My use of portfolios for assessment and grading is not going well. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’ve implemented portfolios quite well, from a technological standpoint. Google Sites may not be pretty but I’ve managed to tweak them into an assessment portfolio system over the last several years and I’ve accumulated many examples of portfolios filled with excellent student work. But a separate Google Site portfolio in addition to a personal blog for each student is starting to feel like just another website to manage and the self-analysis that I thought portfolios would bring has not materialized, at least not for most students. I even went so far this past school year to discontinue using the portfolios in my “regular” biology sections although I continued to use them in my college-level courses like anatomy and college biology.

Before I deconstruct the failings of my current system, let me review what I hoped to achieve with building a standards-based system that uses blogs and portfolios to share, assess, and measure student learning:

Goals of my standards-based portfolio system:

  1. Students produce artifacts of learning that are seen by more than just the teacher (me) and add to the body of learning resources available online to other students.
  2. Students have the chance to use multiple technological (and non-tech) tools to demonstrate mastery of a topic or skill.
  3. Students know what kinds of topics and skills are required to master the course content and achieve a high grade for their particular course.
  4. Student blogs such as Google Blogger and WordPress serve as a chronological storage/timeline of student learning artifacts and travel with the student even after they finish a particular class.
  5. Google Site portfolios serve a major self-assessment function in that students review their blog posts and select their best work by topic and skill standard for inclusion in the portfolio.
  6. A portfolio site provides an easy way to assess the entire body of a student’s work and makes allowances for the different lengths of time it takes individual students to demonstrate mastery of a particular topic or skill.
  7. Student portfolios serve an accountability function for both student and teacher, since the portfolio is easily shared with other stakeholders such as parents, the local community college that issues our concurrent college credit, and perhaps even the state’s Department of Education.

Let’s see how these goals have panned out:


Students produce artifacts of learning that are seen by more than just the teacher (me) and add to the body of learning resources available online to other students.

This is happening, or at least the possibility of it happening exists because everything is posted online. Certainly parent conferences are strengthened greatly by being able to easily get student work into parents hands. As for a wider audience, however, most students do just enough to get by and truly exceptional learning artifacts that explain a topic well enough to get lots of views are rare. We’ve had a few notable exceptions and a blog exchange or two, but largely the audience for student work seems to mostly just be me.


Students have the chance to use multiple technological (and non-tech) tools to demonstrate mastery of a topic or skill.

This is also happening, given the online nature of blogs. However, students don’t use very many tools. Google Docs/Slides are all over the place and we take a lot of pictures and video of labs and such, but I don’t see a lot of creative photo editing or captioning and video post-production is minimal. We’ve gotten Snapchat involved in some instances, but that’s about it. The non-tech side of things usually just involves taking pics of a study guide or drawing or perhaps the occasional model of a cell or muscle fiber. Its fair to say that students don’t generally seek out new creative tools that they are not already familiar with.


Students know what kinds of topics and skills are required to master the course content and achieve a high grade for their particular course.

 

I like to think that this is true, since the portfolio comes to students pre-populated with a list of content and skill standards with a description of each. There are only 7 major standards, and the portfolio more or less puts them right in students’ faces, including the major subject area topics. As for figuring out how to achieve a high grade in the class, that’s far less obvious and much more experiential as each student and I have a dialogue about the quality of their work in the portfolio. There is a ton a flexibility in using portfolios, which is awesome from a philosophical standpoint, but explaining that flexibility to students in terms of concrete requirements for certain grade levels (A, B, C, etc.) is difficult. It is especially fun at the beginning of the school year when the body of work in the portfolio is tiny and grades usually are simply pass-fail or rarely go higher than a B. Students that consider themselves “A” students often freak out and ask what they can do to improve, when in reality they only have an artifact or two per standard to show off and I’m not ready to make a measurement based on so little data.


Student blogs such as Google Blogger and WordPress serve as a chronological storage/timeline of student learning artifacts and travel with the student even after they finish a particular class.

This is working well. Blogs are the meat and potatoes of the system and students around the school have come to expect to “do blogs in Ludwig’s class” even if they are not initially sure what that means. Blogs are relatively easy to set up and maintain, although I’ve seen some students struggle with remembering their logins. The time stamps are useful in parent conferences, especially where allegations of cheating have arisen. Its very easy to see who published content first if someone later borrows bits and pieces for themselves.


Google Site portfolios serve a major self-assessment function in that students review their blog posts and select their best work by topic and skill standard for inclusion in the portfolio.

