Two different articles in my news feed collided recently.

One, by Rick Wormeli, focused on how we mistakenly subject students to educational practices from academic stages in their future, in the belief that by introducing practices from the next level, we are preparing students to succeed.

The second article was about wireless headphones.

Thinking that we have to enact the policies and practices of the grade levels above us in order to prepare our students for those levels is deeply flawed.

Wormeli’s article, which you should read, makes the argument that we should prepare students for the next level in their academic journey by meeting their immediate developmental needs, rather than attempting to prepare them for an environment they aren’t mature enough to handle yet. “Remaining indifferent to developmentally appropriate learning experiences and simply demanding post-certification adult level performance is a quick way to boost the dropout rate.”

The idea of developmentally appropriate classrooms isn’t new. Montessori spoke about prepared environments that attended to the needs of students as they progressed through four planes of development. Piaget theorized four stages of cognitive development, and Vygotsky examined the failures that result when we challenge students with tasks beyond their zone of proximal development.

The 4U Quandary

There’s a “4U Quandary”. When working in secondary classrooms, assessment practices that work in lower grades suddenly become a challenge in 4U (the grade 12 courses used in calculating post-secondary entrance averages), where students are competing for spots in post secondary institutions. Teachers see themselves needing to kowtow to the next academic stage, adopting university assessment and evaluation practices, despite the fact that it is secondary school aged students being taught.

Growing Success requires a percentage grade on a report card at two points throughout the year. In earlier grades we can confidently relegate these calculations to the back seat in deference to the exploration of grade-less classrooms, single point rubrics, levels and descriptive feedback; but over and over I hear about the struggle to implement this in 4U. Between marks-hungry students, and anxious, calculator toting parents, we revert to total points calculations that hearken back to a time when we were in school, valuing the precision of a calculation over the more holistic determination used in previous years to professionally judge and assign a numeric value to a student’s learning. I’m not suggesting this idea prevails in all 4U corners. I know many educators who have found solutions to the quandry, but I’m also not denying this pressure, and the very real challenge of assigning a grade that will have such a powerful sway on a student’s future. It’s called a quandary for a reason. It becomes more difficult to justify determination over calculation when a single percentage might impact program opportunities. We are complicit in a system that believes a 100 point scale is a reliable measure (maybe it’s not).

Grading using total points infers that the student is entering the class with a perfect grade, and will spend the rest of the semester battling to ensure they don’t lose any of those points. Shouldn’t the opposite be true? Shouldn’t every day be another opportunity to gather more evidence about what a student knows, rather than checking what they don’t?

What does this have to do with headphones?

The second article I read talked about how Apple — as the monopoly player in the phone market — triggered sweeping changes in the third-party accessory market, by deciding to remove the 3.5 mm headphone jack from their devices. This decision resulted in exponential innovation in the bluetooth headphone market.

In Ontario education, the public, K-12 education system is the monopoly player. We are Apple. Post-secondary institutions who depend on our product (students) are the equivalent to the headphone manufacturers — the third party accessory creators. They are only one of a number of different viable pathways students can take after secondary school, and need to compete in a market that is beginning to question the value of their current product.

If the public system decided tomorrow that they were no longer going to rank students using percentages on a report card, the post-secondary institutions would have to shift to accommodate that change. They would need to value portfolios, or interviews, or other mechanisms to select students for programming. Yet instead of making the rules, we let the third party market determine how we conduct ourselves in previous rungs of the ladder. We operate a meek monopoly, feeling the tension that the post secondary market inflicts on our practice, yet somehow powerless to intervene (we may also be unfairly judging the post secondary admission system using our own 20 year old experience in that arena). We innovate in pockets, but still ultimately need to play by their rules: the same rules we’ve been using for years to rank students by applying percentages to a report card. With our most mature students, who are developmentally at a stage where they are capable partners in experimental pedagogical practices, we feel a requirement to stifle innovation in deference to their future academic destination.

Growing Success will be ten years old next year. Perhaps it’s time to push the concepts further in the Assessment and Evaluation sections, to re-write how we report student learning in the Reporting section. Then we can stop gate-keeping for post-secondary and focus on learning. We should probably find a way to do that under the current policy, rather than waiting for a change that may not come. If we meet out students current developmental needs, won’t the rest sort itself out?

Published by jarbenne

Jared Bennett is the Student Information System Consultant at Hamilton Wentworth District School Board.

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