High Scores

When I log into my school board email system I am presented with a news feed that is received by all the teachers in the district.  Usually there are short stories about the accomplishments of different students/teachers in the board.  A few weeks ago I saw a “news release” that told about two students in our board who graduated high school this year with an average of 100% (based on their best 6 grade 12 courses).


What kind of assessments are these students exposed to such that they are able to score 100% on EVERYTHING?!

I can see how it may be possible for a student to demonstrate all of the knowledge requirements in a course, but as teachers we are responsible for far more than knowledge-based assessments.  I can only assume that if a student can finish with 100% in all her courses, then there has definitely been an over-emphasis on traditional tests and projects.  This is disappointing to me.

As teachers in the 21st century we need to create engaging learning environments where students are challenged to be critical and creative thinkers.  We need to develop assignments that encourage students to be resourceful and self-directed.  We need to provide opportunity for students to have meaningful collaboration and teamwork.  And we need to be aware that we are preparing our students for a world where the problems that need to be solved don’t fit on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, nor will they be solved with “test taking skills.”

Over the past few years, I have been trying to make the following changes to my classroom:

  1. Students learn from each other as much as possible.  Nurturing a classroom community is very important.
  2. Developing assignments that absolutely cannot be completed by copy/paste, memorization or “cramming.”
  3. Creating some projects that are broad in scope to allow students to “make it their own” in meaningful ways.

Personally, I think that the tradition of publishing the names of the students who have achieved the highest overall average in the board is an obsolete practice.  It comes from an era in which marks were emphasized above all else and the marks were based on old-school assessment practices like traditional tests, quizzes and homework checks.

In today’s fast-paced, hyper-connected world, achieving high marks in high school will only be one predictor of future success – and not the best one by far!  Instead, look for students who are intrinsically motivated, who are creative thinkers, who are self-directed learners, and who are able to build and maintain personal learning networks.  These are now (and have always been) better indicators of future success than a student’s graduating average.

Image Credit:  clspeace

Small Successes

Although I am a strong advocate for the use of instructional technology, I have never been a proponent of “technology for technology sake.”  In actual fact, my approach to education has little to do with technology and much more to do with creating 21st century learning environments that will prepare our students for a world that is rapidly changing.  Of course, technology is one component of creating these types of learning environments, but not the most important part.  Instead, we need to help teachers think differently about what “their job” is, and help student think differently about what “school” is.

The past few weeks I have had a few interactions that have made me believe that positive changes are happening in the world of education.  I wanted to share these success stories with you.

My Grade 10 Applied Science class has 22 really nice kids.  Generally speaking, they are not excited about Science, but I do my best to make it interesting and engaging for them, and we usually have a pretty good time.  I have always worked hard to model for my students an appropriate use of technology.  I am probably one of the few teachers in my school who does not have a “NO CELL PHONES” policy – Instead I have an “APPROPRIATE USE” policy.  At the beginning of each year it sometimes feels like I have opened Pandora’s box because I am constantly having to manage students’ use of their cell phones.  It takes many focussed conversations and a lot of modeling, but eventually students start to “get it” and I don’t have to work so hard any more.  This Monday, my Grade 10 class really got it and it was so cool to see.

Students were doing some reading in small groups about the different ecozones on Earth.  One of the short articles made reference to flying squirrels and one of my students asked me what they were.  I tried to explain it but I knew that a picture would communicate the concept much better so I pulled out my phone and Googled it.  They thought that was pretty great (and that flying squirrels are pretty creepy).

Ten minutes later I overheard Jas say, “what does epiphytic mean?”  It wasn’t 30 seconds after when I heard Nicole reply, “It’s a plant that can grow on another plant.”  I was completely caught off guard (mostly because even I don’t know what epiphytic means!).  When I asked Nicole how she knew the definition, she said, “Sir, I just looked it up on my phone,” as if I had just asked her a mundane question like what she ate for lunch.  I got so excited that I called everyone’s attention to praise Nicole publicly and reinforce her decision to use her cell phone in an appropriate way for our classroom.

Of course I expect that my students will still make poor choices about their cell phones from time to time, but I believe the message is getting through and that is a success story worth sharing!

