Sunday, November 29, 2020

Our tests are the problem, not the students

The “progressive” physics teacher

You have just finished teaching a unit of physics. Great fun was had by many. Many struggled. Everyone seemed to see some level of success. There was a lot of feedback and interaction between students and each other and students and you. They explored, explained, solved, presented, discussed, and applied. You have a pretty good idea who is going to do well on the test and who won’t. You usually do, because you have a pretty good idea every time. You are fairly well dialed into your classes by the nature of your approach, including robust formative assessment.

You have students take the test. They all sit down with a pencil and a calculator and try to solve the same problems and answer the same questions. You have different versions for each class, but it’s mostly just different numbers and graphs. Some of them get extra time because they have IEPs. 

You are nice enough to allow retakes until students see success or give up. The retakes are different questions, which is a fair amount of work to create, but they are testing in the same way, so it’s a justifiable replacement grade. You are focused on growth, after all, not trying to punish them for their first attempts.

You use standards-based grading, or maybe a hybridized version of it. Much of what they do is performance tracked to content standards. Students can work on showing mastery of a standard until they achieve as high as they want. Again, it’s about growth, and this gives every learner a chance to continue working on something until they get it. You have an array of content assessment items for each standard ready for use as assessment.

I think that probably describes the system of a lot of good physics teachers. Those teachers are working hard to do what they think is best, creating a system in which students can thrive and grow at their own pace without the common overwhelming stress an unfairness of a more traditional system with one-off timed tests that just get entered into a grade book and everyone moves on.

These teachers tend to have classes full of fun inquiry and are well-liked by students. They are highly collaborative with other physics teachers in sharing and adopting ideas and tools for making the process make most sense.

The problems with this model

The root problem (not what this post is really about)

While I have great respect for the teachers who use systems similar to those as described above, and I have taken many great ideas from them, I believe the systems they use are highly flawed, enough so that I would label them ableist and unjust. 

The root problem is in the use of course content retention and mastery as the metrics for success. I have other blog posts about why I think the goal of standardized content evaluation through performance testing is an awful way to determine grades. I won’t rehash all of it. Summarizing it — students won’t remember a long list of content items after they leave our courses. There are no compelling reasons for them to do so, and the brain doesn’t even work that way. So why do we base their grades on their ability to do that? It’s not useful to them. The content details are not the greatest take-ways from a good course, so we should not be ranking and sorting them based on how well they remember those.

Let’s pretend like a lot of physics teachers disagree with my assessment of the root problem with our courses, because I think they probably do. They would possibly come back with obvious questions like, “You want me to teach physics but not grade based on how well they learn physics? What are we teaching physics for then?” 

That is good question. I also have a handful of blog posts about what I believe to be the answer to that. We should be teaching transferable skills using physics. Physics is just the fun delivery vehicle in which we happen to be experts at making opportunity for exploring the nature of science and the skills needed to be successful as a technical learner.

Let’s pretend like we don’t see eye-to-eye on the root problem, which I understand, and I think that can be okay for now. I’ll go forward with the rest of this assuming I can’t change your mind about what matters most as course take-aways and that grades should be based on those. There still are major problem with many of the systems that more progressive teachers are using, and they are problems inherited from traditional systems.

“Take as many attempts as you need.”

The assessment problem

All students show “mastery” in the same way on the same assessments by themselves without resources, and their grades are heavily based on their performance on them. That’s a problem in most classes. I believe it tends to stem from assessing the wrong things, but that might not be the only reason. Why is this a problem?

It’s a problem because it’s ableist. 

It’s a problem because it’s racist. It benefits the privileged the most. We are all aware of the socioeconomic disparities associated with race in this country. Any system that benefits the privileged much more than others is racist. 

It’s a problem because it doesn’t involve the skills needed to be successful in situations outside of the classroom. It’s just the warehouse model of “education” take from large colleges and universities and applied in smaller settings.

Are we trying to see how well they can do our assessments, or are we trying to measure how well they understand material? Creating opportunities for students to repeatedly assess in the exact same way rewards only the students who have the abilities to be successful on those type of assessments in those settings.

You know who tends to do well on those assessments? The kids without ADHD. The kids who don’t have trouble writing and drawing. The kids who don’t have anxiety. The kids with families who can afford tutors. The kids who don’t have to work jobs to help support their families so they have time to practice those types of assessment. The kids without stresses of life not knowing if they will have food to eat, or a roof over their head. The kids in the schools with the most wealthy populations where they have all of the resources and teachers and experience.

Why do we do it then?

Why do we insist on using the same individual assessments for each student? I think there are many answers. 

