white towel at the first sign things weren't going well! So while you'd have heard many people tell you that if you just 'worked harder, stayed up-to-date and learned from your mistakes' you'd be successful, you'd find it much harder to do so because the odds were stacked against you.
So if we insist on rigid timelines for the submission of work and apply punitive measures (zeros, late penalties) when students fail to submit work on time, what more can we expect to see other than seemingly irresponsible students who lack perseverance and resilience?
Is it really 'right' for us to be critical of our students and insist they will ALL be successful if only they were more responsible, perseverant and resilient? Or, do WE also need to look ourselves in the mirror and examine whether our assessment practices are enabling students to become more responsible, perseverant and resilient?
Please take a moment to read through the short list below and reflect on your own assessment practices. If you feel you could do more in any of the following areas as part of your daily routine as an educator, then I encourage you to make the shift.
- Provide 'flexible deadlines' to meet the needs of the range of learners you teach. (I'm not suggesting you eliminate deadlines!)
- 'Insist' that students see you for help outside of regular class time when you notice they are lagging behind or struggling in a particular area.
- Abolish '0'! Communicate with your students. Ask them 'why' they didn't complete their work, insist that they do so and if necessary, insist they do so in your presence so you can offer support and troubleshoot their mistakes.
- Involve parents in the conversation early on! Describe what you're observing in class, what their child needs to do in order to be successful and how you are supporting their child in achieving these goals.