This is not working well in most cases. Although some students have rocked the portfolio as a tool for self-analysis of their work, many students struggle with how to characterize and sort their work based on the standards that I’ve posted. After a semester or sometimes even after 3rd Quarter I’ll still have some students who need to be told exactly where to put links to their different work samples. A large majority of students take a link to a piece of work and put it on lots of portfolio pages even if the work doesn’t demonstrate the standards on those pages. Blog posts without graphs will end up under Data Visualization and simple content-area worksheets will find their way to Plan and Carry Out Scientific Investigations. The Self-Analysis page of the portfolio invariably generates comments like “I need to not procrastinate” which is definitely true but is also a lower bar than describing exactly which content you don’t understand. I have the sense that the portfolio is an afterthought for most students who don’t work on it until final grades are due and so the reflection that goes into it suffers from the speed at which it is thrown together.


A portfolio site provides an easy way to assess the entire body of a student’s work and makes allowances for the different lengths of time it takes individual students to demonstrate mastery of a particular topic or skill.

This is working well. It is very easy to look at a student’s portfolio page such as Data Collection and see every graph and data table that they’ve ever done for the class rather than combing through the chronological record of blog posts trying to identify which posts have graphs in them. From a purely quantitative standpoint, its obvious on a given portfolio page how many times the student has addressed a particular standard, assuming their self-assessment of each post isn’t too far off. Portfolios have made it easier to assess and to grade by standard. In the biology courses this past year that I did not use portfolios, I found it much harder to quantify some of the performance standards based solely on the blog posts.


Student portfolios serve an accountability function for both student and teacher, since the portfolio is easily shared with other stakeholders such as parents, the local community college that issues our concurrent college credit, and perhaps even the state’s Department of Education.

 

Yes, portfolios can deliver a lot of information about how I run my classes, but who is looking at them? Probably only the student and I are viewing any given portfolio, and sometimes not even they are interested in what the portfolio can show. In many cases the portfolio is simply “one more thing” for a student to do that “duplicates” what goes on with the blog. Its this kind of feedback from students that the portfolio was just “one more site to manage” that led me to scale back which courses use portfolios. If no one is looking, why bust our butts to create and maintain a nearly duplicate site of student work samples?


Future directions:

The “harsh reality” of the state of assessment portfolios isn’t too dreadful, but I have a sense that portfolio-based assessment could be going a lot better than it is in my hands. The goal of assessment of individual skill and content standards still remains, but the medium in which the information is collected needs some tweaking.

Google Sites are relatively clunky but do the job of collecting work samples as long as you have a laptop in front of you. But as students go increasingly more mobile I’m thinking of trying out SeeSaw as a replacement for the portfolio, and perhaps the blogs as well. It looks like SeeSaw will let students collect a variety of work samples into their SeeSaw portfolio using mobile and laptop devices and, for a fee, it will let me tag and evaluate student work by standard.

Simplifying down to two major platforms (Schoology and SeeSaw) from three (Schoology, Blog, and Portfolio Site) is a step in the right direction, although I’m concerned about students losing access to their work at the end of a school year if they don’t control their own personal blog. SeeSaw looks to be primarily aimed at a younger generation of kids than my high school bunch and is appropriately more teacher-centered, but a lot of the fundamentals are there: collection of learning artifacts, assessment by topic and performance standard, and publication to parents and others for accountability purposes and sharing of created resources. I’ll be curious to see whether the lack of student control of their own individual sites is a real problem in SeeSaw or if it actually creates better structure and accountability for my students and myself.

Tags: , , ,

Like many of my fellow educator-scientists, yesterday I had the honor and privilege of joining a March for Science. Since I live in a small town in the middle of “what mountains? they told me there would be mountains!” Colorado, I had to travel to Denver to join up with the big city folks and their March. 

Bright and early yesterday morning, I packed up my daughter and her friend (both currently my biology students) and we hit the road for the 2 1/2 hour drive through the moonscape that is eastern Colorado. We were rewarded for our efforts with a pretty steady sprinkle of rain the entire drive, which is a blessing in these parched high plains. 

We decided to take the RTD commuter train from near the airport, so I suppose we did our part in using public transportation on Earth Day, but mostly I didn’t want to try to fight thousands of people for parking downtown.  A smooth 1/2 hr later we pulled into Denver’s Union Station at which point we headed down the 16th Street Mall towards the Capitol. 

While on the ride in, I’d felt a little self-conscious about carrying a big sign on a stick, but once we hit the Mall we fell in with lots of other sign-carriers of all ages who were heading in the same direction. 

