Friday, January 14, 2011

Minding the gap - the art and science of teaching

Yesterday I was involved in a fantastic collaborative planning meeting with our Grade 3 teachers where we focused on reflecting on the last unit of inquiry, How the World Works.  During this unit students investigated natural processes and both natural and man-made disasters.  I was curious to hear the comments of the teachers on how they felt the IT had supported the students during the unit.  For me the most important reflections from this unit were:

  • It was really helpful having the IT and Library working together so that the same research skills and tools were used in both areas.
  • Teachers liked students using different tools in different classes across the grade for showing their understanding
  • Students were able to learn and practice using the tools in school and to complete their research in school and then to actually create presentations to show their knowledge and understanding at home - we talked about how this was the reverse of what had happened last year when a lot of the lesson time was taken up with actually creating the presentations (PowerPoints in this case) because they were stored on the school server so not accessible to the students outside of the lessons.
The teachers were keen to learn about more Web 2.0 tools that the students would be able to use.  They wanted to be able to give the students more choice (Yes!) but realised they could only do this if they knew more tools themselves.  They asked what tools the students already knew from last year.

This got me thinking - last year I drew up curriculum documents for all the grades that I taught (which did not include Grade 3 so they didn't get these documents).  These documents contained information about what we had done, which IT skills had been developed, which software/tools/peripherals were used, digital literacy skills and which PYP transdisciplinary skills had been covered.  This year I'm replacing the section on digital literacy skills with the new ICT in the PYP strands.  It occurred to me that most grade levels only actually saw their own documents so they had no idea where they fit in the grand scheme of things - no idea where the students had come from or where they were going - that in fact there was a big gap in the teachers knowledge of the IT programme.

This year at school teachers have been introduced to Atlas Rubicon as a curriculum mapping tool.  Such a tool should be very useful for identifying gaps or redundancies in the content and skills taught and should also show which content can be brought together in interdisciplinary units.  Currently the different departments in the school are working on learner outcomes to add into Atlas Rubicon.

Today I read a short section in Lynn Erickson's Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul about objectives, outcomes and standards which helped me get the differences between these straight in my own mind.  Erickson writes that in the 1970s and 1980s the emphasis in education was on drawing up specific, measurable objectives for each subject.  Often these involved a topic plus a verb taken from Bloom's taxonomy.  For example the topic might have been the effects of exploration - in this case the conflicts and cooperation between Europeans and the  Native Americans - this was then turned into an objective by adding a verb:  Describe the cultural interactions leading to conflicts and cooperation between the Europeans and the early Native Americans - which in turn was made into a standard or benchmark:  The student will know the reasons for and the effects of European exploration and settlements in North America.  Clearly this standard is simply factual knowledge that often involves memorization, not conceptual understanding as a concept is universal (whereas this standard is specific to a particular culture) and timeless (whereas this standard refers to a specific period of history).  To turn this standard into something that leads to conceptual understanding we would need to drop the references to place and time and have a generalization or central idea more along the lines of:  exploration involves cultural interactions which can lead to conflict and cooperation.  This opens up inquiries into many different explorations which deepen the students' understandings.

Now objectives are out, and outcomes are in.  The difference between an objective and an outcome is that an outcome involves students demonstrating what they know through performances.  Erickson warns us that it is easy to "do the verb" - but is this useful and relevant?  We should be asking WHY students need to demonstrate knowledge of this fact and whether this demonstration has led to deeper understanding.  She also warns against having too many topics to cover leading to less time for students to develop the skills they need for accessing interpreting and demonstrating their knowledge.  Erickson states clearly:
Some educators think that the more specific and factually oriented the standards, the better they are.  In my opinion, though, well-written concept-based standards .... value the intellectual pursuit and deeper understanding of knowledge.
She tells us:
It is important to list the critical content ..... for each grade level and subject - with the exception of skills and processes - without verbs.  If teachers see the skill sets for grade levels and subjects, they can internalize the skills and apply the appropriately in lesson plans and assessments.  This is their job:  it is the art and science of teaching.

Photo Credit:  Mind the Gap by spin'n'shoot 

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