The end of the semester is drawing near. We have two more weeks of teaching and learning, and then one week of summative examinations. All grade levels take summative exams for every subject, which is a lot of testing for a 17-year-old, let alone for a 6-year-old. My grade 6 students are beginning to study now — cramming for long tests that will dominate an entire week of their lives. I’d love to work in a school where there was less emphasis on testing. At least at this school, nationwide standardized tests are only taken every three years and are barely mentioned until a week beforehand. (And amazingly, I might add, the kids do fine on them!) However, while big standardized tests are de-emphasized, testing in our classrooms is rampant. Teachers here are very used to the modern status quo of testing constantly to monitor progress and hold students accountable for their learning. But anyone who has studied education theory in the last couple decades would know that testing, and homework too, are often correlated will lower achievement — not to mention lower self-esteem and self-efficacy. I’m a big fan of Alfie Kohn in particular who said, “When test scores go up, we should worry, because of how poor a measure they are of what matters, and what you typically sacrifice in a desperate effort to raise scores.” He has written a lot to call into question taken-for-granted features of modern schooling. His articles “Rethinking Homework” and “The Case Against Gold Stars” are inspiring, but unfortunately, there are more teachers and administrators who ‘believe’ in homework and extrinsic motivators (despite the mounting evidence against them) that getting a school to move away from them would be like taking a fish out of water. Or maybe a shark, because they would put up a nasty fight!
I have a math co-teacher, and because he has been here a lot longer than me, I easily fell into the non-leader position upon arriving here last year. My co-teacher is old-school — worksheets, tests, memorization, etc., and I find myself slipping into those ways more often than I’d like. I also fear that he views students’ math ability as fixed, rather than flexible. I’m taking a free online course through Stanford University called “How to Learn Math,” and it’s all about teaching for a growth mindset, instead of a fixed mindset, which means that teachers need to understand that people are capable of learning math and being successful in math class, even if they never have before, even if they’re behind, and even if they seem to be stuck at a certain math level. Teacher expectations have en enormous impact on student learning. (A famous study was done by Rosenthal & Jacobson in 1968, which showed what is called The Pygmalion Effect. You can read about it in this Wikipedia article.) I’m learning a lot of really good ideas for helping students understand the value of mistakes and to view themselves as growers and learners, while at the same time expecting them to respect each other as fellow growers and learners.
I went to school to become a teacher not afraid to shake things up. As it turns out, I’m a total wimp. I’m so concerned with stepping on others’ toes that I shy away from doing things that I know are better for my students. Although at the same time, it would be difficult to be a total radical while co-teaching with someone who is not. It would be confusing for the students, and it could create tension. Again, I’m a wimp. My activists idols certainly never stopped what they were doing to avoid awkwardness. I have found that as a teacher, I really crave inspiration from a role model. I’m not great at being the ringleader of a revolution; I need someone to get behind. I wish I could be a leader. I wish I could teach with fellow Critical Research Academy grads and with Liz Pearne (who says things like, “Let’s start a revolution!”). I wish that I could:
– eliminate homework
– stop grading tests
– assess projects and individual assignments based on learning over time, rather than on achievement
– be more constructivist when it comes to designing lessons
– lead other teachers toward a more theory-based model of education
Little things that I can do now:
– I’m giving a math quiz today, but their scores won’t count toward their grade in the class.
– I’m going to congratulate students on their mistakes, and ask them to explain how they fixed them, to show that mistakes are the only way to learn.
– I’m not going to assign homework tonight.
On a positive note, I really like my students, and they’ve been doing some great things. This week they’re working on a project for which they must ask a research question, gather data via survey, and decide on an appropriate graph to display their results. I’ll post photos of the finished products!
I could use some encouragement for breaking through (or at least lightly bending) the status quo next semester. Do you have any suggestions or thoughts?