Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Making of a masterpiece

Too often we show students completed work, the final product.  Students may look at it, read it or hear it and think that it is fantastic, but then they think that they never could do it themselves.  We may try to break it down for them, but we rarely show how they got to the final product.  We try to encourage them, give them positive feedback and tell them that they can do it.  Rarely are students ever shown what the rough copies looked like, how many models or sketches were done nor how many pieces of crumpled up paper ended up the waste basket (and of course properly recycled).  Today I spent a good part of my morning in the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, one of my favourite museums of all times.

As I was walking through the museum admiring the work of the artists and been mesmerized by some of their creations, I was thinking to myself that I wish I could paint like that, or sculpt like that.  The works are amazing.  I was looking at a painting by Gustave Courbet called A Burial at Ornans.  It was not so much the painting as it was the size, roughly 10ft by 20ft.  The people are life-sized in the painting and the detail is impressive.  The reason that I bring this up is because I started wondering how many sketches he must have done prior to doing the painting.  There are many paintings of this size in the museum and I kept thinking that they had to have planned it out and did not just start painting.

As I continued around the museum there was a section on Gustav Mahler.  The reason that I bring this up is because the display contained some of his sheet music.  When you start to look at the sheet music you realize that they are drafts of some of the music he composed. There are sections crossed out, times changed, notes changed and titles changed.  Sometimes there are whole sections that have been taken out, and other times just a few bars (I have not taken a music class in years so my terminology might be off).  As I was looking at this I kept thinking that this is what kids need to see, the rough drafts with changes and editing that had been done.  Mahler made mistakes, he changed parts of it, he did not get it right the first time round.  This would have been a great lesson for students to see, even world famous composers don't get it right the first time.  Too often we focus on the genius of the work and not the time and effort that went into it.

I think it would be of great use to our students if we could find more collections like the Mahler one so that they could see the editing process and realize that even great artists needed to review and change their work.  I feel it makes them realize that these great artists are human and had to take their time, a very important lesson for students to learn.  The next time you are featuring some great artist, see if you can find some roughs, I think it will make the lesson richer.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Allowing kids to fail without feeling like a failure

Between the jet lag and not having slept in over 30 hours, waking up at 3am in France is an interesting time to reflect.  For some reason I started thinking about the magic of children's beliefs and the profound sadness of those who are struggling.

A couple of reasons probably led me to these thoughts.  We recently had the students complete a survey for a local university.  The students had been told that if at any time they became uncomfortable with the questions they could just stop.  When the questions got to self-esteem, a number of students that we worry about decided that they did not want to continue, which was quite sad that at a young age they already had that image of themselves.

The second reason was that a friend and colleague had tweeted about the incredible passion of students and their desire to change the world.  She had shared an example of the student wanting to do something for the victims of the earthquake in Japan.  The question was then posed, when do children stop believing that they can change the world?  I had replied with "When adults tell them too many times they cannot do it".  Why do so many of us adults tell kids they can't do something rather than letting them try.  Hopefully they are successful, and if not, can there not be a rich conversation around the why, rather than a "I told you so" conversation?

With the debate around moving away from letter grades, some of the talk was around the life lessons around failing.  I am not sure if there are life lessons in failing but there are amazing lessons to be learned from failed attempts.  When a baby is learning to walk, there are going to be moments of teetering, there are going to be times of falling flat on the butt (thank goodness for the extra padding in the nappies) and perhaps the occasional set of tears when they completely lose their balance.  The vast majority of adults would not try to stop them from trying to walk until they felt the child was ready for the experience.  We let them experience failed attempts as a natural part of their development.

When children first begin to speak, we listen to what they say, we do our bet to understand them and there are a lot of hand gestures, pointing and guessing involved.  We do not stop them when their utterances are incorrect.  We let them try to explain themselves, we ask them to repeat. We model the language for them, they listen, they mimic and they keep trying.  There are many failed attempts that might occur, but the key is that they are encouraged to keep on trying.

One of the parts of my job that I really love is when I watch the kindergarten students build with blocks or lego.  Their imagination is inspiring and their thought process is so verbal and remarkable.  You listen to them talk to one another as they attempt to build the largest tower in the world.  It will fall over and they try again.  They talk about what they felt went wrong, they make adjustments and they try again. That tower may fall 10-15 times, but each time they try with a new idea and gradually they are more successful.  If we were to intervene and show them what they are doing wrong, would they be as interested in trying again or will they become passive as you show them what to do.  Would they still be interested in hypothesizing on their own and lose the desire to continue? When they ask for help, do you push them aside, build a large tower or do you ask them questions, listen to their ideas, and then maybe ask a few guiding questions and let them try again.

