Some thoughts on group work

I’ve noticed recently that there has been a bigger emphasis on student group work in classrooms and schools.  Obviously good teachers have made group work part of their pedagogical bag of tricks for years, but suddenly it seems that every where I turn some new educational leader or speaker is touting the need for students to work in group and collaborate.  After all, project based learning (as opposed to just summative projects) requires collaboration.  What I find often happens with educational initiatives, though, is that they good intentions go awry, and I think the current emphasis on group work is missing the point.  As is often the case, group work is being pushed on us as the answer instead of thoughtful reflecting on when group work would be appropriate.

I say this as someone who has made group work a rather regular part of his classroom.  My juniors have been working in groups the last 2 days and my seniors were working in groups today.  The reason they were in groups though is because I wanted them to have thoughtful conversations about the activities at hand.  In other words, it wasn’t grouping for the sake of grouping nor was it grouping simply so I could say there is collaboration.  Instead, the depth of their answers could be enhanced by discussing, in the case of my seniors, the textual evidence in Beowulf, and, in the case of my juniors, their evaluation of various writings.  In each case I weighed the option of asking them to do it individually against them working with others.  This was not a quick decision.

I say this only because I think teachers and leaders need to be thoughtful about when and how they group students.  I have heard many teachers and school leaders suggest grouping and when I ask why, their answer is usually something about “collaboration.”  The real question here, though, is; are they really collaborating (ie grappling with a complex task/question that necessitates multiple perspectives) and does that collaboration provide a deeper, more thorough answer.  I would contend that often times it does not; rather the group dynamic simply allows for quicker answers–not necessarily deeper or better answers.

The other caveat that I always keep in mind about grouping is that group work allows some students to coast.  We’ve all seen groups in which one or two people dominate the group and the rest simply jot down their answers.  That is not collaboration.  I have actually over the years limited my group work for this reason and instituted more partner work as it’s harder to hide in a partnership.

Group work is great and can be meaningful.  I just urge all educators to be thoughtful about it and not to institute group work simply for the sake of using groups.

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The Dog and Pony show

I’ve got my classroom observation coming up soon.  We only do them every three years for veteran teachers, so it’s been awhile for me.  I serve on the evaluation committee and have long been interested in teacher evaluation because it is a process fraught with errors and has potential to really harm a school’s culture and its teachers.  That being said, something that comes up all the time in regards to observations is the so-called “dog and pony show.”  There is such concern among school leaders that their evaluations are marred by these dog and pony shows rather than seeing the real thing.

Here’s the thing about these dog and pony shows.  If an observer watches a teacher put on a show and perform some excellent teaching, why is that a problem?  Doesn’t that indicate that the teacher can fulfill the expectations of the observer/leadership team?  If the school is pushing for student centered learning, and the produces a student centered lesson, bravo!  What that really means is that the teachers is capable of doing what is asked.

Of course the argument is that they aren’t doing this all the time.  To which I say, shouldn’t we ask why?  If teachers aren’t dong it all the time, doesn’t that indicate that they teacher does not feel that it is the right thing to do all the time for whatever reason?  Sounds to me like that is a leadership issue.  Instead of trying to subvert the observation system and “catch” teachers teaching improperly, leaders should be working on convincing teachers to do this all the time.  Fear of being caught is not going to make this happen.

If in your observations you are seeing a lot of “dog and pony shows,” maybe you should reconsider how you are selling your product.

Are we giving good feedback?

I think the title presents a clear question.  I’ve been reading a lot of student writing and drafting lately and providing feedback.  Feedback is one of the elements on our evaluation rubric.  We expect feedback from our school leaders regarding our teaching performance.  Feedback is one of those terms we throw around so much that I’m not so sure we are all using the same definition.

One of my favorite places to turn for educational readings is Grant Wiggins’ blog, and one of my favorite posts of his regards feedback: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/what-feedback-is-and-isnt/

in this article he begins by asking which of these 4 examples is actual feedback:

  1. “Nice job on the project, Sheshona!”

2. “Next time, Sam, you’ll want to make your thesis clearer to the reader”

3. “The lesson would be more effective, Shana, if your visuals were more polished and supportive of the teaching.”

4. “You taught about ants, Stefan? I LOVE ants!”

