computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Cheating again

So I'm experimenting with one French class in having a more rigid written evaluation structure with fewer aids available. Our LMS has a plug-in that locks the computer, allowing access to no other programs until the test is submitted.

One problem is that there is no place for individual feedback. I need to manually copy the pupil's submitted text, past it into a text file and then send it to them somehow. Lots of fiddling - I want systems that do the work for me.

The main problem, however is - as usual - technology. Even with weeks of warming up, making sure everyone had installed the plug-in program, etc. etc., it still took 20 minutes to get everyone logged on to the test. Once everyone was finally underway, I don't think there was a single moment at which everyone was writing the test at once with no glitches. After about 45 minutes, some kind of attack on one of our service providers meant that the entire class lost contact with the test and had to re-start. The program is so full of bugs and the support for the system is so weak that I simply can't rely on technology to solve my problems here.

After the test, one of the pupils wrote to me to complain about cheating. I collected cell phones at the beginning of class but apparently some people took extra phones.

So what to do? Increased invigilation turns the whole thing into a game. I find this extremely demoralizing - it's not what I'm here for. Is it utopic to think about how we can work towards pupils seeing cheating as meaningless?

Thursday, June 4, 2015


Got rather engaged the other day and upset a pupil who stormed out, slightly to my surprise. "You can't speak to a human being like that!"

I recounted this to a colleague who said "Ah, you swore, didn't you?"



Friday, May 29, 2015


The last thing I want to think about, cheating. My job is to help people learn. Period. Cheating is not relevant to how I see my job at all.

Now, I work like most other teachers (I imagine). I give tests, all different kinds. Part of my job is to give concrete, usable feedback and it’s easier if we have a clear, limited task to comment on. Homework is shakier – I quickly end up giving comments on someone else’s French. Not useful.

I also need to give grades. They should be fair. Norway has no SATs or anything of the sort. Institutions of higher learning have to make up their own entrance requirements or simply use high school grades, so most do the latter. Understandably. This means that my grades have to be fair, so that’s another good reason to give tests.

Norwegian students are randomly selected for a small number of exams only, so that means that it is the grades that I give them that are important, so I shouldn’t really be surprised that many of them want to cheat. The sudden flood of cheating this year did surprise me, though. I can’t imagine that they have suddenly become worse at cheating, so presumably they are cheating more. There have been some pieces in the media lately about cheating at school, and some of my colleagues are talking about it, so we could be dealing with a sea change here.

Teenagers have traditionally had a dim view of the usefulness of school and in a system such as the one here, it’s the grades they are after more than the learning. This clashes with the way I see things: For me, the goal of French class is to improve your French. If that is the case, then submitting something that you didn’t write on a test is meaningless. If the goal is to get good grades, it can be a reasonable, even rational, choice.

So I need to admit to myself that I am part of a machine that is bigger than me and that has goals and functions that I do not approve of (sorting pupils, in this case). I can quit or change my practice. For the short term at least, I will have to choose the latter. I can clearly no longer ignore rampant cheating. It is grossly unfair to those who do not cheat. By not being concerned with cheating, I am effectively punishing those who do nothing wrong.

In practical terms, this means changing evaluation strategies. A wider variety of oral evaluation is one step. Tighter control of written evaluation is another - an unavoidable one. Since use of translation programs and communication are typical cheats, many of my colleagues argue for simple use of pen and paper, but my trouble is that I have great trouble reading my pupils’ handwriting. Seriously. There is always at least one paper that is completely illegible. And even for the papers that are legible, what do I do with them? Mark them and then give them back? Then they lose them and I am at a disadvantage when they come to me later and ask for coaching. I need some kind of portfolio of student output and paper makes this a challenge.

Our LMS has an add-on program that locks the computer, providing only a blank screen and no access to other programs until the pupil submits. I think I’ll have to use this and then paste the response into another program to comment on it. It doesn’t allow for the use of digital aids, but we’ll just have to work with those another time…

Thursday, May 7, 2015

"When I hear the words 'Formative Assessment', I reach for my gun...."

As a schoolteacher, I have a couple of main functions: helping people learn and evaluating what they have learned. These are not necessarily complementary functions. The grade you get at the end of the year may not increase your learning in any way. How could it? In fact, it may decrease your motivation for future learning.

The way this is being dealt with is increasingly to distinguish between ‘assessment of learning’ and 'assessment for learning’, with the latter being given pride of place. The rage now is to have a tight focus on the teacher’s assessments of pupils’ work with the goal of improvement. Children are to be given clear criteria, to be engaged in the assessment of their own work, and to be given feedback that clearly points the way forward.

