Bits and Bobs December 2015

I have dipping in and out of various books at the moment and thinking about a few different topics. I haven’t quote reached the point in my thinking about these to commit to a whole blog post about them. But I’m feeling the need to document where I am at least So this post is a bit of preliminary mapping.

Dylan Wiliam and Assessment for Learning:

Following on from my observation I have taken my tutor’s advice and spent a little bit of time looking into Assessment for Learning and the ideas of Dylan Wiliam. I have to admit I haven’t spent a huge amount time on this or got very far. I have been watching the illuminating documentary Wiliam created for BBC Two showing how his methods work in practice.

Wiliam starts from the point that all students need to be challenged and stretched in a non-threatening environment. Following on from some of the observations of Geoff Petty which I see in my classroom, asking questions is a tricky business (Petty 2014). Especially if you want to get everyone paying attention and participating.

In one episode Wiliam introduces lolly sticks to the school he is experimenting with. Each students’ name is written on the lolly stick and these are placed in a cup. The teacher then selects a lolly stick and asks a question or vice versa. The random chance of being picked is supposed to encourage students to take part, think when they don’t know and pay attention because they could be asked.

The reactions of students to this was revelatory. Lower achieving students seem to react well and start trying to answer the questions despite not feeling confident. The higher achieving students hate the new way of doing things because they can’t show off. They don’t like sharing the limelight with lower achieving students. This is possibly understandable but what happens next is surprising.

A teacher notices one the lolly sticks is missing from the pot. It turns out the same student’s lolly sticks are missing from every teachers’ pot. Someone clearly doesn’t like being put on the spot! But it isn’t a lower achiever, it is a high achiever who regularly puts her hand up to answer. When confronted the student explains that she only put her hand up when she definitely knew the answer previously but now she is exposed to answering questions she doesn’t know the answer to.

The student feels this is unfair. She says there are loads of questions she could answer but these are given to others and when she gets picked she doesn’t know the answer. The student feels little empathy for the lower achieving students, stating that people expect her to get the answers right so she is more embarrassed by getting them wrong: it is a bigger deal. I can sympathise with this to a point but the self-esteem and confidence of lower achieving students matters too.

Interestingly, the other method Wiliam introduces is to not grade every assignment or piece of work, is also a fail in the eyes of the high achieving students. The school has a standard feedback sheet with standardised comments (something I find a bit odd) which includes the grade but focuses a lot on what was done well and what needs to be improved and how.

The students nearly revolt when they receive the feedback and there is no grade. Watching them, it is striking how that is the first place they look. A lower achieving student remarks that they can’t show off now which is a common occurrence when grades are given. One student gets very tetchy that there isn’t a grade because it doesn’t tell her anything. The teacher explains that the same level of feedback is on the sheet. The student starts reading the written feedback and begins questioning the terms on the standardised sheet. It occurs to me that she has never read passed what she got. Wiliam’s assertion that grading students either distracts or demotivates them from learning seems borne out.

For me, grading is not part of what I do which in many ways is a relief. With a subject like mine the students’ skills feed into their assignments and essays which are the graded on a much wider set of criteria. Sometimes this is frustrating because it means they don’t always value the skills: in courses where information skills are marked tacitly students don’t seem as keen as those courses (like Access) where they are marked discretely. It also makes our situation in terms of curriculum time perilous. What gets assessed explicitly gets the most attention.

But I did find it very interesting as a general comment on our education system how hung up on grades the students were, and how terrified some students were of getting things wrong. As Wiliam explains to one student, education is about knowing all the answers, it is about learning. This is very much how I see my sessions, I am so keen to explain that I don’t have all the answers because the skills I’m teaching are situational (Walsh

For Wiliam, the classroom should be exempt from fear of failure or looking silly. I guess this is something you can try to build but as an individual in a system hell bent on making students obsess about grades and getting things right, it seems like wishful thinking that you would be successful. It makes me think of bell hooks trying to create “community of learning” against the tide in what could be just a term’s worth of paper (hooks 1994). For me, it seems an even harder obstacle to surmount, given the one-shot nature of what I do.

And I wonder how far you can create a community of learning and trust if it is so alien to students participating and they feel they are being put on the spot or set up to fail. New practices will often confuse and wrong-foot students. We talk about agency and voice but if students are hitting back like in the school Wiliams is working in, are we right to press on with our own agenda? As Stephen Brookfield argues we need to ask these questions and reflect on our practice through this lens, but that sometimes learning isn’t comfortable and needs to move students forward through forcing them out of their comfort zone (Brookfield 1995).

