Communication and Making Mistakes

My Favourite No

It’s always nice seeing teachers find new ways to make a wrong answer a positive experience. Forever, it seems like being wrong has been this huge taboo in classrooms. The reasons students don’t participate is the fear of being wrong, when they get a test back, they check their mark and then look for all the red pen telling them what marks they lost. It makes being wrong such a horrible experience. When, as the teacher in the video shows, it’s actually quite a positive thing to be wrong.

Being wrong means that you make a mistake and you learn from it. When we read old fables or stories to our elementary, heck, even our high school (and university!) students, the story always has a message, or a moral to highlight. And, more often than not, the protagonist (or antagonist) learns this moral through making a mistake, and learning from what they did wrong, or they don’t learn from their fatal flaw, and die in some horrible fashion in a Shakespearean drama. This is because failure can tell us so much about ourselves, and so much about a topic, that is a disservice to our students to not celebrate those failures.

I’ve used this quote in another class this week, but it is applicable, so we’ll do it again. We learned this way back in the day when we watched The Magic School Bus, and Miss Frizzle told us to “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy”. We our going to make mistakes, it is inevitable, so we should embrace them and learn from them.

I was tutoring a friend of mine in Calculus a few days ago, and he brought me his last quiz to look over, because he has his midterm in a few days, and this was the only test he struggled on. And what we did was look over the questions he got wrong, identified his mistakes, and built upon why he was wrong. And that was the most useful thing he found in studying for his test. Because he found, and I do, too, that I remember my mistakes much more clearly than what I did right. And that comes from knowing why I was wrong, or why he was wrong.

Especially in math, routines are formed by students. They learn how to divide, they learn how to multiply, they learn the “basics” of math very quickly in school…and then you proceed to take fifteen million more years of math where you basically just use those same simple rules over and over and over again, getting more and more abstract, or complex as you continue. So, by the time you reach high school, you have a way of doing math, of organizing your questions, or of doing these procedures. And if a student has not been understanding or doing something correctly from the beginning, then it is extremely difficult to undo those misconceptions without understanding of what they have been doing wrong.

“My Favourite No” really lets students get that understanding of what exactly is wrong, why it is wrong, and, most importantly, what we can learn from the mistake. And that is why it is such an important tool for assessment. Students need to know how to correct their mistakes before it is too late, they need to be guided through the formative assessment and catch those errors before they are finally graded in a summative assessment.

Importance of Communicating with Parents

In chapter 9 of Making Classroom Assessment Work, there is a focus on communication. And one of the communication channels they highlight as being extremely important is the communication between parents or guardians and teachers. I think it is extremely important to have parents and guardians involved in the school, for a number of reasons.

Like it says in the chapter, parents and guardians want to be informed of their child’s learning and how well they are doing, most parents and guardians would love it if the teachers were willing to be open in communicating.

Another reason I think it is important is that parents and guardians will be hearing about how school is going if they have any communication with their child, and that communication may not always be positive. If a child is going to be going home and talking about what you are doing in the classroom, or what you are changing, they may not be happy about it at first. Students like routine, and I know a lot of people, myself included, who hate surprises. I always like seeing the rubric before I do an assignment because I don’t want to be surprised about what I’m being marked on. I like when the desk arrangements stay the same. And, if a teacher is going to shake things up, even if I get forewarning of the change, that doesn’t mean I won’t be unsure or wary for a while. Whenever I am unsure or unhappy about something in school, most often my parents are the second people to hear about it, right after my best friend.

As a teacher, you want to get ahead of that negativity, in case it will occur, because oftentimes, the students are just not sure how to feel, or just don’t know enough about the change yet to fully appreciate it, and they will come around. But if the parents and guardians hear about the change when they are being negative about it, that negativity will stick with them. So talk to them, let them know that you care and want them to be involved, and let them be introduced to a concept in a positive light.

