(for the man, Karl Ove Knausgaard)

Exams are tests or evaluations. A physician may perform a physical exam on a patient, to evaluate overall health or to diagnose a particular illness or injury. An appraiser may closely examine an antique or work of art to assess its value or authenticity. I know a man who has an irrational fear that the products he buys at the grocery store have been tampered with, before purchasing an item, he will examine it—its packaging, seals, surface area—to ensure that nothing is out of the ordinary, and regularly, although this examination brings up nothing awry, his paranoia prevents him from buying the product anyway. 

In schools, exams are a way of evaluating student learning, often at the midpoint or end of a course. Sometimes—especially if a large number of students are writing the same one at the same time—an exam may take the form of a multiple choice test, perhaps even a Scantron test, where the examinee shares information by colouring in little oval bubbles on a standardised test paper, which is then fed through a scanner machine that reads the information by using light to identify which oval bubbles have been filled in. Inevitably, during a large Scantron test, one or more students fills in the oval bubbles incorrectly; drawing an X or a check mark rather than colouring the bubble in; using red or green ink, neither of which create enough contrast for the test to be read; filling the oval bubbles in too lightly or too unevenly; et cetera. It is also not unusual for students who are inadequately prepared, or feeling apathetic or just plain silly, to fill in the oval bubbles in order to create a picture, pattern, or message, probably most likely something like a smiley face, penis, zigzag, ACDC or ACAB, respectively, rather than to try to answer the exam questions correctly. While there is the potential for this to result in a traditional ‘passing’ grade on the exam—as it would be a nearly impossible task, let alone a colossal waste of time, for an educator to design the series of correct answers with the avoidance of pictures, patterns, or messages, even the most expected ones, in mind—it is unlikely. I have sometimes had trouble with Scantron tests when I am required to provide my full legal name, which contains 30 characters without, or 33 characters with, spaces. There are not always enough bubbles for me to fill in “Jessica Elizabeth Swaine Sheppard,” which means that, if directions about what to do are not provided, I must use my best judgment to determine whether it is best to leave “Swaine” out entirely, default to middle initials, or simply include as much of my name as I can before I run out of space. Being forced to make this judgment call feels arbitrary, and for some may undermine the exam-writing experience before it has even begun. 

Not all, in fact it might be fair to say not most, exams rely on Scantron. Often, regardless of the form(s) of questions comprising the exam, students indicate their answers on the exam paper itself. This is helpful for those of us with longer names, if we have to indicate them in their entirety, as we can adjust our handwriting accordingly, making it smaller or narrower in order to fit our name into the space provided, or perhaps by choosing to write outside of that space. There is more leeway for how this sort of exam is filled out, too: on an exam paper that will be read and marked by an actual human, a student can successfully indicate a multiple choice or true/false answer by circling, underlining, or otherwise marking either the whole answer or a small part of it; longer answers might be expressed as lists, full sentences, diagrams, charts, graphs, or other organizers. This does not prevent students from drawing silly pictures or providing nonsense answers if they choose to do so, but it does provide them with the option of more than one method of expression. Often, exams require students to write by hand, even though this is something many rarely do in class nowadays. Before the proliferation of personal computers, when the majority, if not all, classwork, homework, and assignments were completed by hand, the written exam was normalised, it didn’t introduce an underutilised form of communication into a high-stakes context, causing stress around the arbitrary possibility of penmanship rather than knowledge influencing students’ achievement. Beyond general legibility, idiosyncratic loops, hooks, tails, or character shapes are a factor with handwritten exams, and one that may be exacerbated by the fact that many students so rarely practice writing by hand, at least in large output tasks. Often, students’ handwriting will deteriorate over the course of an exam, or they may invest so much energy into writing neatly, mincing ideas to focus on legibility, that they are never able to reach a flow state with their thoughts. Like the arbitrary alteration of one’s name to fit a Scantron form, or a passing grade that is the product of a random, creative filling in of bubbles, rather than a legitimate attempt to answer the questions posed, one might argue that it’s a game. The minced, truncated nature of many written exam responses—which are furthermore dependent upon the quality of penmanship and the assessor’s ability to interpret it—seem to rely on a plenitude of falsity. 

