Friday, May 31, 2013

DL Credentialism and my mistake

I had a disheartening pre-class conversation with a bright grade 12 student recently.  It was a Monday morning and she told me she was tired.  She told me she had spent the weekend completing her Distance Learning (DL) Psychology 12 course.  Not simply finishing it mind you, but doing virtually the whole thing in two days.  She had been procrastinating after she had started the course and was receiving emails from her DL teacher urging her to get to work.  So she decided to get it done and worked straight through the weekend doing the workbook assignments and projects.  

She was proud of herself for working so hard and wanted me to share in her accomplishment, but of course I couldn't.  She is a smart girl who had read/scanned the text and found the answers.  At no point in her work did she have a meaningful discussion with a teacher or peer about the ideas she was reading about.  She jumped through the hoops the DL course presented her and got the credit.  What did she learn?  She learned to game the DL system in my district.  She learned how to get the credential.

My Mistake

After I talked to this girl I identified her to the DL admin and did receive a reply, but the story was not contradicted.  I have since learned that the student still has some work to do and the final exam.  I should have properly checked to see if this student had in fact done all the work.  It was negligent on my part.  I will leave the blog post as I originally wrote it with this correction in bold and accept my just deserts.

Had she taken that course with the teacher who teaches it at my school, she certainly would have gotten the credit.  She would also have been involved in class discussions about concepts and theories.  She would have joined other students in group work and presentations.  With her peers and teacher she would have built a deeper understanding for herself and others.

As it was a pre-class discussion I did not have chance to ask her what her motivations were for taking the DL course in the first place.  Frankly I was too depressed to go into it with her at that time, but will in the coming week.  I would like to see if her motivations are anything like those described by Doug Smith in his blog post about DL at his Vancouver school. He describes the motivation students have in his school for taking DL courses.  A quote from his blog:

"Currently at the school I work at we have seen the following:
  • students signing up for online courses because they know it is less work
  • students signing up for online courses because they know they will get a higher grade
  • students dropping a f2f course after a month or two because their grades aren’t as high as they want
  • students stop working in a f2f course because they will take it again online for a higher grade
  • students taking science courses online because there are less labs (eg chemistry labs are done via videos)
  • students dropping English with 70% averages and getting over 80% online"
That is behaviour we can expect from high school students.  So why do we continue to promote DL learning for those for whom it is not a necessity?  This is not what I have read 21st Century Learning should be.  The blended learning approach is certainly better than a straight DL course, as it does call for online conferencing, participating in discussion boards and some face to face seminars with a teacher and other students.  But online conferencing and discussion boards are poor replacements for face to face conferencing with teachers and students.  

When you are physically with someone you read and respond to body language.  You get humour because you can hear the tone of voice and see the raised eyebrow or feel the nudge.  The discussion boards and conferencing sacrifice that energetic piece of communication.  Some blended learning does call for a face to face component, but blended learning also calls for flexible time tables and students learning at their own pace.  This lack of co-ordination of student learning at a set pace means the students cannot discuss a common point in their understanding.  They can only do that with their instructor.  So the building a of a learning community is inhibited.

Here is a video of Shelley Wright's brick and mortar class. (Her blog is here ) 

She is using technology to leverage her students' access to up to date knowledge from experts in the field.  At the same time the brick and mortar setting, with its schedule, allows students to share their understanding with each other and build on it. The time students have to discuss, debate and clarify also builds interpersonal skills, helps strengthen patience, empathy and other things we don't test, but do value as teachers and as a society. DL cannot do this.  Blended learning that treats the student's setting of their own pace, and time when they will learn as primary elements in the students learning cannot do this.

Distance Learning in BC was originally meant for those who did not have access to certain courses because of geographic isolation or illness.  Blended learning is being used for students in my district  who are not ready for the classroom because of emotional disposition or for students whose families have chosen home schooling for philosophical reasons.  The teachers are having great success with these students.

However when DL or blended learning as it stands now, pulls students out of an engaging and challenging learning environment into one that is perceived by the student as easier and less challenging - we are promoting credentialism over learning and doing our students and society a disservice.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mini and micro seminars

Two years ago I had the pleasure of being the teacher sponsor for Jake West, who because of his creativity and confidence has become an excellent teacher.  His site is here. Jake introduced me to the idea of using mini-seminars in class which has become a valuable teaching and learning technique.  I have used it in Social Studies 9 and BC First Nations 12 to great effect and have modified it into what I call micro-seminars that I have used to cover a number of complicated land mark legal cases involving First Nations people in Canada in my BC First Nations 12 class.

Here is how the mini-seminar works:

Students or the teacher select pairs or small groups.  Students are presented with an event that involves conflict between two groups of people.  They are provided with material to read from their text, and other sources supplied by the teacher.

In their groups they take turns reading aloud as the other students read along silently.  They then discuss what they think are the important points in the reading they have done and take notes together. This is in fact a seminar among the students themselves although it has not been implicitly described to them as such.

They then must practice presenting from their notes to each other what they have learned, but are not allowed to rehearse only one particular part of the story.  They are aware they must know the whole thing and that the order of the presentation is decided by the teacher.

When they present to the teacher they are allowed to use their notes but must try to tell a story and have a discussion rather than simply read what they have written.

