What if classrooms were coworking spaces?
Educational Consultant Ryan Burwell thinks they should be - and it starts with lessons in assessment
By Ryan Burwell, CSI Member
In the last issue of The Collider, I contributed a piece entitled Let’s Hack the Curriculum which shared my belief that the Centre for Social Innovation has tremendous potential to help teachers rethink their craft. Since then, I have had the privilege of interacting with a growing number of educators, innovators, and edu-preneurs who feel the same way.
Conversations with this diverse group have helped me hone in on specific features of the entrepreneurial community that make it such rich educational soil. The substrate underlying the innovation that goes on at CSI seems to be the desire for honest, creative assessment. However, it took me some time to uncover this because the form and rationale behind the assessment strategies that take place here are very alien from what I was taught in school.
Throughout my previous career as a high school teacher, my colleagues and I often commented that we had the perfect job - except for all the marking. Part of this complaint related to the sheer volume of numeric data, which needed collecting. The lion’s share of a teacher’s work takes place after class is over, with lesson design competing against marking for the remaining hours before the next day’s class. The enormous amount of time consumed by the latter would be gladly given if it was in line with the goals of the former.
In fact, the current system of data collection in schools provides tacit lessons that run counter to the overt messages trumpeted about the importance of education. Like many of my peers, I relished the opportunity to show my students the intrinsic rewards of learning. And nothing is quite as deflating for teachers as to share their passions for the inherent joys of their subject, only to be asked “will this be on the test?”
While this reductive question is incredibly frustrating, it is also understandable. Passion is not quantifiable, and inherently valuable experiences are difficult to rank. This poses a problem for our well-meaning school system, which is based on a sterile ideal that unbiased meritocracy is only possible if it can be graphed.
The implications of this outdated system of assessment are profound. Traditional marking strategies turn the “why” repeatedly asked by children into the much easier to answer “what” and “how much” preferred by the adult world. It teaches students to see assessment as an endpoint – a number that has value far eclipsing the process by which they arrived at it. And as grades have increasingly become a commodity, pressures from students, parents, and policy makers have driven marks to meteoric highs. Just five percent of the graduating class of 1960 was on the honour roll compared to well over fifty percent today.
The knee-jerk reaction to the much discussed problem of grade inflation has been to demand a return to a nostalgic past when school had greater “academic rigour”. In other words, let’s make tests harder again. However, simply amplifying a broken system is a poor substitute for addressing the root problem. The fact is that most students who say that they hate school actually love learning. What they dislike so vehemently is the long shadow cast by the teacher’s red pen.
This is why I’m so excited to witness how innovators at CSI approach assessment. Success for an entrepreneur hinges on the ability to skilfully seek and apply a number of feedback strategies. At the centre of these techniques lies tremendous capacity for self-assessment. In a recent meeting with Twenty One Toys, I was struck by advice given by Lead Strategist Gonzalo Riva. He told me that I should be aiming to accomplish 70% of the goals I set for myself each week – any higher would mean that my objectives weren’t ambitious enough.
Traditional education struggles to implement such self-motivating approaches to goal setting. At a time when the honour role has become the new academic median, 70% has come to signify subpar performance. And while more student self-assessment has recently been mandated by the Ontario curriculum, its perceived inability to produce reportable data has thus far kept it on the periphery of numerically-driven, teacher generated evaluation.
The incredible value of peer assessment is similarly underestimated in many schools, while at CSI it repeatedly reveals itself as the cornerstone of educational success. I have benefited tremendously from feedback provided by many members of this community about the form and content of a teacher-training program I am designing. I have also begun to internalize the design-minded advice provided daily by Twenty One Toys founder Ilana Ben-Ari, and our indispensable tech guru Joi McConnell. It has been wonderful to witness my expectations about what is possible in education grow substantially because of what my peers have told me.
The paramount importance of self and peer assessment, so tangibly demonstrated by entrepreneurs at CSI, needs to gain greater recognition within the school system. This can start by showing educators how to effectively assess themselves and gather feedback from different minded peers. When teachers start to model these empowering approaches to assessment for their students, the artificial barrier between learning and evaluation will begin to erode.
I will be hosting a series of assessment-themed workshops with Twenty One Toys starting in October. These workshops will also gather information about what is required to launch a more comprehensive teacher training program at CSI in early 2014. Details about both of these initiatives will be posted on the CSI Events Page, and on Podium, an awesome directory of fascinating educational talks run by CSI’s very own Oliver Nassar and Mustafa Al-Qinneh.
If you would like to contact me directly, I can be reached at email@example.com. It goes almost without saying - I would love your feedback.