Show Me Your Work

The concept of collecting a student’s work over a given year or school career has a long and successful history, but with the coming of the digital classroom, seems to be enjoying a revival of popularity.  Now more than ever it is easy to form a student portfolio of work.  But why?  Does building a portfolio for each student really have any demonstrable purpose for all the work involved?

portfolio

Defining the term:

According to a great white paper on eportfolios (electronically collected portfolios), Dr. Helen Barrett divides the practice into two categories: the Positivist and the Constructivist approaches (Barrett).  The first type are created for learning, while the second are as learning.  The Positivist approach is usually for some lengthy project (a research paper, for example) where the student gathers evidence of their work for a summative grade at the end of the project.  In the case of a research paper, the portfolio would include their notes, outline, and successive drafts.  The Constructivist approach is often a series of works that show formative assessment, with each entry showing progress toward overarching goals, like a series of ever increasing essays to show writing improvement.  The two can certainly be used in tandem, but generally these two categories cover the major reasons for having student portfolios.

I think good practice would be to have a single Positivist type eportfolio that shows work from all classes throughout a four year high school career.  Certainly Constructivist portfolios for major projects could be rolled into the Positivist one, but one portfolio to rule them all should the ultimate goal.

Arguments for their use:

What are the arguments making this kind of long term effort worthwhile?  Isn’t this just a form of “cya” in education where teachers kind of shrug their shoulders and say, “Here is the best they could do”?  No, there are several compelling arguments for positive portfolio pursuit.

Let’s start with the obvious.  The move in education toward digital work is almost complete.  What is needed these days is a way of storing all the work in such a way that it is organized, useful, and accessible.  Portfolios are a simple way to get this need addressed.  It is the parking garage for all a student’s digital work, maybe with some “public” and some kept private.

A second great reason for portfolio use is the “resume” argument.  Showcasing a student’s work in high school is becoming an ever increasing need for college entrance.  Requiring a student to form such a portfolio throughout high school greatly reduces the stress of forming one late in their high school career.

But the most compelling reason for me is a pedagogical one.  I have often stated that education is not about any one day or lesson, but the whole string of sausages.  It is a cumulative enterprise, in other less picturesque words.  A portfolio promotes lifelong learning in a student through causing them to contemplate their work.  In doing so, they determine a number of things including but limited to: what is their best work (and why), the incremental development of their learning skills, finding connections between assignments and projects stretched out over several years, and, of course, an appreciation for how far they have come over the course of the collection.

I could further argue the case with the assessment value of such a portfolio as it pertains to parents and teachers assessment of the student’s progress.  But the above student contemplation is more important perhaps than even this clear advantage.

Possible pitfalls:

But portfolio use is not a panecea.  There are any number of possible portfolio pitfalls.  First is the question of who decides its content?  I would argue for the student leading the decision with a set of criteria provided by the school.  As stated above in discussing the need for “storage” I think all digital work should be kept, but some should be shared publically (becoming the actual portfolio) and rest kept “in house” and out of access to all except those involved in the assignment.  This becomes a skill that is helpful to the student throughout life: learning to critique their work and select that which is their best effort for public display.

But this begs another question: that of privacy.  Shouldn’t a student’s work remain private: just between himself and his teacher?  I will grant the question but ask in return for the possible reasons for this to be so.  Is there something negative in the work that should be kept private?  Most of the time this argument is coming from a place of embarrassment or the like.  I would argue that both student and teacher enter into the class work with more vigor when the final result might be on display for all to see.  Policy to protect the privacy of students can easily be put in place, but again I think the question of why is important to consider rather than just assuming it.

Perhaps the issue whether to display the content with or without grading and instructive marking addresses the previous privacy issue.  In many cases the student just doesn’t want everyone to see how much “red ink” is on the paper, or what the final grade was.  I think it is quite appropriate for such to be left off, and with digital work this is very easy.  The grade book keeps the grade record; the portfolio shows the work.