Many would say because that’s how its done in college. But colleges do it because it is economical. It greatly reduces person hours in grading. They do it to save money, not because it’s better for students.

Others would claim it’s for data. The physics education research (PER) community values all students taking the same assessments, because they have universal data to use. They can get survey data from students too, about how well the students feel they learned and performed. They can compare groups and subgroups. This ignores the fact that making decisions based on unjust methods for determining outcomes is a horrible idea. The survey asks students about how well they think learning something and being assessed in a pigeon-holed manner went for them.

Others might claim it’s fair. Every student has the same opportunity so they take the assessments. Anything else would be unfair. This ignores the fact that every student is not the same. They have different  abilities and interests, so it’s not the same opportunity. Nothing about what they do for class up to the day of the test is the same for each student, including the assessment.

All of those answers for why we do it are rooted in the assumption that it makes sense for every student to approach learning and assessment in the same manner. That is not true, nor is it just. But we still do it, and what we end up doing is ranking and sorting them by social class.

“Let’s talk about how you might go about this.”

What do we do instead?

Give students the opportunity to explore your subject in the way that makes most sense for them, and assess them accordingly. I have a collection blog posts about how one might take constructivism to the level of meeting students at their abilities and interests. I’m not sure if any of the ideas are best or even good, but they are at least attempts to create a system in which every student can thrive and succeed. They still require great effort and are designed to challenge each student. They incorporate student interest and choice, with protocols and opportunity built in for teacher feedback to make sure the methods and assessments are relevant and robust.

If my ideas don’t seem that great, then ask your students ”How would you like to explore this topic? How would you prefer to show mastery?” You might get some blank stares if they aren’t used to being asked that. But provide them with some guidance and examples, and help them understand their own interests and abilities, and you might just stumble on a system that works for every student.

The job as the teacher can then become one of a coach, with constant feedback to make sure what they pursue is appropriately challenging and relevant. They will need a teacher with expertise in the subject, and they will need help developing and using methods for evaluation, for evaluating themselves and for evaluation by their peers and teacher. 

In summary

I believe we focus on assessing the wrong things. This tends to push us to assess in the wrong way — the same way for each student. Whether or not most people agree with me about what we assess, and whatever we decide to assess, most of us don’t do it in a fair and just manner. In order to accomplish this it is important to meet students where they are, both in terms of ability and interests. I don’t have the answers for this. I have some systems in place that might be a good start, but the real answers are in the students.

Scott @BrunnerPhysics

Friday, November 27, 2020

Pathways for Physics

In my classes I have artists, athletes, coders, writers, robotics engineers, theater players, musicians, graphic designers, video producers, gamers, movie buffs, history buffs, and fiction authors. In the past, for reasons that had more to do with me and less with them, I didn’t let them use those interests as much as I could have to explore physics, knowing full well that if they did they would get so much more meaning out of the experience.

The purpose of this post is to share what I am trying with my introductory physics classes to allow for pursuit of physics understanding through student interest channels. It is a work in progress, a pilot of a program I have the feeling will become the main outlet for student exploration in my classes, if it works. I’ll share my initial design of it as well as my reasoning and what I am giving my students. I’ll write an update post about how it’s going and reflections on the first round.

The purpose of Pathways is to give students a chance to make more meaning in their experience, allowing them to explore pathways of interest in their project-based learning. Rather than have all students working on the same project, like mousetrap cars or spaghetti bridges, students develop their projects based on interests and/or strengths. With regular feedback from the teacher and peers they make sure their projects are closely tied to the skill growth goals for class and the class topics. 

One pathway for learning

In evaluating all of the aspects of science which I try to incorporate in my classes I identified these, and I call them Pathways.

  • Art

  • Engineering

  • Computer Science

  • Educational production

  • Pop culture analysis

  • History

  • Writing

These are some of the relevant Pathways for exploring physics which I try to include in the experience for my students. They are the connected options for exploration that seem to fall outside of necessary and fundamental to physics learning. Analytical problem-solving and inquiry are fundamental and essential so I don’t consider them optional Pathways. It is always a struggle to find a balance that includes them all in crafting a learning experience. Different pathways get prioritized different years depending on many factors, but often time those decisions are made by me.

In writing down the pathways I had a thought -- what if students chose which Pathways they use to explore physics with projects, instead of me trying to juggle all of them? I could just make it my job to make sure what they did was relevant and challenging. 

I then had the realization that it might make more sense to have them choose multiple pathways, developing projects where they intersect or overlap. Staring at a single pathway of infinite applications might not make identifying project ideas much easier, but finding areas where multiple pathways intersect might. It might also allow them to make connections between pathways we otherwise might not have the opportunity to.

