Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Repeat Grand Finale

One of my best friends is a corporate trainer, and a regular topic at our monthly lunch dates is teaching for different generations. We talk a lot about teaching the Millennial generation and how that generation gets dumped on quite a bit, and adjusting teaching for multiple generations in the same classroom. She's got some interesting views on this particular part of teaching, and I always come

away with a new book to read or a promise that she'll send me this article. It's a dimension of teaching not included in traditional teacher prep since most K-12 classrooms include students of the same(ish) age; this is not the case in higher ed or in corporate training classrooms. 

My classes this semester just happened to be dominated by recent high school graduates. Most have a semester of college now behind them, but a residual green-ness is still evident. Naturally, the different approaches I need to take now have been the focus of my prep time, especially since these same characteristics are typically those of students who don't do so well in or fail my classes.  

Two pieces got me thinking further about this. The first is a YouTube video sent to me by my co-worker the other day, Branford Marsalis' Take On Students Today, in which the speaker shares that his music students seem to be "only interested in how good they are, and how right they are." The most provocative part comes at about 0:43: 
"...the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being it..." 

Just hold onto that for a second.

The second is the buzz around Sec. Arne Duncan's speech on reauthorizing NCLB, (for background, read this EdCentral post), particularly the changes to the testing mandates that are said to set limits and streamline the process. 

Now, back to Marsalis. Marsalis was referring to the idea of being a musician instead of actually working to be a musician, but the same could be said for students in general. The idea of being a student is more important than actually working to be a student; the idea that you learned something is more important than actually learning it.  

And it seems that testing reinforces "the idea of" instead of the "actually being." 

A great comment on the Marsalis YouTube post says this: 
"...some of my teachers were great, but they let us know that we were just students in the process of learning." [Emphasis mine]
Assessments and tests imply that learning is finished. Try as we might to implement both formative and summative assessment or call it "progress monitoring," tests still trigger a sense of completion and stand for an end, a finished product in some manner. If we constantly test our students, we constantly tell our students that they are "finished" and the process of learning is cut short. The actual learning that occurred is less important than the idea that the student learned something. Taking a test is part of being a student, so it's more important to take the test and adhere to the idea of being a student than to actually be a student. 

Assessment itself is absolutely essential, and we need to keep working to find a balance. But I came to this when I started comparing the standardized, high-stakes, all-encompassing tests we ask K-12 students to do relatively often to the local, low-pressure, subject-specific assessments my co-worker uses in his AUTO classroom. Why do his assessments seem to work so much better? Because the instructor considers the action involved in producing the answers? Because students are held to get 100% before moving on? Because the instructors then use the results to inform teaching? Because they are local? All of the above! 

The nature of assessment in this classroom reflects progress, improvement, and opportunity. Students are well-aware that they are in the process of learning, not at the end; that the process requires certain actions and they won't be able to simply sit through the class and "get by"; and that the assessments are part of the process of learning, not the finale.

In my classroom in post-secondary, the students who struggle the most are recently graduated seniors students. They often struggle to find that new definition of what it means to be a student, to redefine what "good enough" now means or what "enough studying" now means, or to find the nuances that will guarantee them a good score. It takes a few weeks for most to figure out that the answers to the first two are outside their comfort zone, and that I'm looking for more than just regurgitation of my own brilliance. They can't just sit through the test and call themselves students. 

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