Another possible pitfall is the manner of presentation.  If the portfolio is online (and some schools choose to use offline digital means: thumb drives, CDR’s, etc.), then the question of access must be addressed as the portfolio process is put in place.  Certainly all the portfolios should pull from the same sources, look roughly the same, and be consistent.  But making such fully public, or a shared private domain, are issues that need to be addressed as the means of making the portfolios are investigated and determined.  In the Resources section below there are loads of places both free and by subscription that can help address this issue.

But one pitfall stands above all others:  when a portfolio system is implemented but then not used and therefore becomes a huge waste of time.  If a school is going to do this well, teacher and student must buy in and be prepared to use the system across the curriculum and consistently.  Keeping things going all along the career of a high school student is way more beneficial and time conscious than when one tries late in the career to go back and build one.  I recommend beginning such a project with a given Freshman class and building it forward with that class each year, not trying to back log anything from the past.

Suggested Use/Process:

Anyone who knows me knows I use Evernote extensively.  I would therefore adhere to those who believe this product to be the easiest way to curate the portfolio.  A simple “portfolio” notebook within Evernote, shared with all concerned, would be rather simple.

If the school chooses to have some summative presentation for the portfolio, either at the end of each year, or end of Senior year, then the student would need to “clean up” the notes into something a little more flowing, but that would still be easy within Evernote, given its “Presentation” tool in Premium.  Of course a no cost solution would be to export the portfolio to some other presentation tool when that time comes.

There are online portfolio options, the best of which cost money, but this seems the simplest to me, and keeping it simple seems the best way for it actually get used.  (See resources below for more options).

The most practical thing to keep in mind is simplicity of use.  The more steps and the more work, the less likely for everyone to keep using it, teachers and students alike.

Great resources:

 

John Milton Gregory’s 7 Laws of Teaching

I was recently surprised to find that although I have mentioned these laws, I have never listed or blogged on them here.  These laws, stated in a book originally written to make sure Sunday School teachers knew the basics of teaching, are quite valuable in helping a teacher contemplate the basics of teaching.  Below is the outline I prepared for these laws some twelve or so years ago.  No updating necessary…

7laws

The Seven Laws of Teaching

John Milton Gregory – 1884 – written for Sunday school teachers

  1. 1. The teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth or art to be taught.
  • Guidelines:
    • We must know our subject well – prepare fresh every year.
    • While planning, ask yourself, “What am I teaching and why?”
    • Use several resources for teaching.
  • Violation:  Teachers who don’t study the material well enough.  You should know the material deeply enough that you never have enough time to teach everything you know about it.

 

  1. The Learner is one who attends with interest to the lesson.
  • Guidelines:
    • Never begin without the full attention of the class.
    • Adapt lesson time and style to the age of the students.
    • Prepare thought provoking questions.
    • Make your enthusiasm contagious.
  • Violation:  Teachers who start or continue to teach without the attention of the students or who exceed student interest.

 

  1. The language used as a medium between teacher and learner must be common to both.
  • Guidelines:
    • Study how your students are using what you have taught them when they use the language.
    • Require full and complete answers – not one word answers – written and verbally.
  • Violations – Using slang. Not insuring that they can rephrase the lesson in their own words.  Using clichés they don’t understand.

 

  1. The lesson to be mastered must be explicable in the terms of the truth already known by the learner; the unknown must be explained by the means of the known.
  • Guidelines:
    • Plan to compare to what they already know.
    • First, find out what they already know so that you know where to start.
    • Arrange your lesson in logical steps from known to unknown; simple to complex.
  • Violations – Asking for what you haven’t taught, pushing along too rapidly.

 

  1. Teaching is arousing and using the pupil’s mind to grasp the desired thought or to master the desired art.
  • Guidelines:
    • Tell the student nothing he could learn for himself. 
    • The students are the ones who do the work.
    • Your work is planning and guiding.
    • Keep asking yourself: “How can I make these kids understand?”
    • Realize that mental digestion is as individual as physical digestion.
  • Violations – forgetting that telling is not teaching, thought by the student is necessary.