Other success stories came from a few teachers at my school who recently attended the OSSTF Toys and Tools:  Technology in Education conference with me.  I was pleased to hear that they enjoyed the conference and have been trying some new “tech”-niques.  Some teachers from our Social Science department were inspired by Danika Barker’s presentation at the conference to start their own social network using Ning.  When I was talking to these teachers, they were excitedly telling me how the social network has already become an enriching experience for their students because …

“students are learning and sharing outside of the classroom, any time they want”
“students are learning from each other”
“students are making deeper connections”

It was like music to my ears!

Also in the past few weeks, I have had many teachers come by my office to tell me how they have been using web 2.0 tools in their classes:  PollEverywhere to facilitate a unit review, Voicethread to facilitate online discussions, MixedInk to practice writing lab reports, and the list goes on!

As a teacher who endorses the vision for 21st century learning environments, it can sometimes feel like we are very far away from reaching that goal.  However, a significant shift will take time and it is important to step back and recognize the small successes along the way.  These small successes give me a lot of hope for the future of teaching and learning.  If you have a success story to share, please tell us about it in the comments.

Image Credit:

Cell Phone – Mykl Roventine

Flying Squirrel – nikoretro

A New Approach to Classroom Expectations

Every year I discuss classroom expectations with my students.  Each year, this conversation looks somewhat different, but it generally involves asking students for input.  I have heard some teachers say that “developing classroom expectations with students allows them to feel some ownership of the rules, and they are more likely to follow them.”  I don’t really believe that.  In my experience, students know all the right answers, which is why every list of classroom expectations I have ever seen looks pretty much the same.

I feel that asking students for input on the classroom expectations is really a token gesture – it looks like a nice thing to do, but it’s not really a useful way to have a lasting impression on student behaviour.  The important part of generating a list of classroom expectations with your students in not what they come up with on the list, but how they come up with the list.  It is the process of generating a list of expectations that helps to establish the tone of the classroom.  Do you ask students to work collaboratively?  Do you encourage students to be creative in the presentation of their ideas?  Do students feel it is safe to contribute?  Does each student have a voice?

This year I tried something new.  First, I asked students to write down 5 expectations that all people (including the teacher) should always uphold while in the classroom in order to make it a better place to be.  Next, I asked students to form small groups and consolidate their lists.  Finally, we generated a list as a class by including only the expectations that showed up in more than one group.  This all took 20 minutes.  So far … so good … and pretty boring!

The next stage was to assign certain expectations to each group (it worked out to be at least two each.)  The groups were asked, “what does the expectation look like?  how will we know we are doing it?” – this generated some good discussion in the groups.  I then asked students to come up with a “picture” that we will take with a digital camera to remind us what the expectation looks like.

IMG_0217 modI had to give the students an example:  “If the expectation was, come to class prepared, we could take a picture of a student holding all of the necessary materials – pencils, paper, etc.”  The students immediately started talking in their groups about how they would capture their assigned expectations.  What would they do?  Who would they involve?  Did they need props?  Should they do multiple images?  All of this great discussion came out!  Most important to me, the students were collaborating on a task that was not clearly defined.  They needed to be creative; they needed to be problem solvers; they needed to communicate and compromise.  All of this interaction is what builds community in the classroom, not this list of expectations!

Finally, we took 10 minutes or so to set up each of the photographs, and captured the pictures with my digital camera.  My students really seemed to enjoy the activity and I feel that they left the class that day with a greater sense how to work effectively together, and a stronger image in their minds of the classroom expectations we generated.

That night, I went home and uploaded the pictures to Animoto, found some music licensed for use with Creative Commons and put together a short slide show to watch in class.  I have shown the video at the beginning of class for a few days.  The students think that it’s pretty cool because it is their photos in the video and the video is much more engaging than a list on the wall.  From now on, I will only need to show the video if I feel that the class needs a gentle reminder.

For your viewing pleasure, I have embedded a modified version of our classroom expectations video.  In order to protect the identities of my students, I have put cartoons over their faces.  In general, I tried not to change the wording of the expectations that the students came up with.  I wanted them to feel that this video came from them and not from me.  Also, because each photo was part of a larger conversation we had in class, the image probably communicates more to my students than it might to you.  Enjoy!