The COETAIL Effect

It's 8:51 am and my science students are taking their end of unit test on "Intro to Chemistry" as I write this. We had a number of great labs and learning activities in the unit but they were not happy about having this test today. We reviewed and I gave them ample review material. I'll be grading 66 tests after school today which will undoubtedly take hours. Even though that tests are not the end-all-be-all in my class, I still think that we need to teach students good review skills in preparation for our current form of high school and college readiness.

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I already know who will do well. I already know who will fail. I don't need to spend so much time to reaffirm what I already know. So why am I doing this? I have two skills based tests in my grade book. Reinforcement? Brain based learning supports what I'm doing, but will students merely forget this after our spring break which starts on Saturday?

 It's true, when students are excited and engaged about the learning task they'll learn more. To say that I'll discontinue "tests" will be met with huge disdain from our high school staff as they wonder why I haven't done a better job to prepare students for the rigors of high school. Sure, teachers should make learning fun, but I've seen many stress-free learning environments where students don't really learn much at all; although there is the illusion that they do. Assessments are dismissed as "I don't place much stock in those data points" and "I don't want to create test-takers, I want to create global citizens". What a dilemma!  

Learning in the Modern Classroom
I think a mix of traditional and new-age teaching is upon us. Learning in the modern classroom is a nice paints a nice portrait of what learning looks like through "authentic tasks" through skype chats, tweets, collaboration through google docs with a ipad project to show a product through a differentiated classroom. The article posts comments from well know bloggers like Scott McLeod and Erin Klein. What Langwitches fails to point out is the most important element in my opinion: assessment. Sure, the process looks great, flashy and fun, but have the students really learned from one another? Have one person's contributions helped another? I don't see a project rubric nor summative assessment that shows any evidence that this has been accomplished. What we see is the visible process but we don't see the end product. Show me how you're evaluating these students. Show me that they've actually learned. In this regard, such authors don't often reveal this hole card or evaluation is inflated with marks for group skills.

Moreover, from a scientific perspective, they don't have an academic baseline for comparison from previous years to show that their approach is truly more effective so they can only produce more qualitative data on engagement, not actual improvements to learning outcomes from previous years. Students have to meet the rigors of a good educational model and shouldn't be excused from doing something just because they "don't like it" or "it stresses them out". The effect of my COETAILS experience is to infuse technology to help learning, not make technology use the goal. No matter how much people bemoan tests as not being an authentic assessment, do these demagogues really think that testing has no place in academia or the modern world?  

Stop: Check your Bias Before Proceeding!
If I go to the doctor, I want to know how my cholesterol compares to national averages. Also, I may want to know where my doctor studied and if he came from a good medical program before choosing to use him as my physician, and you can bet your ass that I will have wanted my doctor to have mastered proficiency in anatomy and histology before cutting into me or a loved one. I demand mastery of the engineer that designs my house so I will not come crashing down around me. I want my fellow drivers on the road to pass a basic skills test lest they cause an accident that affects my family forever.

We demand excellence from our fellow citizens and use tests to rate and evaluate them. Although this blunt tool may be considered biased, deep down, we know they're essential. Are we to really take my doctors scratch animation on the human digestive system or an architects drawing on Google sketch-up as a sign of "mastery" before employing their skills? It may catch my attention, but I still want to know that they've been rigorously and thoroughly assessed.

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Coincidentally, my three year old had a 30 minute interview on Tuesday this week for admission to our school. My wife and I had always thought that she was ahead of children her age but her letter of reference from her current school and results of her interview that was that she was merely "average". We didn't take offense, and personally, welcomed another point of view. Some don't take it that way. They think their children are exceptional in every way but being a parent clouds their judgement. The question they ask then: "Why didn't you accommodate and recognize my child's exceptionalities?" Why do parents act so surprised when they're told their child is "average" or even "below average?" Hate the teacher. Hate the test. They must be flawed. My child is better than that.


These questions seem particularly relevant when I reflect on my COETAILS experience. Three years ago, my students started creating content. Two years ago, I started embedding their content in their blogs. This year and next, my goal is to create classrooms where students are not merely content creators of authentic tasks, but that this not replace traditional forms of assessment. I want to developed networked classrooms. I want my students to learn from their own RSS subscriptions. I want students to share science research findings of their choice with a larger audience and gain popularity and their own following through their blogs. I want my students to feel like they are contributing to the collective body of knowledge and they themselves might start to feel like an expert in one of the sciences. I want them to feel connected and others are eager to learn from them. But, I still want ways to have them show what they've learned to me.  

Blogging Behind the Scenes
Jabiz Raisdana writes an excellent portrayal of the current state of the modern educator within the blog platform in his post "Blogs from the Mouths of Babes". So rarely does an educator point out not only their goals but also open admits the dilemmas which they're facing. His blog roll is well organized, but also notes that he does not grade blogs, and their participation is not mandatory. The students all produced some fantastic responses to why they think blogging is important, but there was also some notable responses from students who didn't think blogging was a valuable experience. To be connected but still feel alone will lead to lack of interest and abandonment in the high school years which is a problem that we're seeing as our students move up into high school.  

Developing Student's Readership
If students don't get read or any comments, its obvious that we haven't used the blogging platform to it's potential. As a beginning blogger myself, one of the joys is reading the occasional comment on my blog and the reads I get through my networking. In this capacity, being a blogger has helped me not only develop a voice, but it's also given me insight as to how I might better network my students as I have gone through the same process. As a math and science teacher, I'm currently using blogs for students to showcase the media that they produced during major investigations, but I think I need to do a better job in creating more of a variety of learning tasks to invite an audience that will merit interest. Every piece of work should be creative and different so when I direct teachers and classroom to my blogroll, the title of every student's post is not "My Math Project". My hypothesis for the near future is that I can give students choices within the construct of our standards requirements so that they all create products that are different, interesting and worth reading.  

The Black Sheep of COETAILS
I suppose in this regard, I will be viewed as a teacher born of two philosophies: the new age and the old school. I will advocate for authentic learning but demand to see results. I will continue to administer tests, but require them to have higher order thinking. I will use Ipads but only to support learning goals. I will always be in a state of embrace, skepticism and evaluation with technology integration. I will advocate blogging but not stop merely after my students click "publish". I will try to keep an open mind to all arguments and not stop reading when I come across something that doesn't agree with me. If I did, I would not be learning.    

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  1. Thank you for your thoughts Gary. Your idea about naming blog posts is a powerful one. As writers and creators of curriculum, naming is very important. When we name anything, we frame it. A title names and frames the essence of what we are trying to say or teach; make that title provocative.

    I also read Jabiz' "Blogs from the Mouths of Babes." I like very much that for his students, blogging is a choice. Not every person will grow up to be a writer, or take their work public. I think we should let them do that in their own time. It leads me to the question too, when do we start kids blogging? What do you think?

  2. Tara,
    Jabiz's model is an interesting one. I too wonder what all the other students are doing while others are blogging. I would think some students welcome the lack of structure.

    Our fifth graders are blogging and that seems to be a good age to start.

    Hope you, Jeff, Dom and SK are having a blast. Ava gives SK a squeeze.



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