Thinking about the reactions of the students in Wiliam’s documentary, lower achieving students are being forced out of their comfort zone every moment they spend in education. Higher achieving students are able to dictate and control whether they stop in their comfort zone or not, whilst saving face and feeling good about themselves by comparing their achievements with where others are, rather than how far they themselves have come.

I will have a think about the lolly sticks…

The point of reflexion:

After a very fruitful week of reflexions last week, I have been reflecting on reflecting. I spent a good portion of a morning last week really pinning down challenges I had around group work, following suggestions from my tutor during my observation. It was a n in-depth piece, probably a bit nuts and boltsy, but sufficiently explicit about “why” I chose group work to make it reflexive as well as reflective.

I had the opportunity to spend so much time on a reflexion because it was one of the rare days the LRC was fully staffed and I could sit in my office. I had been reading and thinking lots; I just needed to get my thoughts in order on the screen. Just as I finished, a colleague came in and asked me if I was okay. I was quite excited, flushed with all the connections I had made and a renewed confidence in my ability as a teacher to make worthwhile things work. So I told her a little about what I had decided to do with some of our sessions.

She received all of this enthusiastically and it opened a brief discussion. She then mentioned that she had come in to ask me to help her deal with a difficult situation in the LRC with some students and a tutor. I suddenly felt quite guilty that whilst she had been out in the LRC managing all this, I had sat in my office with the door closed “thinking” and “reflecting” about teaching. After sorting out the problems, I tried to shake the feelings of guilt, reflecting that for my team they don’t have the luxury of having the kind of time and space I do to plan and reflect on sessions.

I resolved to create time in the working week, even if it meant I had to cover for an hour or two. We need to make sure everyone is reaping the rewards of this way of working, not just those higher up on the pay scale.

Feeling slightly less bad about the whole situation, I pushed my little negative thoughts to the sidelines and tried to concentrate on the main game: over-hauling our core sessions. Usually anything involving me thinking, planning and making decisions takes a bit of time and I have to take regular breaks, but for the rest of that morning I felt like I was on fire! All of what I had read, written and thought about fed into the planning in a way I hadn’t really envisaged. For me, it confirmed the importance of reflexion for teaching.

Becoming a teacher – the hero’s journey:

After reading a book about information and connections edited by two librarians passionate about information literacy, I have been ruminating on one particular chapter that conceptualised the process of becoming information literate (for study) as akin to a hero’s journey. Drawing on analysis of heroes in fiction, Linda Tolly outlines a standard pathway heroes follow from genres as diverse as fantasy novels and romantic comedies (Tolly 2013).

I am intrigued by this analysis and it is very interesting to think of most films or novels as following the same basic rubric. I also liked the way xxx used it to tell the story of a student navigating university level information seeking for the first time (Tolly 2013). This coincided with me reading a chapter by Gillie Bolton on narrative and metaphor as a tool for reflexion (Bolton 2014). So I am attempting to construct my own hero’s tale about becoming teacher. Not in the procedural sense but in the experiential sense.

Planning my next assignment:

Finally, I have been thinking a lot about my next assignment. This centres of professional development and gives us the opportunity to develop two areas of our knowledge or skills. Reflecting on my observation, differentiation seems to be a key development area of mine, especially how it fits into one-shot sessions. The theme of one-shot session is something I would like to develop next year for my conference paper. The second area I will need to develop, going into my new role, is e-learning. Shot through both of these development areas I would like to tackle learner voice, based on my new job role but also on finding Brookfield’s student lens the hardest aspect of reflexion (Brookfield 1995).

References:

Bolton, G. (2014). Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development. London: Sage.

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Fran Cisco: Jossey-Bass.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.

Petty, G. (2014). Teaching today: a practical guide. Oxford: Oxford university Press.

Tolly, L. (2013). The Information Quest: Mapping the Information Adventure to ‘The Hero’s Journey’ of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. In Walsh, A. and Coonan, E. (Eds.), Only Connect. Huddersfield: Innovative Libraries.

Wiliam, D. (Writer & Presenter) & Barry, D. (Director). (2010). Addicted to Grades [Television series episode]. In D. Barry (Producer), The Classroom Experiment. London, England: BBC 2.

 

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