 

  1. Learning is thinking into one’s own understanding a new idea or truth or working into habit a new art or skill.
  • Guidelines:
    • They can do all the work and it just goes by them.
    • Don’t let the test be the end-all, be-all.
    • Help them to have a clear idea of what is going to be done.
    • They should be able to tell you what they’re doing.
    • Don’t settle for incomplete thoughts-make them articulate.
  • Violations – the pupil has an imperfect mastery, the student merely believes what the book says without reasons or practical applications given.

 

  1. The test and proof of teaching done – the finishing and fastening process – must be a reviewing, rethinking, reproducing , and applying of the material that has been taught, the knowledge and ideals and arts that have been communicated.
  • Guidelines:
    • Completion, test and work of confirmation of the work of teaching must be made by application.  Not tests alone – find out what they know in other ways.
    • Show me, do it, give me a quote, tell me why this is important, make a timeline.
    • Reviews are always in order and are never a waste of time.  Make students apply what they do.  Begin and end the lesson in review.
  • Violations:  Not doing it because you think you don’t have time.

 

Let’s Get Out of this Cave!

It happened some years ago now, but I think it could still happen today.  I started a conversation without defining my terms.  Some teens and I were talking about classical music.  At some point it was clear they were thinking of the Beatles and I had Bach in mind.  Once they understood how I was using the term, two more things became all too clear.  First, they knew very little of orchestral or “classical” music and secondly, they did not wish to do the work necessary to get to know it.  When I played just a little of Bach’s most accessible stuff (his Air on the G string, BWV 1068) they recoiled with distaste.  Just not our thing, Mr. E.  The Beatles were old, but still kinda cool; Bach was dust.

I thought of that moment again recently when talking with teens about Plato’s cave analogy.  I was captivated with the collateral response.  Plato makes it clear that if the guide returned to the cave to free another “slave” he would be killed if they could get their hands on him.  Killed.  For leading men into the light of truth!  Ask Socrates about that kind of thanks.

platos-cave

Our modern word “educate” has as its roots the meaning, “to lead out.”  That is the educational enterprise, according to the word’s root meaning.  I can’t contemplate that well without Plato’s cave coming to the forefront my mind.  My job as teacher is to educate, to lead those enjoying shadows in the cave out into the brilliant light of the truth.  While I can take their hand and lead them, they must follow.  There seem to be many who wish to stay in their chains.  “We are okay with the Beatles, but kindly keep Bach to yourself.”

I came away from my music discussion thinking about this issue of taste.  Lots of questions come to mind.  What is good taste?  Is there something that defines Bach as better than the Beatles?  Who am I to assert that my taste is better than a teen’s?  How do you lead someone toward higher tastes?  What relationship is there between knowledge and taste?  Is it a fair reading of the Cave Analogy to state it involves the improvement or heightening of taste?

Good leading out “converts” the one led.  This much is clear in Plato.  They don’t want back in the cave once they are used to life in the real world.  Their affections have become more rightly ordered.  So there is something that occurs in the heart of the one who leaves the cave.  None in the cave want to leave, but those who do, do not wish to return.  Their tastes have changed.  The teacher is a convert themselves, so if they remember the cave, they should have mercy on those still chained.  I find myself hanging around the door of the cave and thinking about these things.  So few of my students have found their way out into the light.  To some extent this is me.  But I can’t get past the notion that our society has trained the youth to enjoy the video lit dimness of the modern cave.  Come out.

 

Here Is a Big Idea

In my last post I set forth the basic steps involved in what has been called the Mimetic Sequence.  It is the normal means for presenting a student with an idea that they can hopefully grasp to the point of embodying.  In short review, the steps were as follows:

  1. Pre-presentation Stage – the student’s mind is prepared to receive a new idea
  2. Presentation Stage – the idea is presented in types, giving them as least two but hopefully more types to work with
  3. Comparison Stage – the teacher and student compare the types for similarities and dissimilarities.
  4. Explanation Stage – the teacher determines to what degree the student understands the idea by having them put the idea in their own words, either written or oral.
  5. Application Stage – the student seeks to apply the idea to their life.