Our timing was spot on and we managed to cross paths with the March just as it got underway. 


We joined in the March and headed towards the Capitol plaza where the size of the crowd really became apparent. 

We stopped by several tents set up for the “teach-in” on the Capitol grounds and got to see some fun demos with Tesla coils, liquid nitrogen, and the classic crush-a-can with air pressure. We were surprised at the heavy presence of secular humanist organizations and wondered where the religious scientists’ tents were.

We wandered up the Capitol steps just in time for some of the major speeches of the day, most given by state reps. 

The crowd up at the top of the Capitol steps by the speakers seemed strangely sparse, but then I realized that we had beaten the crowd up the hill so they were behind us. 

One of my key takeaways from the speeches was that we collectively need to move the conversation away from belief vs nonbelief for the biggies like climate change and evolution. Instead, we should use the terms Accept or Deny, as several speakers did.  

Belief is something to be treasured, something to fight for because it’s important to how we view the world. But belief is inherently non-falsifiable. This is fundamentally different from how science operates. 

Science requires us to provide proof that certain phenomena operate as we think they do. Piles of evidence are put forward, sorted out by peer-review, and modified over time as new evidence arises. This results in a Theory built by consensus across multiple individuals, many of whom have competing beliefs about the issues at hand. But in this scientific consensus, the opinions don’t matter, the data does. Individuals, corporations, and elected officials can either accept the reality of the world as measurements indicate or they can deny the validity of that data.

Is the Earth warming up over time? I might wish that it were not but countless observational studies tell me it is.  Do species change over time to become different than their ancestors? Absolutely, even though we can hold different opinions about Who or what is behind the mysteries of why certain species exist today. 

As I wrap up another school year with a major Evolution unit in my biology classes, I’ll try to use this Accept or Deny language a lot more and try to help students do the same. 

If only we could do something for those folks who proudly deny every inconvenient truth…

Tags: ,

As I approach my 7th blogoversary, I could take the easy way out by simply creating a “best of” collection here on the blog so that you, dear reader, wouldn’t have to wade through the morass of scribbles about my journey as a semi-pro science teacher.

But I won’t. Instead I’m going to tackle yet another Edge.

My current definition of an Edge is this: it is arriving at that place where your feet are pretty firmly grounded in an established reality and you find yourself needing to take the very next step, yet there is no obvious way forward except an uncomfortable drop into an unknown and unfamiliar place.

As I write this at the end of 2016 I find that the creepy unknown place I’m stepping off into is one where external forces have intruded even further into my day-to-day teaching. Poverty, ignorance, family crises, and other stumbling blocks for student learning have always existed but now I have a new problem:

Many prominent role models are teaching my students behaviors that are completely at odds with my vision for who I want my students to be.

Fake news abounds, denial of established facts is the new normal amongst presidential tweeters, and anti-intellectualism in the guise of populism is winning the minds of people everywhere.

How is a science teacher to respond?

I’ve worked very hard up to this point in my career to try to do right by my students by inspiring their innate creativity while teaching them a logical framework with which to test out ideas and support them with facts.  Good old Claims-Evidence-Reasoning. Science.

But we seem to be heading into a post-science world, one where it’s less acceptable to fact-check than it is to fire off a tweet or two to “prove” your point. When it simply does not matter to the Tweeter whether they have their facts straight or not, we have a problem. This is what we have to combat.

There will be multiple opportunities (sadly) over the next few months for us to apply the burden of proof to those who would ignore it. EPA controls aren’t necessary? Prove it. Global warming isn’t man-made? Prove it. We have to be willing to challenge the Tweeter himself in class by modeling a critical review of positions and policies adopted by those role models now in power.

I can easily picture using past and future tweets as a springboard for discussions about the use of reputable sources of information. I can have students do their own digging and fighting though the fake news to find the real facts. I will convince my students that scientific problem solving is a vital part of their lives even as others would seek to teach them otherwise.

In my biology classes we will soon be discussing the Eugenics Movement in America. This is a topic that I have students explore once we have a bit of Genetics under our hats. Students know enough about the basics of heredity to be able to apply their knowledge to issues of race, poverty, immigration, and how science was used and abused in the pursuit of social engineering.

The topic of Eugenics feels especially relevant this time around, though, what with the newly resurgent alt-supremacists and Wall-builders seemingly in charge. Students have often felt threatened or confused by this unit in past years, but I suspect that there will be an unfortunate immediacy to the discussion now.