Multiple pathways for learning

The idea is to give them a bit more guidance than, “Hey what kind of project do you want to do? Figure it out. If you can’t, I have some ideas.” I want them to start in some areas in which they already have interest. That interest could be based in things they are currently pursuing in other classes, extracurricular activities, hobbies, or simply something they want to explore more.

Here is some small paragraphs I quickly wrote up about how each pathway is tied to physics. They are by no means comprehensive or even that good, but I wanted something there to explain a bit. They could be easily improved and modified for use in other subjects.

Art and science are closely tied together, especially in physics where physicists often see beauty in symmetries. Expressing and understanding of physics concepts and connections through art can be done with theater, music, drawing, painting, sculpture, animation, graphic design and other forms of media, accompanied by thorough explanation of the meaning and physics behind your creations.

Engineering is problem-solving with applied science, often with physics. The engineering design process is a fun dynamic way to solve problems with science -- designing, prototyping, testing, and iterating (redesign).

Computer science is the future of everything. It is hard to find a current field of scientific research that does not involve heavy use of simulations and computational code. Coding can be a fun way to craft creative solutions to problems and simulate natural phenomena. You can code simulations, games and even art.

Educational production -- Explaining a concept is one of the most effective methods of actually solidifying your understanding of it. With technology this can take on fun creative forms like videos with effects and podcasts with quality editing.

Pop culture analysis -- Exploring the physics of things around us is a natural and fun thing to do. You can analyze the physics in video games, movies, shows, memes, and sports, often using video analysis tools.

History -- Physical science has a rich history of discovery filled with intrigue, confusion and excitement. It can be fun to explore timelines, milestones, the effects of discovery on society, historical context, and even recreate important discovery labs. 

Writing -- Science journalism is quite important to society as we strive to keep people informed and battle disinformation and pseudoscience. This requires reviewing research and technical writing and reporting skills. Writing for science understanding can also include writing realistic science fiction.

I shared the following with students to give them some guidance as to the appropriate process for designing their pathways project. The topics from the two different classes are the columns on the right.

Pathways for Physics


Once you have established your pathways you need to develop a project that incorporates elements of each pathway as well as the physics skills and concepts we are exploring in class. Your project should become a creative outlet to explore, develop and demonstrate your understanding of physics fundamentals, connecting what you are learning to the real world in ways which match your interests. It is also an opportunity to further hone skills, both the skills we all work on in class, as well as some more specialized area(s) of interest of yours.

The biggest reason for going the route of pathways projects is to give you an opportunity to make meaning in your education. The more freedom you have to craft your path through learning with your own creative design, the more chance you will remember and understand what we are learning long term.


Part of your project can be collaborative, but the real idea is to give you an opportunity to explore your own interests.

The Process

Physics Honors topics

Light/Sound/Waves topics

  • Choose pathways of interest (two or more)

  • Brainstorm ideas 

  • Choose a project idea and rationalize it for pathways, course topic(s), and class skills

  • Specify an outcome

  • Develop a method of measuring your level of success

  • Lay out your steps to success

  • Document the process along the way with regular reflection

  • Publish and share your result

  • Acceleration

  • Projectiles and free fall

  • Forces and Newton’s Laws

  • Momentum

  • Inertia

  • Energy

  • Collision

  • Pendulums

  • Simple harmonic oscillators

  • Friction

  • Air resistance

  • Tension

  • Block and tackle (pulleys and masses)

  • Circular motion and rotation

  • Wave interference

  • Wave reflection

  • String wave speed and tension

  • Periodicity

  • Speed of sound

  • Echoes

  • Pitch and frequency

  • Resonance and standing waves

  • Musical instruments

  • Light speed

  • EM spectrum

  • Light rays and optics

We discussed an example I put together. The example project is based on an actual tangent exploration I went on recently with ping pong ball drag force and Python code. I took it further imagining I was a student and had time to intersect my idea with a couple other pathways. They get a project planning template to help guide them through through the process.

Much of the rest is up to them, but there will be a constant stream of feedback from me to guide them in areas of relevancy and technical challenges.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. The adventure is about to begin. It was introduced to students before Thanksgiving break, and there was already many ideas and excitement popping out before I even expected them. I’ll let you know how it goes. Feel free to borrow what I have, just don’t publish as your own.

-Scott @BrunnerPhysics

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Make students the creators

One time I had a really great idea for an activity for students. I spent a lot of time and thought organizing it, writing up instructions, and setting up equipment in just the right way. By the time I finished I was completely in love with the activity and I was certain students would be too.