This is not to say that all students struggle with exams, or that every exam is rife with contrivances, there are many situations in which exams are used quite effectively as an evaluative basis of requisite skills or knowledge, when taking a driving test or becoming certified in first aid, for example, and so it is reasonable to expect students to practice the skill of exam-taking as they are bound to use it in life. And, like the mastery of any skill or subject, students are likely to derive pride from the successful completion of exams, particularly if they worked hard or if their success was unexpected; many teachers and parents have encountered students brimming with genuine pride after exceeding their own expectations on an exam, and this sort of authentic satisfaction can be the basis of growth in confidence, which is generally beneficial. Ideally, this success and confidence is rooted in thoughtful, meaningful learning, learning that transcends subject and format. 

An ELL student, Tom, who came from China and struggled tremendously with English for over two years, described in his summative colloquy the difference between studying ESL for comprehension versus English for communication of ideas: “it’s like language is an apple. ESL is the skin. But English class is what’s inside when you take a bite.” As many educators prepare for or reflect upon the exam period, how might we ensure that students are being offered a whole bite of the apple? 


Shaking Through

(This was linked in the title, but made the post proper difficult to get to, so it’s here now instead.)

Since I wasn’t really in a school this year, and don’t feel that it’s my place to share the consolidation of any pedagogical learnings or goals, here is a life lesson courtesy of teenagers.

This morning I was fortunate enough to join a group of senior high school students as they discussed a poetry assignment. One student, while quick to point out that, “I don’t write poems,” was brave enough to let the group study his work.

We discussed things we liked about his poem. We asked for his rationale around parts we weren’t sure about. We shared our interpretations. Sometimes, we questioned the execution of his intent, or offered suggestions about what he might do differently. And, without fail, he provided answers that were gracious, honest, and insightful.

Though he is not “into” poetry, he was able to explain his creative choices; to justify them; to find intent within them in the moment; or—in a couple of cases—admit that they weren’t intentional creative choices at all.

And isn’t that about all we can ask of people as we’re all rattling through life in this wild year? To do what we can, to fake it if we need to, and know when to admit that we don’t know?

In our efficiency-driven system, how might we trade a bit of bureaucracy for humanity? I imagine our students model it beautifully every day.

Against the Wheel

Since the pandemic began, I have been hyping it as an opportunity to make systemic change, to shake free—for now and forever—of the shortcomings of our current education system, and to embrace best practices. Generally, that idea has been met with hesitation at best, fear and overwhelm at worst: “Yes,” colleagues say, “we’d love to. In theory. But everybody is working so hard just to keep going right now. Where will we find the energy for fresh, new, innovative ideas?”

What if I told you that innovation doesn’t have to be fresh or new? That perhaps one of the most innovative things we can do right now, to benefit ourselves, our students, and education in general, is look back?

Hyperbole and a Half visual reference for millennials.

Skeptical? Sure. I mean, just look at the word innovation, that “nov” in the middle suggesting all things novel i.e. new. But, etymologically, we can trace the word’s roots to innovacion (restoration, renewal) and innovare (change, renew), and it is in this original sense of restoration where I propose there is room for systemic change, best practice, and teacher well-being. Bluntly: #allthethings

We’re frequently caught up in this idea that in order to become better, we need to be on the cutting edge of things. But better does not always mean new, and new doesn’t always even mean different: frequently, it is just a repackaging of what came before, bedecked in shiny new buzzwords that let us feel like we’re part of something fresh and modern, when in actuality we are just spending valuable time reinventing the wheel.

That is not to say that we should avoid all things new, Like scientists, we—as educators—should embrace the inherent fallibility in the world, and be prepared to adapt to our ever-changing circumstances. But, also like scientists, we should be comfortable relying on established truths and laws, without feeling the need to revamp them unnecessarily. Gravity, for instance, has stood the test of time… pretty darn well, I’d say. Let us draw on pedagogy that has done the same.

Newton in an outdoor learning space. From: http://innovationflow.blogspot.com/2012/07/archimedes-bathtub-newtons-apple-and.html

As Maria Montessori wrote: “Education should not limit itself to seeking new methods for a mostly arid transmission of knowledge: its aim must be to give the necessary aid to human development.” (in From Childhood to Adolescence) How might we support our students to be critical thinkers, creatives, problem solvers, and good humans? Perhaps it’s easier than we think. Perhaps with some good old fashioned discourse, observation, and lived experience, we can restore the roots of the truly educative experience, that which allows us to leave our subject silos and understand the relationship between ourselves, our world, and one another. Perhaps by stepping back and making room for students, teachers, and the world around us to guide learning—rather than getting bogged down by what standardised curricula or new-fangled tricks and tools suggest we should do—we can also make more room for authentic learning experiences and everyone’s well-being. God only knows we need that right now!

