Saturday, February 18, 2012

Some Thoughts on Assessment: "Is this going to count for marks?"

We have all had our undecided moments in the classroom.  Mine have often been around a common student question, "Mr. Frehlich, does this assignment count for marks?"  When I hear this I pause, and reflect.  If I say, "No", will my students put less effort/enthusiasm into the assignment or project?  Why have we conditioned students to ask this question?  Shouldn't learning be lifelong and therefore marks are irrelevant?

The reality of many middle school classrooms is that marks are relevant and they do act as a barometer for students to decide how much care, effort and detail they contribute to a project or assignment.  Yet, the philosophy of many schools is to create "life long learners", which has little to do with marks and other such rewards and incentives.  I recently watched this TED Talk, about a Marshmallow Challenge,which teaches us that incentives don't always translate into higher performance.

As a teacher for 19 years, I have often wished the students I taught were not so motivated by marks.  In many cases, it brings out the worst in their performance, as it creates extra stress.  As a science teacher, I often have design challenges in my own classroom similar to the one highlighted in the TED video.  In the past, each design challenge had a rubric or marking scheme that was discussed before students embarked on the challenge. Here is an example of a rubric we used for a design challenge to build a structure that cushioned the fall of a water balloon.

Evaluation (9 marks)

The balloon breaks each time and the landing pad is unstable
Balloon breaks once and the landing pad is mostly stable
Balloon does not break on both drops and the landing pad remains stable
Following Specifications
The student follows little to no design rules and procedures
The Student follows most design rules and procedures
The student follows all design rules and procedures
Evaluation and reflection
Little thought, care and effort has been put into the write up and more detail is needed
Some thought, care and effort has been put into the write up with some detail
Significant thought, care and effort has been put into the write up with great detail

In most cases I discuss, collaborate and build the rubric with the students so that the marking criterion is a democratic process.  However this year, it was different.  One student asked, "Mr. Frehlich, do we have to make this challenge worth marks?"  My heart skipped a beat, and I asked the student to repeat the question because I was sure I didn't hear her correctly.  She repeated, "Do we have to make it for marks?  I find it stressful when a mark is associated with these building challenges."  I took a deep breath and said, "No, every challenge doesn't always have to be for marks."  I then asked the rest of the class how they felt. Most agreed, marks often make the challenge more stressful.  So, we revamped the rubric above and changed the numbers into qualifiers like, "expert", "intermediate", and "beginner".  As the TED video suggests, when students are learning a new skill it is important to keep the stakes low.  In the end, the quality of the student structures were even better than when I had used a marking scheme.  Here is a sample of one of the finished structures;

It is time for a change.  There may be other reasons why students are asking this question, "Is this for marks?".   I should not always assume it is because they are looking for an opportunity to contribute less effort.

If you are interested in learning more about how some incentives might weaken our performance on certain tasks, please consider reading Daniel Pink's book, Drive

Friday, February 3, 2012

"You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don't Take": Finding Guest Speakers with Twitter

Wayne Gretzky once said, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."  This holds true for anything you do in life.  If you are not will to try something, then you will never be successful.

Recently, I decided to take this courageous attitude on twitter.  Twitter is a powerful social media tool because you are able to follow and learn from some very famous and influential people.  Currently, my Grade 9 Science Class is studying water quality, and we watched the following episode from the Canadian Television Series, CBC Marketplace.

After watching this investigative report on water filtration systems, my class had many unanswered questions.  So I decided to tweet the host of the episode, Tom Harrington (@cbctom) and invite him to speak to my class about the episode and see if he would field some of our questions via Skype.  And,  much to my surprise, as I know media personal are very busy people, Tom responding to my tweet within minutes.  You can read our dialog below.

The interview with Tom Harrington was very informative. You can view some of the interview hereMr. Harrington spoke about how investigative journalists have the motto, “we afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.”  In other words, he feels he has a responsibility to speak for Canadians who don’t often have a voice in regard to consumer issues.  Some of the student questions he addressed were: “What do you like best about your investigative journalist position with CBC?” and “How has being an investigative journalist changed your view of Canada?”  

Tom Harrington, like Wayne Gretzky and other great Canadian’s, showed us the importance of going beyond our comfort zone.

 Implications for Educators

With a multitude of people now using twitter the possibilities of extending the walls of your classroom are endless.  Most celebrities/famous people have websites that will list their twitter account.  A teacher could tweet;

1.  the author of a book you are reading in class
2.  the singer/songwriter/composer of song you are doing in music
3.  a person that won a Noble Prize in science
4.  the inventor of a device or machine
5.  a famous artist or sculptor for art class
6.  a professor who is doing research on a topic you are studying
7.  an actor or screenwriter for drama class
8.  a famous athlete for PE class

My advice when making contact with these people is to keep it simple.  In truth most celebrities want to help out but they truly are busy.  So, invite them for an informal low-key event.  Once you have made initial contact, try and communicate more complicated details like time of interview, Skype Names, and other logistics by email.  Try not to involve large groups like the entire school, as this will formalize the event and involve more time for both you and the celebrity.  My Skype session with Tom Harrington will only be 30 minutes long in my own classroom with approximately 40 of my Grade 9 Science Students.  I will use my school laptop, projector, Skype and  Skype recording software like MP3 or Pamela.  Be sure to ask the person you are interviewing for permission to record your Skype session. 

So, what are you waiting for, take that shot!  Get out there and start tweeting!