But it’s a discussion that I need to have. If your classes look anything like mine (poor, rural, 50% minority), we certainly need to equip our students to stand up for themselves using whatever tools we can give them.

Idealistic? Of course it is. But if you or I want to claim to be science teachers then we’ve already waved a banner of idealism at anyone watching. That banner says

I will teach you to think for yourself.

For that, dear reader, is the best possible outcome of all. When the tweetstorm of the current social engineers is confronted by critical analysis from our own students and they push back in constructive ways, we will have done our jobs.

It’ll be a long road to get there, but for now it is enough to just take that one step off the Edge.

Tags: , ,

Hi-Five Machine

 

How do we reconcile the freewheeling spirit of makerspaces with the traditional sit-and-get, control-freak management of most public schools?

Makerspaces are trendy at the moment as evidenced by articles like The ‘Maker’ Movement is Coming to K-12: Can Schools Get It Right? and The Nerdy Teacher’s new book. The Education Week article reminds us that many K-12 teachers are turning towards “making” and away from standardized curriculum and testing. I’ll be getting the book soon to see what Nick has to say as well.

But what exactly does “getting it right” look like in a K-12 setting? Should we enable student-driven learning and a “do-it-yourself, only-if-you-want-to ethos” like the Maker movement? I won’t claim to be doing it right, but I am trying out something. You can judge for yourself and perhaps take away some ideas to try.

Since 2011, I’ve been creating a makerspace in my high school that goes by the official course title “Physics” but sometimes gets referred to as “Phunsics.” Basically, I allow students to design and build whatever projects they want to, within some constraints of budget and safety. We’ve built everything from boats to rockets to Arduino-powered pianos. Students and I have had our fair share of successes and failures with the course, but it has grown immensely in popularity and I now run two sections of the course during the school day.

If you are thinking about getting onboard the Maker movement, here are the challenges that I’ve faced in building a DIY makerspace inside a traditional public high school physics course:

Lesson planning: A DIY philosophy does not co-exist with lesson plans that tell students what to make. I’ve started the year with some pre-planned projects like the Marshmallow Challenge or the Physics 500, but after the first week students are on their own and no lesson planning occurs. Instead, my role becomes that of coach and advisor and my primary job is to help with technical questions, keep students focused on their projects, provide materials, and maintain a safe construction environment for all. If your school requires you to turn in daily or weekly lesson plans, be prepared to explain why you don’t have any.

Multiple simultaneous projects: A DIY makerspace will allow students to follow their own interests. This means that with 18 or so students per class and two class sections, I’m looking at managing around 10 unique projects, and that assumes that students only work on one project at a time. Be prepared for a lot of mental gear-shifting as you help manage a diverse set of projects.

Lack of teacher expertise: I quickly found that student interests do not always line up with my strengths. This pushed me into uncomfortable territory at times. But I have had a huge opportunity to model real learning for my students as I tackled my lack of knowledge and skills along with them. A makerspace allows (forces?) you to model your skills as a lifelong learner for students. Several alumni of Phunsics have reported back that they appreciated the makerspace because they learned how to learn by taking the class.

Physical space: With 5-6 projects per class period, I have run into the lack of physical space in which to operate. This is especially true if students build a full-scale trebuchet or go-cart (been there). To solve space issues, I have had students working in no fewer than four different classrooms simultaneously (my room, chemistry/physics lab, outside, and shop). Be prepared to run around like a crazy person to keep track of where students are and what they are up to. You’ll need to think about the tools required, where they are located, and storage of the projects themselves. Chances are you’ll need to be very flexible in terms of what constitutes the makerspace “classroom.”

Behavioral issues: With great power comes great responsibility. Not all students will play nice with the departure from their normal classroom jail cell, especially if said jail cell is now spread out over two or three workspaces with one teacher. Typical teacher management strategies like busywork and pop quizzes don’t work when the content of the class is student generated. Instead, relationship-building and the occasional behavioral intervention are the tools of choice.  My general sense is that I have the greatest behavioral issues with those students who are either unwilling or unable to develop projects on their own and expect me to feed them projects. I usually deal with such situations by pointing students to Instructables and having them pick two or three interesting projects to mimic. Generally though, student groups form around one or two strong leaders that can usually pull the weight of project creation and implementation and keep everyone in the group busy. I also use the Google model of 80:20 time (80% work, 20% creative play) which works pretty well, especially when students are reminded that they are over their 20% goof off limit.

