No tests, no problem?

This semester I decided to do away with tests in my HSB4U – Challenge and Change course. My initial thought was that this would be well received by my grade 12 students – and why wouldn’t it be, no one likes tests, right?

Wrong. Much to my surprise there was push back from a number of my students when I confirmed that there would be no tests. By my estimation it was roughly one third of the class who wanted traditional pen and paper tests. Why? Because they are “good” at tests. And when you are good at tests you get good grades. The problems is, as explained by one of my students, “you can’t get 100% on assignments”.

In my grade 9 Geography course I still have tests, they may not take the form of what some may call a traditional test but they are tests nonetheless. What I have changed is the types of questions that I ask. No longer is the focus on memorizing facts and terminology the student could otherwise “search up” on Google, but rather the student is presented with questions and problems requiring them to apply their knowledge and think critically. Often the students get the questions the day before, so they must like these new tests and do well, right?

Wrong again. Most of my grade 9 students have been struggling with these tests and don’t like them. Why? Because they have never been asked to do this before. They have been conditioned to memorize facts and terminology, regurgitate it the next morning onto a test paper, and then forget everything to make room for more facts. When asked to think about what they have learned and apply it to a new context they are often at a loss. The skill set isn’t there or it is poorly developed.

So, what is the answer then? Tests or not? By the time students get to grade 12 they have figured out school. They figured out marks, they figured out what they need to do to get good marks, they are now good at school. The end goal for them is a good grade and unfortunately, for many students, it can be as simple as having a good memory. We need to either change how we do tests, or do away with them entirely – students need to become good at thinking, processing, and problem solving and not good at school.

What’s my photocopier code again?

We are officially at the half way point of the first semester of the 2015/16 school year and I have not made a single photocopy for my classes nor our department. Nothing revolutionary, I know, but I set out this year to go paperless thinking that it would be a difficult task – and it hasn’t been.

It has been easy because of the shift that has occurred in many of the classrooms in the Social Sciences department here at my school. Many of us have moved away from the “sit and get” model and have made our students become more responsible for their learning. A more inquiry based (or even problem/project based) approach to learning doesn’t need a lot of paper, rather it requires a lot of thinking, discussion, and reflecting. Having fewer (or no) traditional tests has helped reduce runs to the photocopier and in the process helped us move forward with our assessment practices.

Of course, technology has certainly played a large role in this process. Using Google Classroom to provide students with readings, assignment instructions, rubrics, and other resources reduces my photocopying and helps the students go paperless as well. Socrative helps us with digital assessment and using Sesame for “returning” rubrics, feedback, and other assessment tools has not only helped some of us go paperless, but it has improved the quality and timeliness of the feedback we provide to students.

I set out to reduce photocopying across our entire department two years ago with the intention of saving money (and we have… photocopying has dropped more than 50%). The extra money in the budget has been nice, we have invested that money in technology for our classrooms. But the extra money didn’t end up being the most important outcome. Reducing paper forced some teachers to get away from the “tried and tested” approaches to teaching and learning. It has, in effect, forced teachers to be innovative in their classrooms. And you can’t put a price on that.

Reflections on PBL, the #IntDevProject

I finally got an opportunity to reflect on the Project Based Learning activity that I wrote about in my last post. The project, which I called the #IntDevProject, was a huge success in many ways. The biggest successes, however, were not found in the final products, but rather in the skills and competencies that were developed by the students during the process.IMG_2899I was particularly impressed with my students and their ability to recognize what needed to be done to complete the project. At any given moment during the three week project students could be found reading academic articles, watching documentaries, contacting industry professionals or non-profit organizations, making Skype calls to activists like Sam Barlow, having rich discussions and heated debates, contacting project mentors (former World Issues students) like Shafiqah Muhamad Nor, Dhaman Rakhra, and Omer Aziz, or providing daily check-ins via the D2L ePortfolio app. Nearly all of this without prompting or prodding from me.

Students on Skype call with Sam Barlow     in studio

The project required the students to create three products (a video, a podcast, and an Op-Ed article) to effectively demonstrate their learning during the project and to propose potential solutions to their problem (where applicable). The results were excellent, the students created some incredibly engaging videos and podcasts and thought provoking editorial articles.

Here are a few samples of the work produced by three different groups:

A video showcasing sexual violence in DRC as a consequence of conflict minerals 

A podcast, featuring an interview with Sam Barlow, on Female Genital Mutilation

Op-Ed article about Child Trafficking: Loss of Innocence

I would be lying if I said that this project was a resounding success for all of the students in my World Issues class. There were certainly students who did not thrive academically in the PBL environment – it just wasn’t a good fit with their learning style. Going forward I will be more cognizant of this and ensure that such students had additional support and perhaps more structure in their PBL journey. Conversely, most students thrived. I was particularly impressed with students who could bring skills and knowledge from other disciplines (particularly the Arts, Business, and Technology) and apply them in another context in this Geography class.

The students took immense pride in the final products they produced and shared them with not only a global community but, more importantly, with their peers.The products didn’t end up in the recycling bin at the end of the semester, and for me that is a huge win.

Jumping into Project Based Learning

I’ve been implementing PBL into my practice in baby steps over the past few years and decided it’s time to just dive right in this semester. No more worrying about whether or not it would work or if the students would respond. Time to jump.

I love teaching the grade 12 World Issues course. It is by far my favourite course to teach because I learn so much every time I teach it – and most of that learning comes from my students. And really (in my opinion), there is no better course for PBL than World Issues.

Two of my former students have recently formed a NGO (REACH Diagnostics) that “provides urban slum citizens with access to inexpensive diagnostic tools that will promote detection and regular screening of non-communicable diseases.” I was inspired by their work (and what teacher wouldn’t be) and thought, why can’t my current students do this as well?

So here it is, the International Development Project. In teams my students will find an existing problem in the developing world and work to find a solution. So far my students have decided to focus on the challenges faced by women and children in Syrian and Darfuri refugee and IDP camps, child marriage, child trafficking, female genital mutilation, and the lack of girls education in Afghanistan (amongst other issues). We will spend the next three weeks exploring these issues and seeking solutions.

I had two former students come speak to my class to help kick-off this project. Dhaman Rakhra (CEO of REACH Diagnostics) spoke passionately about his work in social enterprise and outlined what eventually became the inspiration for this project. Omer Aziz shared his experiences writing and speaking about international relations and inspired my students to follow their passion.

IMG_2871   IMG_2876

One element of the project that I am particularly excited about is the requirement that my students involve mentors, like Dhaman and Omer, in the process. I have a number of great former students who have volunteered to serve as mentors. Via social media, email, and video conferencing my students will be able to draw upon their expertise in foreign relations, law, politics, global issues, public broadcasting, and journalism.

The products that the students will be producing are a happy marriage of some of the products I have used in the past, including my favourite, Radio World Issues. But like I told my students today, it is not the product at the end that is important in this process. In fact, it is the process that it is important. It’s time to let go as teachers and allow our students to find meaning and purpose in the material that they discover, on their own. It is time to empower them to inform, inspire, and interact with a global audience.