More Quality and Quantity, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! It’s a week of beginnings and endings in my face-to-face teaching world: the end of a grading period, the beginning and end of midterm exams, the departure of some students whose families are moving. It’s a time for taking stock and reflecting … and it’s also been a very up-and-down week. Monday afternoon I felt as though I’d been completely unsuccessful with three students in particular, and yet, by the end of the day on Tuesday, things seemed to have turned around for at least two of them. I also had wonderful, positive conversations with the mothers of those two. They both continued to have some struggles (and, at times, to be extremely unpleasant to me and their classmates) for the rest of the week. But as I write this on a sunny, cool Friday morning (the first day of a three-day weekend in my face-to-face teaching world), I feel more hopeful about the two of them than I have in a very long time.

The experience of midterm exams in my face-to-face classes is often a bitter learning experience for my less-responsible, less-mature students – the ones who haven’t yet taken Ownership of their learning in particular. They certainly have wake-up calls along the way in the form of smaller, more targeted assessments … but those can be easy to ignore. As you know if you’re a long-time lēctor fidēlissimus, I have some reservations about large, summative assessments in general – but if they’re going to happen (and, by policy of my face-to-face school district, they’re required), I want them to be a real learning experience and a real indicator of my students’ progress with all the Knowledge, Skills, and Understandings they’ve developed at the half-way point in their courses. The sober faces – and the false bravado that some of my students like to put on as a mask – were good indicators that this year’s exams achieved both goals. I’ve looked at them, but am waiting until later today (or possibly tomorrow morning), over a cup of coffee or tea, to do the actual marking and grading. If it were just a bit less windy, I’d sit outside in the late fall sun … but wind and exam papers don’t mix well! I’d also have a very disappointed dog if I were outside and he were stuck inside – and a very difficult time concentrating if he were outside with me.

Of all weeks, exam periods really bring out the industrial side of factory-model schools. The very existence of a midterm or final examination implies the kind of post-production quality control I mentioned in Monday’s post, of course. And since factory-model schools are all about attendance and seat time, my poor students are stuck at school all day – even when some of their teachers have “nothing” for them to do. After years of schooling, they’ve come to expect such wasted time … so much so that they often resent being asked to “do work” on such days. I was able to find an engaging – and utterly different and self-contained – learning opportunity for them yesterday, the “makeup exam” day, but it was a painful struggle. There were several times I felt like the foreman at a factory where the workers were about to strike … or maybe the vīlicus on a Roman farm where the servī were considering rebellion! 🙂 My hope is that within a few years, schools (and assessment techniques) will change to the point that this paragraph seems hopelessly quaint and outdated! And I hope that the continuous assessment model at the heart of the Tres Columnae Project will help to lead the way.

But in a time of huge changes and shifts across society, it’s hard to know what aspects of any institution will need to change and what will need to stay the same. Is it more difficult, or just different, I wonder, when the institution is a school? Like all institutions, schools are fundamentally a conservative, restraining force – and what’s more, they (I should say “we”) exist, at least in part, in order to maintain the social order, to socialize young members of society into their “expected” or “proper” roles. That can be difficult, to say the least, when the social order is changing! And it’s always difficult to find the right balance of structure and freedom or opportunity for young people who are on the cusp of adulthood, but not quite there yet … especially when they make poor choices, or when they abuse the freedoms or opportunities that are provided for them.

When I was first planning the Tres Columnae Project, it seemed to me that a self-paced, collaborative learning environment would make it easier to strike the right balance between structure and freedom or opportunity for our learners and subscribers. After all, unlike a student in a factory-model school, a Tres Columnae subscriber presumably

  • comes to us by choice rather than by compulsion;
  • is free to work at his or her own pace, rather than at a “forced march” dictated externally;
  • can linger over difficult or intriguing points until his or her curiosity is satisfied; and
  • can become a co-creator, not just a consumer, of the learning materials by making Submissions to the project.

But just as my own face-to-face students sometimes make poor choices and abuse their freedoms and opportunities, the same is certainly possible for Tres Columnae subscribers … and for participants in any learning environment. What structures might we want to put in place to help them? Or is the process of making – and learning from – poor choices an essential part of growing up?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time for more – and for an exciting preview of Version Beta of the Tres Columnae Project. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

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Published in: on October 29, 2010 at 2:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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More Quality and Quantity, II

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As I mentioned on Saturday, our posts this week will focus on two main themes:

continuing to explore the ideas of qualitative and quantitative approaches to assessment, and

thinking more about the idea of assessment as conversation, with many thanks to my colleague who mentioned this idea in the assignment she submitted as part of that staff-development course I teach for my face-to-face school district.