Supply shortages: A makerspace is student-driven, which means that student projects will be varied in their material needs in both consumables and in equipment and tools. From week to week, I don’t necessarily have a clue as to what materials we might need down the road for projects, because students have not communicated a need for them yet. We are in a constant cycle of brainstorming, materials purchasing, and production, and often times its the purchasing step that is the delay. If the project requires hardware and lumber then students or I can get to the local hardware store pretty quickly. But if we’re building an Arduino-powered weather station, then we are going to have to wait until parts arrive in the mail. This is especially problematic for schools like ours in a small rural town with few major stores and relatively limited budgets.

Non-traditional assessment for traditional grades: Given that my makerspace exists inside a traditional school, letter grades need to be issued to keep admin and parents happy. My grading scheme for Physics resembles an interview in that when end-of-term grades are due (and along the way for sports/activity eligibility) I ask students to defend what grade they think they deserve. They are required to explain which projects they have worked on and what their individual contribution to group projects has been. We also have a set of grade criteria that are negotiated at the beginning of the school year. This year’s grade level criteria can be found here.

Documentation of work completed:  I was challenged early on to keep everything that we do in the class as public as possible, and we’ve mostly succeeded in keeping up with our social media responsibilities. At first I kept a separate blog on the trebuchet project. Some years students have kept a class blog like https://phunsics2013.wordpress.com but lately we have moved away from blogs. We currently have a blog or two (here’s one) but the major posting of student work is happening at LJHS 3rd Hour Physics and Sausee Phyx on Facebook.

I’ve learned a lot over the years of running this makerspace and have become a much better Maker myself. While its frustrating sometimes that student motivation can be an issue even in the most student-powered course on campus, I’ll continue to keep on offering this space where students can learn how to learn. Keep an eye on our Facebook pages for details of our future shenanigans.

Tags: , ,

I had the privilege of attending the recent Badge Summit in Aurora, Colorado which managed to pull in a bunch of badge geeks right before ISTE 2016. Why was I there? Curiosity about badges, I suppose, but also a sense that I need to change things up in my instructional design.

I’ve been doing the eportfolio thing for several years now and have come to realize that no one but me is seeing my students’ work, even though it is in an online space and can be made public. I’m looking for ways to have my students be recognized for their work in a way that transcends my silly grading scheme and the simple letter that can be seen on a report card or transcript.

Open Badges seem to be a way to accomplish that. As I understand badges at the moment, there are organizations out there that will help me to create and issue badges that are linked to evidence that the student provides. Most importantly, organizations such as the Common Application have recently begun collecting badges from students who want to show off particular skill sets to colleges and universities.

Adding badges on top of our existing portfolios could essentially create a new, more public layer of visibility for student learning. This means that I need to examine the language and standards that live in our portfolios and figure out how to issue badges that will be meaningful to students and to their audience, whoever that might be.

There is a great set of guidelines for badge creation to be found at Aurora Public Schools, who have run a pilot badge program in a large, urban public school system for a couple years now. As I got my thinking cap on about what my badges would look like, I went back to their guidelines:

  • Does this Badge provide rigor for our students?
  • Can the student demonstrate this skill independently?
  • Has the student had multiple opportunities to show this skill?
  • Is the Badge evidence based?
  • Is the Badge transferable?
  • Is the Badge based on a small/granular skill?

For me the sticking point was the requirement for badges to honor a small/granular skill. I’m generally a big picture guy and despise trivial details, but I realize that badges need to have some granularity to them in order to be meaningful. I set about digging into what students might earn badges for in my courses and came up with the following two lists, one for Biology and one for Anatomy:

Biology portfolio to badge map

Anatomy portfolio to badge map

The darker blue bubbles represent more granular topics or skills that might be more amenable to badging than the big 7 portfolio standards under which students currently collect their work. The challenge now will be to see if these lists of potential badges will be a workable framework from which to start designing and eventually issuing badges.

Tags: , , ,

Regular readers of this blog will have perhaps noticed the complete silence in this space since around January of this year. This particular post is an attempt to dissect why a reasonably regular, once-a-month edublogger would drop off the face of the blogosphere and Twittersphere.

Let me start by saying that I’m not the only one. I’ve seen a decent number of Tweets and posts that basically have the same message: where is everyone? By “everyone” we are referring to those educator friends that we’ve connected with online. We just don’t connect as much anymore. Twitter has become a place to promote your particular brand or organization or to sell your latest book. The rapid-fire exchange of ideas between educators is still there, but the signal-to-noise ratio is tipping in an unfavorable direction. Maybe it’s also because I found other things to do and other communities (looking at you XBox and Destiny) but I haven’t spent nearly as much time in meaningful Twitter chats as I used to.

