Attempting to bring a little student voice to the MYP

Last week, I wrote about the potential side-effects of pseudo-authentic assessments and offered some suggestions on how we might be able to shift our practice more towards true authenticity.

I remember asking my wife once about fashion shows and why the models wear these ludicrous outfits that you would never actually see in real life. She explained to me that a fashion show was like a hyper-exaggerated example of what we might see in fashion reality that season. If a model was wearing, say, an outfit that looked like it had been stolen right off the body of an ostrich, that might indicate that feathers might be featured in fashion that season.

Where am I going with this? Well, I love to philosophize and think of big grand ideas. Over my last two years working as a coordinator, I had the latitude to do this. I saw my role as the fashion designer – challenging my colleges with idyllic suggestions, with the hope that some watered down version of my original provocation might manifest itself in practice. However, this year, with the opportunity to move back into the classroom, I
am challenging myself to put my money where my mouth is.

I am fortunate in that my school has entrusted me to develop an MYP Media program. This means that I have a little bit of room to try to apply some of the ideas I had been playing around with as a coordinator, but this time in my own practice.

With no doubt, the manifestation of principles into practice is amongst the most challenging aspect of teaching for many practitioners, myself included. Over the past eighteen months, I have used this space to share my ideas and discoveries.

This is an attempt to share what I have tried thus far in my classroom, in an honest effort to support student learning by allowing the maximum amount of autonomy that I possibly can, within a system that, in my opinion, creates many barriers towards students voice and agency.

1. Building the course outline:

During the first week of school, I presented my students with the course outline for our class. It was a blank piece of paper with four sections:

  • What do you already know?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • What do you not want to learn?
  • What are you excited to try and do this year?

Students worked, first individually, then in small groups, then as a whole class to develop and consolidate their desired program of learning.

What to know what to teach? Just ask your students.

2. Listening to my students, despite my own agenda:

Initially, I wanted to kick off the year by facilitating a collaborative unit-planning process with my students¹ – allowing them the opportunity to select key and related concepts, develop a statement of inquiry and develop assessment tasks.
However, upon beginning this process, my students commented to me that it was too confusing and they felt they did not have a solid enough understanding of the course expectations to plan the unit. They asked if I could plan the first one, as an exemplar, and then they would feel more equipped to plan subsequent units.
This was a huge learning moment for me – I wanted my students to plan everything this year. What to do? Force them to follow my agenda? That would be no different than forcing them to learn pre-determined content. I opened my mind to the fact that student voice is student voice, even if that means they want me to do a little bit more of the driving to start the year. When I took a big step back from the attachment to my vision, I realized this was an incredibly logical and insightful request.

3. Learning “The Rules of the Game”

Let’s face it – in it’s current iteration, school is a game. If you teach within the MYP, you know that this is a game with many rules – Objectives, Criteria, ATL Skills etc. – there are a lot of ins and outs that are crucial for students to learn if they are going to take control over their own learning, while still operating within the rules of the game.

In order to learn the rules, we spent some time translating the MYP’s Arts Objectives into student-friendly, media-specific language. We then plugged these objectives into SeeSaw, our online student portfolio system, so that when students feel they want to be assessed on their learning, they can upload something to SeeSaw and choose the Objectives for which they would like to be assessed.

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Knowing the rules of the assessment game can empower students to take control of how they demonstrate their learning.

4. Allowing students to teach each other

Content knowledge is so easy to access online that there isn’t reason for me to do much in the way of traditional “stand and deliver” teaching. In order for students to negotiate the ways in which directors create great scenes, they used blogs and YouTube videos to develop an understanding of some of the terminology and concepts associated with filmmaking. From here, the students created workshops, mini-lessons, handouts and Kahoot quizzes in order to ensure that their fellow learners were up to speed. My job in this tended to focus on supporting students in collaborative and empathy building skills, while at the same time empowering the students in my class to be confident in their learning take on the role of lead-learner. From here, I would circulate to fill in any gaps in knowledge and correct misconceptions. However, the best aspect of this process was getting to assert myself in the learning process, as a learner. I joined groups, did projects,  took quizzes and got in trouble for talking out of turn. This allowed me not only to model the practices of learning and collaboration, but also allowed me to learn new skills from my students, hopefully flattening some of the power dynamics inherent in a classroom setting.

