A Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing?

The following inspirational quote gets thrown around pretty frequently on social media, but it sums up my current dilemma:

Fake it ’til you make it are words I’ve lived by in my teaching career. I’m in my eighth year of classroom teaching, and yet I’m still grappling with how to balance the demands of teaching content from the Australian Curriculum, with teaching students. I do my honest best, but I’m still faking it. Which makes me wonder, how many of us are sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing?

If it is good for kids, it is good. Period.

These are the words of Mark Sonnemann, taken from a TG2 chat earlier this year. Mark is Principal at a Catholic school in the city of Kingston, nestled on the banks of Lake Ontario in Canada. These words resonated with me because it sums up where I am in my planning journey for the rest of 2017. Weighing up what feels right versus the traditional expectations of my employment.

I’ve spent this first week of winter holidays trying to make sense of the whirlwind of student feedback and my own ideas and reflections regarding the direction of our class for the remainder of 2017. I honestly believe that the learning changes we’ve piloted this year have been good for kids. But I am plagued by questions for which there seem to be no easy answers.

If we continue to learn the way we have this past semester, am I being neglectful in parts of my job? Am I really setting my students up for future success? Or damning them to future disappointment when the voice and choice available in their current learning becomes a rug literally pulled out from under them?

This term has been filled with re-learning how to learn. Process over content. Some students have commented that we really “haven’t learned much this term”, and they’re right. The amount of knowledge based content that we covered this term has been negligible. Our focus has been on the general capabilities outlined here:

We have a composite year 6/7 class where I am tasked with delivering seven different subject areas to 25 students from two curriculum maps. There is some content crossover between the two grades, but in subjects like Science and the Humanities, the differences are significant. So this term, while in pursuit of establishing a classroom based on student voice, Project Based Learning (PBL) and feedback over grades, something had to give. For me, it had to be the sheer weight of content we are expected to deliver.

In the other states of Australia, year 7 is the beginning of high school, not so in South Australia. The year 7 curriculum rightfully expands in content scope because, unlike our primary school system, high schools usually offer specialist teachers in each different subject area. So when it comes to being able to expertly deliver content in seven different subject areas – Am I a sheep in wolf’s clothing?  

Sebastion Millon Cartoon

I certainly feel like one. I have a level of expertise in HPE, and largely, competency in the other subject areas. Perhaps with another 12 years I could master more of the content I am required to teach, but I’m actually done trying. Instead, I’m going to try to specialise in students. Specialise in feedback. Processes. Relationships. Collaboration. Just not more content. I’m going to teach students, not just the curriculum. I believe that the general capabilities embedded in the Australian Curriculum may allow me to do this. 

By advocating a program heavily rooted in the general capabilities, am I branching into a brave new world of learning where students are empowered to take charge of learning? Or doing students a disservice by limiting their “access” to curricular content?

Will it hurt students when it comes time for compulsory standardised testing like NAPLAN? Or will slowing down and pursuing mastery of skills shine through down the track? Either way, I can’t see too many of my students rocking up to their first job interview armed with their year 7 NAPLAN results and primary school report cards.

Don’t get me wrong, I like NAPLAN as a measure of growth for individual students in some key learning areas, just not as a yardstick to gauge the success of individual classes, teachers, or schools. The real problem is, how do you measure the immeasurables? Most of the “best stuff” that we learn in our class will not be showing up on a standardised test anytime soon. Empathy. Self-discipline. Perspective. Community contribution. Time management. Collaboration. Creativity. The list goes on.

My next step is to explore going beyond the content via the South Australian DECD website for Leading Learning. Most of this content appears anchored in the work of Martin Westwell, Guy Claxton, and Anne Baker. Some more of my questions I have been wondering about include:

How much content in the Australian Curriculum is Googleable?

How much content will be relevant for these students in 5/10/20 years time?

Most of my reading at the moment focuses on student empowerment, improving feedback, and valuing growth over grades. These books have all had common themes – that what students know will be far less important than what they can do with what they know. But where is the line in the sand? I’ve gone for what I consider to be gradual release into student voice and choice. Circumstances dictate that I’m still probably moving too fast, but I like to think that students and I are learning together and that their education is something happening with them, not to them.

Is the shift that I am asking of my students so great that it may cause harm in the future? In Starr Sackstein’s book Peer Feedback In The Classroom, Jill Berkowicz suggests that without student voice and empowerment taking systematic root in schools, students may suffer in preceding years if stripped of the “power sword” that I seek to gift them in order to fight their own learning battles.

Removing grades from the conversation has been liberating for me, and has significantly deepened the relationships I have with students. This is because grades had to be replaced with something, and that something is feedback. I have never spent so much time talking with students (though I’m still guilty of talking at students too often!) Assessment and feedback in my class used to be a postmortem. Delivered when learning had ended. Now assessment and feedback are ongoing, throughout the formation of ideas, the struggle to navigate and organise thoughts, and battle towards creating a piece of work to be proud of. Authentic. Relevant.