Students showed up. They did the activity. It went pretty well. A couple things needed adjustment which I didn't foresee, but that's normal and okay for new things in a classroom. Students seemed to be having fun while being challenged, which is a great combination. But in the end they didn't seem to get much more out of it than the previous activity I had for that topic, and they certainly did not love it anywhere near as much as I did.

Okay, I need to be honest here. That wasn't just one time. That has happened many times. I have dreamt up all kinds of great activities and ideas and then pushed my students through them over the years. And when it comes down to it, those activities only do a little bit better at getting results than the ones they replace.

At some point I began to realize that I was doing all of the meaning-making. I was the one doing the really deep learning as the creator. I was the one struggling through the creative design process. Even when it was an "inquiry-based" lab where we had a class discussion where students came up with testable variables, it was the same set of equipment on each table and it was fairly obvious what to do with it. Even when it was a "engineering design" project, if the task was so well defined that it pigeon-holed solutions to all of the same type of solution, then much of the meaning-making happened before student got ahold of it.

If we really want to students to get passionate about their work and learning then we need to maximize the meaning in what they do. Jumping through someone else's hoops can be fun, but fun doesn't necessarily mean passion and meaning, it might just mean they are entertained.

Scrap your plans, or at least open them up to modification

The solutions to the problem of the teacher taking on all of the creative design of a classroom experience involve two options:
  1. Involve student in the creative design process to determine what they do.
  2. Hand over the creative design process to them to determine what they do.
I think involving both in a class is important. The first models the process without leaving them stranded with no ideas, and the latter truly maximizes student creativity.

The next time you have a cool idea, stop yourself before you work out the details. Or at least don't share the details with your students. Present the idea as unworked, and work your way through what you might do with it with them. 

For example, I have an idea that it might be fun and useful to use golf balls and ping pong balls for all kinds of physics stuff for in-person socially distanced and possibly remote learning this year. But I am holding off on working anything out as to how that might play out. I am going to involve them in discussions like how we might track them, or how to make them move in different ways. I'm going to get a bunch of golf balls and ping pong balls and be ready to hand them over with some advice for measuring and data handling.

If you have a general concept problem you want them to sort out, instead of dreaming up a way for them to do it, let them do it. For example, take the NGSS HS-PS2-3 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions:
Apply science and engineering ideas to design, evaluate, and refine a device that minimizes the force on a macroscopic object during a collision.
Give them that and nothing else. No equipment, no ideas, and nothing to save in a collision. Watch how crazy awesome it turns out. You might be tempted to have them all do the egg drop for this, but hold on to that idea to share with groups in case they hit a creative roadblock. Instead, have them identify an object to save, a scenario for a collision, and establish a maximum for for collision and work their own project.

Give students freedom to show mastery how they see fit. Ask them to do just that -- create something that shows your understanding of this concept.

If you want them to focus more on a skills and less on a subtopic then give them that freedom. For example, if my students have just learned to define functions in Python, I might ask them to write a function that does something useful for the physics they have learned so far.

Project-based learning is this embodied, but it can be easy to accidentally narrow down solutions and stifle creativity. Take, for example, the mousetrap car project. Assign that to students and they already know they are making a mousetrap car, and you can bet that they are scouring the internet for solutions. There went to creative design part of solving. Intead, have them make a vehicle powered by stored elastic potential energy.

I like to do a spaghetti bridge project, which is pretty common in physics and engineering courses. But I added my own twist to make the solutions they could look up not so useful and to force them to get more creative. I asked them to make their bridge able to move out of the way for a certain sized object to pass through and then move back only under the influence of pulling cables (string). That might seem like a highly restrictive addition, but it actually forces all kinds of crazy creative solutions that are way more varied that just different truss designs like you get from static bridges. Trusses and all of the analyses of force components and balance will still be involved, but they won't be looking up solutions. In fact, they kind of have to invent their own problem to solve first, like, I need a bridge that lifts out of the way, or I need a bridge that swings out of the way.

These kind of adjustments involve letting go and relinquishing control to your students. It is definitely necessary to first build relationships, trust, and some expectations before you dive into complete freedom mode.

How to do this, in general

Pick an activity you have for your students and walk it back the the problem that it is designed to solve or the desired understanding outcome. Present the problem to the students and talk about it until it makes sense. Establish whatever common vocabulary and ideas you need. Be careful not to try to establish your understanding of what they are exploring. You want them constructing that themselves, not trying to confirm your understanding. Get them in groups brainstorming ways to solve the problem, and then turn them loose. Then your job becomes one of support, trying to help them with tools, relevance, and technical skills.