The final reason I’ll mention that parents and guardians should be involved is the student-parent conferences mentioned in the chapter. The conferences are ways for students to talk to their family or support group in a structured way about what they are learning. The conferences are important because it promotes communication in the family, as well as helps a student focus on what it is important to let their family or support systems know. When I would go home after school and we’d eat, there was always the “how was school?” talk, and then the “what did you learn?” after. And I would always be confused about what to say. The conferences help so that students can demonstrate what they’ve learned (reading a book, solving a problem), and also give students more guided questions on what to tell their people so that they know exactly what the student is being taught. If the conferences are monitored, as they can be, they are also a way to assess a student’s understanding of a topic, but also see where their interest lies in the topic. Hearing the student orally talk about “what they learned”, means that a student is going to be more focused on what they found they really connected with, or understood the best, and you can use that when working with the student further.

Involving parents and guardians means that you are connecting the school more fully with the community surrounding and you are also letting parents know what exactly is going on in the school. Because we have those students in the school building for a very long time for the majority of the week, and often times no one really knows or is informed about what the students are doing. Showing parents and guardians that you have nothing to hide will make you more reputable, more trustworthy, and help you develop those relationships that are so desperately needed. But it is also helpful in assessment, in one way because you can use the conferences to formatively assess student learning, but also because knowing you have a dialogue with the support systems means that you need to have something to communicate to them with, and so it might encourage you to keep anecdotal records, or collect data on student achievement, encourage students to build portfolios, or add more information and weight to your comments on assignments.

Assessing for the Outcome

My opinions on assessment always seem to be really clear to me. I think I know what I want, how I want to do it, and what it all means. But then I realize that I haven’t really done much assessment in my life, and so I still have a lot to learn. Before I can get right in there and start getting that practical knowledge, I have more assessment classes to go to. Two key areas this week that I want to address as being the areas that I have developed further with more knowledge are assessing with EAL learners in mind, and gathering evidence in a math classroom, and other classrooms.

Assessment and EAL Learners and How the Practices Apply to All Learners

We talked about a few practices that are very useful to EAL learners that I really appreciated, and I think that, because I believe in inclusion, it’s not a bad thing to say that the methods mentioned could be helpful to all learners. I think that we often learn of a concept and hear that it would be beneficial to students of a certain group, but we often forget that tier one teaching is “just good teaching”. It is making those adaptations so all students can learn and be treated like humans. And EAL learners are human, are our students that we care about, so integrating practices that help them should not only be regulated to “EAL Teaching Time”, they should be used throughout the classroom,  so that they know that they are a part of the classroom, and we want to make the entirety of the classroom an open and inclusive area for them. I do think that we did learn a lot of good strategies to apply to a whole classroom.

  • The Top Five Words – truth to be told, this is something I had never even thought about in all of my years of education, but is it ever essential! When we do outcome breakdowns in EMath, part of the assignment is to make a chart of what the students need to Know, Understand, and Be Able to Do. The Know column is where the information you need to tell students goes – any mathematical concepts or words that students cannot discover themselves. So this column becomes mostly words and phrases that are used to describe the math that the students are doing. Because students can discover how to calculate and count combinations on their own, but they will need to be told that what they are doing is called combinations.
    I find that the outcome breakdowns we do are useful in reminding us as teachers what words are important, and so it is easy to also use that chart to come up with the five most important words that the students need to know. I would probably add them to the board as we learned them, though, because in an inquiry classroom, you don’t necessarily do the teaching and deliverance of information first, you sometimes let students come up with the math before you give it a name.
    It is such a simple thing to take that information that we made for ourselves as a teacher and share it with the class, but it is also important, too, because all subjects have those special terms and definitions that are often only heard in that class. And, as we have talked about in my EMath before, we even use some of the same words differently when we’re not in the subject. Like combinations. Combinations are the  number of arrangements of a group of elements wherein order does not matter. But, in everyday life, we often use the word combination to mean anything from a meal at a restaurant, to a grouping where order does matter, when in math that is actually a permutation.
  • Assessment –  it’s not that you don’t have the skill – it’s that you don’t know how to demonstrate that you have the skill. I really resonate with this point that our guest speaker made. Because I really think that it is something that we need to remember as educators. When we are assessing for an outcome, what is it that we are also assessing? Is everything that we are looking at necessary for the outcome?
    If you are making students to an assignment by writing an essay, but the outcome does not ask for an essay, are you not also expecting students to be proficient in an area that you have not taught them in, and, if you are not an English teacher, that you don’t know if they have been taught in? Math is a subject that is a lot more cut an dry, the outcomes are very specific, and separated nicely to make organization of units easier. But classes like English have outcomes that are more complex, or deal with skills, so the outcomes come up throughout the entirety of the class and can’t only be taught to once. Having more nebulous outcomes means that there is more than one way for a student to represent that outcome, and so I think that it is essential to allow for that adaptation.
    I am a more verbal learner, I need to talk things through, or explain things in words to make my understanding clearer, and so, it was much easier for me to study  for a test or do school work at home, so when we had in class time, I didn’t do much. Because if I was working, I’d be talking and gesturing with reckless abandon. So I think it is important to recognize how your students learn, and foster their unique skills, and so let them show you that they understand in the way that they understand the best. In math, you can write a paragraph to show understanding, you can draw a chart, you can use manipulatives, you can use an algebraic proof. All are mathematically sound, so all should be acceptable as student work.