My students taught me how to become a green smoke breathing dragon!

5. Allowing students to design the assessments 

The first piece of inquiry that students said they were interested in learning was a little bit of film history and a little bit about the ways in which directors create scenes. In order to learn this, we found ourselves using a great deal of film scene analysis. It was only logical, my students concluded, that for our first assessment, we should create an analysis of our own in order to demonstrate our knowledge and understanding.

Once we had decided on the task, we used a Google Form to collect data on which of the Assessment Objectives we should be connecting to this assessment. We also used the same form to develop the “task specific” or “how will you know you have been successful?” language of the rubric. We decided to use the single-point rubric method, as it is more efficient to create and easier to interpret.

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A simple Google Form can be an empower students to design assessment.

6. Forced vs. Sought feedback

One of the best and loveliest edu-bloggers out there has a fantastic post about the difference between forced and sought feedback. My students and I looked into this idea and decided that when we are truly engaged, we don’t need to be told to get feedback – we naturally seek it out. We also discussed that feedback can come in several forms: from a teacher, from an expert, from a friend, through use of an exemplar etc. Throughout their scene analysis design I saw students seeking a variety of feedback types from a variety of experts in the room and online. The biggest win from my perspective was the students’ articulating specially the aspect of their project for which they wanted to receive feedback. “Can you listen to my voiceover and let me know if the audio is clean?”, “Do you think the freeze frame here is too long?”, “What’s that YouTube channel that has really good examples of film analyses called?”. These questions and more showed that students were aware of the areas that they were less than confident in, but more importantly, they were aware of strategies to get support.

7. Triangulation of assessment and empowering students to give themselves grades

I’m certainly not sold on grades and I’m still unsure of why they are such a big part of a program that claims to be focused on skill development and conceptual understanding. It  just seems counterintuitive to have all of these great conversations about learning, only to eventually boil that down to a number that oversimplifies and disrespects the entire learning process.

Nonetheless, these are the rules of the game and the game we must play. To this end, when my students were finished their analysis, they uploaded their work to SeeSaw and I took a look in order to give them specific feedback based around the individual assessment strands students identified earlier. From here, students shared their work with a peer, who gave them feedback, just as I did. Finally, students gave themselves feedback, using the same system. With all three of these data points available, students then synthesized the different perspectives in order to select a grade for each of these objectives. These grades and the students’ self-assessment feedback then went straight into ManageBac and resulted in at least half a dozen students going into shock that they were “allowed” to be active participants in their own assessment².

8. Getting better

Naturally, there were some students in my class who, upon going through the entire assessment process, realized that they perhaps did not manage their time or effort to the best of their abilities. Without a doubt, I think it is imperative that when students identify mistakes, that they be given the opportunity to use this reflection as a learning opportunity. So when these students came to me wondering if they could improve their final product and reassess themselves, the answer was an enthusiastic “yes!”. Giving students the opportunity to identify and correct mistakes let’s them know that the learning process is never over and that learning and improvement take priority over demonstration.

***

Looking back on the first quarter of the year, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to try to put some of these ideas into practice. I know that this certainly is not the epitome of agentic learning, nor is it close the ultimate vision I have for the learning atmosphere in my class, or in schools in general – however, it is a start and a start that I’m looking to build on in the coming months.

Along this journey if you’re an MYP teacher and would like to collaborate around strategies for increasing student agency, please connect with me on Twitter @bondclegg – I’d love to keep the conversations going!

¹ While Principles into Practice certainly emphasizes the role of the teacher in planning units, this is a place where I think they’ve missed the mark and have chosen to delicately side-step this practice at some point this year…I’ll let you know how it goes! 

² If you’d like to check out some of my work on Student-driven Assessment, please click this link. 

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The Side Effects of “Authentic” Assessment

One of the most thought provoking articles I have read in the last while has been Yong Zhao‘s What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education

In this article, Mr. Zhao discusses the medical profession’s tendency to highlight both the benefits and side-effects of treatments under investigation whereas, as he puts it, “…educational research tends to focus only on proving the effectiveness of practices and policies in pursuit of ‘‘what works.’’ It has generally ignored the potential harms that can result from what works”.

