The Onus Is On Who?

One of the biggest challenges in implementing this concept of "life long learners" is not just changing the mindset of the teachers in our classrooms but the students as well. Many of them have well established expectations of how school should play out and for many of them, being a "good kid" and following instructions was the recipe for learning success. What progressive educators see as steps to empower the learning process, some students see as a huge threat to their perceived version of the status quo. In our upper primary classrooms at my school, we are trying to keep that shift going with the way we structure our learning program.

The shift is subtle but our students are feeling it.

Generally, they are pretty good. The students enjoy the freedoms in their personal blogs, the tasks that give them opportunity to be creative and make choices to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts and knowledge covered and most are enthused about the opportunity to be the leaders in the student community of the school. Things aren't quite as bad as over at ken's school:

Don't tell me to create. How about you create something? Instead, you're dumping your own lack of preparation on me and every other student in this classroom. I show up, I do my job. That's what it's been about. That's what it's all about. Honestly, I'm not sure what you're trying to accomplish.

But our new High Flyer program has thrown a few of them into a tizzy. This is our Year Seven high achievement recognition program for the kids in their final year of primary school. The actual High Flyer certificates pre-date my involvement at the school but was essentially a teacher-driven award system - the criteria was drawn up by the teachers who then made judgement calls about how the students measured up to them. The teachers were doing the heavy lifting - while the students benefitted by playing the role of "good student" in order to gain recognition. A very traditional approach but one that was definitely in a major need of re-alignment to our school focus of inquiry and collaborative learning. Maria, Kim and I decided to turn things around by grabbing the 18 Qualities of a Lockleys North Graduate and have the students provide evidence of their achievment of these Qualities. Here's a sample of our new approach as lifted directly from our private planning wiki.

The 2009 High Flyer is based on the 18 Qualities of an LNPS Graduate. As students are encouraged and supported to take charge of their own learning, the High Flyer Award is designed for students to take ownership of their own achievements. The students will collate and present evidence of these Qualities. (instigated by students, book time with their teachers, onus on the student to self manage)

The self managing part is the part that some students immediately found difficultly in grappling with. For example, one quality calls for students to "Participate in and support activities as reliable team members, encouraging spectators, and ‘good sports’". We gave the kids four possible options for evidence (they had to choose two or create their own) including this one - Written supportive statement of involvement from PE teacher.

The students with initiative, the ones who we really want to be winning these awards, created their own statement, putting their own performance under the perspective microscope of Mr. G, our PE teacher, typed it up and approached him for a signature if he agreed with their statement. Into the folder of evidence it went.

But others were more literal and fell back into the "teacher needs to do it for me" mode. Maria and I had an interesting but frustrating conversation with a student from her class (whom I had taught in 2007 and 2008, so I may have been part of the problem) where she just couldn't get past the fact that she was responsible for ensuring that the evidence was there for us to assess.

"But I've emailed Mr. G twice and asked him to write me a statement."

"Imagine if he has to do that for all 51 Year Sevens. You need to show some initiative like Pavlo over here who wrote his own statement."

"Oh ... maybe I should write Mr. G a reminder note and put it in his pigeonhole."

"No, you're missing the point! You can write it yourself and Mr. G can sign off on it."

"But how can I do that? How do I know how I've been in PE lessons?"

You get the picture. Hopefully, this will also eliminate the visit from the one irate parent who is upset that their darling child has not gotten the High Flyer certificate because they are a "good kid". Enough with the good kids - we want motivated, self-improving students - otherwise, the life long learning will never happen unless a teacher is holding their hands.

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5 thoughts on “The Onus Is On Who?

  1. ken

    I’m writing a quick comment to let you know that I am planning on leaving a focused (for me) and targeted (again, for me) response.

    This is a most interesting topic around my small slice of educational heaven, and recently, the topic of discussion during lunch.

  2. ken

    It’s easy to be frustrated. To look around a school and witness pervasive apathy and inexorable stagnation.

    You mention a handful of key words in this post that really resonate:
    and while some may cite this one as a bit glib:
    -life-long learning

    I’ve been party to faculty diatribes about the clear absence of these traits in the student population, but I’ve also been privy to the dearth of aforementioned traits in teachers.

    I’m glad that your school is noticing a subtle shift in each student’s role in his/her own learning, and that the learning that you seem to be focusing on is less content-related, and more a focus on (here I go) ‘life-long’ skills.

    But if teaching staffs refuse to adapt and evolve, then I’m left feeling exceptionally worried and deflated.

    Your post shines a light on the fact that too many educators enter the classroom and continue to practice their craft as if the acquisition of a teaching certificate is the lesser-known 11th commandment – a fixed edict that demands no adaptation on the part of the teacher; instead, just a tireless Sisyphean adherence for the duration of one’s career.

    We all need to practice learning.

  3. Chloe Root

    I’m writing because I’d like to hear more about how you are teaching students to become life-long learners in a way that shows up in their school performance.

    I’m a preservice high school teacher who has been in the same history classes for the whole year thus far, and we have a handful of kids who appear to me to be “lifelong learners” in the sense that they are engaged and interested in everything in class, but who are not particularly motivated to complete homework assignments. A few of them are failing the class, despite the fact that I can tell they are pretty interested in US History and contribute to discussions… it’s simply that they never complete assignments that are assigned as homework. I suppose this is as much a problem of motivation as being a “lifelong learner,” but I was impressed that you said you could see a noticeable shift among your students and am wondering if there are strategies you have used in promoting student accountability for their work.

  4. Kelsey

    It has always seemed interesting me that when you give students more power over their own education, many of them seem to not want it. They’d rather trade the power for simplicity.

  5. Graham Wegner

    @ken. Your post conincided nicely with our final week of the term with the students scrambling to put their evidence together for the highly prized High Flyer certificate and panic setting on those students who have been patiently waiting for their teachers to tell them how to pull it all together. It was a shock to them that others had already started without waiting for their folders, using their own time and without a teacher spoon feeding the process. I do think we have an advantage in the lower year levels where we are the main teachers in front of them for the week – there is no subject separation, no grade driven agenda and more curricula freedom. There isn’t as much incentive for adopting a life long learner perspective in the high system as such – although we do have some progressive schools here in South Australia seeking to change that. I’m lucky that I am working with colleagues who are advocates of the life long learning mindset. It does make a huge difference. This is not entirely true throughout the whole school (IMHO) but my learning team is certainly switched on and the school is expected to be headed in this direction. This is probably why it is puzzling still to have students who find this all to be a surprise. “What do you mean? We are responsible for our own learning? I thought that was your job.”

    @Chloe The History class conundrum is a hard one, just because it is high school and students no doubt have more than just your class work to contend with. So, with that pressure, I’m not sure what advice I’d give as our approach here at my school is quite holistic and cuts across all learning areas. The concept of “failing” because of missed homework assignments isn’t really an issue for us here either, especially as we’ve been looking at evidence that says homework doesn’t effectively contribute to learning. I think that it would be hard to implement in just one class but would need to be a whole school or at least a whole faculty approach.

    @Kelsey It’s the responsibility and accountability for oneself that scares a lot of students – but if schools don’t try to actively foster some sort of independence for student learning, how else will they achieve it? Even if they don’t like it, it needs to happen. Spoon feeding them plays back into the old model of sit down, shut up and then do good on the test.


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