Thursday, November 15, 2007

Instruction vs. Instructions

That’s it. I’m moving to Canada - British Columbia to be exact. Listening to an engaging presentation by a group of teachers from Richmond, British Columbia, at today’s NCTE pre-conference sessions in New York, I’ve become convinced that British Columbia’s got the answer. Not only do teachers there have clear and specific standards guiding their curriculum, but they also have a province-wide testing program that is rooted in formative assessment. Teachers in British Columbia are encouraged to utilize assessment as a way to guide what and how they teach, instead of assessment being used against them based on how well their students perform (or don’t). Assessment is seen as a tool rather than a result. In fact, the presenters I heard today described a progressive grade reporting system in which their first quarter grades are descriptive (literal descriptions of student progress rather than letter grades) in order to give teachers an opportunity to get to know their students’ strengths and struggles and give students an opportunity to practice skills before receiving a mark. It is a system where students are given an opportunity to master concepts and skills and not simply manage them and move on. Students are encouraged to reflect on their learning, set goals, and practice concepts before they ever receive an official mark. What an idea! We measure what students learn instead of penalize them for what they haven’t.

In actuality, today’s session reinforced a great deal of what I’m already trying in my own classroom – giving students an opportunity to receive peer and teacher feedback on their writing before turning it in for a grade, encouraging students to identify their strengths and struggles in order to set goals, and providing opportunities to retake assessments as a way to show mastery. Teaching in this way, we as teachers give up ownership of the classroom and turn it back over to the students. Such a change in focus encourages student reflection on learning, thereby engaging the individual student in his or her educational process.

As a way to highlight this, the presenters displayed a wonderful quote from Kylene Beers’ book Why Kids Can’t Read which posed the question of whether we as teachers are spending our time on instruction or instructions. Do we spend our time as coaches and mentors, modeling instruction, or do we instead spend our time giving detailed instructions, hoping that the more we give, the more they’ll get it?

For all that the presentation helped to reinforce, it also has me questioning the usefulness of some of what I do. I value formative assessment, using assessment as a tool for learning rather than simply an assessment of leaning; however, I’m guilty of giving instructions rather than being a tool for instruction. My students and I joke that I explain too much. I think of the overhead I left for my substitute today, loaded down with instructions. So while I firmly believe that formative assessment and teaching for mastery are crucial to student development and learning, I apparently still have a long way to go. So, since I have more to learn, maybe I should stick around before packing my bags and moving north. I guess Canada will have to wait.

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