Nothing to Lose

you have nothing to lose by Señor Codo
you have nothing to lose, a photo by Señor Codo on Flickr.

I know that in #PSD70 there has been a lot of talk about “Innovation Week”. This year, two of our division schools staged Innovation Week during the last week before Christmas break, Greystone Centennial Middle School and the school that my husband teaches at, Muir Lake School. The idea is a great one: students take the week to learn, research and create based on a topic of their choice. Teachers give feedback and discuss and guide students in their work, but the work itself is not formally assessed. They learn in the way they want to learn about the things that they are interested in and produce a number of innovative and exciting projects.
My husband, Cam, thoroughly enjoyed his experience with his first Innovation Week. Friday night after school, while sitting around the dinner table, we were discussing this with our two boys, aged 10 and 7. Cam told us about many of the different projects and how they worked out. He spoke of the enjoyment of the students and the ownership that they felt. Then we all came up with ideas for what we would like to study or learn/produce if we were given a week to do so.

At first, my boys parroted what their dad had just told us. When we encouraged them to think about something that hadn’t been done yet, something that was rooted in their own interests, the conversation took an interesting turn. After throwing around some neat, original ideas, our 10 year old asked, “How is this going to be marked?” (Not going to lie, I was pretty happy he asked that question). When I replied that it wasn’t being marked, he was shocked and he said something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. He said,

“You mean I’d have nothing to lose? Oh ya…I would do that for sure then.”

Nothing to lose.

My son who is just in 5th grade sees school, or at least assessment, as a place/time where he has something to lose. How often has he finished an assignment or project being worried about what marks he will lose rather than what knowledge or skills he has gained? I was bothered by that comment, but didn’t address it immediately as I had to think through what my response would be. Isn’t this just what we are trying to move away from in education? My son enjoys school for the most part, but I must say, he is not highly motivated. Could it be that he is not just “a bit lazy” as we have always thought, but demotivated by the impact of grades and “old school” assessment? I think it could be.

In the meantime, I started thinking about my own students and how they view what goes on in the our classroom. Right away I could pick out a handful of kids who were focused on what they would “lose” when preparing a project or presentation of some sort. I’d never thought about it in that context before. I could see them asking themselves,

“How much should I risk here? If I risk, and fail, I will lose marks so I am just going to stick to the basics and do what everyone else is doing.”

I don’t think I have emphasized enough that they should take more risks and that failure is the best way to learn. Starting in January, that is going to be my target for my classroom; to change the frame that my students are looking through so that they never fear what they “have to lose” but strive for what there is to gain. As for my son, we need to help him reframe his education as well. My questioning and guidance in both situations is going to take on a different look. We must also look into coordinating an Innovation Week at our school and providing times for my own children to explore learning and creating for the sake of learning and creating.

Letting Them Choose

EVERY DAY for CHOICE by Jenn Farr
EVERY DAY for CHOICE, a photo by Jenn Farr on Flickr.

I have discovered, during my most recent attempts to give students the ability to choose the way they will show me their learning, that many of my students will just choose what they have always done. The easiest way. Not the way that would best showcase what they’ve learned, or their particular skill set.

In June I assigned what I thought would be a pretty cool final project in social studies. They were to compare and contrast the three societies that we had studied in grade 8 Social Studies (Renaissance Europe, Japan – Edo-Meiji Period, and Aztecs vs Spanish) as well as interview a person who had grown up in a different decade than them about their Worldviews. The assignment can be found here on google docs. As you can see, I gave them a number of different options for how this would be presented to the class. I honestly thought that they would come up with more original, more interesting options than the ones I gave. I thought that they would seek out new and exciting ways to show what they know. Well I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were eight groups and all but two of them chose to use a trifold or do a powerpoint. In truth, the presentations were quite boring and although they did know the information, I could tell that none of them had enjoyed the assignment.

When reflecting on the assignment, I realized a few things:

1. It was a boring assignment with little critical thinking involved at all.

2. I was the one who gave them the option. I put it out there for them to choose.

3. As this is the first time I have given this kind of choice, I do not have any previous examples for students to see.