Things to try avoid as you do this:
  • Trying to force your understanding on them
  • Trying to steer them to all do the same thing by giving them all the same equipment and/or a pigeonholing task.
  • Giving them a highly restrictive template for summarizing and communicating their understanding.
The last one might require having established norms for technical commiunication and options for platforms, but those are much better than sheets to fill out.

After they are done exploring, celebrate their work as a class. Do a poster session (or whiteboard, forum post, etc). Have them look for patterns. At this point you can summarize and standardize their work and the idea as a class as much as needed. If you are bound to a crappy system like AP and you feel the need to make them solve the same problems then you can get them started on those. I you are not, then get the to start figuring out what kinds of problems they can solve with their new understanding. Have them identify, or better yet, invent their own problems.

Relinquishing control to students is not easy for most teachers. It feels like a high risk choice, but we have to remind ourselves that we are already content experts. We have our understanding, although it will probably get even better by being part of students building theirs. The real high risk choice is trying to give student our understanding and expecting them to work within it. It doesn’t work for many students, because it isn’t theirs.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Digital Learning Portfolios


Students creating and publishing digital portfolios allows them to personalize their learning. If they are used with self evaluation and reflective writing, portfolios can also get them focused on their growth and progress, developing metacognition.

The idea of a digital portfolio is that it shows student work, and, ideally, tells a story about process and growth. The portfolio would have some sort of organizational focus, either by topic, or standard or skill. I use a system I call skills-based grading, which is focused on a fairly short list of transferable skills. A portfolio for standards-based grading would have many entries because of the many standards, ideally grouped by topic.

Portfolios are something meaningful you can use to evaluate student progress without changing much of what you do in class. I still give scores on plenty of more traditional items, like reports and homework and quizzes, but they just serve as feedback and become artifacts for telling their story in their portfolios. The scores don't become a grade until they become part of their story of growth and reflection. Here is a great example of a student portfolio. The name has been changed and some photos removed.

This strip isn't that relevant, but I love Get Fuzzy and I don't have my drawing stuff set up to do my own yet.

Choosing platform(s)

I think the hardest part about setting up digital portfolios is choosing the platform. This decision is based on many factors -- ease of use, features, school subscriptions, end product, privacy, and more. The two basic platform needs are a place to publish and a repository to store potential artifacts of learning for them to choose from when making their portfolio. They can be the same platform, but they don’t have to be.

I like the portfolios to end up as a web site, so we use New Google Sites. It is easy for students to use and fairly robust in options for what they can create. I create a "template" and show them how to make a copy of it. With New Sites it is easy to change layouts by clicking and dragging and dropping. It is also set up for easy embedding, which works especially well with other Google services, but almost anything that exists on the web with an address can be embedded.

My students document everything they do by posting it to their SeeSaw journal. It serves as an organized repository for learning artifacts, and I can monitor what they post and give feedback. They don't necessarily want everything they do in their portfolios. When they post to their journals, which can include drawings, photos, videos, audio, links, and combinations of those things, they choose which folder(s) to put the journal post in. Our folders are skill categories, but they could also be standards or topics folders. Each journal post gets a unique URL, and SeeSaw will even give embed code for each, so they can be easily embedded in a web site or other places that allow it. 

Other ideas for a portfolio platform could include other web site creation tools, digital lab book tools, journaling sites (like SeeSaw), blogging sites (like Blogger), Google Docs, and even Google Classroom assignment(s), if you don't care about portfolio ending up as a published site. Any sort of digital journal, or lab book, or repository (Google Drive folders) could work to hold their work before it gets organized in their portfolio, but I have found that having it in a journal that I can monitor and give feedback helps.


Pushing out a template is not absolutely necessary, but if you have some idea of how you want them to be organized or how you want them to read, it can be quite helpful. Otherwise, setting them up and evaluating them can take forever. It's always nice to give student some creative freedom with layout and look, so it is good to try to balance that freedom with expectations.

I used skills-based grading for 25 transferable skills last year, and I included their descriptions in the template I gave to them. Here is what it looked like published. It's got tabs for the five skill categories and one example entry. If I shared the unpublished editing link with you then anyone with the link could edit it, which is the one problem I have with New Google Sites. I have share my "template" with students with editing rights, and then I have to walk them through making a copy of it and finding it their Drive to make their own before the start editing mine. You cannot actually make a real template. Only Google makes those. It's not that big of a deal though. 

