Two weeks ago I decided that I wouldn’t spend the three-week lead up to the School Certificate explicitly teaching to the test. Let’s face it – teaching to a test is boring and ‘learning to a test’ is even worse. I think highly of my Year 10 class – they are a diverse range of learners who also are just great kids. I want more for them.
Being in the midst of planning for a pilot PBL run with Year 8, I decided that I might give a mini-PBL project a go with my Year 10 class. I wanted to be really subversive and get them excited, make them think about education critically as they head towards their school certificate. (Did I just hear a collective drawing in of breath, or was it simply the wind breathing through the leaves outside?) I set my mind to devising an engaging and provocative driving question that would form the basis of our three week project. Here is the question:
How can the Board of Studies redesign the School Certificate English Literacy test so that it assesses the literacy skills relevant to today’s world?
I love this question – it spent a good deal of time in formation in my head and when I finally managed to get it onto the black and white I was very proud of myself. Our ‘products’ would be a letter to the BOS outlining the students’ suggestions for the new School Certificate (if you check out the BOS website there is a note indicating that the SC is under review at the moment) as well as the creation of a youtube video (rant) in which students articulate their ideas about education in the 21st century - especially assessment. Both would be presented to the HT of English and one of our Deputy Principles. If you don’t already know much about PBL (and neither did I a few months ago, so click here for some good stuff) basically you begin with a question and a ‘hook’ lesson to engage your learners. PBL is all about engagement, real-world problems and real-world audiences and group work. My ‘hook’ lesson had two elements: circle time questions relating to learning (personal learning/teaching preference, do we need exams, where do you want to be 5 years after school etc) and a youtube rant ‘An open letter to educators’ in which traditional education is criticised by a college student. The kids LOVED this. They loved circle time the most, but they also liked the youtube rant - one of my students parrots a line from it at me each lesson ‘education is getting in the way of my learning’.
So it all started really well. I got them to deconstruct the question for implied/assumed knowledge – mini-questions sprouted such as ‘what are the literacy skills that the SC tests?’, ‘what are the literacy needs in the 21st century?’, ‘who are the education stakeholders and what do they want to see in the SC?’ etc. I had students divide into groups of 4 or 6 – with equal parts boys and girls. And here is where I hit the snag. The students were very happy to contribute to class discussions during circle time and the more informal teacher at front, students calling out ideas arrangement. Their ideas were wonderful! But as soon as they were asked to create groups with students outside of their peer-group they were resistant. There was a great deal of eye-rolling and pouting. Ultimately I had to don the teacher mantle and direct girls to boys etc. Once this hurdle was jumped I figured we’d be OK. The kids rearranged the furniture into watering-holes (see a couple of blog posts ago) and I provided each small group with both electronic and hard copies of past SC tests plus links to sites on 21st century skills etc. Each group had to answer one of the mini-questions derived from the driving question and they were given two lessons to answer them and plan a presentation to the class explaining what their research/discussions yielded.
So, the day rolled around for the presentations and guess what happened? Yep – you guessed it. Nothing. Not one group was ready to present. They hadn’t collaborated despite having edmodo. They hadn’t done any research. Quite simply, they had done nothing. Were the students engaged in the project? Yes. Did they commit themselves to it? No. My response? Well – as my colleague aptly pointed out ‘I took my ball and went home’. Just like a child whose friends won’t play the game the way they want. I stood there and honestly asked the kids ‘Do you want to drop this project and have me teach you explicitly what you need to know to do well in the School Certificate exams?’ They responded unanimously with ‘Yes’. I can’t say I’m surprised. They have been conditioned by the current education model for ten years. They can talk to me about the stupidity of formal external summative examinations. They can argue passionately about how they would like to be assessed (uh, group work!). That they feel SC and HSC results do not reflect their worth as individuals. But they still know the test has to be sat and they distrust a teaching method that is not teacher-centred. They didn’t have the faith in themselves to learn independently. They chose to be passive learners.
So where am I now with them? Well let’s just say I can role-play traditional teacher quite convincingly. Year 10 have now spent three lessons writing notes from the whiteboard. All tables have been put in rows facing the front and all netbooks have been banned from the classroom. We are all handwriting copious amounts of notes regarding the literacy skills assessed in the SC. There is no talking. No discussing. We have been banished to the cave.
The students picked up on what was happening mid-way through the third lesson. I quizzed them on the information copied off the board. They complained they hadn’t learnt anything – that it wasn’t effective. They weren’t even ‘taking it in’. I agreed. They asked if I could type it up and hand it out as a sheet. I told them that wouldn’t help them with their written exams. They said their hands hurt and I told them that meant they were getting stronger and before long they’d be able to write really fast – an important skills for exams, not so important for real life.
Tomorrow is the beginning of a new week. I can’t sustain the traditional teacher approach. It was funny for a couple of lessons and I made my point. The kids now appreciate the value of our original PBL question.
Tomorrow I’ll start the lesson with circle time and the question ‘How do you learn best?’ and then move on to ‘What does good team-work look like?’ I’ll then spend time discussing with them the necessary skills required to work well in a group. We’ll try some out with easy tasks. Then I’ll ask them if they want to have another go at our project. I will explicitly teach the skills necessary to work successfully towards completing the project.
This time I’ll be using the worksheets devised by the Buck Institute for Education that help students keep track of their learning responsibilties as part of a group and the project as a whole. I will explicitly teach them to scaffold the work that needs to be completed – to organise their time and plan for success.
We only have a few weeks before the SC exam - I wonder if they’ll trust my judgement and decide to play my way?