Much of my teaching experience comes in the Humanities, where the ideas tend to be large and take a lifetime to apply.  But the Mimetic Sequence is relevant to all subjects, at all ages, in all aspects of instruction.  It is integral to moving the student from simple knowledge (knowing facts) to the deeper more permanent mode of understanding the truth revealed by the connection of facts to each other.

So, as promised, let me set out a simple plan for teaching an idea.  I have recently had Juniors in high school consider the idea of prejudice with me through a presentation of the novel by J.F. Cooper, The Deerslayer in English class.  The following were the steps through which we considered this idea.

  1. In our first lesson together, I presented the students with several instances from the news of prejudicial thinking. Some were racially based, some were political or economic.  For the most part, these were things the students knew from their own attention to the news.  We discussed why prejudice is a problem from several angles: logic, socially, politically, religiously.  I then ended the lesson by stating that our class would be reading a novel that dealt at length with the idea of prejudice.
  2. Given the size of the novel, the second stage, that of Presenting, took several weeks. As we read the novel in class, I regularly would point out how every character in the story demonstrated various forms of prejudice, whether it was racial, cultural, or religious.  It helps when the idea being discussed is embodied in the lives of even fictional characters as they are presented (stories are powerful teachers).
  3. Especially as the novel came to a close, we regularly discussed the various character’s virtues and vices, comparing and contrasting their choices. This comparison stage is a very powerful way to distinguish the nuances of an idea.  For instance, the racial prejudice was almost over the top in the novel, but the gender prejudices were more subtle and yet clear.
  4. The student was able to express the idea in two ways. First, they kept a journal throughout the reading in which they voiced their responses to the actions of the characters, explaining in particular how the prejudices of the novel were similar and dissimilar to our own time.  Secondly, they were given a series of essay prompts to write on, most of which revolved around prejudicial thinking.
  5. The last stage of Application will take the student the rest of his life, but even during and right after the novel, class discussion and hallway banter indicated that the idea had been clarified and pressed home to the soul of many of the students. They were seeing the idea more clearly and trying to live differently in light of the truth learned.

The fun of teaching is to creatively take this basic sequence of learning and apply it to all subjects.  Every lesson has an idea, a unifying principle that takes the content and makes it join into the whole of truth.  Seeking those ideas is one of the basic joys of teaching and learning.

But there is a third column…

What is the Big Idea?

This post continues the discourse I began a few posts ago on Adler’s Three Columns of learning.  I am listing all related posts at the bottom of that first post, so it would be the default starting point if you are just joining.

We have already established that acquiring knowledge is the beginning, but the not the end of education.  And it was stated that in acquiring “facts” we naturally yearn to make sense of them, to connect them.  This is the natural progress of Content toward the second column of learning, Ideas.  Ideas connect discreet facts into patterns of meaning called Ideas.  Bringing a student to an idea is perhaps the most significant act of teaching.  We actually don’t wish to bring a student to an idea, as in some sort of tour through an exhibition of “ideas” that are out there, but rather to bring our students to embody the ideas that bring meaning to life.

Ideas are what make education move from the impersonal notion of fact (there is some piece of truth lying over there in the road, or being spoken of in this classroom) to a personal relationship with the truths discovered.  That is the notion of embodying truth; of becoming different because truth is not simply acknowledge, but has become applied to the way in which the student moves in and understands his world to be.

This is much deeper and more difficult education than simple First column learning.  The teacher must follow somewhat of a careful pathway to bring a student to embody an idea.  It does not happen in any singular act, but comes from a series of experiences and engagements with an idea and its content.  The Circe Institute has outlined this pathway, naming it the Mimetic Sequence.  The following is a bald outline of the Sequence.  My next post will exemplify the process for clarity’s sake.