I made some organizational improvements for year's template, as well as updating it to be about our newly revised list of 15 transferable skills. I also reduced the freedom for design a little because of uncertainty of when we will be in the same space, to streamline things. I'm going to have students embed and maintain a SeeSaw multipage journal post (kind of like a slideshow) for each of the 15 skills we will focus on in their New Google Sites portfolio. The embedded SeeSaw slide shows will include their rubric with self evaluation and will be accompanied by reflective writing. 


Student tend to need a fair amount of help getting started. In the beginning, portfolios feel quite cumbersome, because of how much time it takes to get them established and to get students use to using them. There is a lot of front-end loading. Once you get in the the groove, though, it's as easy as, "Hey, folks, can we get the collaboration section of our our portfolios updated for evaluation by next Tuesday?" and students will know what to do.

I have found that student ability to reflect effectively varies wildly. There are some students for whom it clicks instantly and they thrive in the system. There are others who seem to never taken time to truly consider about their own abilities and behavior patterns, and the idea is confusing to them. I make a point to be patient with the latter group, and they usually come around. I like to work through an example of skill application and self assessment, once we have our rubrics established. Then I give my live example of what reflective writing might look like. I also provide this guide for reflective writing for skills growth I wrote to help them. So we basically walk through what a first entry in a portfolio would look like. This happens a couple weeks into class, as it takes time to establish rubrics together and wrap our heads around expectations and the class environment.

Expectations and grading

You need to decide what you want portfolios to be. Since I use them for 100% of my student's grades, I want them to be a robust story of their growth, and since I grade for growth, I want the portfolio to tell a growth story. This means I like having many artifacts related to each skill I assess, and that the reflective writing is going to tell a story about how a student got from early artifacts to the latest.

If you don't use skills-based grading, and I can't imagine you do because I can't find anyone who does, but maybe you use something like standards-based grading, that story of growth for each standard might be a bit overwhelming. You might just want to see their best work for each standard. If you use traditional grading systems, then arranging a portfolio by topic and telling a story of growth and experience can be robust.
I like to let students grade themselves before I do. It helps to have evaluation tools and expectations that are owned and understood by all parties. I make a point to grade for growth, replacing old grades with the latest. I have them turn in their portfolios and use rubrics on Google Classroom to grade them and give feedback.

You need to decide how often you want to grade and how much at a time. I found that requiring students completely updating all or most of a portfolio for all of the 25 skills we used last year was quite overwhelming. Collecting and grading sections of the portfolios at a time worked better. After they had something for each skill, updating them was not as intimidating, so they could handle multiple sections at  a time.

My advice

If you are considering portfolios I would recommend going all in and making them as much of the student overall grade as you are allowed. As previously mentioned, you can still do all of the stuff you might normally, like scored assignments, assessments, labs, etc, but just don't give students actual grades for those. Score them and let the score be feedback they can use as they discuss their growth and achievement in their portfolio.

I make a policy not to give students any grades until they have fully reflected and self evaluated. If I have done my job well they should have plenty of feedback from me to help them do that. Portfolios work great with this policy.

What did not work so well for us in the past was making portfolios one of many grades in the grade book. They were not taken seriously enough by most students, and I never saw the reflective writing I was hoping for from most students. They didn't have the regular practice with it. The portfolios simply became a summary piece that was one of many huge overwhelming projects they had at the end of term in their classes.

Having portfolios as the main avenue for earning a grade might seem like a huge change, but when you don't really change much else of what you do in class then it's not that big of a deal. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked, and I got so much meaningful mature feedback about how much students valued thinking about their growth over such a long term. I anticipate I'll work with this system for a long time. 

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I am working with my office mate teacher friend to revise our system, so I am actively adjusting and open to working with others who are interested.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Deconstructing our systems in education

Our systems in education often don't make sense when you boil them down to fundamental reasons for existing. When we recognize this, and acknowledge that change needs to happen, we tend to make the mistake of trying to work within the faulty system. It's not always our fault, because we, as teachers and administrators, do not always have the power to design systems or set policy, but we might be guilty of not making enough noise and arguments against them as regularly as we should. We also tend to avoid trying out systems which might work better, out of fear of ruffling feathers. I see a trend in education -- important and effective change rooted in equity and the meaningful development of young learners always seems to come from K-12 educators. When we let anyone else design the systems they always end up rooted in misguided beliefs and/or greed. So we need to be that change.