Ironically, as I write this post, it’s midterm exam week in my face-to-face teaching world … not a time when assessment usually feels like a conversation to students. Indeed, it sometimes feels more like a punishment, both to the students who have to take the exams and to the teachers who have to grade them.

But why is that? Any time that I find myself avoiding a task, I assume there’s some kind of a mismatch going on. Perhaps the task is too hard, or I’m not well-prepared for it. Perhaps it’s too easy and I find it insulting. Perhaps it’s just tedious because it doesn’t match my personality. Perhaps I’m avoiding it because it was an imposed task rather than a chosen one. And, of course, all of those factors can be involved when teachers procrastinate about writing midterm exams, or when students procrastinate about studying for them! 🙂

As it happens, my midterm exams are all written; I just need to take a quick look at them, make a few minor revisions, and get them copied before Tuesday (for my Latin III students) and Wednesday (for the I’s). I also need to deal with a small pile of papers generated over the past few days – one set from that period when I was first sick, and another from the middle of this week, as well as some last-minute makeup assignments that my students have been turning in. I haven’t been consciously avoiding these, but I realized I wasn’t as eager to look at them as I typically would be. I suppose it’s partly because I’ve been doing so much work on the assessment part of the Tres Columnae Project recently. Once you see the power of instantaneous corrective feedback, it’s hard to go back to “the old-fashioned way” of hand-grading things and the inevitable time lag that results. Fortunately, that small stack consists of summative rather than formative tasks, and they were mostly small-group collaborative efforts. So my students know how they’re doing with these tasks even if I don’t have “official” numbers yet.

And I think that’s really important. Even before I had articulated the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches to assessment, I was moving toward the qualitative approach. I’m a lot less interested in “official” numbers than I am in students’ learning … and if I had to choose, I’d rather that they knew how they were doing than that I did. Of course, I don’t want to choose: I obviously need to know how my students are doing, if only so that I can plan appropriate activities for them, and so do they, if only so they can figure out whether they need extra practice or are ready to move on. And if we all know, then assessment as conversation must be happening, at least to some degree.

But too often, in too many schools and classes, it isn’t happening. Assessment is still being used as a club rather than a conversation, a weapon rather than a window into greater understanding. If I wait more than a day to look at assessment results – unless it’s a pre-test for something that we’ll be doing in a couple of weeks – I’m obviously not going to be able to respond to any weaknesses or deficiencies revealed by those assessments. At best, they’ve become a snapshot of my students’ performance; at worst, they’re completely useless to everybody.

I suppose that lengthy delays in delivering assessment results to those who need them are probably a legacy of the factory-model approach that has governed American public education for such a long time. After all, if you’re running a factory, the cars, radios, and washing machines really don’t need to know how well they’re being built … and, in fact, they obviously can’t know such things! In a mid-twentieth-century factory, even the production workers probably don’t need to have much of an idea about the overall quality of the product; they just need to make sure to do their step correctly. For that matter, even the foremen and supervisors need not be concerned with the overall quality of the product; they could just focus on the work done by the workers under their supervision. And that model, where no one involved in the production is all that concerned with quality, continues to influence the operation of schools to this day.

Of course, factories can’t work that way anymore, and there’s a lot of pressure on schools to change their approach, too. But old habits die hard. Just the other day I heard a colleague mention her belief that students “have to have the right to fail” and the choice not to do what’s expected of them. Now, on one level, that’s true: in the end, no one can truly compel anyone else to do anything. But hidden under that truth was an expectation that lots of learners probably would choose to exercise this “right” – and that such a choice was perfectly OK with her. That’s where I part company with her – just as I would disagree with a manufacturing company that found it acceptable to ship 10% or even 5% of its products with significant defects. I wouldn’t buy stock in that company, and I definitely wouldn’t buy its products – especially if I needed 10 or 20 of them! In the same way, I can’t see how, as a society, we can possibly accept a 10% or even 5% failure rate on the part of our schools … let alone the 40-50% or more that seems to be routine in some large urban school districts.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time, when we’ll continue to explore these ideas … and begin to look at ways that the Tres Columnae Project and other online resources can make a real difference. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 9:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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