Here, Mr. Zhao raises an interesting point – what are the harmful effects of what is “working” in education? Within his article he lists several examples, many of which you are probably familiar with, but it wasn’t until the other day that I was confronted with this phenomenon head-on.

A group of DP students were hanging out in my classroom, when suddenly, one student’s voice dialled it up on the volume knob. I couldn’t but overhear as she exclaimed, “I know, I spent all weekend writing 15 pages of a screenplay and I will NEVER get to turn this into a movie”.

Then came the most heartbreaking part:

“What sucks the most,” she said, “was that I’m really proud of this and I’d love to see my work brought to life.”

A pretty candid moment for a 16 year-old on a Monday morning. It didn’t stop there.

“I know,” another student exclaimed,”I can’t tell you how many speeches I’ve written that I’ve never gotten to say, or advertisement campaigns that nobody will ever use.”

Enter student number three for the most head-drooping part:

” I know right? Why can’t we just, like, write tests or something?”. Ouch.

Here we a have a group of students openly advocating for the most inauthentic type of assessment imaginable. And why? Because of the side-effects of so-called “authentic” assessment.

Many of us know GRAPS, RAFT, or other edu-nyms for creating an “authentic” assessment. If you’re unfamiliar, it goes a little something like this:

Create an assessment for students (are we seeing a glaring problem already?), in which they pretend to be in X situation and the produce a product (that is typically submitted to the teacher for grading) based on this role.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I was a huge advocate for “authentic” assessment, GRASPS, the whole thing. However, based on this provocation from these students I’m seeing that we need to move away from “authentic” assessment and instead move towards authentic assessment.

To this end, I propose two options:

Option 1: Actually make the assessment authentic 

Instead of “pretend you are planning a trip”, connect with the families of the students in your class and get their permission for the student to plan the next family holiday, event or night out.

Instead of “write a speech and then hand it to me for grading”, students can plan their own Tedx at the school (there’s great learning to be had from the even planning process) and deliver their speech there.

Instead of “create an advocacy campaign for a cause or charity (that you submit to me for grading)”, encourage students to find something in the school community that doesn’t feel right and challenge them to figure out a way to galvanize the community towards change.

Option 2: Turn the planning process over to the students in order to make the learning (and consequently the assessment) authentic

Moving beyond the structures of teacher-generated assessment, we can create even more authenticity in assessments by involving students in this process – asking big questions like:

  • What would like to learn?
  • Why would you like to learn that?
  • How are you going to know that you’ve learn that?
  • What can you do with your learning? What action could you take?

That’s five questions that could potentially comprise the entirety of your long range planning for the year. This model can be subject-specific as well — What would you like to learn about global migration/Euclidian geometry/computer science/how to stay fit/etc.?

The bottom line is, by turning the learning over to the students, we make the learning authentic. When the learning is authentic, the assessment will inevitably be authentic, as it will be meaningful for the student. Even if a students’ choice is to learn how to solve complex trigonometry problems and then assess themselves using an online database of trig questions (aka, a test) this will be meaningful and authentic to them, as they were the ones who designed it. It’s personally relevant, it provides a feeling of learner-satisfaction and accomplishment, they are doing for themselves and not because the randomly assigned adult in the room told them to – that’s authenticity.

I will admit, I’ve never facilitated Option 2 full-fledged in practice, but I’m going to do my best with my classes over the coming years to open up to this level of authenticity. Hopefully, this will allow my students to escape some of the side-effects of “authentic” assessment.

What is your experience with authentic assessment? How have your students authentically demonstrated their learning?

We are all learners…and teachers

This year I have the privilege of working with a group of MYP 4 students to usher in our fist media class ever. Up to this point, we have spent the majority of the year setting the table for things to come – generating ideas about what we’d like to learn, building our course outline, inquiring into our assessment objectives and what we might to to reach those objectives and identifying the ATL Skills we will probably need to focus on developing over the course of this year. 