But if I get honest with myself, I think the real reason that I’m not on Twitter or blogging about my life as an educator is that I don’t have anything new to promote. My use of student blogs and digital portfolios is a steady presence in my classroom, a comfortable and effective way to gather student work. My system of standards-based grading is quirky, but reasonably mature, having been tried and tested since 2010.  I’m feeling like my classroom MacBooks look these days: mostly functional, but old and grimy, with a few missing keys. Nothing special to see here, move along.

P1040552

 

So what is there to write about? What new wisdom do I have to pass on to you, dear reader? Is what I do as an educator worth writing any more about?

At this point, if you find this blog valuable at all, you (and I) need to thank a few folks for nudging me to pick up the proverbial pen once again, even if I don’t have any shiny new educational initiatives to sell you.

First, I noticed that people still read my blog, and even assign it as part of student projects. My blog stats led me to these teachers, who have assigned my internet famous SBG is (not) a Fad blog post as a resource for their students’ final Honors English project. It’s super rad to see teachers involve students in the debate around whether to switch to SBG. Great stuff, and I’m glad to continue to be a part of the discussion around grade reforms.

Next, just yesterday I got to build a robot with fellow teachers from some nearby school districts as part of a training for a robotics competition that I’ll be mentoring in the fall. Right at the start of the day, one my team members whom I had not met before mentioned that he reads my blog. Dang, an IRL person reads my stuff. I’d best get to updating the blog then. Thanks, Chip!

Finally, today I woke up to this amazing comment from a former student, Jeremy. Educators love to hear back from former students, which is especially true in this case since Jeremy spent a lot of time struggling to keep up with blogs and portfolios in my classes even though he is flipping brilliant. A short version of the comment would be something like this: keep doing what you are doing, it’s working. Or that’s my interpretation, anyway. But you should really read the comment for yourself, so click on it now.

I’ll leave you (for the moment) with a final thought: sometimes what we do as educators can feel trendy and hip and on the cutting edge, but that Edge will move away from us as new technologies and techniques arise. Deal with it. Take a close look at what is really working for your students and what isn’t. Wade through the shiny stuff to find that old, grimy core set of truths that got you into teaching in the first place, and see if you can carry those truths on to the next school year and the next.

-C

9781435114937_p0_v2_s192x300How much detail should a high school Anatomy student be expected to master? Is it the same level of detail as a college student taking a similar course? Why or why not?

I teach Anatomy and Physiology at the high school level and offer that course as concurrent credit with our local junior college. The current arrangement is that one semester of high school anatomy grants one semester of college credit (after earning a C or better). A student interested in going into nursing or medicine can leave my Anatomy course with 8 college credits and get some prerequisite courses out of the way.

I recently had a great talk with the anatomy instructor at the junior college about how we run our anatomy courses. I showed her the portfolio-based documentation that we use and also looked at some of the tests that I give.

My overall impression of the differences between the college and high school anatomy courses from this discussion can be summarized as follows:

  1. I spend a lot of course time having students design labs that measure various aspects of human physiology. This does not appear to happen as often at the college level.
  2. My evaluation system is primarily based on collecting evidence of performances of practices of science rather than a focus solely on content-area vocabulary and concepts. Grades at the college level seem to be solely determined by exams that test content-area vocabulary and concepts (including my own junior college course that I teach in the summer).
  3. The pace of the high school course is slower than that of the college course, so much so that some concepts that should be “covered” in the fall semester (according to the college syllabus) are not encountered until spring and spring semester units are very short compared to the college.
  4. The level of detail (vocabulary and concepts) that college students are expected to master far exceeds that seen in my high school classes. An example would be the muscular system unit for which I have students learn muscle physiology, but not the names and locations of most major muscle groups, as the college does. We do learn many muscle names and locations through the cat dissection later in the year, however.
  5. The college instructor reported that a large percentage of students drop the course in the first few weeks whereas my students generally stay in for an entire semester, if not an entire year.

TL;DR of the above conversation: High school anatomy class is being taught very differently than the college version, but for the same credit.

Is this a problem? If so, what are possible solutions?

Most likely the junior college, given the current focus on its accreditation review, would consider this a problem. Students not on their campus are being granted credit for a different set of work than those on campus.

But is different “bad” or undeserving of college credit in this case? Maybe. It depends upon what we are issuing college credit for.