This is not to say that we should not be limiting some of their ideas.  I remember when I was on supervision watching two boys with large golf umbrellas running up to the playground.  Somehow intuitively I knew what they were up to and I stopped them before they climbed to the top of the playground to do around a 10-12 foot jump to test out the parachute abilities of the umbrellas.  This does lead me to pose the question, when should we intervene, when do they need our protection?

We try to protect the children by not letting them make the same mistakes we made, but is that the right thing to do?  By limiting their exposure to making mistakes, trial and error and failure, are we preparing them for what to do when they encounter difficulties?  Are they given as many problem solving opportunities as they need?  Think back to the conversations that are had when the child makes a mistake, when their attempt to do something ended up in failure.  Were they told that it serves them right for trying?  Were they told that they should never have tried it in the first place? When do those conversations need to take place?

In “protecting” students are we stunting their growth, limiting their development and diminishing that spirit that they can be whatever they want, that they can change the world around them and that they can be a difference maker?  When do they start worrying about red tape, policies, whether or not it is worth trying?  Why are there so many adults who intentionally, or accidentally, correct students until they no longer want to try?

It seems that in the school system, as the students get older, we move more from experimenting, trial and error and problem solving to one of rigidity, compliance, and focussing on what is wrong versus what is right.  To fail at an attempt is considered unacceptable, and then we fail the students when their failures exceed their successes. Students are then assigned a failing grade.  Nothing like reinforcing what they are not getting to motivate them to try again.

We can have a later conversation about how to differentiate between the student who gets it right away and the one who gets it on the 20th attempt, but if on the 20th attempt they get it and really understand it, why are they then given a failing grade? They may have struggled on their homework and quizzes, they may have needed extra tutorials and they may have stayed after class to get extra support, but if on their last assessment they have clearly demonstrated that they understand what was taught, why are they being punished or diminished for having failed in their first attempts? Are we teaching or are we sorting?

One of the biggest disservices we can do to our kids and students is knock that spirit out of them by constantly correcting, limiting, condemning failure and not letting them experiment.  If they are not likely to be seriously hurt, should we be stopping them?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Changing the Face of Reporting Through Assessment Practices

A little while ago I wrote about how a number of schools in my district were looking at changing our reporting practices, moving away from letter grades to standards based reporting.  Based on the recommendations of @tomschimmer and @birklearns when it came to re-examining our assessment and reporting practices, I picked up two books by Ken O'Connor:  How to Grade for Learning and A Repair Kit for Grading; 15 Fixes for Broken Grades.  I have just started reading A Repair Kit and already in the first chapter there is a great list which would be a very good conversation starter for any staff.  The discussions on these points alone could take a while.

15 fixes for Broken Grades
Grades are broken when they -
• include ingredients that distort achievement
• arise from low quality or poorly organized evidence
• are derived from inappropriate number crunching, and when they 
• do not support the learning process

Fixes for ingredients that distort achievement
1. Don’t include student behaviors (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc) in grades; include only achievement.
2. Don’t reduce marks on “work” submitted late; provide support for the learner.
3. Don’t give points for extra credit or use bonus points; seek only evidence that more work has resulted in a higher level of achievement.
4. Don’t punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades; apply other consequences and reassess to determine actual level of achievement.
5. Don’t consider attendance in grade determination; report absences separately.
6. Don’t include group scores in grades; use only individual achievement evidence

Fixes for low quality or poorly organized evidence
7. Don’t organize information in grading records by assessment methods or simply summarize into a single grade; organize and report evidence by standards/learning goals.
8. Don’t assign grades using inappropriate or unclear performance standards; provide clear descriptions of achievement expectations.
9. Don’t assign grades based on student’s achievement compared to other students; compare each student’s performance to preset standards.
10. Don’t rely on evidence from assessments that fail to meet standards of quality; rely only on quality assessments.

Fixes for inappropriate number crunching
11. Don’t rely only on the mean; consider other measures of central tendency and use professional judgment.
12. Don’t include zeros in grade determination when evidence is missing or as punishment; use alternatives, such as reassessing to determine real achievement or use “I” for Incomplete or Insufficient Evidence.

Fixes to support the learning process
13. Don’t use information from formative assessments and practice to determine grades; use only summative evidence.
14. Don’t summarize evidence accumulated over time when learning is developmental and will grow with time and repeated opportunities; in those instances, emphasize more recent achievement.
15. Don’t leave students out of the grading process. Involve students; they can - and should - play key roles in assessment and grading that promote achievement.

The first chapter resonated with many of the thoughts that I have had, namely around the punishment/rewards aspects around letter grades and what they represent. O'Connor writes that grades have served a variety of purposes including: to communicate student achievement to students, parents, school administrators, post-secondary institutions and employers as well as sorting and selecting, motivation and punishment.  These purposes are in conflict with communicating their successes and ranking and sorting.  The first chapter is a lot to chew on.

Which ones are the most important? which ones resonate the most with you?