computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Worksheet > Exam 2

Well, our input to a working group at another school was pretty one-way. We went, we talked about living with computers in the classroom and then we came home. God only knows what they made of it all. Nice contrast between me and my boss, who is more of a gung-ho Web 2.0 educator than I am. I talked mostly about furniture, but in the context of all the other stuff that regularly comes up here.

Back to worksheets and exams. There is a tremendous culture of what I call ‘worksheet’-type questions here, particularly in English class. What was the name of the main character? What happened to him when he was eight? And so on.

Compare that to a typical exam question: “Rewrite the following paragraph to avoid its monotonous and awkward style.” Quite a typical exam question. There is also a part b here: “Explain how your version differs from the original using appropriate terminology.” Now, these are very typical exam questions. Here, they could be used in the year 12 English exam. I find these quite good questions. They demand concrete skills and they enable those pupils who have learned something to demonstrate those skills. They let the examiner differentiate between candidates quite easily without recourse to the dreaded multiple choice or to extremely subjective grading.

Trouble is, many of the pupils being prepared for this exam are being subjected to a strict regimen of short stories and worksheets. It’s no wonder that so many schools do so poorly on this exam – reading tons of short stories and doing worksheets is not a good preparation because the exam demands specific skills and knowledge. Worksheets demand knowledge of specific short stories which can’t be tested on the exam in the absence of a national reading list. This kind of teaching also chases pupils to SparkNotes and the like, and that’s really not building any skills.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Leadership in the digital classroom

I’ll get back to worksheets and exams in a moment. Firstly, leadership in the digital classroom. My boss is visiting a school tomorrow to talk about teachers as leaders in the classroom and I’m going along for the ride. We’re visiting a school that has a focus on ‘the teacher as leader’ and we, I suppose, represent a digital school.

What to share? Well, you have a few hours. What do you suggest I say?

Here are some of my initial thoughts:

  • Stand at the back of a room full of teachers. What do you see? Facebook, email, newspapers. Are we expecting behaviour from children and youth that we cannot expect from adults? There was an interesting post a while back on 1:1 Schools pointing out that we often try to get the kids to learn things that most adults don’t know. It’s a very interesting point to make about school, but schools are also often very focused on behaviour and we seem to have the behavioural equivalent here. My pupils are sometimes confused when I berate them for answering the telephone during class. “But the teachers do it!” Humn….

  • Leadership in the digital classroom has to rest on three pillars:

    1. The technical. The endless proxy war, the American-style filter war, our own experience with LANschool – these things can make one think that there are no technical solutions. Giving computers to pupils and then trying to control them with filters or piggy-back systems can seem like a losing battle. A few pupils spend lots of time figuring out hacks that then spread. What one needs are simple steering or filtering tools that are robust and that form a part of a wider strategy.

    2. The cultural. One has to build up a culture in school that regards class time as working time and the computer as a tool for work. You can’t avoid frequent and difficult conversations with pupils. It helps if the whole faculty is on board here.

    3. The practical. There will always be a need for ‘eyeballing’. If your pupils are working on screens in class time, you need to be able to see them, and you need to be able to get to them quickly. How are you going to give help and guidance if you can’t get to them and see their work? This is where furniture comes in.

  • The standard line is often: clear tasks, short deadlines, imposed collaboration. If pupils are going to work on computers, then they should have something clear and specific that they are expected to produce, an explicit and limited time to do it in and ideally this should not be ‘meaningless’ work, but something that is immediately useful for others. This makes some sense, but I think it underestimates the distractive power of computers. Vast amounts of money are spent on training our students to expect entertainment and that’s what you as a teacher in a digital classroom are up against.

Feedback, anyone?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Worksheet > Exam 1

I was substituting for a colleague a while back and in one of the breaks started talking to some of the pupils. One of them confided to me that he had never read any of the books they had studied in school. “Thank God for Spark Notes” he said.

This reminds me of an essay from the exams I marked last year:

I must admit I am not a very big book-reader, in fact... I don’t think I have ever successfully finished a single book in my entire life. It’s hard to understand, but it’s true. The school projects I have had when we were supposed to review a book, they were all lies. When I reviewed “The Da Vinci Code”, “Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone”, “Atonement” ect. I had just watched the movies and based them upon that. However, I have read the beginning of some books and I have watched a lot of films in my time. (Anonymous pupil)

Moments like these cut to the heart of the matter for me. How is it at all possible for students to replace reading a book with reading a plot summary? They seem to be equating reading a book with knowledge of its plot. Huh? Are we in schools treating ‘reading books’ as synonymous with ‘finding out what happens’?


Consider the following questions from one of the textbooks on my desk to the short story ‘Snow’ by Julia Alvarez:

  • Where does the family live during their first year in New York?
  • What impression do you get of the Sisters of Charity?
  • Who was Yolanda’s favorite?
  • Where was Yolanda seated in the classroom?
  • Why was she put there?

Etc, etc. Typical worksheet stuff, right? Now, what exactly is being trained by setting questions like this?

Nothing. There is no skill or important knowledge base that is being pushed here. Such questions are merely control. They also fill the time, keep the students doing something and thus make us teachers feel useful. But – we can’t hide from the fact that this type of work tends to kill interest in something that is intrinsically interesting. It also teaches pupils to equate ‘reading’ with ‘finding out what happens’. Set questions like this and you chase the pupils to SparkNotes. Consider the questions above – if your goal is to answer them, then it’s actually more effective to read the notes than to read the story.

Think about that for a moment. If you are a teacher who sets worksheet-type questions for your class and you find out that they have answered them by reading the notes, how do you react? Shouldn’t they be praised for finding a more efficient way to get the task done?

So, OK, worksheets are out. What do you ask about literature? There are two questions about literature (or film) that I tend to use in my classes:

  • Did you like it? (and why?)
  • How does it work?*

These questions are not more easily answered by reading the notes. They correspond roughly to the two mains types of writing about literature and film: criticism/review and academic literary analysis, so they get kids working in real-world genres, not the made-up school-only genres we often get them producing in. Answering such questions well involves important skills.

I’ll post this now and get back soon to part two, which is to consider this line of thinking and ‘worksheet teaching’ in the light of final exams.

* There are, of course, a couple of other interesting questions about film and literature:

  • How is this work situated in history? (how can we see it as a product of its time and what effect has it had on the world?)
  • What does this work teach us about the world/ society/ life/ ourselves?

…but I rarely get there with teenagers.