Saturday, January 12, 2019

On Evaluating Teachers and Edu-Speak

I just went through the final teacher evaluation of my career, since we are evaluated every five years, and I don't expect to do this for more than another four. I hope I pass!!

I've said before that the process has room for improvement. I think teachers within the department or a similar department should be in each other's classrooms from time to time, unannounced, and then offer online, anonymous comments, positives and negatives, on teaching techniques that the teacher receives all mixed together at the end of each semester. We could learn a lot about teaching from seeing each other teach, and we'll likely up our game if we know colleagues might be wandering in. The way I see it, we've been evaluated already, when we got our B.Ed. and then passed the interview process. (That B.Ed. education also has much to be desired, and it could be so much more rigorous as a master's degree.) But teachers do need to be kept on our toes with some type of review process, and we absolutely need a means to flag teachers that might be struggling, at which point the department head can get involved in the process. Admin should be a last resort.

Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg (more on that here) explains what Finland did to dramatically improve its international scores. Here's part of the solution:
"There are no formal teacher evaluation is not possible to compare school performance or teacher effectiveness" (90). "The question of teacher not relevant...teachers have time to work together during a school day and understand how their colleagues teach....principals, aided by their own experience as teachers, are able to help their teachers to recognize strengths and areas of work that need improvement. The basic assumption in Finnish schools is that teachers, by default, are well-educated professionals" (91). This is a culture of mutual trust and respect (125).
But, here we are.

Admin sent me the pre-meeting paperwork to complete (online), and it took me six straight hours to do it all. I went to school over the break expecting to clean up some marking, do some prep work, and write my exams, but I just filled in forms. The biggest hurdle was, really, because I haven't kept up with the jargon. I texted some new teachers, teachers who had recently been privy to the interview process over and over because that's how it's done now, to ask for clarification on some of the questions, but even they were unsure of some of these terms.

I always hesitate to write anything about teaching because it would be horrible to be fired for publicly criticizing my employers, but I believe these are issues all from the Ministry, which, as a political entity in a democratic country, is fair game. I'm further spurred ahead by a UK teacher with similar concerns about very different terms. And, a few years back, American educational reporter, Liz Willen, also ranted on this issue:
"Why do we need terms like “value-added,” or “formative assessments?” Ugh. Must we really be “intentional” or “empowering” when we talk about education? And can we please stop using “silver bullet” — a cliché you’ve heard as often as the assertion by everyone in education that they, unlike everyone else, put “children first.” Don’t get me started on overused phrases like “grit” and “rigor,” along with “21st century skills” or “researched-based programs” that educate “the whole child.” As opposed to only half of a child? And what of charter-school movement lingo, replete with “restorative practices” and 'growth mindsets'?"
It is possible, however, that admitting my ignorance around these terms is going to provoke more meetings about them, but here I go anyway!

What's the difference between a 'big idea' and an 'essential learning' in the curriculum? Some people queried think it's exactly the same thing, but others think it's really different, but, more importantly, how will this knowledge of these terms improve the effectiveness of my teaching? What we need to ensure is that teachers design their lessons clearly tied to the curriculum documents. There should be a rationale behind our methods, of course, but can't we just say it like that? And then there's the issue that essential learnings are learnings that are essential to get the credit. We know, right?, that if a student does really well on almost everything, but still doesn't quite get that one part of the course, that they'll likely still get the credit. It would be hard to convince a parent that a 90% on everything, except for that one unit, means they fail. I have yet to see someone be denied a credit if the math adds up to more than 50%, regardless how it's partitioned. It might be argued that, then, that the essential learning in question is not really an essential learning, but then what is? And is there a point to making them re-do the entire course for that one portion of it?

Can anybody discuss assessment for/by/of/around/of/behind/as/beyond learning without having to really think about what each preposition means and then go through a translation in their head about what's actually being discussed? Some of the documents remind me of reading Sartre or Heidegger when they get into being-for-itself, being-in-itself, being-with, being-there, and being-toward-death. The philosophical concepts relate to very complex ideas, so we can give them a pass for forcing us to think. That's their job. But educational concepts should clarify ideas so that they can be easily used by everyone involved without an internal re-wording. Simplification and short forms shouldn't make concepts more difficult to discuss.

Furthermore, I recognize that assessment can sometimes be used to see what people know prior to learning, as a way to inform our teaching, and as a means of teaching specific students how to improve, and as a means of evaluation, but what's the benefit of clarifying that reality and checking that we're using assessment in a variety of ways? Maybe it just feels like it goes without saying that we need to find out what students know before a lesson, monitor their progress and help them with areas of difficulty throughout the lesson, and evaluate their improvement over the semester before giving a final grade. That's just what teaching is. Isn't it? Do we need so many meetings (that I was clearly zoned out for, by, and from) to address assessing at various stages of learning? And do the terms help or hinder the process?

Finally, what's my 'learning cycle' focus? The words 'learning cycle' is in Growing Success, a Ministry document, a total of one time:
“As an integral part of teaching and learning, assessment should be planned concurrently with instruction and integrated seamlessly into the learning cycle to inform instruction, guide next steps, and help teachers and students monitor students’ progress towards achieving learning goals” (29).
But then we've gone to town with it. According to one board document, this cycle is to be a collaboration between students and teachers as we plan, act, assess, and reflect. That's just about all I could find by googling. That, and this mysterious statement: "Throughout the learning cycle, participants worked toward devising and implementing their If-Then statements, as well as reflecting on their progress throughout the duration of the cycle." The impression I get from discussions with colleagues, is that it's a way to describe teachers learning to do new things in their classroom, discussing them with each other, and then reflecting on how well they worked. So a question about the focus in my learning cycle, is really just asking about what new things am I trying in the classroom. Why didn't you just say so? 

The term seems to originate with David Kohb's work on experiential learning way back in the 80s that culminated with learning styles, which have been largely debunked, and there's a whole genre of educators who take experiential learning to task online. However, I'm fine that we're not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It can definitely be the case that part of the theory is in error, yet another part is still useful. That's what makes thinking so important. Here's Kohb's learning cycle:

There's a clear connection between this and a cycle of planning, acting, assessing, and reflecting, however, the point Kolb was making is that in order to fully learn material, students must touch all the bases. We seem to be using it in a way that teachers are expected to go through the cycle while they're trying a new method. But, why is the a focus on educational development? Is it significantly different that expecting teachers to plan lessons, try them out, figure out what worked and what didn't, and then thinking about how to improve them. And, again, it's this just what teaching is? Yes, I know some teachers aren't particularly innovative. When I started out as a supply teacher, I took over for a teacher who still used records that bing when it's time to change the slide, and their Canadian history course didn't go past the 1950s. That's a problem. But I'd suggest, instead of asking about learning cycles, to ask teachers about one thing they've changed in the past 5 years, so they can demonstrate their innovative spirit, and one thing they've solidified and why, to show that they're able to differentiate what works from what doesn't so that they're not merely encouraged to try every new thing blindly.

My response about my learning cycle focus was that I improve each lesson on an ongoing basis as I plan and directly after the lesson, as I consider what I did. I might fail that part.

There are some terms that are clear and useful, however, like 'descriptive feedback.' That's a win! It's feedback that is more than just a number at the top of the page. I'm also fine with 'success criteria' used when we discuss the criteria established that students need to succeed in the course. Those terms say something meaningful without having to search their etymology. But, for the most part, we don't need to learn and re-learn special words used to mark their territory each time the government changes, especially now that Ontario's open for business, my friends.

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