Sunday, February 7, 2016

On Expectations and Time Limits

In the words of Tina Fey, "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's eleven-thirty."

I had a rough semester with several students pushing every boundary repeatedly. I set down expectations, and sometimes students question them a bit to see if I actually mean it. But this term was full of meetings with admin and lengthy e-mails with parents. And I'm not doing anything differently.  I think sometimes one student can start the ball rolling in a direction, and then it gets others in the class going too, until there's a bit of a mutiny.

The big complaint was, "It's not fair that you take down assignments after the due dates and that you won't accept things at the end of term that we forgot to do at the beginning." This is from students heading off to university next year. I worry for them.

I want kids to learn to be responsible, so, for my grade 12s that are university bound, I set clear, hard due dates way in advance and expect them to meet them. I start with small assignments that don't count for very much, and each time they miss one, I talk to them and call home, but I don't let them submit that work. Their opportunity for feedback and evaluation on that piece of work is over. BUT they're welcome to ask for an extension on the work before the due date, and I'll always say yes. Life happens and sometimes more time is necessary, it's just up to the students to pay attention to the due dates and actually remember to ask for more time.

If I don't follow my own rules, I end up with a pile of marking at the end of the semester because I have a hard, unwavering due date at the end when marks are expected. And if I allow the boundaries to snap, then students end up with a pile of work to do at the end; they do a lacklustre job of it all, and they miss out on any feedback along the way.

Some students have an interesting idea of what fair means. From an equity ≠ equal stance, I take fair to mean that they all have equal opportunity to do the work within a time limit that is variable according to their requests for extensions. It's not possible for me to judge objectively how much time and support each student will need given their intellectual limitations, current workload, and home life, so I put it back on them to make that decision for themselves. They just have to have the wherewithal and the gumption to ask for a different deadline, and then to actually meet the deadline they set for themselves. They're expected to know themselves and their own ability.

Some students seem to think fair means that it shouldn't count if they forget to do it, and that they should be able to hand in work when they're ready without any timeline at all. Beyond hindering any sense of burgeoning responsibility, it sets them up to have assignments on top of older assignments. I've had to tell many students over the years that if they can't do all the work for all their courses, it's not the case that teachers have to give them fewer assignments, but that they have to take fewer courses at a time. Fair can't mean changing standards of excellence, or it will be a race to the bottom. We can't give easier or less work to some people and expect the marks to mean something on the same scale. If we have a different scale for each person, then marks become meaningless. That being said, I'd love to get rid of marks altogether in favour of university entrance exams, but that's not in the cards any time soon.

There has to be an endpoint after which work is not longer accepted. We can all improve our work given unlimited time to revise, but, as teachers, we're measuring the ability to understand the concepts at a particular time. We need to put glass on our artwork and actually hit "publish" on blog posts, and then move on. Learning is an on-going process. We can't measure learning when it's completely finished because it will never be completely finished. Marks are necessarily a record of ability at a specific point in time.

I teach by explaining information, getting students to apply this knowledge by investigating and communicating their understanding of topics within boundaries of the content I provided (determined by the curriculum), and then, after getting feedback on their understanding of it all, I give them a test - an additional measure of evaluation.  If students are allowed to hand in work after the test, then they don't benefit from the feedback they would have gotten prior. It doesn't make sense in the context of learning.

I love the idea of mastery learning, of having the chance to show improvement until an idea is mastered. It falls apart if the first demonstrated attempt at learning doesn't happen until well into the term. And it also doesn't work when some students want to re-write essays after I've shown them all their errors. That's not mastery learning.  Swimming lessons are a great example of mastery learning: You get to the next level after you successfully swim 200 m.  But if you get close and do 180 m in one go, you can't go back and show the last 20 m later. You have to do the entire 200 m again. Likewise, to show competence, they have to write a second essay.

Luckily, they often have that opportunity, just not always within the same course. They need to take advantage of comments from their essay and actually apply them the next time they write. This is where things generally fall apart. Many students (and people in general) don't see learning as something continuous, but in piecemeal. They don't seem to expect to have to apply knowledge from grade 10 courses in grade 12. This is the part I'd like to work on - to get them to understand that learning isn't about passing a course, it's about understanding the world.


Owen Gray said...

Just a thought, Marie. When I taught, students could write an essay twice -- a first draft, which I marked and a second draft, which I also marked.

I believed it was easier to teach kids to re-write than to write. The dates were firm on both assignments. If they missed one draft, they got marked for one draft and the mark was half of what it could be. If they did both drafts the overall marked tended to improve.

The downside: I always had a pile of marking. But, generally, it motivated kids to do the work. And, if they didn't do the work, there was a clear penalty.

Most importantly, their success was clearly related to the effort they put into the assignment.

By, the way, lots of my colleagues thought I was a glutton for punishment -- and they were (perhaps) eight.

Lorne said...

Your expectations seem realistic, responsible and professional, Marie. Your reference to numerous meetings with admin suggests, however, that the latter's concern resides more with optics and parental placation than quality of education. You have my admiration and my sympathies.

The Mound of Sound said...

I was going to write the usual supportive pap about how obvious your points were and how dismayed I was that you should even have to defend them. Everything you've written is true, entirely logical, self-explanatory.

Then the Guilt Bomb struck. I spent my final year of high school as close to the stature of a professional truant as one could possibly aspire. Missing assignments, missing me - same, same.

I despised high school. It just wasn't the right place to be, not for me, not at that time. Underage, I threw myself into the RCAF aircrew selection programme and somehow sailed right through. I was told I might have to wait a year to commence training but, no matter, it still felt like I had been plucked out of the ocean. All I wanted to do was fly fast jets.

The thing is, Marie, I really liked my teachers and most of them seemed to really like me in that way that teachers can sometimes indulge chronic underachievers.

The fact is that I didn't understand education until years later when I got around to university. I loved it and excelled almost effortlessly. Then I plunged into journalism because that seemed an excellent place to earn a salary without really working very hard. And then on to law although I still have trouble being honest with myself about that decision.

I know it's your solemn and high duty to bring these kids to a certain place within a limited time but there are some incredibly talented, potentially capable students who simply are not ready and there's nothing anyone can do to change that. It's not a failure on their part or yours. They're just not in the right place at a time of someone else's choosing. There are some who need to run wild, find their own challenges. I wish I'd never stopped.

Marie Snyder said...

Yup - I offer lots of process work opportunities at every stage, but we can't assign a grade to any formative work. The problem is that some don't take that opportunity, and that others completely ignore my feedback until they get a number at the top of the page - and then they want to re-do it. I'm going to qualify this by saying a good 60% of the class does everything and on time.

It's interesting, but now, as far as possible, we're not allowed to have the mark reflect effort. It has to be solely a reflection of ability. Curious, eh?

Marie Snyder said...

My admin has been great. But we get to have a discussion whenever a student or parent has an issue.

Marie Snyder said...

Absolutely! I love hearing your stories. I also hated high school: I dropped out three times and went back twice. And then, after three years of soul-sucking work in a massive insurance corporation, I found my way into university where I thrived.

I'm happy to have students drop in or let me know this is their "throw away course" or just sit and listen without doing any of the work. I even tell them they don't have to do anything in the course - unless they want to pass. Radical freedom and all that jazz. The problem I have is when students don't do the work, and then they get upset with me for having boundaries around the workload.