As one of the topics students expressed interest in learning was a bit of film history, we have started our year looking at some of the earliest forms of cinema. This included a one-class filmmaking challenge, where students had to attemp to recreate any scene from Georges Melies’ 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon. Not only was this a fun and humbling project (“I thought old movies didn’t have any effects”, one student said), but it was a great diagnostic tool for my students to see what they knew about using video editing software and what they still needed to learn. As we were showcasing our work, it was clear that two of the students in the class were advanced. Like really advanced. Like using green screen effects to create life-like explosions advanced. Cool.  

After our showcase a student asked me, “Can you teach us how to do that kind of stuff?”. I looked at him, laughed and honestly replied, “No way man. But I bet those guys can.” 

So, while the rest of the class continued to inquire into basic editing skills, two of my students worked to create a lesson on using green screen effects. Yesterday, the first student showed us how to add a smoke effect to our film.

The lesson was amazing! He had: 

  • A game prepared to get the class settled in 
  • An exemplar to show us 
  • Prepared footage for us to download off our Google Classroom page
  • Time to allow us to do some filming and explore our own creativy 
  • The support of our other advanced editor as his TA

I made the choice to join the class as a learner. All control was turned over to the student leading the class. I sat on the floor. I played the game (and won 💪). I felt nervous wondering if anyone would want to be in my group. I joked around with my students on a level I hadn’t found yet this year. And best of all, I learned a skill that I previously didn’t have…check it out: 

Me (as a Dragon) breathing green smoke in the hallways.

Beside the obvious leadership opportunity for the student leading the class and the skill acquisition of the learners, there were some amazing side effects to turning over the teaching to my students. The vibe in the classroom was so relaxed, so communal, so…non school like. Power dynamics between me and the students were gone and, as someone new to the school, it allowed me to really connect with the young men and women in my class on the level of a learner, rather than an “expert”. We were all vulnerable, all making mistakes, all growing our understanding together. 

This has provoked me to turn the teaching over to my students for future classes – but not in the common, inauthentic practice of students teaching each other things that I already know, but the authentic practice of a person who has the expertise leading the entire group of learners. I’m excited see the community that develops during these experiences and I’m especially excited to flatten the dynamics in my class and be one of the learners. 

Have you tapped into your students’ expertise and allowed them to lead the learning? How did it go? 

Creating a course outline? Don’t go it alone…

As we all look forward to the start of the school year, many of us single-subject teachers’ thoughts drift to what our course will look like. Where do we start? Where do we end? What are the key skills we would like to include in the year and how will we assess our students’ acquisition of these skills? A lot of time and energy goes into creating these outlines and they are designed with best intentions. The only issue? They are often designed for students, rather than with students. This has potential challenges, as it can frame learning as something we do to our students, rather than something they take control of for themselves. 

In this case, I am suggesting an approach by which we work together collaboratively with students to design the course. Here, we often need to take a balanced approach as most schools have external requirements that they need to meet that students might be unaware of. One approach that I used with my MYP 4 Media class was to create a draft course outline – one that contained a range of skills and concepts that I thought might be important for students to inquire into over the course of the year and that took into account external requirements. Then, during our first class together, I presented students with this draft course outline and asked for their feedback, in the form of a Compass Points VTR. 

A simple activity like Compass Points can really empower learners.


In less than 15 minutes, I had valuable data on what students saw in my draft that interested them, what they already knew how to do, what they were not interested in and things that didn’t appear in my draft that they wanted to learn. By providing them with a draft framework, I was able to provoke their thinking and open their minds to possible inquiries that they might not have thought of, while at the same time keeping my own mind open to their interests, experiences and opinions. 

Right off the bat, this helps establish an environment that is based on a collaboration of learners, rather than the typical “teachers knows best” dynamic that we can all fall victim to from time to time. Further to this, the practice of planning with students suggests, “this is your learning” and empowers them to be active participants in the entire process of learning – from planning, to skill acquisition, to assessment, to reflection and celebration. 

How will you work with your students to plan your courses this year? 

Do you have another model of collaborative planning that you have used with students? 

