Thursday, July 10

Show Up to Throw Up! 21st Century Thinking? (Part 5)

"The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education."- Albert Einstein
"Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning."-Bill Gates 
"Education is the process in which we discover that learning adds quality to our lives.
Learning must be experienced."
- William Glasser

In this 5-part learning series, we have already looked at several teaching habits that could inspire students out of learning, which I am not going to repeat here (read and synthesize the other parts, if you want to know!). In this last part or episode (for sure!), we will explore one of the greatest challenges in teaching today, which is assessing the potential and ability of the student. This time around, I will zoom back to my secondary and high-school days in Norway to share with you some nutty, but useful stories to reflect and draw lessons from.


In secondary school or 7th grade (Norwegian style!), we had a music teacher who was a failed singer. Her voice was simply horrible, but that did not stop her from singing in every class. She would always scold me when I did not sing along, and when I did sing along she would scold me even more for not following the tune. Until today, I still hate singing. Although, I don't blame her fully, she certainly had some impact on my fear for singing.

In general, I believe sincerely that she hated my guts, and fully deserved to as I was no cup of tea either. She always reminded me how much better my big brother was. As I had a reputation to keep (at that time!) that was fine by me.

However, what struck me until today was not really her singing (or mine for that sake!), but the way she would test our knowledge level on music and instruments. For example, she would hand out to us a piece of paper with definitions of several instruments and then ask us to memorize it for the next class. In the next class, she would give us a blank piece of paper and ask us to basically rewrite the whole paper again without referring to it. Then she would mark us based on how much we had memorized.

No doubt memory and memorization is important today too, but perhaps if we were asked to play and learn an instrument, or be able to discuss our feelings, preferences and experiences with instruments, we might have learned more. Coming to think of it, such exams are not much different from what we often get today. The only major difference is that we have a few hundred pages and a few dozen questions to digest before the exam.

Hmm, let's move on to the next story before we close this learning series adventure for good.

The second learning reflection journey takes me back to my French language classes in high school. Now, my French teacher was a person that could outshine Mr. Bean any day. I really felt sorry for this old dude. Not only did he have extremely poor eye-sight and hearing, he was also a real nerve rack. You get kind of stressed out by just looking at him.

In many ways, he was a legend in the making. The rumor has it that he once mistook a sandwich for a blackboard eraser (a student prank!), and then tried to clean the blackboard with it. Students used to always pull pranks on him, such as putting a lot of mayonnaise on the door knob. He would fall for it every time. But he was a good sport, and would continue class as if nothing had happened, every time.

Though, it did not stop there! Since he had poor eyesight, he would map out the students in the classroom on a piece of paper, enabling him to know where who sat. By doing so, he could easily keep track of the students in the class. Or perhaps not! Students being students would always change their positions and he would simply go nuts, reminding us to sit in the same place every class. Some students would also sneak out during class while he was teaching. If he asked questions to missing students, other students would quickly answer on the students' behalf.

The most memorable funny incident was even posted in the students' yearbook that year. Since I witnessed it with my bear eyes, I can testify that it really happened. What happened?

During one class while the French teacher was lecturing, one student decided to sneak out. However, this time around the student was really creative. He put his chair (upside down) on the table and then covered it with his thick winter jacket, and sneaked out quietly. Later during the class, the French teacher decided to ask the missing student a question. Oh man, we thought he was busted this time around! The French teacher asked the question, but no one answered. Then he went closer to the missing student's desk ( probably about 3 meters from it) and asked again, but still no one answered. Alright, now he is busted! But then the teacher said (in Norwegian), "Oh Christian has decided to be quiet today. Usually, he is so talkative. Alright, can anyone else answer the question?".

We all looked stunned at one another in disbelief. Is this teacher for real? I suppose he discovered what really happened in the students' yearbook (Hmm, not sure teachers read such books). Or perhaps he always knew, but acted as if nothing had happened (as usual!). Nope, I doubt it!

But then again, nothing could beat his class test or exams. In general, you usually find a few students cheating when there are exams. However, in his class I would argue that 90%+ of the students cheated on his exams. In other words, it is difficult to find students that don't cheat on his exams.

The French language book we used for the course, also had an accompanying 'Teacher Guide'. The 'Teacher Guide' included sample test questions and answers. Interestingly, our amazing French teacher would basically copy/paste questions for our exams from this guide. Students being book wise knew that the' Teacher Guide' is also sold in the bookstore without hassle. Need I say any more!

Since this amazing teacher could hardly see or hear, students would bring the 'Teacher Guide' to the exam, and answer the questions with flying colors. You might be thinking, 'Did you also cheat?'. I am sad to say... Not only did students bring the guide, but they also placed it on the table as if it was an open book exam. Of course, the French teacher never saw or heard any unusual sounds during the photocopying session. Some bright students would deliberately write a few mistakes, or customize things that were easy to change. At least it did not look too obvious.

I once got a 'BRAVO' comment in my exam, and he was really impressed with my answers. I was thinking that the only one that should be getting 'Bravo' is the teacher's ability (or ignorance) to figure out what was going on.

Looking back, I had wished I would have focused more on learning French than just thinking about scoring for the exam. Today, I probably remember less than 10 French words or phrases. And that is after 2 semesters of learning French. What a disaster! But then again after watching Father Guido Sarducci's Five Minute University it begins to make sense.
In the final analysis, we educators should do more to construct assessment approaches and measures to minimize the possibility for such things from happening. Indirectly, some of our assessment methods might actually encourage students to cheat.
If you ask me, infusing 21st century thinking into the teaching and learning environment is NOT the ultimate learning challenge. These things can be learned and embedded reasonably fast. However, infusing more constructive and relevant assessment methods might actually be the thing that stops many educators from making the necessary changes to nurture 21st century thinking and inspire students to reach their potentials.

The old assessment paradigm of only one correct answer (whether tick or essay!) is more efficient to implement and requires less thinking on the educator's behalf to administer.

But, how do you measure:
  • Creativity in an objective manner?
  • Critical thinking in an objective manner?
  • The quality and potential of an idea?
  • An open ended question?
  • An opinion?
  • Potential?
  • Ability?
Today there are several alternative assessment methods we can use to minimize our own subjectivity in evaluating our students creative and innovative work. The fuzzy maps below, provide several assessment and thinking activities to explore, and I will leave it to your 'Googling' to find good materials related to them.

Until now, I have been pumping you with tons of learning resources in this 5-part learning series, but now I will only share two excellent resources to inspire you further:
  • Teaching Tips Blog
    An excellent venue for inspiration and resources to spark your imagination with new ideas to engage and facilitate effective learning.
  • Michael Wesch and the Future of Education
    In this presentation, Michael Wesch breaks down his attempts to integrate Facebook, Netvibes, Diigo, Google Apps, Jott, Twitter, and other emerging technologies to create an education portal of the future. Michael Wesch Course Portal (using Netvibes): Mediated Cultures: Digital Ethnography. In addition, you might and should explore his famous "Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Using Us" video, which explores the evolution of knowledge creation, management and sharing in creative and stimulating way.
I suppose I have come to the end of this learning psycho therapy, and I am looking forward now to focus more on the future of learning again. I hope that some of the stories shared can inspire us to reflect our own teaching (although they might be extreme!), and hopefully enable us to weed out things that might inspire students out of learning.
The more I learn, the dumber I realize I am. It is amazing, humbling and refreshing :)

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