Monday, January 18, 2016

This Is What I Meant

In the years before Harkness, I used to have the students write a weekly journal.  It was completely free-form, but was to focus on what we had covered during the week, commenting on what the students felt comfortable with and with what they were still struggling.  The purpose from my standpoint was to obtain a different point of view than I was able to get from my position lecturing in front of the classroom, and in this regard the journals worked really well, as I not only got information about the math but also about other aspects of their lives, such as band practice, volleyball matches, or student government activities.  Most students followed the directions, and briefly reflected on the week, and while I was getting additional information from the journals, it never really seemed to be having the impact on the students I was intending. 

Once I switched over to Harkness, the journals disappeared.  Since I was talking with the kids every day, I was already receiving the extra information the journals had previously provided, and since the impact the journals were having on the students was negligible, I decided not to waste their time in writing them (nor mine in reading them).

However, a lot of what I’ve been reading lately has emphasized student reflection, and since one of the aspects of going gradeless is to have the students be part of the assessment process, I decided to have the students fill out a weekly form on Google Classroom, asking them to rank their understanding of the skills we are covering in the current unit (based on mastery, not A,B,C,…) and to give either evidence of their learning or their plan for the upcoming week to make progress toward learning the material.  In most cases the kids have been very honest with themselves, seeing in the evidence they have provided how thoroughly they understand a particular topic, and in the lack of evidence where they need to place a little more effort.

This is what I had in mind all along.  This is what I had wanted the journals to be: meaningful reflection that guides student learning.  Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t explicitly name which skills we were working on, taking it for granted that the kids knew.  Maybe it was the more free-form format.  Maybe it was that I didn’t explicitly ask the kids to “grade” themselves.  Whatever it was, I honestly don’t care right now.  The new format is working for the kids that are taking advantage of it.  Since it doesn’t “count for points” (nothing does in the gradeless format), some of the kids are not filling out the form.  However, the kids that are filling out the form seem to be more focused in class and are providing higher quality evidence in their online portfolios than those who aren’t.

I’m going to mention all of this to the kids in class tomorrow, so we’ll see if the participation increases next week.  But for now, I’m just glad to see that for those taking advantage of the opportunity, the reflections are working.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jonothon,
    One of my professors in graduate school, Karen Brennan (who also uses a grade-less format), assigned readings each week and required that we post a reflection on them. The assignment was:

    "Write a memo in response to the readings and post it... The memo should respond to two questions:

    1. What's a "big idea" of this week’s readings? Be concrete, with references to the texts. Please don't just summarize; think about interpreting the texts.

    2. How might you make use of this “big idea” in practice? Move from the abstractness of this big idea to the concreteness of "practice" -- whatever practice might entail for you. Please feel free to constructively criticize the views put forth in the texts. This isn't about agreeing with all of the ideas; it's about productively playing with them."

    I believe that I recalled more, and had more of my own critical thoughts, about the readings in Karen's course than readings assigned for perhaps any other courses I've taken. I had to do the readings, and read carefully, in order to complete the reflection. The reflections required active reading and re-reading and significant thought, but I didn't procrastinate or avoid the work in a way I might of for a class in which it was graded, because there was little stress associated with doing the ungraded (but required) work--I wasn't worried about my "performance."

    So, I agree that reflection plays a significant role in learning.

    I tweeted at you today, I am working on a project to understand and disseminate the Harkness method/philosophy to public schools. Would love to have your thoughts. I believe we can direct message each other if you follow me on Twitter.