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Assessment, Engagement, Opinion, Promising Practices

Undoing School

Increasing the Connections Between Intellectual Engagement and Student Success

It was a chilly and very windy day in May, 1994 when I first began to become aware of the difference between schooling and education. I had taken my grade 6/7 class to the Canada’s Wonderland amusement park for their annual “Math and Physics” Day, hoping to somehow get them excited about something more than just being at Canada’s Wonderland! My friend, Roger Kenyon, and I were huddled in one of the very busy eateries on site, trying to warm ourselves with a morning cup of coffee. We had settled down at a table with a group of Grade 12 math students who were busy manipulating numbers on one of the many pages in the official Math and Physics Day student guide. I was fascinated by the intensity and speed at which they were performing their calculations. Being someone that was never very successful in my high school math and science courses, I’ve always held in awe those that demonstrate a sense of ease with formulae, number-crunching and abstract proofs.

“You guys are good pretty good at that,” I commented.

“We’re all “A” students,” one of the students offered.

“Oh, so you really know what you’re doing.”

“No,” another student said, “We’ve just learned the formulas (sic)!”

Well, that began a brief but powerful conversation with the students about their math classes and how, after being shown the formulae, they simply had to figure out how to “fill in the blanks.”

Now, I’m not naive enough to believe that you can get an A in an upper level math class without some level of understanding—likely more understanding than these particular students were willing to admit—but perhaps this was my first encounter with the idea of doing school.

A new series of reports has just been released by the CEA, based on their widely recognized initiative, What Did you Do In School Today?. The first of these, which examines the relationship between various dimensions of student engagement and academic success, poses some sobering questions about the connection between institutional engagement and school marks.

The research indicates that, despite best efforts of many jurisdictions to recognize that behaviours like attendance, effort and homework (p.7) don’t actually reveal a whole lot about understanding or depth of knowledge, review of actual practice indicates that use of these to determine academic success (at least in terms of marks) is still quite common. Although effort is a strong indicator of intellectual engagement, it seems to be overshadowed by evidence that institutional compliance trumps a whole lot of other things when it comes to school success.

Despite the rallying cries that have emerged over the past decade—cries for more authentic assessment and more focus on depth of understanding—it appears that the practice of following the rules of school may still be the most effective way to get good marks.

In my opening story, the students I met had learned that they could do well in math if they learned how to plug in the numbers. Doing math was different than understanding math. And, although my Canada’s Wonderland experience took place nearly 20 years ago, the WDYDIST research suggests to me that things may not be changing at the pace that we would want.

Traditional thinking and the actions that go along with that thinking are both very stubborn things, requiring critical examination of current practice and the sometimes invisible assumptions that hold them in place. That said, we know that there are efforts being made across the country to challenge and change both policy and practice, allowing us to move from doing school to, in a sense, undoing school.

So, in your experience, how are traditional ways of getting marks being supplemented, if not replaced, by other measures of success? How are the marks that we’re assigning to students becoming more authentic reflections of what they know and are able to do?

Is the idea of marks too closely attached to the idea of doing school to affect any sort of realistic change?

Will our desire to have students go beyond merely doing school require that, as educators, parents and policy-makers we first undo school, taking it apart in ways that allow us to examine, challenge, critique and rebuild?

The new reports from the WDYDIST project are important explorations of one of the key dimensions of school transformation. I look forward to further conversation and perspectives!

CC Photo by: lnkyhack

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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