Assessment in Math/Gathering Evidence

People like to say that math is objective marking, but I think that, if done well, assessment in a math class is not entirely objective. Objectivity implies that there is one answer and one way to get to that answer, but in an inquiry based classroom, you can and should have open ended and open middled questions: questions that have more than one approach or method to coming up with an answer, and, in the case of open ended, have more than one answer. So, when you are assessing students, it is important to remember that they didn’t have to think in only one way, or solve the problem exactly as you envisioned, and that doesn’t mean that they fail.

In Making Classroom Assessment Work, it is mentioned that a teacher should gather evidence on three areas, through collecting products, observation, and conversation. And, once again, in a traditional math class, the only evidence gathered is products, and even then sometimes teachers just expect students to choose to do textbook problems, and give students no feedback on their work before tests. I don’t agree with this model of teaching because it almost completely, if not completely, eliminates the formative assessment in the classroom.

  • Observation – in the reading, it mentions that not having enough observations makes our evaluations for report cards invalid, and I think I agree with this statement. I know, from my own experience as a student, that it is quite easy to pretend you know and understand what you are doing if a teacher never calls you out. A lot of students can coast their way through school without ever being caught if they aren’t being observed by teachers. Getting answers to math questions on tests, going with friends for group work who won’t snitch if you don’t do any work, agreeing to be “the recorder” in labs so you just write what is dictated, but never actually do the lab, there are so many ways to look like you are learning while putting in the least amount of effort. Observation allows you to look at and learn about your learners. See what they do in class, make an account of the work you see them doing, having students participate so you can see what their skills actually are.
  • Conversation – conversation is excellent because it encourages students to take responsibility for their understanding, they have to explain what it is they understand, and why they understand it in a specific way. Conversation is also meta-cognitive: it means that students have to reflect on their thinking. Observation and conversation go hand in hand, I think. Because, as I mentioned before, if a teacher is not aware, it is easy for a student to coast by. But it is also easy for a student to look like they are doing work to the casual observer. Asking questions of students and recording their answers helps you as a teacher see what it is they actually know about what is happening in their group project, it helps you see what they have contributed and where they are involved, and you can see if they are of the same thinking as the majority, or if they have a slightly different opinion, worldview, or learning style.
  • Collecting Products – If you collect student work, you can see what kind of learner they are and what they are and are not understanding. If a student does all questions with the minimal amount of work, and all questions are done the same, that is an indication that a student has simply rote memorized what they are to know. If you give open ended questions, or opinion questions supported by facts as an assignment, you can look at the work that is done and clearly see if students know why the information is important and what they learned, because they have to use  what they learned and make it authentic, not just recite facts and dates. Asking students to give multiple different methods of doing work is also a good way to assess, as the chapter says, because it helps those students who are not strong in writing still show they meet outcomes. Having projects or products with choice means that students can show the information in a variety of ways and show what they know to the best of their ability. You may be surprised with how much a student actually knows if you let them create a visual representation instead of a paper.