Boys & Homework: Why & How we Learn

zullmodelgif1On Monday morning, I woke up as usual to CBC Information Radio. Whilst making lunches, forcing young children to practice violin, and sorting out who gets to use which spoon, a segment caught my attention related to a recent OECD study which looked at how sex might determine how and why we learn, be it through intrinsic (internal) or extrinsic (external) forces.

Here is the segment on CBC Information Radio:

My colleague, Ms. Ragot, produced an article from Saturday’s Free Press via the Economist looking at the same issue:¬†

This got me thinking about how we learn, regardless of sex, gender or other criteria. It also got me thinking about what sort of baggage teachers bring into the assessment process.

It also brought me back to James Zull, author of The Art of Changing the Brain, and what he suggests learning is about: changing the chemistry of the brain:

So here are my questions: 1) How do we learn and what do we mean by learning? And 2) Do teachers gear courses and learning experiences for a particular sex?

I invite you to ask your questions and to respond via Twitter using #CBCStudentVoice or via a comment below. Be precise, be courteous, and be smart.

Learning in the 21st Century: Everyone is an Expert

I must agree with Margaret Wente in some respects this week. On Saturday, the Globe and Mail published her column where she had questions about the notion of 21st Century Learning. I agree with her in the sense that we need to be leery of what this means and if the learning which many claim happens, really occurs.

Margaret Wente, Globe & Mail

Margaret Wente, Globe & Mail

Like her, I am often skeptical of people who make a buck off of books, conference appearances, media outlets, and personal branding when it comes to this idea of 21st century learning. We are continually besieged by nonsensical statements or infographics concerning radical new ways of learning on Twitter and other social media venues – and these are rarely backed by academic research or at least are formed upon pedagogical foundations or philosophies of education. Today, for instance, I plunked in a search for #ISTE2014 and discovered a myriad of statements on Twitter that made absolutely no sense and/or stated the obvious (There have also been some amazing things I have learned from following this conference!). 21st century thinking in education often celebrates mediocrity and has promoted a real industry of snake oil edupreneurs.

But this is where the agreement begins to become problematic. Wente proceeds to tear a strip off of every educator in the land interested in a debate about what it means to learn and teach in the 21st century. Like many of her articles, she uses one or two sources which seem to fit with her logic and she rests her entire polemic argument on them. This is where things fall a part for her argument on 21st century learning.

Within Wente’s manifesto, there is a sense of “things were better when I was a kid” — in the 20th century. Granted, she might be right, but I might argue that her 20th century education has had her accused of plagiarism, where she has defended these allegations by suggesting she only seeks out one source and shares the same ideas and logic of other columnists. Huh? So you have no original ideas? Many educators these days are focusing greatly on the need for self-examination, critical research, and ¬†complex argumentation which offer new knowledge — certainly aspects of learning when Socrates was around. Perhaps inquiry and having learning environments that are student-centered are not terrible bad notions after all.

Secondly, if Wente is so against this debate as to why and how we learn and that perhaps things were better in the old days, how does she explain the fact that we are experiencing an ecological crisis created by industrialized education for the purposes of greed and the exploitation of resources — including people. She cannot argue that changing the model as to how we teach and learn is unreasonable when the alternative is fundamentally destructive. It is clear by the attack on our biosphere that current practices have failed. This might be difficult to believe as we idle our SUVs outside of Starbucks, but we have surpassed three of the nine planetary boundaries as outlined by Rockstrom et al. Not pushing a new model of learning will lead to our demise.

What does she suggest? Education worked out for her, but at what and whose expense? And industrialized education does not work out for each student. Trust me, I actually am in classrooms.

Lastly, Wente gives us a perfect example of 20th century learning, as she does most weeks. She is quick to poo-poo any discussion of student inquiry or autonomy, but then offers nothing new. She does not push the debate or our collective body of knowledge concerning learning any further. All she has done is launched a grenade into an already negative environment. What do you suggest, Margaret? Simply stating that there is no evidence that some new models of education don’t work is not enough (take for example the idea of hope theory. There is a great deal of research in this area which suggests hopeis a key indicator for success).