For a student to grasp an idea, the following basic steps must be included in the lesson he is being led through.

Stages Act Notes Move to next stage when…
1

Pre-Presentation Stage

Prepare the students to contemplate the idea by making them aware of what they already know about the idea Moving from known to unknown, building on last thing studied, why is this being studied, what is the compelling question The student is attentive to the idea
2

Presentation Stage

Present Types of the idea Finding at least two, preferably more types of the idea, especially helpful are opposites The student has seen at least two but hopefully more clear types of the idea
3

Comparison Stage

Compare the types with each other Teacher and student should converse about the things that are similar and disimilar and how they all reveal the idea Enough types have been compared to hopefully bring about an “ah ha” moment
4

Explanation Stage

Ask the student to express the idea in their own words This can be oral or written, or even through models or artifacts The student can clearly express the idea; if they can’t go back to Stage 2 or 3
5

Application Stage

Have student use or apply the idea    

In my next post will take these steps and show how they would look in a specific lesson on a given idea.

 

Contents Under Pressure

I introduced this blog in my last blog.  There I set out the three columns from M.J. Adler’s Paideia Proposal in a general way.  I now take up the first and most basic of those columns: Content.  It fascinates me how often I meet folks who think this is the sum total of what education should be.  “Just the facts” folks are like Professor Gradgrind from Dicken’s Hard Times.  “Now, what I want is, Facts. . . . Facts alone are wanted in life.”  That is from Chapter 1 of that inimitable book and should be read by anyone who loves good learning to see what it is not.  Dickens saw in his own day what we now see in spades.  People confuse learning with trivia.  But let us organize ourselves here, and stop giving you the Dickens.

In the chart from the previous post the following information was conveyed about this first column:

Column Content
Goal Acquiring organized knowledge
Means Questioning

Lecture

Texts

Conversation

Classical Trivium Grammar

Content is about knowledge, but it in particular concerned with the organizing of that knowledge.  Students do not need facts from a fire hose, but rather the restful, leisurely ingestion of the important knowledge necessary to any given study.  The means mentioned above are all appropriate, and should all be used.  Note that in many classrooms, the last (conversation) is often foregone for the sake of the “lesson” which is again adjusted something akin to that of a fire hose at full force.  Instead of gaining content in an integrated and restful way, here is what I have seen.

The questions are rapid fire and mainly divided between right and wrong, or “how did you feel about” this.  Lectures are, especially in our day, but even back when I attended the local cave school, boring.  One mind is listening to another.  I will come back to this in a moment.  And then there are the texts.  Today, almost without exception, this is translated out of the original into “textbooks.”  They are books, and they do have text, lots of it, but again, in being made to be easily accessible, they have become boring.  And I have already suggested that conversation is absent from most learning environments today.

crowd-laughing

Students must be engaged in Column One: Content learning.  You can’t develop skills or ideas (the other two columns) without any knowledge.  Scripture is clear that knowledge launches the life-long pursuit of truth (Proverbs 2:6).  But is supposed to lead on to understanding and wisdom.  So the knowledge being taught must be well ordered, and we must not confuse ourselves into thinking that such knowledge transference becomes the sum total of education.

We should ask questions of our students that drive them toward finding the knowledge a given scientia requires.  We should use questioning to reveal their lack of knowledge.  We should constantly expand their world by using questions to reveal the wide boundaries of a given subject.

Lecture, the direct communication of ordered knowledge through a prepared talk, is a legitimate teaching exercise.  But, but, but it should not be our go-to or fall-back mode.  Knowledge delivered in this manner can quickly overwhelm the student, burying their mind in so many facts that they don’t have time to consider all they are “learning” and thus often they are gathering trivia for the next test rather than actually bringing knowledge into their lives.