Students should be writing their own report card comments 

Report card comments. I got them. You got them. Your grandparents got them. They are another great example of antiquated educational practices that take the responsibility of learning out of the hands of the learner and place them in the hands of the teacher. Do I know how the students in my class are doing? Yes. So do you. But are we providing students with authentic opportunities to reflect on and plan for future learning? Or are we doing that for them instead? 

Let’s take a look at the why, how and what behind student written report cards: 

Why should students write their own report card comments? 

  • At the end of the day, it’s their learning and they should be the one’s reflecting on it
  • Data heads (like John Hattie) can agree that the biggest determinate of student success is the student him/herself and reflecting/reporting on their own progress is a key process by which students can tune in to themselves as learners
  • Articulating one’s strengths and areas for growth is an important skill that can and should be transferred beyond the academic realm and into one’s social/emotional/physical wellbeing  
  • Allowing students to engage in the typically teacher-centred act of writing report comments empowers the learner and says to the child “I trust you – you know best about your learning!” 

How can we support students in writing their own report card comments? 

  • Provide students with a structure they can follow (What did you learn this term? What went well? What do you need to improve upon? What’s your plan for improving?
  • Engage in whole class inquiries into ways in which learners can identify their strengths and areas for growth
  • Work with students to generate lists of ways in which they can go about improving in their areas for growth 
  • Leverage spreadsheets and learning portfolios to help students compile data on their learning 
  • Focus students’ comment writing on familiar learning skills, obejctives and character traits to make the task less daunting and more connected to the students’ day-to-day learning
  • Allow for student creativity and freedom in the ways in which they articulate their progress

What can we expect from transitioning this responsibility to students? 

  • Empowered students taking ownership over their own learning
  • A school community that is learner-centred, rather than teacher-centred
  • More engaged conversations at conferences that can (and should) be led by the students 
  • Report card comments that become student-generated plans for how they are going to improve – plans that students, parents and teachers can refer back to on a term-by-terms and year-by-year basis
  • More teacher hours spent supporting student learning in more effective ways than writing comments that students can and should be writing for themselves 

If we must have comments on our report cards (a tool which is meant to be a reflection of learning), should they not come from the learner themselves? 

Have you tried student-written report card comments at your school? Would you? 

A PHE Approach to Teaching and Learning

It’s easy to label PHE as an outsider subject – “Not that important” or it’s euphemistic cousin “non-academic” are two phrases I’ve heard to describe the subject. However, this post is not about the overwhelming importance of PHE*, but rather about a fantastic model for teaching and learning one of our outstanding PHE teachers has been using in her class and why others should follow the same model, regardless of the discipline. 

Start with a goal:

Students are asked to start with a goal – do they want to be able to run faster? Jump higher? Lift more? Lose weight? This is the tuning-in phase where students have the chance to ask themselves, “What would I like to accomplish,  as a result of my learning”? By beginning with a student-generated goal, the learner is naturally placed at the centre of all experiences, as each phase of the learning is a means for the student to accomplish tangible results. 

Identify a method of measurement:

Let’s assume a student’s goal was to be able to increase their cardiovascular endurance. Well, the first thing they would need to do is establish, what their current level of endurance is. In order to do that, the student needs to determine a way to measure not only where they are at currently, but also how they are improving over the course of their program and where they ended up well all was said and done (the infamous Beep Test is the method I saw most students select for this goal…yikes). By identifying their own method of measurement assessment, the student is taking ownership over their own development and ultimately their own sucessess and/or shortcomings. Too often, we as teachers are so concerned with “assessment design” that we rob students of the opportunity to decide for themselves how they would like to track their starting point, progress and ultimate success. 

Build background knowledge, based on student questions:

Here’s where content comes in – not as the impetus for learning, but rather as a means to achieve a tangible goal – and driven, not by teacher demands, but by students’ curiosity. For our example student, they would want to know – what is cardiovascular endurance? How does it work? What body systems are involved in the processes of building endurance? How can nutrition play a part in developing endurance? What type of excercises are most efficacious for building endurance? As students generate these inquiry questions, the teacher is given an opportunity to provoke deep thinking and introduce the student to new knowledge by using their previous understanding (assessed based on the questions students generate on their own) to nudge them towards new understanding (by suggesting new directions for their inquiry). 

