Thursday, 14 June 2012

Understanding: If it's demonstrated once, is it enough?

I'm torn. One of my colleagues this year did something called "comping" which is short for compacting. There may be other terms for it, but the premise is that if students understand a concept early on in a unit of study, they don't have to do it again. For example, if they pass a section on a quiz, they are "excused" from having to do it on a project or test. I like the theory of this, as education is methodical and if a student jumps through hoop once (please pardon the expression) why must they do it again and again? My team teacher is sold on the idea, but I still need some convincing.

This is put into play first with a quiz. For most instances, I'll call a quiz a formative assessment mid-way through the unit to check for understanding before going on to more complex applications. My hang-up with this is that:
  1. Quizzes are generally lower level rungs on the ladder of understanding. My quizzes have questions that are accessible and easily understood because I don't want to confuse students early on. For example, a quiz question on area and perimeter might be something like: "Here is a rectangle with a side of 7 meters and a side of 8 meters. What is the area and perimeter?" This feels to me like a low level task of recall and not so much application. Because a student can demonstrate this does not mean that they could apply this to a higher order question like "Joe wants to make a garden with an area of 20 square meters but use the least amount of fencing to build around his garden (perimeter). Using whole numbers, what are the dimensions of the garden that would have an area of 20 square meters but also the least amount of fencing to encircle around the garden? Label the dimensions of the garden and show any mathematical notation to explain your reasoning" Using mathematics in reality happens more like the second question and such understanding is much richer and deeper. 
  2. I have had countless math students that are whizzes with plugging numbers into formulas but fail to apply what they've learned on projects or summative assessments. Some of these students fail to find the underlying relationship between these variables that we want them to discover. For instance, in the problem above, they might learn that with the changing dimensions of a rectangle, a rectangle can have the same area but changing perimeter. For students who are merely number crunchers, they can show a surface level competency, but I can't get my head around on how they would apply such skills to real world situations until they were asked to do it again.
 If we want our students to learn math that is meaningful and useful, I still can't resign myself to having them crank out an equation, plug and chug, and sign them off, decrying them "masters". I've been told that good teaching starts from basic tasks, and spirals up to more complex ones. If students have really mastered something, they should be able to do it again and again. To do so would reinforce their skills. Is it a bad thing that they do it over and over again? What are your thoughts?

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Targeting Instruction with Google Docs

We went to a 1:1 laptop program this year in our school. The learning curve has been huge for both students and myself and me too- in learning how to best utilize this resource and not have it be a ominous distraction. We've been utilizing Google Apps and it's been an awesome platform. With the collaborative nature of spreadsheets, documents, and presentations, I hardly use wikis at all anymore. 

One of my professional goals this year was to make my curriculum more "accessable" and transparent to my students and parents. We've used the "Understanding By Design" model for the last few years and I felt I just got a good hold on my standards through alignment and supporting resources. What I wanted to do, was create a "working document" that was organic in nature that chronicled a students journey through a unit. Some of my requirement and ideas for this document were that it:
  1. Had the standards clearly stated and students could indicate how well they met these standards
     through formative assessments. 
  2. Had the essential questions and enduring understandings in them. In the past, I felt that I gave them lip service and didn't allow students to answer them on their own words. 
  3. Be editable. I wanted students to add occassional notes and hyperlinks to online resources that they found interesting. 
  4. Correlated supporting resources to the learning standards. 
I've attached a link to the master copies for my math and science classes. The format is different for both because my math standards are very clear, but for science, they're very broad.
Grade 6 Science Curriculum and Practice Guide-MASTER
Grade 7 Math Curriculum and Practice Guide-MASTER

My math study guide has some little summaries to better reinforce the understanding, but the science standards are a summary in themselves. I think I'll tinker with them a little next year, but the theory is sound. Each student can make a copy and share it with me so I have evidence through assignments, labs, practice tests on how well a student has "understood" a particular topic. It's made remediation much easier than saying merely: "Review all of chapter 8 if you don't understand." Feel free to steal these if you'd like and I appreciate any suggestions you might have.

I think they're a step towards targeting instruction well and bring accountability to learning. However, I am concerned about whether or not this is too methodical, too regimented. We don't make additions to these guides every day, but we do roughly once a week or having a good debrief about an essential question. There is no substitute for great practice in the classroom, and this is merely a supplement to that good teaching.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Using summative labs to demonstrate science skills

As our year draws to a close and I reflect on my math and science curriculum for next year, I can proudly say that one of my best achievements this year is designing some good summative lab assessments. Summative labs are more authentic, or performance based assessments that are more demonstrative of science skills under the strand "Scientific Inquiry" or "Nature of Science" rather than content knowledge that is specific to life, physical or earth science. I've toyed around with them over the last couple years, but as I've unpacked my curriculum I feel like I've been able to design some interesting assessments that target the learning standards in the nature of science. Some examples are 
  • Frame and refine questions that can be investigated scientifically, and generate testable hypotheses. 
  • Design and conduct investigations with controlled variables to test hypotheses. 
  • Form explanations based on accurate and logical analysis of evidence. Revise the explanation using alternative descriptions, predictions, models and knowledge from other sources as well as results of further investigation.
Just to name a few. What I love about standards in the nature of science, is that they're common throughout all units of study and they're really the behaviors that we want students to be able to demonstrate to say that we are "building scientists" and not merely regurgitaters of facts. The problem that I had in the past was that I felt that I merely gave these standards lip service or when I assessed it, it was not very accurate and honest about a students meeting that specific target. Take this formative lab on measuring soil porosity:

It definitely served it purpose of developing understandings of how sediment size affects drainage, but the indicators were difficult to ascertain. As students work in groups, they often share the same understandings and misunderstandings. Often groups have the same answers for certain prompts so I don't know what they really learned as a result of it. The real learning came from debriefing the assignment later.