What should the goal of an Anatomy and Physiology class be? We should award “credit” based on whether these goals have been met or not. I can think of at least a few possible underlying philosophies that we might apply as the stated aims of this course:

  1. Students learn about the structure and function of their own bodies so as to make healthy, informed choices both now and in future medical care for themselves and their families.
  2. Students practice lab design, data collection, and scientific argumentation in the field of human anatomy and physiology.
  3. Students gain a solid understanding and appreciation of medical concepts that will inspire them to pursue a career in the medical field.
  4. Students learn detailed medical terminology in order to pass future examinations such as the MCAT and nursing boards.

Right now I operate my class from a mashup of the first three, with a minor emphasis on the 4th. I am almost certain that the college course primarily follows the 4th philosophy.

How then do we reconcile the issuance of credit for these very different goals? Ultimately, the college holds the trump card in that they are the issuing authority of the credit. If they decide that high school students should take the same exact exams as the college students, then that level of detail will need to be taught and the pace of the course quickened, probably at the expense of lab experiences.

But should it? I’ll end with this pondering:

Would it be better to not offer concurrent credit for this anatomy course and continue to focus on goals 1-3 or should I move the concurrent credit course towards a faster-paced, more test-prep focus to match the college more closely?

Comments welcome, as always.

-C

Tags:

I have sat through many professional development sessions where I’ve been bored out of my skull. There was the one about gloves and writing a five-paragraph essay that gained me nothing more than a single gardening glove with some sharpie scribbles on it. There were the several sessions where I walked away with a giant binder that I never opened again. After several of these useless meetings, one of my colleagues and I started using the acronym “JJT,” which of course stands for Job Justification Theatre.

There is a little JJT in every PD session, to be sure, but sometimes the PD really did justify the job that was being done, especially when the training happened to be useful for all the staff in the building. Maybe it helped impart a shared vision of expectations or served as a sounding board for staff concerns.  Sometimes we even (gasp!) created the PD ourselves and had staff members run it.

Our building’s approach to PD this year has been wildly different, however. The emphasis, perhaps in reaction the the excess painful PD seat-time of previous years, has swung to individualized PD. Everyone gets what they need, as long as they find it themselves. Gone are the district-wide (insert edu-brand name here) trainings and other randomly generated PD topic sessions. This is the era of do-it-yourself PD.

Which is not a bad thing, unless we all travel our separate ways and never meet again.

And that’s why I’ve learned to love meetings. In meetings I get to chat with staff members from other departments to see what is working for them and what they are thinking about. Sometimes its like what I’m doing and we compare notes. Other times they are off on a radical new path that I need to know more about. But I wouldn’t have known about it by simply following my own interests.

I totally understand that the science department is going to have some different-looking PD from social studies and that those types of trainings will be department-specific to be really useful. I don’t necessarily want to learn about historical criticism.

But there is a place for creating and updating a vision for education that transcends individual topic area departments in a high school. How do we understand how kids learn and how can we adapt instruction accordingly? How do we provide quality feedback on student work? And my recent crusade: how do we assess and grade students in a way that is fair and doesn’t penalize them for the speed (or lack thereof) at which they learn?

These are topics that one person or department cannot simply address in a useful way without bouncing ideas off of the entire building. Believe me, I’ve been reforming grading practices in my classroom for years but those weird ideas have yet to gain much traction with many other faculty here. I’ve had more discussions with folks here on the blog and on Twitter than in my physical reality.

So please, take some time to meet with your faculty and brainstorm on topics that you all need to address as a staff. I’m going to make that my goal. Its time to schedule some meetings.

 

Fanboy Ludwig with Neil Shubin at NSTA15

Fanboy Ludwig with Neil Shubin at NSTA15

Ever have one of those “mountaintop” experiences or events that at the time feel so important and life-changing that you wonder if you’ll be the same person on the other side of it? And then did you come down off the mountain and get back in your proverbial or literal car and return to your regular life? I think we’ve all been there a few times, perhaps at summer camp, a mission trip, or the tent revival at the local church.

For me, the latest such mountaintop experience was getting to attend and present at the national NSTA meeting in Chicago this past March. Seeing my name in the program just a few pages away from Neil Shubin and Bill Nye practically qualified me for rock-star status, at least on paper. The conference was amazing, as you’d expect, and I had a wonderful time giving my talk. The folks that came to see me (the mile walk!) were amazing and included a lot of great Twitter friends who stuck around to chat and make connections afterward.