I need to become far more proficient in the art of feedback. I enjoyed this 2015 article by Tom Barrett where he discusses how we should differentiate feedback at the 30% complete stage versus when work is 90% finished. These subtle differences in mindset are part of the art of feedback. I also need to find better systems and processes for self and peer assessment. We recently shared some self and peer assessment rubrics that were made with students. Some of these are just plain bad. But we are learning, together. The students have been involved in deciding what to value and assess, which has been powerful.

Another issue I am exploring is how to help students stay accountable to themselves, families and their education, in the absence of grades. We already use student blogs to share learning, but my intention is to separate our learning into practice and performance-based tasks. We will explore learning portfolios of student’s best work using online resources like SeeSaw this term. A more experienced colleague from a different school recently suggested to me that the evidence of learning that our students were collecting on blogs/portfolios merely amounted to advertising and showing off. Here I was thinking that in 2017, it was just good practice. I can understand if work was being used as a photo op, to laud over others. But I think that by using tools like Google classroom, SeeSaw etc we can increase student access to feedback and actually improve learning.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if in the future, year 11 and 12 students, who currently endure tremendous stress in their final two years of high school, could focus on mastering skills and following passions, rather than chasing empty grades that are the modern currency to opportunity. I can envision a day when learning portfolios of mastered skills replace letter grades and SACE scores. The Boston Globe recently reported in the US of a private school shift away from grades and transcripts towards skills-based competency. I wonder if in Australia we will be on the forefront of this change, or playing catch-up with other parts of the world.

Finally, I wonder how the 12-year-old version of me would fair in my classroom.

I let myself down through much of my schooling. I was immature, lazy, and often defiant. But is this who I really was as a student, or what I became as a result of my school experience. I have always been creative. As a young kid, I would always make my own board games. Everywhere we went, I would go with pencils and ruler in hand to create little board games. At school though, the only thing I created was trouble. I was bored. Much of my schooling lacked relevance (or I lacked the ability to find context).

If I had been given a measure of control over my learning as a student, would I have been mature enough to trek my own path? Or would I have squandered the opportunity? Would it have made any difference? I went to University as a mature age student because my results out of high school were never going to be good enough to meet the entrance expectations for teaching. When I was finally given control of my learning in year 11 and 12, I swung too far towards my interests in the Arts and HPE. I never chased the grades and as such, severely limited my opportunities moving forward. My school experience was not an indicator of my future success, and I believe this is true of many others too. Schools need to be better. I need to be better.

I’m not advocating that anyone stop what they are doing and follow me into a gradeless utopia. But there are elements of my journey that I think are relevant to many teachers, that compliment, rather than oppose their current practice. This isn’t the way forward, but it is my way forward.

If it is good for kids, it is good. Period.

Cartoon Credit: Sebastion Millon
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5 thoughts on “A Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing?

  1. Abe, this really resonates with me, as I manage 2 grades of curriculum, too. The longer I teach, the more I rely on teaching intuitively – bringing more art to the science. Relationships are everything, but perhaps this is so because the investment has been made in building teaching competence. You give me much to consider. Thanks for pushing my thinking.

    1. Thanks, Marian. I feel like I’m juggling a few too many balls and getting to a point where I need to decide which ones to let fall. Your tweet about the similarities to public Montessori schools in the US has got me thinking too. I don’t think what I am doing with my class is that radical, it just makes sense to me that put students at the centre of their learning and focus on growth over grades. There is a Private Montessori school in a nearby suburb that I can probably connect with to look at how they observe learning and use feedback. Other public schools near us are running Reggio Emilia and Steiner programs too, so I’m probably far less isolated than I think, just need to find some local connections. I hope we will get a look inside your classroom/world at some stage via your blog. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. “Gradeless utopia…” Still not quite a utopia for me, but there’s no way I’m going back! Thanks for providing all the links in this post so I can go back and learn even more, Abe. Keep it up, and enjoy your winter break!

    1. Joy, I’m honoured that you took the time to read my rambling thoughts. “Gradeless utopia” might be laying it on a bit thick! Anyone that has ever walked through my room could tell you that. I’m sure some of my colleagues see me not grading and doing far less explicit teaching and wonder what I actually DO anymore… Even though we know that the “perfect classroom” doesn’t exist, it is what we are striving. for. I really love your “Student specialist” line, I’m going to run that one out for a long time to come. Sign me up for the course when you get it up and running 😉 I’m excited to give your Livebinder a workout this week, I have so much to learn this semester! Cheers for stopping by.

  3. I agree that we need to have better processes for peer- and self- assesment. Evaluating what is more important and setting up priorities is one of the ways to keep oneself accountable and be able to accomplish tasks on daily basis.

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