This won’t look the same in every classroom. It can’t, and it shouldn’t. But in these challenging times, and beyond them, perhaps the best thing we can do for ourselves and our students is set aside our detailed lesson plans and interminable curriculum documents, and think about how to facilitate relevant, in-depth learning experiences—through tried-and-true methods, and by drawing on our observations, relationships, and insights—and then take a deep breath in and a big step back, and get the heck out of the way.

We don’t have to be early adopters or on the cutting edge to create meaningful systemic change. Sometimes all we need to do is go against the grain—or in this case shall we say “against the wheel”: its reinvention, anyway.

The perils of early adoption. “The Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larson.




“Guys, guys, guys, can we take a step back here?’

Jokes/soundbites/attempts to appear smart at meetings aside, I hadn’t been at TYS long on Saturday before I found others with whom to share the experience of the low-level panic that occurs when you step away from work responsibilities.

Whether we were missing a homecoming festival,  asking our student leaders to run their first community event, or leaving a list of triathlon logistics for colleagues and hoping for the best, (they rocked it; see photos below by Season 7’s @lfarooq and RLC residence don J. Glavin,) many—perhaps even most—of us felt some level of guilt, anxiety, or pressure of a day away. I certainly did, and I’ve always been fairly confident in my ability to roll with the punches when things are beyond my control.

But, as challenging as it may feel sometimes to take a step back from our daily routines, we are all in the midst of a beautiful opportunity to take a step into the world of Cohort 21.  It’s exciting to be part of this special community where we can collaborate, innovate, and grow. Let’s do this, Season 8 team!

Nothing but love…

c21_logo_mediumWelcome to your Cohort 21 Blog. This journal is an integral part of your Cohort 21 experience. Here you will reflect, share , collaborate  and converse as you move through the C21 Action Plan process. 

This is your first post and an opportunity to share a little bit about yourself as a learner and leader. Please respond the to the following prompts below:

1) Reflect on your own personal learning journey and K-12 education. Identify one learning experience that you can point to as having made a significant impact on some element of your own growth and development. It could be that teacher and subject that really sparked significant growth or a trip that opened your eyes to a whole new world or way of thinking or a non-catastrophic failure that you learned so much from.  Briefly describe the learning experience and identify the various supports, structures, mindsets and relational ingredients that were put in place by the teacher or facilitator that directly contributed to your growth and success. 

In the tenth grade, I joined the outtrip club at my high school. We did an eight-day canoe trip every fall, and a four-day hiking trip each spring. Tripping taught me resiliency and self-sufficiency, the value of being uncomfortable, and how breathtaking this world can be. It made me appreciate both solitude and teamwork, and allowed me to understand that there was far more to school than Playing the Grade Game, which had always been my MO in the past. The teachers who led our trips were knowledgable and supportive, but gave us room to learn through our own experiences; most importantly, their passion for nature shone throughout each journey. While I certainly gained knowledge, skills, and confidence by outtripping that I have carried with me through life, I think the most significant insight I gleaned was how important it is to make time to do — and share — the things you love

2) What is the one Learning skill (MOE) or Approach to Learning (IB ATL) that you feel is MOST important in this day and age? How do you intentionally build it into your curriculum and develop it in your students throughout the year?

*Full disclosure: A colleague recently presented a fascinating session on the correspondence between the MOE’s Learning Skills and Executive Functioning. I’d actually like to flip a coin and let it make the decision between the EF skills flexibility and metacognition for me here, but since that’s not an option I’ll go with self-regulation, which I’d argue provides a decent mix of the two.

Harkening back to my first answer, I believe self-regulation skills pave the way for a good school-life (or work-life) balance; a way of operating that allows one to both fulfill obligations and make time for passions. I try to facilitate the development of self-regulation in my students by actively and regularly giving them input into what topics they explore, the projects they create, and the steps they feel are important along the way. My hope is that co-creation empowers students to think about the process of learning and where their strengths and challenges lie, while also giving them ample opportunity to integrate their interests into the work they do. Furthermore, it gives them ownership over the process of learning, and puts them in the position of having to adapt and revamp when that process doesn’t play out as anticipated. 

3) Insert an image below that best captures the essence of that Learning Skill or ATL. (Click on the “Helpful WordPress Video Tutorials” link in the left hand sidebar to learn how to insert it)

The path through distraction to complete the task at hand and enjoy the things you love. Urban, Tim. “How to Beat Procrastination.Wait But Why.