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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

What keeps me up at night.

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009
This misses the point entirely.

This misses the point entirely.

Assessment is the part of my job that I enjoy the least.

By a wide margin.

I’ve taught math in the past. Presently, I teach I.T. and History. All three are completely different animals when it comes to assessment, and each poses a unique set of problems that manages to keep me awake at night.

You can be ruthlessly objective when grading a math test or homework assignment: the requirements are clear, and there is (generally) only one right answer. Your numeric grade in math represents the extent to which you measure up to perfection. Plain and simple. Cold and calculating. Not particularly friendly. 1

Try throwing around a word like ‘perfection’ in a history class and you lose your credibility in an instant. In a course designed to teach students that there ultimately IS no ‘right answer’, you can’t take the mathematical approach. So how do you assess? What does that magic number represent? The extent to which you demonstrate reasoning and critical thinking skills? Well, yes. But good luck determining that objectively.

Take a moment and give your own reasoning skills a grade from 0 to 100.

… See what I mean?

What does assessment mean when it comes to  I.T.? The canned answer is “problem solving skills, naturally.” But are problem solving skills any easier to assess than reasoning skills, or critical thinking skills?

Skills are at the heart of assessment, but most assessment instruments do a poor job assessing skills. Unless you intend to measure content retention as a ’skill’, there’s really no point in giving closed-book, timed history tests. The same goes for math tests that don’t ask you to show your work. And the idea of a written I.T. exam is just laughable.

If you want to measure reasoning skills, assess the questions your students ask. If you want to measure critical thinking skills, give your students the tools and watch what they do with them. If you want to measure problem solving skills, pose a real problem, step back and watch. It’s fun.

Now, give your problem solving skills a mark out of 100.

Annoyed yet?

  1. I’m aware this is a contentious statement. In reality things are much more complicated, and good math teachers do what they can to employ alternative assessments. Collaborative work, portfolios, and independent study projects are great tools to this end. But how often do you see them stand in place of quizzes and tests?

Why Luddites shouldn’t handle policy decisions.

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

I couldn’t let  this one pass by without comment.1

 A first-year student at Ryerson University faced an academic misconduct hearing this month for alleged ‘cheating’ over Facebook. Chris Avenir was ‘caught’ moderating a study group for students enrolled in a chemistry course.

When did this become a crime? Students at most universities (including Ryerson, I know for a fact), have department-endorsed study rooms where students come and go at will, swapping notes and exchanging solutions. This is virtually the same thing.

Thankfully, Avenir wasn’t expelled, but in what I view to be a gross injustice, he was given an F on an assignment and a note in his permanent record, stating he was disciplined. And they’re touting this as a huge victory for students at Ryerson, because he could have faced 147 counts of academic misconduct instead.

There is a huge problem here, and it doesn’t have to do with cheating online. The problem is that Avenir’s chemistry professor insisted that students work independently.

The expectation that students work on their own, in a vacuum, to solve problems and complete assignments belongs to a model of learning that became obsolete in the 19th century. No student is an island anymore, and nobody gets anywhere meaningful in complete isolation.

The professor, and likely the entire Faculty Appeals Committee at Ryerson, belong to an era where independent work was still valued. They also belong to an era where talking pictures were all the rage, computers were giant machines that filled entire rooms and took 5 hours to perform calculations on punchcards, and people still paid typists by the page to run off copies of their theses.

See a problem here? These people have no business shaping educational policy at a 21st century post-secondary institution. Their values are out of place, and so are their conceptions about education.

If anything, the 21st century will be all about collaborative learning and problem solving. It will be about groups of students working together, pooling all their resources, to tackle problems an entire order of complexity higher than any of them could solve alone. Good educational policy should reflect this. It should encourage students to ask each other for solutions, not penalize them with draconian policies when they’re caught doing what they’ve been doing for at least 2 decades already.

In an era where one of our world’s foremost minds has no qualms about posting his life’s work online, and calling on mathematicians, physicists and particle theorists to read, refine and augment it, you would think that a few stodgy professors at a university claiming to be at the cutting-edge of applied sciences might want to rethink their stance on collaboration.

They’re probably too busy trying to open an email attachment in WordPerfect format.

  1. By the way, thanks, CBC, for the wonderful site re-design, that offers no formatting-stripped print option. I guess I missed the memo when this became acceptable practice for reputable online news sources…

Classrooms in the Future

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

It’s no secret – I don’t write enough on my own. Someday I’ll overcome my perfectionism and take a more relaxed, casual attitude towards writing. Hopefully soon.

For now, here’s something I wrote for my technology methods class, in response to the following discussion question:

Technology has had a tremendous impact on the educational environment in recent years. It has changed the way that teachers teach and students learn. What will a classroom look like ten years from now? What about 50 years from now?    

*     *     *   

We are moving towards a society that values information and innovation over specific skills. I believe that as we move into this future, our focus in the classroom will shift from content to process. What I mean by this is, the content we teach will gradually matter less than the process whereby students learn (reflexively).

    We are at the brink of an age of unimaginable scientific and cultural self-realization. The keys to unlocking this age are innovation, creativity and forward-thinking. If we force our future students to learn at a pace slower than that of technological advancement, we will never unlock this future.

    I will be disappointed if, in fifty years, students are still learning mathematical computation skills like long division in math class, or learning orthography and grammar in language arts. I will be disappointed, because it is unnecessary. We have moved to a point in history where we can trust technology to do the grunt work, and focus on higher-order concepts at an earlier stage in our development. If every cohort of students has to re-invent the wheel (learn long division, worry about grammar and spelling), future generations will be doomed to stagnation.

    In ten years, I would hope that 3rd or 4th grade students are learning algebra and computer programming in their classrooms. With the help of technology, these students will be able to make connections that would take years to make otherwise. I would hope that, in the future, high school students learn what today’s students learn in university. Imagine what higher education could yeild if students - going in - already knew first or second-year chemistry, biology and applied sciences.

    In another half-century, I hope that the keyboard and mouse are abandoned as anachronistic. I hope great strides are taken to facilitate written communication in English (or whatever language becomes the lingua franca of the future). I want to see technology facilitate the arduous process of articulating, communicating and translating a great idea across the world.

    I am convinced, as my colleagues are, that the classroom of the future will not change in the most fundamental way. It will still be an environment that provides students with the tools of discovery and innovation. And like most future-minded thinkers, I care less about the content than the process. What the classroom of the future will look like is of secondary importance to how it will function.

    If we want to solve the world’s problems, we can’t afford to spend a quarter of our lives learning to do what a machine can do faster and better. We need to stand on the shoulders of giants, and trust them to help us reach those heretofore unattainable heights.

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