Back in April I wrote a post (Selling ICT) where I made my feelings about the modern trend for professional development in education pretty clear. Well guess what? A few weeks ago my school had a professional development day. There was one presenter, he had a series of ideas and techniques to share that revolved around a theme, all backed by relevant research. Oh, and he did not have a power point. Nothing more techno-gimmicky than a microphone.
I found it thought provoking, useful and the general feeling of everyone who filled in a feedback survey thought the same.
So while I tend to steer clear of actual classroom anecdotes in this blog. I’m going to ask that you indulge me a bit. I’ve had a good week in class and it was in part due to the ideas I learned at this PD day. First, just to set the scene, the focus of the PD was ‘effective feedback’. As themes go, this one is a bit left of centre but has genuine merit. Of all the things I do as a teacher, correction has to be the most painful and time consuming. I’ve been doing the job long enough to be quick to assess the value of a student’s work, but what takes forever is my commentary, which I hope will be insightful and constructive. Usually, most of that work is ignored once the student has the score. The students that take on board my comments are often the ones who need the least amount of help. Conversely, those that are in need of advice don’t seem to heed it. Well, just this once, I didn’t write comments and tried something new.
13 words: no more, no less
As one of those teachers for whom a little bit of theatrical banter in the classroom is common, I will sometimes announce to my students that I intend to mess with their heads because I am an evil person. It creates a useful atmosphere where they know I am about to challenge them with a task. Even those students who are opposed to doing anything in class inevitably engage in a thinking process. They have to think about not thinking and, well, touché!
So I’ve gone into my class this week with their essays marked and said that I will give them back only when they have written down in exactly 13 words a description of what they believe the task actually was.
What happened next still makes me smile days later. 25 students dismissively picked up pens and almost derisively starting this ridiculously simple task.
“Seriously? All we had to do was write an essay. That doesn’t take 13 words.”
Two minutes later, most of them were resorting to counting out the word length with their fingers. Some asked for clarification about how many sentences could be used. Could they put it in dot points? Audible noises of angst were uttered when they realised they were either just short or just over the mark.
It was 24 karat cognition.
As students completed the task I handed back their essays. Next, they were expected to re-read what they had submitted a week earlier and judge for themselves whether they’d successfully done the job just recently summarized in 13 words. Then they had to choose another student they trusted, hand over their summaries and essay to them, and read each others stuff. By comparing their perceived expectations with the end product, and looking what another had done a clear trend emerged. They had all done what they thought they were supposed to do. Students who had written a broad, rudimentary summary had also written an essay of the same standard. Those that had put together an accurate description with appropriate key words had done the same in their essay. They didn’t need me to tell them this. They saw it for themselves.
Choose your own adventure
The next step was to put the class out of their misery, just a little, and give them their mark. Just the mark. Then I gave them a criteria grid and told them to work out where they scored their marks. It’s irrelevant whether their allocation of marks on the grid matched the one I’d filled out, they were identifying their strengths and weaknesses by default.
Lastly, I had them write down responses to a few final questions (this time the response could be anywhere from 15-20 words).
“Was your essay a fair representation of what you know about the text?”
“Can you see any improvement in the quality of your work in the last six months?”
“Can you see areas you can improve on for next time.”
The room was silent. Then the bell rang.
There had been 50 minutes of genuine self-reflection on a key English skill. Before then, I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone spend more than 50 seconds reflecting on my comments.
Not new. Just active
No student really learnt anything new in that lesson. The message for each student was a variation on themes I’ve been communicating all year.
- Make sure you really know what you’re supposed to be doing.
- Make sure that you put everything that’s in your head onto the page.
- Don’t write vague, general, basic responses. Instead, do your best to use appropriate, insightful language.
What was really ground breaking was that they found that out for themselves.