And then promptly points out that none of the 4 is feedback.  This has always stood out to me because I think we often believe we are providing feedback when in reality we are not.  Feedback should indicate to a student where he stands in relation to a goal.  While praise and advice are both worthwhile things in their own right, neither of them is true feedback.  I worry that we are so hung up on providing feedback that we don’t actually focus on whether or not we are providing good feedback.  I would bet in most schools, leaders would view advice as feedback, so teachers provide lots of advice.

The moments that always stand out to me regarding feedback are from my public speaking classes.  In Public Speaking students are required to deliver a sales pitch.  shortly thereafter, I always ask the class who was actually convinced to purchase a product based on the sales pitch.  That is the clearest feedback these students can get regarding the effectiveness of their speech.  If the intended goal is to sell something and people are buying it or not buying, you have all sorts of useful information to determine how well you did.  This is much stronger feedback than anything I could write or say about the speech after the fact.

Feedback is, perhaps surprisingly, a tricky piece of the educational lexicon.  Perhaps it is worth analyzing our own feedback to determine if we are giving good feedback or not.

Stress

I haven’t posted in quite some time.  I, like everyone else, have been quite busy lately what with the term ending soon and all my many obligations.  Last week in particular was a rather draining week for me.  The grading is piling up, and I haven’t slept well in the past couple of weeks, and last week I had two committee meetings that I chair.  All this is a way to say, I’ve been feeling stress recently.

On Thursday, I teach night school, and as usual I went up around 5:30 to the teacher’s room to heat up my lunch when I saw one of my coworkers still going strong.  I always see him on Thursdays still working.  He tells me that it is unusual that he goes home before 6 or so.  Now he is young teacher with no kids in his first year.  Seeing him made me think of just how stressful it is to be a good teacher and what schools do to try to mitigate teacher stress.

We all know burnout is a major problem among teachers.  We also know teachers have many demands put on us.  We’ve all known 12+ hour days and sometimes we heroically announce that the only time we see the sun is through our classroom window as if that is something to be proud of.  We also know that this sort of work/life balance is unsustainable.

Schools try to offer various solutions to teacher stress and burn out.  I’ve seen many schools offer various stress management workshops; some schools have yoga, meditation, or exercise clubs for their faculty all (at least partially) sold on the idea that they help reduce stress.  I applaud these efforts, and I hope schools continue offering them, but I fear they are only short term solutions-solutions that look good, but don’t really solve the problem.

The reality is that we, as educators, have to be willing to walk away from work or just say no.  While we have many pressures put on us, many of our obligations and stress are self inflicted and we need to give ourselves permission to let go of these.  So many of us are perfectionists or over achievers by nature that we kill ourselves unnecessarily.  Rarely does that test need to be graded and handed back the next day.  For example we are a google school, so naturally many teachers use google classroom.  We are required to post our assignments in our grade book so students have access to it.  We are not required to use google classroom, but many people do, so they feel obligated to post their assignments there as well thus duplicating their work.  This is a small example, but my point is that sometimes we build more work for ourselves.

We relax by watching netflix, but we feel guilty not grading at the same time.  So what do we do?  We grade while we relax, which is of course not very relaxing (and probably not very efficient grading either).  We know this isn’t healthy.  We know this isn’t sustainable.  And yet we do it to ourselves all the time.

We need to give ourselves permission to de-stress and school leaders need to make it known that that is acceptable and should be encouraged.

Students shouldn’t study for tests

Last week I gave my juniors a test, and of course, the day before the test I reviewed what would be on it and its format, and in each class someone asked “how should I study for this?”  And it got me thinking, in some ways we are doing our students a disservice by telling them to study for the test.

When we tell students to study , we usually mean a couple of things: review your notes, or drill with flashcards, or practice problems again.  What are we really saying there?  When we tell students to study, aren’t we really telling them to read, and reread a bunch of facts/information?  Practicing problems (I’m thinking math here, but it applies elsewhere) is a bit different.  Shouldn’t tests be more than just reproducing facts and information?  or doing the same problems students have already done?

I don’t like to give a test until I am pretty confident that students know the material and can discuss it or work with it in some deeper way.  If you know it, you shouldn’t have to study it, right?

There is a place for “drill and kill” in schools.  Memorization is important to some extent.  Yes, you need to memorize verb conjugations in foreign languages.  Yes, you need to memorize the list of pronouns in English in order to do any more in-depth grammar.  That requires studying and students should be quizzed on their memorization, but the final summative test should include much more.  Students should be well past the memorization phase.