I left NSTA15 feeling like I was on the right track. I’d presented at a national conference and didn’t make a fool of myself.  Many teachers seemed inspired by my ideas. Every talk I went to about the NGSS pointed towards needing new ways to assess student performances of science, which my portfolio-based assessment system clearly does. From all that I saw there, I was on the leading Edge of thinking about new ways to collect, analyze, and share meaningful data about what students know and can do.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen post-conference, but it basically didn’t play out as expected. I didn’t see the major leaders behind NGSS express any interest in portfolio assessments, nor did I hear any encouraging news on that front from Arne Duncan. My Twitter stream continued to be the flood of info that it used to be, but, aside from a few high quality interactions, it felt more stale and repetitive than usual. I was not really greeted as a local hero upon my return to my little town, save for a few close friends. In fact, I have yet to be invited to share my work with the district staff, most of whom know very little about what I do.

Now in all fairness, none of these things would ever realistically have happened. Much of the push for NGSS is linked to companies who want to sell us more tests, so change to new assessment types will be slow on that front. Twitter is a hot mess of the good, the bad, and the ugly even on a good day with amazing connections like I have. My local district was in the middle of incredible political turmoil with a witch hunt targeting the current (now former) superintendent, so a little side-show theater like mine would hardly draw an audience.

Bottom line, I came down off the mountain pretty hard. I did some consulting with a few folks who are trying out portfolios this coming school year (good luck y’all!) but mostly life went right back to normal. Or worse than normal, because I landed back in school during our post-Spring Break testing season, which felt even more onerous and depressing this year. It lasted forever and took instructional technologies out of the classroom for testing purposes. All the visions of classroom-based performance assessments died as I watched students suffer through lame computer-based tests for over a month of the school year. Ah, reality. Thou sucketh.

But as I turn my eyes to the new school year, I don’t plan on giving up on my ideas for replacing our current high-stakes tests, although large systems are hard to budge.  I’ve heard that being a pioneer is hard, lonely work, and there is some truth to that from what I’ve experienced. I can only hope that I’m scouting towards a future that benefits my students (and yours). Stay tuned and keep those ideas coming.

Tags:

Think of something new and innovative that you are trying out in your classroom, school, or district.

Prove to me that it works.

Yep, I want you to stop reading this and think about some fancy new way that you have of educating and/or assessing students and tell me what evidence you have to prove that your new technique works.

Twice recently I’ve been faced with this demand. In the first instance, a teacher who was very excited about using portfolios after hearing my talk at NSTA15 in Chicago contacted me for help in convincing her science department to let her pilot the use of portfolios. She sent me a list of their questions that looked something like this:

1) Have you seen an increase/decrease on standardized test scores?

2) Have you seen an increase/decrease in student motivation?

3) Have you seen an increase/decrease in student competency?

A similar question popped up in the application packet for the PAEMST:

Provide evidence of your teaching effectiveness as measured by student achievement on school, district or state assessments, or other external indicators of student learning or achievement.

Here’s the problem: portfolio-based assessments like those that I employ are meant to be a replacement for standardized test scores. Portfolios are not just some labor-intensive test prep system. That would be like spending months training for a triathlon but instead finding yourself riding a mechanical bull for ten minutes. You could probably ride the bull a little better than if you hadn’t trained, but the bulk of your training would be lost on anyone watching you ride the mechanical bull (badly).

What then do you say to the science department questionnaire about the effectiveness of portfolios? What proof could I possibly provide about external indicators of student learning that could match the depth and quality of the portfolio assessments themselves? ACT data might be the closest thing to useful testing data that I see, but correlating achievement on ACT with pre- and post-portfolio implementation would be fraught with any number of the usual data snarls that we find when trying to compare different test takers from multiple school years.

We are then at an impasse. Those educators like myself that want to use portfolios for assessment will tout all the amazing things that you can observe in portfolios that you could not otherwise. Those who want to keep using standardized tests as the measuring stick for student and educator performances will decry the lack of a link between portfolios and achievement test scores.

I think that pretty soon we are going to have two different systems pop up across the country to accommodate these two assessment camps. One wing will be led by the testing juggernaut that stands to make a lot of money by continuing the current testing regime, but the other will be led by…..Kentucky? New Hampshire? Your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect (hope?) that sooner or later we’ll see some states piloting portfolios (again) as much needed replacements for the broken assessments that we currently use.

In the meantime, I hope that teachers like the one I mention above are allowed or even encouraged to try new ways of teaching and learning and that the burden of proof of effectiveness does not grind progress to a halt. New assessment systems require new systems of measurement. To expect more comprehensive forms of assessment such as portfolios to generate the same simple, supposedly comparable data as has been generated in the past is blatantly unfair to those willing to try something new.

 

 

Tags:

« Older entries