I would argue that 21st century learning, and here I offer something from my own heart, is based on two very old ideas: global citizenship and ecological literacy. As Martha Nussbaum (1997) suggests, global citizenship is about the self-examined life, knowing a tremendous amount about the world, and having empathy for all people, and arguably all species and systems, on this earth. Ecological literacy suggests that learners understand that nature sustains all life, that we must account for the consequences of human activity, and that we are connected to a massive web of other precious systems. If we continue to leave these skills and attitudes out of the classroom, the 22nd century might be rather bleak.

Kwame Anthony Appiah eloquently speaks to this idea of global citizenship here in this video based on the notion of Cosmopolitanism:

These are critical skills required in any century if we are to survive and produce sustainable societies. I would hope that Wente and her readers might offer greater input into the debate as to how and why we educate and how we go about creating a better world. Our quota in education and in most fields for negativity has been met.


For Those Teachers Who "Hate" Report Cards: Write a Story of Learning

Two days ago I read a social media status of a teacher which stated: “I dislike report cards!” The following day I saw on Twitter an educator suggesting that “I F_____ing hate report card writing!”

Wow! I was unaware at the level of angst this de facto assessment tool caused amongst my colleagues. This anger and frustration sparked some reflection on my part as to the purpose of the dreaded report card, and perhaps how we can re-envision it as a means for helping learning, teaching, and transformation.

From a pragmatic perspective, the report card is a mechanism for communicating to the learner and the parents/guardians of the progress the student has made. As a teacher, parent, and stakeholder in our community, I am a little concerned that educators might see this assessment and communication tool as an arduous and painful task. Shouldn’t this process be about reflecting on the learning and teaching that goes on in our classroom? Should it not be time consuming, rigourous, and thoughtful? Should it not be part of the conversation we are having with students throughout the year?

I know for many that report cards come down to a series of drop-down boxes and recycled comments from previous years. This is how we can “get it done” so that we can take off for the summer, right? I don’t know about you, but this makes me feel icky.

What if we looked at report cards a little differently? What if these end-of-term or end-of-year snap shots were meaningful, thoughtful, and personalized accounts of the learning, teaching, and growth that transpired throughout the term or year? What if we re-envisioned them as a means to inspire excellence in learning and teaching, as opposed to a mindless chore of matching comments with the “right type of student.” I once ran into an educator who suggested that there were five types of students and that you could predict which students in September would fit into these moulds in June. Whah?

Let’s change this…

Report cards can be stories. They can tell the story of the transformation of the learner, your story as a teacher, and the story of the relationship you have fostered with the learner. Firstly, if you hate the process of report cards, spend some time reflecting about each learner at least a few times per week. I create a Google document for each of my classes and jot things down periodically when a learner does something really impressive, or when they have struggled with a particular skill or with their thinking/logic. By this, when it comes time to writing a ten-sentence synopsis of this learner at the end of the term or end of the year, I am not just recounting test scores or reciting nonsensical statements about how well he or she gets along with others; my comments are a narrative of the development of this learner’s journey.

Secondly, report cards are a massive and critical tool to generate some reflection on our own practice. A few years ago in a graduate course, Ralph Mason, an impressive faculty member at the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba , asked the following question which has been embedded into my daily reflection: “What is excellence in teaching?” Most days, I know that I did not come close to excellence in teaching, despite trying desperately hard. I usually blow a lesson, ignore the needs of some students, and insult and annoy parents and colleagues inadvertently. By sitting and reflecting on report cards, however, I am able to think about what we, as a learning community, have learned. What were our goals when we set out? Did we meet the outcomes that the people of Manitoba set out for us? Did I provide my students with the right amount of space and/support they needed? Did I get to know my students?  For me, this is often scary, as I prove deficient in many of these areas, but the practice provides me with a lengthy “to do” list for the following term or year.

Report cards, just like any assessment tool of value, take a long time and force us to communicate effectively. I am often up to the wee hours of the night trying to meet deadlines, but at the end, I always find the process rewarding and positive. In my first year of teaching, I finished right before I had to take my wife to the hospital in order to deliver our first child. You can imagine how impressed she was with my dedication.

In any event…

If you hate or dislike report cards, change your perspective on what they are. Don’t see them as a thing, a burden – but as a chance to tell some pretty important stories. Take your time. Work hard. Look beyond the commonly conceived utility of these documents, whereby they offer a mark and a few broad statements about attitude, study habits, and behaviour. Have your students contribute to the report card and have them approve what you will submit! Do anything to make this tool meaningful. We owe it to our students and to the process of learning.