A 35 year veteran physics teacher in Edmonton, AB has been suspended for recording zeros when work has not been handed in. His school’s policy does not allow for zeros because it is operating under the premise that students will show their learning in a variety of ways, and that if they are able to demonstrate their learning eventually during the year through some other means, they should be given credit. Under such a policy, whether a student hands things in on time or not is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is whether the student has mastered the concept by the end of the course. So in evaluating a student the question is no longer, “Did she do the work?”, but it’s “CAN she do the work?” Teachers are expected to use a variety of teaching and assessment tools to answer this question.
At the same time, teachers are under a lot of pressure to “engage” students. We are operating under the assumption that a big part of the reason that students are not completing assignments is because the assignments are not engaging. They’re not relevant in the students’ world. If teachers can “hook” students by creating “meaningful” activities that pique their interest, students will actively learn on their own. The teacher is now no longer trying to push concepts at the student, but the student is actively pursuing the concepts in her desire to accomplish a meaningful task.
So for example, if a student were engaged in designing a better bicycle, she would be more amenable to learning the concepts of force and motion. All of the physics equations involved in force and motion would be more interesting because they would have a real world relevance. Furthermore, in this scenario, the teacher (presumably) would have all kinds of means available to evaluate the student, as the student could make proposals, make hypotheses and test them, investigate historic precedents and theories of friction, motion, gear ratios – even as these relate to the human body. Any medium for demonstrating understanding counts as credit.
The theory is sound enough, but it is extremely hard to implement. In such a scenario, the teacher can look at the work of the student and describe her progress. He may even have a good idea about how well the student knows the concepts. But record keeping in such a scenario is a nightmare.
Can you imagine having individualize learning this way with a large class? The teacher would have to provide individualized scenarios for each student for each set of concepts.
And many concepts are very difficult to tie to practical models. When we learn about sub-atomic particles, the learning activities become harder to imagine.
One suggestion in these types of models is to put students into interest groups. But then it is almost impossible to evaluate the individual contributions of each student.
From time to time the media reports stories of kids who have accomplished amazing things in such learning scenarios. Quite often there is a beaming teacher standing behind them.
But in such scenarios, I often wonder what the other students in the class have done. And I wonder how the teacher has evaluated these students. Was it on the merits of the work done in the project, or was it on other more traditional evaluation tools, like tests, quizzes and assignments?
And I also wonder how many kids are in the class. This type of instruction becomes impossible when efficiency models come into play. The teacher who is monitoring this activity also has to teach six other classes. I don’t know if the school could hold that many bicycles. And after 25 years of teaching (and many workshops on the topic) I still don’t know how to convert learning scenarios like this into meaningful percentage-based letter grades.
Another problem inherent in this type of scenario is the fact that being able to build a bicycle does not guarantee a comprehensive understanding of the physics of bicycles. The goal of academic courses is not only to instil the ability to build a better bicycle, but also to instil an ability to articulate the physical principles at play, principles that can be generalized to other situations. These principles are expressed through complex mathematical equations. To understand intuitively is not enough. Academic understanding assumes an understanding at a more general, theoretical level and the ability to articulate that understanding.
The assumption that teaching and learning can happen this way in schools is the driving force behind what the teacher in Edmonton is facing. On the one hand, he is expected to engage adolescents and individualize instruction. On the other hand he is expected to instil academic concepts that are very theoretical, and that to many students are less than engaging.
Furthermore there is an unstated assumption that a student’s failure reflects the failure of the teacher to engage the student properly. I have been to workshop after workshop on engaging adolescents. The very fact that these workshops exist suggest that it is a requirement of teacher to engage adolescents, and not just to teach.
In the 1950s Julian Rotter coined the term “locus of control” to describe individuals’ perception of what forces direct their lives. People with an internal locus of control sense that they are in control of their own fate, and therefore actively pursue goals, and tend to internalize failure. These people tend to be more successful in school and in career mobility because they “know” they can accomplish their goals, so they are more likely to try. On the other hand people with an external locus of control believe that they are in the hands of fate, so they are less likely to challenge the “system” over which they have no control. These people are less likely to do well in school, because they don’t see the point of trying. They’re going to get screwed by the system no matter what. Of course this is an overly simplistic model. People perceive their efficacy differently from situation to situation, but overall, Rotter’s idea has merit.
For some reason, education has moved from a knowledge-centred approach to a student-centered approach. What this has done, besides imposing on teachers the impossible mandate of individualizing instruction, is to create a scenario in which a student can blame the system for her failure. This plays right into maladaptive attitudes of students who have an external locus of control. Teachers must now accept the students’ failure to meet expectations as being our failure to engage them. Somehow, we, “the system”, have failed them. In many cases, the teacher is working harder to get an individual students’ assignment done than the student is. Multiply this by at least five students per class, and you’ve got a system in crisis. The crisis is reflected in the language. “I failed English” has been replaced by “The teacher failed me in English”.
For students who have an internal locus of control, the old school system works beautifully. If they know they will receive a zero for work not completed by deadline, they will complete assignments on time or willingly accept the consequences for not doing so. They will take responsibility for learning what they are expected to learn, and they will trust the teacher’s motives and competence. But for students who have an external locus of control, the system just won’t work. It never has worked. When dropping out was allowed, these were the kids who dropped out at 16. The student with the external l.o.c. will never meet expectations on her own. Instead, the teachers (under the auspice of “adapting” the curriculum) will push her through. She will never internalize the concepts that she is presented with, and when faced by a teacher brave enough to stand by his principles and give the kid a zero for work not done, the student will make a racket when she winds up with 45% in a course that she has not engaged in at all throughout the whole year, crying about how she has already bought her $1000 grad dress and now the teacher is failing her. The teacher will get dressed down by an enabling parent in front of the principal, who doesn’t want to open this theoretical can of worms, and therefore passes the problem onto the counsellors. Pressure is applied, and a last minute bargain is struck in which, somehow evidence is found suggesting that the child deserves 50%, (I’ve never understood why someone who has met only half the expectations can pass a course, but I digress.). The student’s world view is confirmed, and the teacher’s ethical stand is undermined. It must be June.