Sunday, January 6, 2013

Confronting Constructs

With 2013 now upon us, it is that (in)famous time of the year in which many of us take a few moments to reflect on the year gone by.  We then create our list of attitudes and behaviors that we endeavor to change with this mystical date that we call a 'fresh start'.  Often times we put off making changes until this arbitrary date, and we even allow some of our actions in a particular area to degenerate further through the justification that "I will start ______ after New Year's" (enter 'eating differently', 'exercising' or whatever fits).  Yet regardless of the motivation for making a change, be it January 1st or otherwise, I think whatever it is that inspires us to reflect on our practices and make changes--it's probably a good thing.

A construct in the philosophy of science is an ideal object, where the existence of the thing may be said to depend upon a subject's mind. This, as opposed to a "real" object, where existence does not seem to depend on the existence of a mind.[1]

Over the last several months, I have begun to question why it is we do things the way we do in education.  I looked back at a post I wrote a couple of years ago called "The Knowing-Doing Gap", and realized that I need to investigate a number of things that seem to be 'constructs' as opposed to 'real' in our school system.  This is not to say that some of these concepts or practices may not be valid in a given context:  depending on the circumstance, one or all of these things might have some applicability in schools for kids.  However, I need to wrap my head around some things that seem to be rattling around in my brain so that I have a better rationale for them than "because that's how we've done it before".

In no particular order...

The daily timetable:  At our school, we have a semestered timetable based on a rotation of 4 subjects in 70-80 minute blocks for half of the year.  Of course there are linear timetables, trimesters, 50 minute blocks, and a number of other permutations that schools use all across North America.  But have we adopted these timetables for the convenience of organizing students and faculty, or because they are best for learning?
  • Question:  Is the timetable that you have at your school meeting the needs of your students?  Is there a better way?
  • An interesting alternative to this construct:  Francis Kelsey Secondary is a school in British Columbia that is organized in a way that makes more sense to me.  The school has a timetable which gives students choice and flexibility based on their needs and on their interests.  For example, if a student is struggling in Math but doing well in Social Studies, they can spend more time in Math that week in order to caught up or get additional support.  There is also flexible time built in so that students have greater choice in and responsibility for their learning.  This bears more investigation for me.
Final exams/high stakes tests:  I don't need to go into a great deal of detail about the implications around summative, high-stakes testing--this is something that is the subject of much debate in educational jurisdictions everywhere.  To this end, a number of educators in classrooms everywhere have chosen to find different ways of assessing what their students know.  But there are still final exams and Ministry exams that can significantly skew not only the level of student achievement, but the way that a teacher goes about their business in the classroom--the material that they cover and the pace at which they cover it.
  • Question:  Does the assessment occurring in classrooms at your school truly reveal the learning that has occurred by the students?
  • An interesting alternative to this construct:  Portfolio assessment still interests me.  Any method of assessment in which students can be guided to collect and then determine which artifacts represent their learning and then present them in a method that they are comfortable with seems so much more authentic.  And if the assessment by the teacher requires more time, then perhaps we need to find ways to make that time so that we can really dig in and discover what it is that kids know.
This year, my goal is to begin to investigate and confront a number of these (artificial) constructs that we have, and to work with my staff to find others and see if we can't come up with interesting and viable alternatives:

Parent-Teacher Interviews:  Our PT interviews tend to be traditional:  parents are invited to come, they sign up for appointments on classroom doors, they meet our teachers and discuss their students progress to that point, and they leave.  Brownies and coffee cap off a pleasant evening. For a variety of reasons, some parents are unable to make it:  people are busy, they work, and many times have good communication with the teacher and find the whole process to be redundant.
  • Question:  Does the format of your parent teacher interviews meet the needs of your parents and your students?
  • An interesting alternative to this construct:  Why do nearly all parents of elementary school children attend the Christmas Concert?  Because they really want to see their children perform.  To show their stuff.  Because it is so cute, and they wouldn't miss it for the world.  How can we make PT interviews like this?  Can we make them self-directed (many schools do this).  Can we make them a showcase of student work?  Can we make them so important for parents and students that it is NOT mandatory, but rather so cool that everyone wants to come, to bring their video cameras, and to share the scene on Facebook and Twitter?  

Report Cards:  The BC Ministry of Education and the School Act mandate the parameters within which we report to our students and parents.  86% is an "A", we have to do formal reports a set number of times per year, and we need to generate a transcript for our students.   But with the advent of computer programs that generate progress reports with a few keystrokes, email, and technological solutions such as texting programs that we can use to send homework to students and parents, we can, should, and do keep parents more informed than ever before.  Not to mention, parents often ask me "What does C+ and 'Satisfactory progress' tell me about how my child needs to improve in their class?".  Hmm, pretty good question.
  • Question:  Does the format and timing of your report card meet the needs of your parents and your students, and does it truly tell the story of what is happening in the classroom?
  • An interesting alternative to this construct:  Many teachers in our school have nearly 120 students in their four classes.  Without question, to provide an anecdotal report for each student would take a great deal of time.  But if that gave a more accurate picture that improved the learning of the student, could we not justify the time?  If we truly value the 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity, is there a way that we can report these to parents in a way that is meaningful and acts as a vehicle to improve such skills?

This is not an exhaustive list.  As well, I don't want to purport that I know all of the alternatives to the constructs that we have created in our schools, nor do I feel that there is a be-all, end-all solution to any of these issues.  But what I do know is that there are things that each of us do in our learning situations that are constructs, that have been put in place that do not have to remain the way they are.

And my New Year's Resolution is to work with my staff to find and examine these and other constructs so that we can best meet the needs of the students in our school.

What are the constructs that you are going to confront?


  1. Cale
    I love some of your thoughts. The timetable issue is one that always intrigues me and one that involves many complex variables (local/student need providing for the biggest variation). final exams is also an area we need revisit. I have wondered about the idea of "personalized" literacy based exit exam/capstone project for all graduates. It could allow students to choose content, but asses agreed upon skills.
    Best for 2013

  2. Hi Cale,
    In our district we are currently looking at moving to more of a blended learning model for some of our secondary timetables, having presentations of learning replace exams whenever possible, a new model for parent-teacher interviews (POL again), and we have a large, fired-up committee working on a alternate report card that doesn't use letter grades. It's exciting to get after some of these constructs which were previously considered "givens" in our system and pretty much untouchable.
    As far as your timetable question goes, my MEd research supports your suspicion. Learning doesn't get in the conversation often enough, and the evidence showed (at least in 2004) that it isn't the timeframe in the term, its the time between terms that impacts most.
    Kelsey is really interesting by the way. I've been paying extra attention to the school since I toured it during construction. Call me and I'll tell you more. If you are really interested I'll connect you with some former and current FKSS school leaders.
    By the way, I played golf 3 times over the break. Had to get that in there. Have a great January.
    Cheers, PJ

  3. Cale, I have been thinking about this a lot this year. There are so many constructs in education that we accept at face value because "it's how we have always done it". You have done a great job of articulating some of the ideas I was struggling to put in to words. Thanks for sharing.


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