I sat recently through a two-day seminar at work with a hired gun expert to help us work on ‘assessment for learning’. It used to be that Dylan Wiliam with his ‘formative assessment’ was the hero of the school authorities in Norway, now it’s John Hattie with ‘feedback’. Pretty much along the same lines. So now we’re all to become experts in helping pupils understand the criteria for good work and in giving feedback that is useful for improving.

The teacher clearly pointing to the path forward
Sounds good, doesn’t it? We have lots of solid research that supports the idea that working with these things will increase pupils’ scores. Sorry, sorry – I mean of course pupils’ learning. How could I as a teacher not support such measures?

The Norwegian professor of education Solveig Østrem talks about how teaching rests on a paradox (most recently talked about this on the radio program ‘Ministry of Truth’ [in Norwegian]). Teaching is a wish for change in someone else. That “someone else” is, however, a person, a subject of their own. A subject with certain rights and an innate value as a human being. By wishing and working for change in other people, we risk having an instrumental approach to others, treating them as objects for pedagogical work instead of as active subjects of their own.

This the bad feeling I had in my stomach for two days while I was supposed to be happy that we were thinking about how we could help the students learn more: our enthusiasm for  ‘assessment for learning’ risks letting assessment permeate everything we do, resulting in a highly instrumental approach to other human beings. We risk creating a school day that is inhumane and inhuman when our point of departure is always assessment, always improvement. Our pupils are people first, active subjects of their own, not objects for our pedagogical measures.



Sunday, March 16, 2014

Would you stay drunk for 3 weeks right before your final exams?

It might seem like an odd question, but it isn't a random one. In Norway, it's the tradition. Or, it is in Oslo west and in the wealthy suburb Bærum. The 17th of May is Constitution Day in Norway and the beginning of the exam period. As the date approaches, school life dissolves into a peculiar Vann Gennet-style rite of passage called 'russ'.

A uniform (red overalls) is worn for the whole period and for many pupils, it's a period of partying. Many of them have prepared for ages for this, investing vast amounts of time and money in buses that take them to various parties and compete for 'best-bus' prizes. Norwegian students are unwilling to save for their education, but many work part-time jobs (sometimes for years!) to save up for the 'russ' party period.

It's cold in Norway at this time of year, so it isn't unusual for the entire final year at a school to get sick at this time. Schoolwork often suffers from constant partying and drinking even if pupils manage to stay healthy. Not surprising, then, that adults often complain about the insanity of the whole affair. What is surprising, however, is the lack of any real will to do anything about it. One of the few solid attempts to address the problem lately has been a suggestion to move the exams to a different date. Really. I don't make this stuff up. I don't have to.

Much of the drive for this celebration is a small number of firms that do really well selling various stuff connected to 'russ' to the kids: overalls, hats, sweaters, lighters, openers, underwear... there's a whole catalogue. Since the target market is already collected for them, it's easy for them to get their material to their customers. It's odd, really, because otherwise, Norway is extremely restrictive about allowing school to be used as a marketing forum. When it comes to russ, the doors open pretty wide. This is a picture of a group of pupils at a non-random school in the fall trying on the uniforms they will order as part of a package of russ material for the spring. This picture was taken during school hours.

(missing picture)

Photo credits: ronny-andre, Geir Halvorsen, random teacher

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pedagogy as the art of withholding information

I had a colleague who enjoyed great respect from his fellow teachers. He would often be the one who dared come up with a critical and often conservative view in meetings. He once complained about the practice of having the entire year visible on the school’s learning platform. “Pedagogy,” he said “Is sometime the art of withholding things.”

I must admit I didn’t understand him until much later. On a weekend climbing course, a participant asked about fall factor, a crucial theoretical concept in rock climbing. I felt obliged to give a full answer, and a full answer takes some time. Many of the other participants heard us talking and came over to hear, necessitating starting anew several times. An outspoken assistant objected to my explanation and then I really had my hands full with damage control.

The right thing to do would have been to say: “That’s a really good question. Fall factor is an important topic, so we’ll talk about it in detail tomorrow.” Tomorrow when it fits in with the progression of the course, tomorrow when I can create a situation that suits the topic, tomorrow when I've managed to awaken their curiosity and previous knowledge in advance. It’s not about taking things when it suits me, but about taking things when it suits the students. And the best person to judge the student’s needs is usually …the teacher.

The pedagogy of fall factor will be discussed in a different post.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012