I have found that there are natural points in each story to interrupt and ask for judgments of individual players actions.  Motivations of historical players become clearer or more open to analysis and speculation through discussion.  Students naturally come to analyse events rather than simply try to remember them.  I have often been exposed to viable interpretations that had not occurred to me.

Once they have tried this method students like it and become good at it.  While one group is presenting, the rest of the class is practicing or working on something else.

The micro-seminars work the same way, but are used once the students are familiar and comfortable with the method.  They are used for smaller chunks of material and can be done quickly.

Check out the use of this activity for the Chilcotin War on my class blog here.

This is one of those ideas that once you use it makes you think "Why didn't I think of this?".  It is simple and works.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Working Together to Contruct Meaning

My students made craft videos to present the challenges First Nations people faced in BC adapting to a capitalist economy last week.  My student teacher Philippa Burn ran the class, but it was a team teaching effort.  They are up at our class site here and you can find the project outline and the rubric we used on that site as well.   I regularly talk to students about constructing understanding by sharing ideas with others.  We talk things through in small groups a lot which takes time and puts pressure on us to complete the curriculum.  But I see eyes light up as connections are made that surprise me

The craft video project was done with groups that were chosen by me.  I decided to put students together who had demonstrated similar work habits and similar attitudes (emerging philosophies?)  to learning.  They weren't necessarily friends and one of the explicit goals of the project was to find ways of working with people.  One group clearly enjoyed their time together and made a video that was well produced and showed some imagination in their story line, but they missed a couple of important ideas on assimilation.  One group was made up of students who did not have great inter-personal skills at the start.  They often quarreled  one member took regular walks in the hall to let off steam.  They did not get done in the time allotted and had to finish their work at lunch.  But they produced a video that while it was not as polished as they wanted, it did hit all the important ideas they were tasked to explore.

We showed the final products in class last Thursday.  Lots of laughs, and pride was evident in completing a difficult task.

The next time I try this ...
- I will set a seminar time to discuss with students what they have learned and expand on themes.  These expanded ideas will then have to be incorporated in the final product.

A problem to be worked out .... two groups have yet to complete this project. They did not use their time well in class and must come in at lunch to make the videos but can't organize themselves to do that.  Capable kids who did not completely buy in to this project.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

the power of professional transparency

My time is limited because of the demands of school and family, so pardon me please, if it is a little disjointed, but I have what I think is an important idea to advance advocacy for public education.  Since this is my first blog post - a little about me.  I am 54 years old and nearing the end of my teaching career.  I teach Japanese, Social Studies and BC First Nations 12 now, but have taught a few other things over the years.  I teach at a small high school on Vancouver Island with a student population of  650.  I feel I am finally becoming a good teacher but am disappointed it took me so long.

I have come to understand what it means to truly care for my students.  I listen well now not just with my ears but with my heart too.  When I say 'listening with my heart', it sounds like a cliche.  But I do mean it and can actually feel a pressure in the centre of my chest when I am truly engaged with the students.  Perhaps that touchy feely stuff is better left for another post.

We in British Columbia have an education system that for all the use of buzz words such as "inclusiveness" and listening to  "stake holders" really is a system that concentrates real power at the top for the benefit of a corporatist ideology.  The proof is a system that mandates little time for teachers to prepare for classes that are too big.  A typical high school class has 30 or more students. Most BC high schools run on the semester system that means for half the year teachers are teaching four, 80 minute classes a  day with a five minute break between classes and no preparation time in the school day.  Our educational leaders in Victoria say we are to "personalize" education for each of the more than 120 students we see each day.  The students and parents are told they should expect to get that "personalized" education experience.  If we fail to deliver, then naturally as front line workers we teachers shoulder the blame.

Here is what our education system needs to look like to truly deliver a meaningful personalized education experience to the children of BC:

- All classes would have a maximum of 20 students enrolled
- All teachers would have preparation time in every school day
- A tutorial block (something private schools in BC offer) would be provided to give the needed extra help to students.
- Master teachers would be recognized and would work with teachers on a regular basis to improve practice.

We don't have those simple common sense conditions because they would not create a learning environment that simply produces consumers of corporate goods and minds easily directed to support corporate goals.

Does that mean this kind of learning environment is not achievable?  Not at all.  We simply have to work at achieving them daily in our own schools.  The first step to do that is to identify education issues that need dialogue and debate to fully understand.  The current push for online learning is one such issue.  We have natural networks as educators that include our school and district administration.  It is perfectly normal and healthy to have these conversations.  The great thing about an email conversation is you can reflect on what is said and go back and check what has been said.  The use of this method puts pressure on our administration staff to defend the programs they are implementing in a professional discussion with their teachers.  If they can do so effectively, it simply enhances their position as education leaders and creates an environment where those policies can be more effectively implemented.   If they can't defend these policies, or worse do not respond to the professional enquiry, the policy is discredited and their implied authority as an educational leader is damaged.

This course of action is not something that is open to direct sanction or punishment.  I have tried it at my school to some effect. (Some colleagues and I maintained a discussion on online education for a week.) I see this professional enquiry as a truly democratic, transparent and professional tool if used consistently and regularly.  It acknowledges the power of transparent, honest and sincere professional communication.

Once we have established a culture in our schools of ongoing professional transparency other issues such as common sense learning conditions can be brought forward.  When they are part of an ongoing discussion they become actionable in ways that may not yet be apparent.  It is worth a try.