Students learning about body systems because it will help them achieve their goal – not because they were told to

Develop skills for learning:

The teacher and student work in partnership to develop the skills necessary to learn what is needed to acheive the ultimate goal. In our PHE example, the student could be supported in developing information literacy, methods for testing hypotheses, synthesis of information, identification of reliable sources and how to document them, developing an action plan, practicing perseverance, reflecting on the process and products of learning etc. As the main driving force for using these approaches to learning skills is goal-driven, student ownership is more present – they are learning and using these skills because it will help them acheive their goal, not because they’ve been told to by an adult who set the learning goals on their behalf. 

Reflect and celebrate on the process and products of learning: 

This is the most important (and most fulfilling) step for both the teacher and the learner. Students are asked to reflect on their goal – how did it go? Did you reach your goals? Why were able to achieve your goal? Why not? What did you learn – about yourself? About your body? About learning? Now that you’ve developed this new understanding, what further action could you take? Here, the opportunity presents itself for students to see learning as an ongoing and valuable process – not just something you do at school because you have to. 

I see this as an extremely authentic way in which to learn: 

Start with a goal. See where you’re at. Learn some new stuff. See where you ended up. Bask in the glory of learning in order to acheive something real. 

Start with a goal. See where you’re at. Learn some new stuff. See where you ended up. Bask in the glory of learning in order to achieve something real. 

While this approach would certainly require a more “academic” subject teacher to let go of the, “everyone needs to be learning the same thing at the same time” stranglehold over the learning in their class (sometimes easier said than done from a management standpoint), the transfer of ownership from teacher-established goals to student-established goals fosters a naturally differentiated environment where learners are empowered by their own hopes and curiosities. 

Using this inspiring model from our PHE team, teachers of any subject can take pride in supporting students to achieve something that actually matters to them. 

How could you apply this model to your subject? What roadblocks would you anticipate? 

*Does that even need to be argued? It’s Physical and Health Education: two aspects of life that could comprise an entire education system. When we look at the issues caused by the rise in obesity, the suffering experienced by those with mental health concerns and the fact that a solid understanding of how to establish and maintain physical and mental wellbeing is the corner stone of preventative health care, one could argue that long exalted subjects like calculus, physics and classical literature are “not that important” in comparison to PHE. 

My day as an MYP Student – The Short Version

Last week, I spent the day going from class to class as an MYP student, experiencing a small taste of what our students experience on a day to day basis. I outlined my reasons for wanting to give being student a try earlier – most importantly to build community with our learners and show them that a school shouldn’t be about top down learning, but a group of people all working to learn together. 

Here is a gimps into what I experienced – if you are interested, check out the full story here! 
Big Takeaways: 

  1. Many students love school, but many students find school to be an uncomfortable place to be. 
  2. There are so many different types of learners – how can we meet them all at their level of interest/understanding? 
  3. Student conversation that sometimes seems like silliness is often provoked by, or is connected to the learning. 
  4. Our teachers are providing a wide range of experiences – hands on, analytical, creative, dialogue-driven etc. – in order to support our students’ growth. 
  5. Having a nice lunch break to play sports is awesome. 
  6. Experiencing students teach me Arabic and seamlessly switch between reading, writing and speaking two very different languages was honestly like watching a magic show – I was in awe. 
  7. There is very little we can do in our classes that will ever be as important to our students as what is going on in their lives, right now. All the more reason to try, as much as possible, to connect the experience of learning to the lives of our students. 
  8. Being a student is hard – you are expected to be “on” all day, completely focused on things you aren’t necessarily choosing to be focused on and expected to be proficient in things that you may not understand, or be interested in. We would rarely hold adults to these types of standards, why do we expect this of children? 
  9. Students appreciate seeing their teachers as learners – the feedback I got from our students was outstanding. 
  10. Simply put, our students are amazing – mad respect. 

I would highly recommend this experience to anyone who is interested in trying it – even if it is only for one class! I not only learned so much about our students, I learned a lot about myself as a learner. My next step? Take this experience and spread it out over a week’s time, with each entire day of the week devoted to one MYP year level. Hopefully I get the chance to do this before the year is out! 

What do you think of this experience? Would you try it? If you do, please let me know!