Tag Archives: race to nowhere

SBG to Nowhere?

(Some readers may need to click through to view embedded videos.)

Warning: I make no attempt to present a coherent and tidy post. I’m just thinkin’ through some thoughts that I’ve been wrestling with over the last few days. And those thoughts got a big kick in the rear yesterday after our entire high school faculty watched Race to Nowhere. The movie hit home because the overwhelming majority of the students at my school are under the stress to perform and acheive academically just like the students profiled in the documentary.

I want to focus on learning rather than grades. SBG has taken me a long way toward this goal. But, having done some version of SBG for several years now, I am left wondering: Are students now just playing a new game? Instead of racking up points, aren’t they now racking up learning targets? Has my SBG system simply helped my students become better runners in the race to nowhere?

What is at the finish line that I want my students to reach? My course syllabus says:

This course utilizes guided inquiry and student-centered learning to foster the development of critical thinking skills. It aims to help you become: 

• A Collaborative Learner — You will complete cognitive and hands-on physics assignments in cooperative student groups. You will acknowledge and fulfill your responsibility to the group and actively contribute.

• A Self-Directed Learner — You will develop and demonstrate initiative and responsibility by always trying to complete tasks when faced with challenges. You will problem solve independently and create new solutions.

• An Effective Communicator — You will develop graphical, mathematical, verbal, and diagrammatical representations of the phenomenon being studied. You will present ideas to your peers and ask productive questions of your peers and of yourself, helping you to become a better thinker and problem solver.

• An Analytical Thinker — You will use observation, experience, reasoning, and communication in order to gather, interpret, and evaluate information and abstract concepts. You will utilize and apply these concepts in a variety of new and meaningful contexts.

This expectation doesn’t align very well with the “learn-quiz-reassess” version of SBG that I’ve been using. My students are racing to an empty finish line. This realization has me asking lots of questions about my assessment and instruction.

What does it mean to demonstrate mastery? Should I expect my students to become physics masters by the end of the year? Should they be able to solve problems and design experiments blindfolded while standing on one foot with the same ease and finesse as their teacher who has been doing this for 13 years? Hell, I needed to reference my own notes today about the second-order differential equation for the motion of a mass-spring system. Which leads to my next question:

Should students be allowed to use their notes on my assessments? I ask my students to do all their problem solving, lab analysis, and general notetaking in their physics journals. I make them use colored pens to color-coordinate their diagrams and graphs. They are curating the artifacts of their learning in these notebooks, but I ask them to put them away for quizzes and tests.  Am I worried that students could just transpose a homework problem onto a test problem? If that is possible, then I must be asking the wrong questions. Am I worried that allowing open notebooks would make the quiz meaningless? But aren’t most “real world” assessments “open notes?” Which leads to my next question:

Should students be allowed to work in small groups on assessments? I want my students to solve problems which force them to stretch their thinking. I want my assessment to be just as much a learning experience as any other group activity we do in class. Recent research shows that collaboration beats smarts in group problem solving. I want to give students the satisfaction of solving challenging problems, even if they can’t do it alone. And aren’t most “real world” assessments really group assessments? Which leads to my next question:

Should portfolios replace formal exams? Can a portfolio of work show evidence of learning just as well as a test? A portfolio would allow  students to display a wider array of skills (like those listed above on my syllabus) which go beyond mastery of content. Haven’t the physics students in the “Mythbusters” videos below demonstrated they’ve learned physics (and obviously much more) without taking a single exam?

I do not claim to have the answers to these questions. But, as a teacher who values learning and risk taking above all else, I must explore the possibilities. Today, I allowed my college-prep students to use their notebooks on their quiz. I am going to try to implement the “Mythbuster” model seen in the video with my conceptual physics students. I will allow for more group work to be used as evidence of learning.

I am not abandoning SBG. I need to take it to the next level. Learning goals are still needed so we have direction. But how we get there will be different.

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