When systems are in place that are rooted in nonsense, bias, outdated or obsolete situations, or sometimes, seemingly nothing, change needs to start with deconstruction and building up from a new foundation. The process of deconstruction of education systems has some parallels to the form of literary analysis. You often end up going so deep that you realize that previously held truths are either nonexistent, subjective, or complex and dynamic enough to be impossible to use as a foundation for a static system. Deconstruction is difficult and uncomfortable, but often necessary to build a system based on a solid foundation of moral structure and just motives.

Aliens and the big picture

In order to get the best appreciation of how ridiculous a system is it helps to back out for more of a big picture view -- the 30,000 foot view, if you will. This allows one to see how backwards a system might be before diving into the details and trying to deconstruct it. Sometimes this big picture view makes the system crumble and reveals the underlying issues immediately. It's like auto-deconstruction. Big picture TNT. Getting the big picture view is not always easy, especially when you have been working in the system. You are part of the system and the system has become part of what you do. You cannot see the forest for the trees.

To help get the big picture view I like to pretend I am trying to explain a system to a friendly curious alien who is somewhat familiar with our culture and society. Imagine you have that alien sitting down for a cup of coffee and she has a rudimentary idea of how our society functions. 

Let's take one of my favorite topics to deconstruct -- grading. Imagine trying to explain the alien what we grade for K-12 students and why. We grade students on compliance and on retention of information. This information can be almost instantly accessed by anyone on the planet. Imagine the alien inquires more about the details of the process, and then we have to start explaining that most of what we base their grades on is stuff we ask them to "learn" but which we know they most likely will never actually use. Not only that, but we use those grades to decide what kind of access students will have to future opportunity. I imagine the alien follows up by asking why you don't grade things that actually matter to development and learning, like the skills they will use.

Let's do another -- school start time. Imagine trying to explain to that alien that while it is well known that adolescents cannot effectively learn early when you make them wake earlier than their biological clocks say they should, and that doing so not only has measurable negative effects on learning but that lack of sleep has been shown to cause permanent brain damage, but that we do it anyway because a handful of extra curricular activities would be inconvenienced. Be ready to explain why learning so much useless information is deemed important enough to harm students. I imagine the alien follows up by asking why you don't just start school when it makes sense and build everything else around that.

How about another? Summers off. Imagine having to explain the the alien that it is well known that giving students a 3+ month break in the summer has measurable negative effects on education but that we do it because . . . we don't actually have a good reason. We just do. There were a handful of bad reasons the trend started a long time ago, but now we just do it because of the tourism industry and tradition. I imagine the alien follow up by asking why you don't just spread out the summer break throughout the school year.

One more. Subjects. Imagine trying to justify why you would separate art, math, writing, language and science into separate subjects with little-to-nothing connecting them. You have to explain that you are a math teacher who teaches only math skills, but you do not work with the other teachers who teach the classes where those math skills might be useful to make sure connections are made with skills and application. Pick a subject and you can most likely find a trend of teaching and learning that is missing many important connections to other subjects. I imagine the alien follows up by asking why you don't just combine subjects to make it all more relevant and connected.

Okay, just one more. Standardization. Imagine explaining to your new alien friend that while you know each individual student is different, with different interest, abilities, passions, skills, and that children grow and develop and different rates, that we decide to hold them all the the same standard at the same time with the same testing methods that don't really test their development and growth. Not only that, but we use those test results to figure out what track they should be on, and in many systems we make it quite difficult for them to get off of those tracks, even when they show great growth. I imagine the alien follows up by asking why we don't just figure out where students are in their development and interests and adjust their education accordingly.

I can keep going all day long on big picture views, but I think that's enough for now. I don't want to spoil any more future blog posts.

Diving in deep, without aliens

What about when the big picture doesn't seem to reveal big problems with a system, but we see evidence that there are problems? The imaginary alien coffee date might not work for auto-deconstruction for every system, or for someone who is closely tied to the system -- can't see the forest for the trees. Sometimes we have to start digging down into details to find reasons that the big picture view might hide.

For example, let's look at AP classes and AP tests. If you try to explain this to an alien the big picture might sound like it makes sense. Kids take these classes that prepare them for these tests which give them credit and a head start at the next level. It allows the more motivated and capable to work ahead and achieve, without punishing anyone by setting all standards for all students too high, just the ones who take AP. Sound like a good idea on the surface, right?

If you start to deconstruct AP classes and tests you run into some pretty disturbing trends, motives, biases, inequities, and truths (or lack thereof). 

It is pretty well documented that AP curricula were hyperfocused on content retention for many years. The newer models and redesigned classes are slightly more skill-focused, but those older classes running for decades as they were had lasting effects. Teachers trained for and worked in those systems for years, which can affect how the do things for their entire careers, and how students grow up to attempt to do, learn and even teach. The newer AP courses are still quite heavy in measuring content retention. When it comes down to it, AP tests measure how well you remember a subject and some of the ways you can apply the content from that subject. The tests mostly boil down to a test of remembering information that is instantly accessible outside of a regulated AP test.