In my unit "Into to Chemistry", the students engineered a distillation apparatus to purify water and try to solve the world's UN millennium problem of providing potable water for impoverished people. This was our end of the unit project, and by then, students had a better grasp on the nature of materials, matter, and the scientific method. The website that sponsers this is CIESE and they have a ton of great collaborative STEM projects. I've done this one, "The International Boiling Point Project" for the last two years:

This was a good step on the road towards mastery, but it was still a dubious indicator of learning as it spanned several classes as students built a prototype, learned how it held up under stress and through trial and error, learned how the nature of materials determined their use.

I've read about summative labs and done a ton of reading about them, but I hadn't seen many tangible examples of what they look like. Usually, they are open-ended and give students the freedom to show their understanding through a number of ways. I wanted students to have the freedom to be able to choose a question that related to the science standards. I decided that I'd offer three questions, differentiated on difficulty that students could design an experiment around on their own. They were:

Does food coloring spread faster in salt water
or fresh water?
Does the temperature of a rubber band affect
its elasticity (stretching ability)?
Does stirring speed affect the amount of salt
that can dissolve in water?
Which material (newspaper, plastic wrap, or tin
foil) is the best heat insulator?

I did not tell students what the questions were before they came into class as this "lab" was a test of their science skills. Because of this, they could not receive any help from outside tutors or friends. They were on their own. I told them that there were many different ways of investigating these questions, and we'd celebrate our different approaches afterwards. After entering class, the students selected a question that they felt they could investigate confidently and this was the scene: 

If you noticed, it was very quiet. Students had the ability to roam around and select equipment for their investigation, but most students were minding their own business. They knew other students may have different variables, different questions, so it was silly to try and copy someone else's work.
I developed a rubric and had a generic cover sheet that outlined the steps of the scientific method I thought best demonstrated the standards. Many students tell me that summative labs are quite fun because they actually feel like scientists. However, they usually supplement unit tests so they can demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of key concepts within a unit.

I'm tinkering with my summative labs for next year along with the assesments of them, but feel I'm on the right track. I'd love any input, criticism or advice if any of you have used similar assessments in your science curriculum. We're all learning!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Making Flipped Lessons Meaningful

"Flipping your classroom" seems to be the buzzword in the blogosphere and professional learning networks. I wrote an article a while back on the structure of what lessons look like after flipping your lessons as teachers have more time in class for students to work on problems because they come to class having reviewed videos, texts, and have some background knowledge of what is to be practiced in class rather than using time at home to finish an assignment that was started in class with no teacher to access for help.

I have been "flipping" my classes this year in math and hope to do the same next year, however I am trying to design ways to make flipped lessons meaningful. Unless the task is rich with a specific purpose, the notes that students walk in with are shallow and superficial. I want my students to have a greater understanding of the underlying mathematics and gain a better grasp on connections, laws and applications of the topic.

That being said, some things that I try to avoid:
  1. Giving assignments that state: "Take notes on pages 230-232". Although some students may see the relevance and applications of these problems, this is often implicit after having started it. Also, does merely taking notes show evidence of understanding? Just because you can copy a stanza of Shakespeare does not mean that you can understand, or, write like him. 
  2. Not debriefing the assignment. After a warm up, it's important to discuss what the assignment entailed and offer students to share their "notes", discuss ideas, clear up any misconceptions that they might have and give them the opportunities to ask questions. 
 What I think some meaningful tasks look like in a good "flipped lesson":
  1. Summary: Ask the students to write a summary of what this math topic is "about". Experiment with a variety of summarization strategies and formats (graphic organizers) to allow students to practice their summarizing skills which will also make the language arts teachers at your school happy and better integrate your curriculum with cyclical practice. 
  2. Target Vocabulary: What vocabulary words do you want your students to know? Perhaps you have a text with words in bold. You might ask student to write a definition of the word and trying writing a sentence on their own with the word. Some other great language arts integrations you might use are: breaking the word down by parts and figuring out what those word parts mean. Making connections between other words that mean the same thing or the opposite. Vary this up, and your student's decoding strategies will soar. 
  3. Relevance: Have students explain in their own words why this math skill is useful. What connections can they draw between the text and the world? Between the text and their lives? This a great question to debrief the next day and it will usually give a kalediscope of connections that many students failed to see. 
  4. Examples:Of course you may want to have student copy, write or take notes on something word for word. Yes, writing it down once is a small step on the ladder up towards mastery. However, there are little things you can "tinker" with to ensure there is more student choice, creativity or innovation. For instance rather than taking notes on problem examples 1, 2 and 3, you might:
    1. Ask students to read the examples and write down problems of their own that are similar but not the same as the problems you'd like them to study. When you debrief the assignment in class, ask student to share some of their problems and what they changed compared to the original examples. Even though they may have changed some parts, encourage them to explain why the underlying math still "works". 
    2. Encourage them to figure out another way of solving the problem that is not in the text or video. For example, if you're trying to get them to use the inverse operation to solve   5 + y = 13 algebraically, see if they can explain multiple ways of problem solving strategies such as diagramming, writing, drawing, or using mathematical notation or symbolism
  5. Common Problems: Can they explain how students might make mistakes with these sorts of problems? 
I believe all these tasks enrich the learning of a mathematical standard and unfold the deeper, meaningful understandings that we hope to engender in our students. My advice in using these tasks is to be creative in your approaches to applying them. Change them up. Experiment. Ask what students like and what they don't. This year was spent designing high quality differentiated assessments, so now that I have these to utilize, next year's task is to create and document more of these formative rich tasks with connections to a flipped question prompts. I'll post them to my blog and would appreciate any and all feedback!