The use of texts to teach knowledge is basic and historically without doubt the most common form of presenting knowledge to a student’s mind.  But the text should be eloquent.  It should be beautiful.  It should spark their imagination and wonder. The modern use of call outs and pictures and graphics and such is not necessarily bad, but it can be a distraction.  The point of a text is again to bring order to the “facts” being presented.  Too much extra “stuff” leads the student in too many directions at once.

The most fundamental form of knowledge acquisition known to man is almost absent in our factory oriented schools.  Modern education does not have the time it takes to have a good honest time consuming conversation.  Teachers who love the rabbit trail, and who allow things to go off the tracks are viewed with disdain.  After all, there is an end of grade test to be taken and everyone must be focused on getting those scores up.  A teacher and students taking the time to bring lecture, questions, and text all together into a rambling conversation just seems inefficient.  And it is, if the test is the thing.  But it the only way I know to know that the lecture, text, and questions have resulted in real learning, not crammed information.  And conversation begins bringing the other two columns into the class as well.

I will continue soon.

The Classroom of Clarice

Analogical thinking is often clarifying for me.  You can tell me a theory and it goes right by me, but if you show that theory in motion, give me a story or a metaphor, some analogous way of seeing the theory, I usually catch it.  I find a great deal of help in examining education as it is portrayed in stories, whether through text or film.  That is the basis for this short meditation from the film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

If you are not familiar with the plot, one psychopath (a cannibalistic murderer named Hannibal Lector) is used by a young FBI agent (Clarice) to gain understanding of another killer.  Clarice meets with Lector on several occasions, and if you put aside the horrific trappings of a maximum security prison, it becomes by the direction of Lector a classroom wherein he seeks to teach Clarice in something of a Socratic manner.

anthony_clarice_cell-e1337267265145

Lector is a trained psychologist.  He is bored.  So he decides that rather than just answer Clarice’s questions, he is going to analyze her and the unnamed subject of her investigations together.  He gives her a clue about the killer in exchange for some piece of personal information from her.  He reveals to my eye several important aspects of good education.

Indirectly Teaching:  If, as David Hick’s writes in Norms and Nobility, we should “never teach a student what they can learn for themselves,” then analogical learning is paramount.  Lector does not just “give” Clarice what she is looking for, he makes her figure it out.  A good teacher is not obtuse, or obfuscated, or inordinately difficult just to be difficult, but perhaps better described as coy.  “I know the answers, because I know the material.  But I want you to learn the material by figuring it out, not simply benefiting from my knowledge.”

It is never business, it is always personal: The best teacher walks a thin line between co-learner, authority, and tutor.  Purely authoritarian “instruction” (or perhaps a dysfunctional form of the lecture it could be called) typically results in impermanent learning.  The students receives, shows he has received, and then forgets.  There must be a commonality and an otherness in place for the relationship to work.  I think this is one of the most artful aspects of educating rightly.

There are norms:  In the movie, Hannibal has a sense of normative rightness.  Certain things just simply must be.  Clarice is not allowed to deny these norms.  Our modern sense of what constitutes education has left this idea behind as old and outdated.  Hicks says it best:  “The abandonment of the normative question for the operational – ought for can – was predictable.  Since the Enlightenment, education has developed an acute case of schizophrenia.  Its antipathetic selves have fought over the question of man’s identity, the old self asserting a knowledge of man derived from the transcendent ideas and inherited truths of religion, art, and letters, and the new self insisting that man can know himself only by examining the composition of the material universe and drawing his inferences from that.” (p. 8)  Clarice wants to catch the killer; Hannibal wants her to figure him out, to understand him.

Knowledge is nothing without wisdom:  Ideas lead to action.  Hannibal is keenly aware and wants Clarice to see that the unsub’s actions are connected to his vision of the world, warped though it may be.  We are led in watching the film to extrapolate out from this lesson a contemplation of what kind of thoughts would be behind the horrific behavior displayed by Hannibal himself.  Knowledge should not be a path to power, but a road to truth.  We should not bend knowledge to our desires, but our desires to the truth.

There is more there, but modern blogs should not be long, so…