AP test scores can get you college credit. If you start to look at who does well on AP tests you quickly find out it is the students with all of the access and privilege. The good schools, with the highest average family socioeconomic status have the higher test scores. This means that the kids who would most likely benefit the most from getting some cheap college credit are not necessarily the ones getting it.

Why do high school students need to be earning college credit? This takes us down into another deconstruction rabbit hole. To graduate college early? I guess that argument could make some sense, but I have yet to find studies showing that is the result of AP test success. To save money? That seems like another good argument, but if you look at that reason it exposes another deep issue with our systems. College is unaffordable. If the reason to try to earn college credit in high school is that college credit is really expensive, that does not seem like a solid foundation for an education system. It sheds light on a major issue with another system. Or is the main reason to skip the poorly designed intro college classes that are akin to torture for many? Because that seems like a bad thing to shape a high school experience around.

You can dive deeper into those college systems and you don't ever arrive at any sort of foundation or truth that sounds anything like we do this because it is best for student development. It’s either about saving money or aligning with another system with even bigger issues. You never encounter any foundation built on a premise of healthy growth of a learner or the development of important skills.

You can dive into grading systems if the big picture alien idea wasn't enough for you. I won't hash out the deconstruction details again. It has already been a topic of some previous blog posts by me. The result you get when you boil down our grading systems is that we do it because it's easiest, or cheapest, someone can make more money from it that way, we believe remembering stuff is learning, or that's just how it has always been done. None of those are healthy foundations.

The questioning of what is wrong with teaching standalone subjects is a hard one to see the big picture on for many. Humans find is quite helpful to categorize things. Drawing boundaries can help us wrap our heads around big ideas. We have physics class, and everything in that class is physics. If it was mixed up evenly with math and art and writing then maybe it would not seem as much like physics and we would not have as easy a time seeing the big picture and patterns and major physics concepts. It turns out, without creative outlets, and writing, and taking time to truly make meaning of the math, physics is pretty impossible to learn for many students. The best physics teachers get the best results incorporating skills and ideas from outside of what one would probably label physics.

If we start to boil down the systems of running standalone subject classes, they tend to break down to the same base reasons that grading systems often have -- money, it's easier, because we have always done it that way, because another faulty system does it that way (college), and/or a belief that remembering stuff is learning. The foundations are never what they should be -- that it best serves the needs and interests of every learner.

Bandaids or something better?

We have all of these systems with policies in place that don't really make any sense, and instead of fixing the actual problems we try working within the systems and bandaids. We try to make our grading systems more fair by allowing for make-up assessments. We try to convince kids to go to bed earlier, like that works. AP teachers give summer homework, as if that is going to fix summer retention issues, ignoring the fact the retention as a goal is the issue.

If you don't get to design the systems, it might not seem like you don't have much control or freedom. I write a fair amount of stuff that people seem to agree with in principle, but I get a lot of responses like, 
"Yeah, but what am I supposed to do about it? I have to work in this system we already have. . . " 
"Tell that to the politicians!" 
"Changing how I do things is too scary, and I don't think I could pull that off."
All of those responses make sense to me. I lived all of those responses at some point.

So what is there to do? How can a teacher or admin affect change?

Be the change. Dconstruct your systems and rebuild them on solid foundations. This tends to be a crazy soul-searching endeavor that takes a while and it is best to do with a colleague or two.

Start the conversations and keep them going. If our systems are not rooted in what is best for students and they even harm many students then we should be talking about that all the time. K-12 educators are the best candidates for crafting the solutions. It can also help to reach out to college and university educators. You will probably have the most luck with professors in college of education that train teachers and do research in education, but there are some progressive professors in all colleges and departments who actually care about improving education systems.

Write to your politicians and policy makers. Tell them what is wrong. Even better, give them a solution. People love it when you give them a solution. They might even give you credit or ask you to be part of crafting the design details an implementation of a new system.

Advocate for students. Tearing down old systems and building new systems based on actually supporting young learners is advocating for students, but people might not realize that's why you are doing it unless you tell them.

Educate yourself. Stay informed. Stay up to date. Know that the research says, know what the opposition says, know what everyone says. Know what our students say. Know what your gut tells you. 

Most important, know why. Know why we do things the way we do, and if the reasons are not good ones that are student-centered, then figure out how to make them so they are.