When I started my current position one of the projects being worked on was a redesign of the district science fair. It seemed everyone was frustrated with the status quo- a collection of cardboard tri-folds and volcano models. Not much had changed in decades, and no one felt it was a good example of what our kids are capable of. An emphasis seemed to be placed on quantity over quality. I joined the team and we all started coming up with ideas of what an engaging science fair could look like. We took a field trip to the Google Science Fair in Mountain View, CA. It was amazing. It was what we want our kids to do.
To get rid of the cardboard tri-folds we need to change the mindset, so we started with the name. Everyone knew what to do for the “old” science fair: the same thing they did last year and the year before. So the Science Fair became the Science and Engineering Expo. No one knew what to do- they had never heard of one! Including us. We needed to figure this out. We would have a number of “events.” The science exploration event would consist of individuals or teams of students (depending on age) presenting their science exploration, similar to what we saw in Mountain View. Kids would submit a digital presentation rather than the traditional cardboard product. They would then bring artifacts of their project, and present to judges and whoever else happened to be there to watch.
We built the day around 4 sessions, each with up to 10 presentations. The young scientists would come in and set up their work in a relaxed, casual atmosphere, and deliver their presentations to judges and whoever else happened by and was interested. Each student repeated their presentation 3 or 4 times, each time to a different audience. Then, after an hour or so, those students would pack up and the next group would come in. It was fun to watch the students revise and improve their presentations with each retelling. Even in their final presentation they were refining their learning. It was amazing.
In addition to the science presentations, we had a Minecraft challenge, our first ever Vex Robotics demonstration, and even a paper airplane competition. One of the comprehensive high schools sent a student video crew to record the day. It was fun to see these kids interact with the competitors. Just like the world of work! And another school had their CTE kids use a laser cutter to make awesome awards!
It was a huge success. The kids were amazing. The projects were wonderful. There was only one cardboard trifold, and it disappeared quickly! Kids talked about their learning, and it was genuine learning, not memorized stuff, or stuff copied from a book! Mission accomplished! In the words of one of the judges, “This was amazing. It was a science teacher’s dream. I am so glad I participated!” Or the words of one of the younger scientists “This is the best day in my whole life!” OK, she is only 8, but still.
Yesterday we held our annual SkillsUSA Regional Competition. For those that don’t know, SkillsUSA is a national student led career and technical organization. Students compete in career or leadership related events. Welding students, for example, are presented with materials and drawings and asked to produce the piece depicted in the drawing. Leadership students might present their student designed and implemented community service project. It is, I believe, a fantastic way to assess what students are learning in the classroom. Which brings me to the point of my blogpost this morning.
The Washington Post this morning ran a story by Valerie Strauss called “How we teach kids to cheat on tests.” The story does a pretty good job of summarizing what happens when we put too much importance on the test score, or the quiz score.
This morning Daniel Ching @danielpching published a blog post “The importance of process” in which he talks about the importance of providing feedback throughout the process of learning, and grading that process. Too often we educators put all of the grade on the final test, and the students loose out as a result.
So lets go back to the SkillsUSA event yesterday. I was asked to run the Quiz Bowl event. This is sort of a “Jeopardy” type event where students, working in teams of 5, are asked a variety of questions. Questions include basic math, geometry, science, world and national politics, current events, and career related questions. It was fascinating for me to watch how students solved problems. Yea there were obscure questions where everyone in the room threw up there hands and said “whats a minority whip?” They were 10th and 11th graders after all. But for other questions it was interesting to me to watch the students break off into twos and threes and come up with their own answers, talk their way through the questions, and come to an agreement on the answer. I could easily see strengths and weaknesses for each student. More importantly the students could see their own strengths and weaknesses. They were arguing for their answers, and providing evidence to support those answers.
I learned much more about what these students knew by standing in the room and listening to them talk to each other than I ever would learn from the results of a test. Just as I learn more about what my students know by listening to them as they prepare for their presentations.
My students typically participate in the Career Pathways Showcase. In this event they prepare a presentation where they demonstrate what they have learned. On Friday a group of students was preparing their presentation and one of them said “We should bring the books we read as evidence of our learning. We could talk about the books.” Another group decided to bring a stack of their mistakes, and talk about what they learned from them. I didn’t tell them to do these things, they decided it was the best way to demonstrate their learning.
I think these SkillsUSA events are much better assessments of student learning than any test. So no, there is not going to be a quiz on this on Friday.
I have committed this year to do a better job of providing timely feedback for my students. I know that timely feedback is what makes or breaks a learning experience. When I was a child learning to ride a bike, I knew immediately when I made a mistake. I knew because I crashed and it hurt. I knew when I was doing it right because I didn’t crash, and it was fun. When I read about using games in the classroom I find that they are valuable because the feedback is immediate; the student doesn’t need to wait to get their paper back to see how they did. They know right away; they got points, they lost points, or they got game over. And that, so the theory goes, is why games are so engaging.
The problem is the classes I have are not games. Or at least I haven’t figured out yet how to make them games. (Maybe I should learn to code…hmm.) I still am having kids “do things” and turn them in. And that is where the catch is. Right now there are 76 “things” in my cue awaiting feedback, or as my kids prefer, waiting to be graded. Some of those things are videos, some images, some websites, some short essays. To make the problem worse, I don’t penalize for late work (why I do this is another post) and students can redo work as many times as they like to get the grade they want. All this makes my inbox a mess. Some of the work is new and timely, other pieces are things that a student didn’t turn in a couple weeks ago, and still others are things I have already seen a time or two before.
So my challenge today is to figure out a way to tame the inbox so that kids get their feedback no later than the next day. They need to know when they are doing well and when they fall off the bike.