No one else, not even Cooper, heard the meaningful conversation I had this morning. As you may have guessed it was a conversation held inside my head as I thought about this post. I have been thinking quite a bit lately about student voice, reflective writing, misconceptions, assessments, and student’s fears of looking dumb and “feeling stupid.” I think they are all closely related and the conversation I had with myself this morning helped me sort it out a bit.
I think we have to start by thinking about assessment. No - not the dreaded standardized tests. I'm also not referring to "grades." I mean formative assessments; the ones that tell us what students know. We "teach" every day, but that's not the point of school. The point of school is for students to learn. How will we know what they are learning if we don't assess? Assessment should be part of every day and every lesson. The question is, what are we going to assess? Are we going to assess what they know, what they understand, or what they can do? If you think about it for a moment these are all very different things.
We can assess knowledge in number of ways. We can use student response systems (clickers). Edmodo and Socrative are great for little quizzes and polls. Wallwisher and Linoit are great for exit slips (as are Post It notes). Many of the traditional literacy strategies are great ways to make formative assessments. I have several here.
Assessing what students can do - skills - is again not terribly difficult. All we have to do is design tasks or provide opportunities for students to demonstrate what they are able to do.
The difficult thing to assess is what students understand. Understanding is difficult to assess because we have to get students to reveal their inner voice. You see, I have come to believe every student we teach is almost two students. There is the student we see sitting before us, and the student hiding underneath the skin that may not be the same as the one we see and hear.
We all have two voices. There is the voice that we hear when we speak to someone, the public voice. Then we have the voice inside our head, our inner voice that is often not articulated openly. We all know that the silent inner voice and the voice we hear are not always in agreement. Haven't we all said one thing and thought something else? That's a problem when we are trying to find out what students truly understand about a concept.
Formative assessments help us activate our public "outer" voice. If we want to find out if students can state and give a definition of Newton's laws all we have to do is give any of the formative assessments listed and we'll find out.
If we want to know if students really understand and can apply Newton's laws it's more difficult. I have seen students "lock up" and not participate. They will give "word barf" on a written assessment. They will act out. They will copy and paste. They copy other's work. They tell us what they think we want to hear. I'm sure you can add to the list. The question is why do they do this? Are they lazy? Dumb? Unmotivated?
I believe they are afraid. They are simply afraid of looking dumb in front of their peers and feeling stupid. Forgive my use of that word but it is how kids describe the feeling. We have to think about how the brain works for just a moment. We all find a mental construct, or schema, that organizes and provides a framework for understanding the world around us. The problem is this framework may be based on misconceptions.
In science particularly, misconceptions are a killer. For example, I can teach my physics students about waves and optics with little difficulty - they don't have any preconceived ideas about the subject. They take what they learn and just run with it. Newton's laws are a different story. They learn about them in 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th, and 11th grade. Most students can recite them without much prompting. They can give examples they learned from class. What many can't do is apply them in any meaningful way to a new situation. Mostly because they come to class convinced (incorrectly) that they know what they are doing.
The reason is that they never really change their schema - their inner voice. On the outside they state the right answer; on the inside they cling to their misconceptions. As a teacher we often realize that students still have misconceptions. When we notice this we design lessons that challenge their existing mental model - we create conflict. I think we drop the ball by not giving them a safe way to resolve that mental conflict.
I believe students want to learn. They want to know how things work. The problem is that in order to change the way they see the world, they have to risk being wrong - stumbling as they find their new mental model. They often don't take the risk because they don't want to look dumb in front of the class. This fear of losing face is often greater than the desire to learn. The consequence is that nothing changes. The learning is superficial and shallow. No deep understanding is achieved.
So how do we fix the problem?
My goal for the coming year is to explore the reflective writing process as a way to help students process information. I hope to teach them to think critically and wrestle with content through writing. If I can give them a "safe place" maybe they will take a few mental risks and overcome their misconceptions in order to gain true understanding of the content.
My idea is to begin by having students complete reflections in Google docs. This is a first step in opening up to me. As we progress through the year I hope to have students begin blogging and sharing their thinking with their classmates. Ultimately I want them to share their blogs with other students in other classes. (You listening Daniel, Katie?)
I expect this to be a bit ugly in implementation. I am a science teacher - I'm not really sure how to teach writing. All I know is that I'm convinced it is the right thing to do for my kids so I'm going to dive in and figure it out as I go. I have found a couple of documents online that I feel might provide a good place to begin. They can be found at the bottom of this post.
If any of you have any experience or ideas that you think might be helpful please share them. I am hoping the power of a professional learning community will help here a little. At the very least I will keep you posted in the months ahead and let you know how things work out. I hope Cooper ends up being correct and it is a brilliant idea.