Spoon Feeding to Free Range

In my teacher training I witnessed the role of spoon feeding & rote learning towards exam success.  Who can blame the teachers who were in a climate of academic performance as the primary basis of success in learning. Starting out in teaching I was astonished at the extent of student expectations of the teacher to not only prepare all the ingredients, but to cook it & then feed it to them.

Over time I have begun to notice a range of practices that are problematic in the sense that they cripple students’ ability to learn long term.  I have a practical philosophy that nothing should be scaffolded for students unless there is a plan to remove that scaffolding.

I also remember thinking in conversations with a range of people how prescriptive their courses were.  While NCEA promised many things, it was so enabling for teachers that they could effectively teach the same stuff the same way since the 1990s.

Cognitive research makes a claim that real learning must be effortful.  Have you ever witnessed how engaged students can be with easy activities that they are comfortable with? Have you noticed how textbooks, few of which I like, tend to take the challenge out of learning?   Sure there are some good exercises & diagrams with little snippets.  However, this is not how one engages with the past!

I resolved to not sacrifice learning through extensive simplification & reduction of challenge.  Ironically, given frequent commentary about its lack of rigour, moving towards a free-range model helped increase the challenge.  In 2014 in our professional development we had the opportunity to create focus groups on areas of interest to us. My focus group was on free-range learning.

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The learning mismatch model was quite significant, despite how obvious & oversimplified it was.  While there are plenty of problems with this, it was important in thinking about free-range methods.  In my first year of teaching (mostly level 3 classes) I assumed that the students would be far more self-directed.  This was a valuable lesson, though, on why we can’t rely on having one approach for all.  The spectrum from dependent to self-directed is difficult to manage without proper processes in place.  Learning intentions & success criteria for individual lessons were counterproductive:

  • Students will learn exactly the same material & skills at the same pace & in the same way as each other, irrespective of their prior learning & readiness to learn.
  • Students will aim to meet the successful benchmarks that have been imposed on them, even though it might not be enough of a challenge or realistic for them to achieve.

In short, I quickly realised that most of what had been taught in teachers college & most educational focus areas were inherently traditional in their approaches.  Absolum says clarity in the classroom.  I agree, just not in the way he suggests.  Nuthall says many students already know 40-50% of the learning that goes on in the class.  It’s just that every student knows different stuff.  How boring must it be to be in a class that is not a challenge.  How horrible must it be to work at a pace that is too fast for you to keep up.

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So I needed to change my approaches.  I could not just implement one model but I needed to have clear structures in place to support the development of chick-o-saurs.  Megan Peterson had put together & worked through a portfolio model in classical studies as a means to challenge high-achieving learners.  I wondered if such a model could be more inclusive? Why only high-achieving learners?

I developed some reasoning about adopting this model.  I offered a structured context, semi-structured contexts, & open choices for students to develop.  The rationale for it is provided below.  There was a big unanticipated problem.  I assumed students wanted free range.  Students with a stronger capacity in the skills required for classical studies tended towards the structured options.  This was comfortable & less challenging.  Students who lacked the capacity to be self-directed were keen on fun interesting topics but they needed more skills to find success. So I have gone back to the drawing board & developed a new model for 2016 (to be discussed in another post).

Portfolio in Classical Studies Reasoning

  • Students are currently assessed incrementally across the year but the majority of their summative assessment is undertaken at stages when their skills are less developed.  Therefore, providing a way to ensure students can use their work, particularly towards the end of the year when it is more developed, as the basis of their assessment will provide them with more significant opportunities for success.  In classical studies this is particularly significant given the fact that there are 2 X 6 credit internal assessments.
  • The current model of my curriculum assessed students on one standard in term 1; another in term 2; and had an external focus in terms 3.  The entirety of the term three focus is completely lost in terms of the internal assessment.  It also represents the highest level of students’ skill development in classical studies & is therefore lost.
  • Portfolios enable a more flexible approach to curriculum while enabling relevant scaffolding.  It reduces the extent of prescribed content & opens up opportunities to explore other areas of interest.  While too much open learning could have negative impacts, the use of this particular portfolio approach includes scaffolding at the beginning and drawing on more narrow external contexts for pragmatic reasons.
  • Previous portfolio work in classical studies limits this method to ‘gifted & talented’ students.  This is at odds with ASHS philosophy & there are significant opportunities for benefits to all students.
  • Portfolio assessment is difficult to segregate from teaching & learning programmes. One area of potential critique could be it takes away structured learning approaches at the expense of freedom.  This is addressed within the teaching & learning programme context through two split opportunities: with a clear availability of structured contexts: classical mythology; socratic philosophy; & alexander the great; and the opportunity to be flexible in the extent of engagement in these contexts or to move onto other areas of interest.  The recent investment into sourcebooks & the expansion of internet primary sources makes accessibility to material less of an issue.
  • A key limitation is the role of the teacher.  Teachers used to inflexible pedagogical practice with a focus on rolling through several topics of content may find wading through the unknown difficult.  However, a teacher with sufficient cultural knowledge of the key skills & methods from artistic techniques on greek vases; to philosophic techniques; to ancient history methods should be able to adjust.  In short, a teacher would need to have sufficient cultural capital in a subject in order to successfully enable this to happen.  This is to ensure adequate engagement with lesser known contexts.  Without this, a teacher might not have the disciplinary expertise to appropriately work with or assess students.
  • It draws on assessment for learning as a central focus of pedagogy.  While this is credibly backed up by extensive literature, the sacrifice of this approach is the prioritization of assessment over learning (see Kohn).  Yet, this is arguably the only pragmatic balance between meeting assessment qualification needs & enabling a more productive learning experience than extensive teacher-driven pedagogy.
  • It does not limit the potential challenge for students.  They can go deeper without the extensive pressure of moving along with the teacher’s prescribed content focus & topics.
  • One size fits none.  This better enables students to follow their particular interests & passions
  • The portfolio method also enables for flexible assessment.  Students are able to take risks with presentation methods (beyond just essay writing) with a safety net of being able to make multiple & additional submissions.  The choice of activity can mean a mixture of group & individual submissions which can help assessment be more relevant & connected with the key competencies
  • Follows generic suggestion from Megan’s focus: topic 1: teacher-selected context to introduce concepts with some flexibility;
  • Portfolio helps build community of inquiry models more effectively, particularly in drawing on self & peer assessment.  The focus of authority on knowledge shifts from the teacher to the community & increasingly to the individual student
  • The learning process is a particular focus for the pedagogy.  It becomes the student’s responsibility to present  & build knowledge; the focus of most teaching is in relation to making meaning.
  • Northcote showed a 10% jump in level 2 excellence achievement.  The problem for ASHS is currently their excellence rate of 34% is on the low end.  Perhaps the effect on grades of the portfolio approach may not be as successful.  Perhaps the current method of teaching pedagogy is better.
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