How do you study for my test?  You don’t.  You already know it.

What’s in a meme? (part V)

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Welcome to part 5.  For parts 1-4 check out hereherehere, and here.

Conform: Intellectually and socially.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says that the virtue in most demand in society is conformity.  This sentiment is clear throughout the work of Transcendental writers: non-conformity leads to great things.  And their ideas have been used as inspiration for countless movers and shakers in our country and our world. These are the very movers and shakers (writers, politicians, activists,etc.) that we teach in our schools every day.  Surely we must be teaching students the importance of non-conformity.  Whether implicitly or explicitly in many courses we teach the importance and potential results of not conforming.

But the policies, procedures and actions of schools and individual teachers do not generally accept nonconformity.  After all, society demands conformity.  Society ostracizes and punishes (sometimes violently) nonconformity. We all know this.  Society has unwritten rules (as well as some written ones) as to how people are supposed to behave.   Schools are no different, which makes sense since schools are societal institutions.  Sure individual teachers may praise nonconformity and “thinking outside the box” from time to time.  But eventually even they have their limits and some actions may be too far out the box to be accepted.  In fact, we even teach our autistic population how to act in a “socially expected” way.

As I remind my students often, nonconformity may lead to great things, but it is not without its consequences.  It is a matter of whether or not the individual is willing to accept those consequences to act as a nonconformist.  I often argue that education is about finding a balance, which I’ve mentioned many times previously.  Issues of conformity are no different.  As teachers we need to nurture individuals and their creativity and ability to think outside the box while also teaching them the potential consequences of this.

What’s in a meme (part IV)

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Welcome to my 4th installment discussing this meme.  Check out parts 1-3 herehere, and here.

Non-compliance is punished.

For most of these claims, there is a little bit of truth, but not the whole story.  I will fully admit that #4 is pretty darn accurate.  Non-compliance is punished in just about every classroom and every school out there, but this is because schools are a product of society–a society in which non-compliance is punished.  So many people already complain that kids and teenagers are disrespectful.  Could you imagine how much more these people would complain if schools didn’t, in some way, punish non-compliance?  Without going into the science about brain development and whatnot, students need boundaries and consequences for exceeding those boundaries.  Anybody who has actually worked with students knows this.

Many people are probably saying, but what about civil disobedience?  If a rule is unjust, unfair, or unnecessary, students should practice civil disobedience.  After all, we teach students (directly or indirectly) the virtues of civil disobedience.  In fact my students even read Henry David Thoreau’s piece called “Civil Disobedience.”  Aren’t I being slightly hypocritical for not practicing what I preach? Not exactly.  What often gets forgotten in that argument is that Henry David Thoreau wrote that while in jail.  He practiced civil disobedience by not paying his taxes to fund a war that he thought was unjust.  As a result he was punished and sent to jail.  As we talk about this, I constantly remind my students that civil disobedience comes with consequences.  Your non-compliance will be punished.

When one thinks about non-compliance and civil disobedience, the most prominent example is the work of MLK Jr. and the civil rights movement.  These people staged sit-ins at whites only counters, etc. and fought for what is just.  Many might argue that by punishing non-compliance in schools we are hindering these sorts of movements in the future.  Again, I’d point out that these civil rights activists were all punished-not just by being sent to jail, but also through physical violence.  I’d also point out that it is easy to say you’d be civilly disobedient, but much harder to actually do it when the time comes.  Martin Luther King Jr. actually trained people in how to sit at the counter and keep calm while being insulted and physically attacked.  I don’t know many people-nonetheless school age students-who could withstand that sort of abuse while remaining calm without the necessary training.

None of this is to say that students have no ability to question authority or school rules.  While I alluded to this in a previous post about this meme, in my experience schools (and individual teaches) have allowed students to voice concerns about policy.  For example, a few years back the dress code for one particular dance was made more stringent than it ever has been.  One member of the student government, with the guidance of the adviser, circulated a petition regarding this change.  This was a means to start a conversation that has been ongoing since though the dress code for this dance is looser now.

My point is that while non-compliance is generally punished in schools, there are means for students to question the rules and authorities.  It is easy to suggest that we are squashing free thinkers, but it is much harder to maintain an appropriate learning environment than non-educators realize.  We must strike a balance that helps and supports all our students.