We have just finished a unit on the Presidency.  
A.  Draft a question that would require a student to demonstrate a deep and reasonably complete understanding of the functioning of the Presidency in the modern world, with respect to separation of powers and checks and balances.  It should be answerable with real world examples that we may have covered in the unit or of which the student may have independent knowledge.

B.  Now answer that question.

C.  Now, having answered the question, evaluate how well it required you to demonstrate your understanding, what skills it required you to apply, and what it did not require you to do.

D.  Now evaluate your response in part C.

That was a real-world assignment for my Advanced Placement students, which I just finished reading and "grading."  

This was something of an experiment.  In my diary yesterday, Teaching 2030: an important book on teaching by teachers, I mentioned that having participated in the online discussions that led up to the book, I appeared in it three times.  Once was as a result of a discussion of alternative ways of assessing other than the traditional tests, including teacher-prepared essays.  This was, in a very slightly different form, my contribution to that discussion, and it appeared in the book.   I decided to take the risk of using it for my 112 AP students.

They were given the assignment a week ago Wednesday, and it was due this Friday.  That gave them a chance to ponder the assignment, and then ask me questions about it.  They needed the dialog.

The intent of the assignment was far from simple.  First, I wanted them to experience the difficulty of properly framing a question that could both be answerable in a 45 minute period, and yet reasonably assess the knowledge and understanding a student should have of the material.  Next, I wanted them to begin to experience metacognition - thinking about their own thinking.  You will note the exercise has two levels of reflection.  The first level of reflection is to examine their own response to the question, and consider the experience of answering it.  That was actually not that difficult.

The heart of the assignment is part D, the reflection on the reflection, in which they were allowed to reflect on the entire process.

I told them if they did it seriously I was not concerned with how well or accurately they answered the question in part B, and that since this was the first time I had asked them to do something like this, they would have an A - this was a learning experience.  Not all got As.  About 15% of the students formed questions that did not stay within the bounds of Part A -  some phrased questions comparing presidential power to that of a Prime Minister in a Parliamentary System - that could work, provided one still addressed the issues of separation of powers and checks and balances.  All but one of those that did that particular comparison failed on that point, and thus lowered themselves to a B.  So did the student whose paper focused on the functioning of the electoral college.  

Some students asked what the modern world meant, and I said that any of the last four presidents would qualify.  Two students wrote about Nixon, one in terms of the development of the War Powers Act and how it has functioned since - that was within the bounds of the question.  The other wrote about the impeachment process, and only partially stayed within the bounds, addressing checks and balances but not separation of powers.  However, that students recognized that in the two reflections.

These are largely sophomores, ranging in age from 14 to 16, with two juniors and two seniors out of the 112 currently on my roles.   This required them to move very much out of their comfort zones.  Many are not used to critiquing their own work, and struggled some on Part C.  Very few have had the experience of the kind of metacognition required for Part D.  

And yet, a strong majority were reasonably honest about Part C.  Some who were not as blunt as they should have been, recognized that in Part D, and talked about why.

This was the exciting part of reading/grading -  seeing what students produced when asked to reflect upon their own reflection.  Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

One student talked about the fear of being wrong, so that s/he deliberately constructed a question in A that s/he knew she could answer in B.   S/he suggested that in the future we might try having each student make up a question, but then answer a question prepared by another student.   That's an interesting suggestion, although I have some concerns about the inequity that might be experienced by the quality of question one might receive through such a process.   I am thinking instead of having each student make up a question as a homework assignment, have the assignment answered in class by another student, who would then reflect on the quality of the question as a homework assignment, then the original student would have to take the answer and reflection and do the equivalent of Part D.   There are some mechanical issues, but it is doable.  The problem is, we have already lost 3 days to snow, so I do not know if I can do that before the AP exam, but I might well do it in the 6 weeks of school afterward.

Several students were quite honest about how they approach their work.  One brilliant student who tends to depend upon quickness and quantity of words to address questions acknowledged that s/he is very disorganized and that as a result s/he sometimes does not focus thinking -  recognition is the first step to addressing the problem.  Another commented on how this may have been the most challenging assignment s/he has done in any course this year - s/he discussed in detail the ways s/he had been stretched by the process.

A number of students acknowledged how hard it was to craft an appropriate question. Many commented in C that in answering the question they discovered how much it did NOT ask them, or that it did not require them to go beyond merely recapitulating facts.

I take risks as a teacher.  One reason I decided to do this exercise is that I saw too many students unwilling themselves to take intellectual risks.  It is only through challenging themselves to the point where they don't already know and understand that they begin to both deepen and broaden understanding, insight, knowledge, and skill.  It is far more important that I help them learn how to do that on their own than that I assess for a grade how well they can give back the content of any particular unit.

I will have a debrief on the exercise in class, for perhaps 15 minutes of a period, albeit not on Monday -  I still have several students who were out who need to turn in their work without being affected by the debrief.  

My own sense is that I need to find ways of working on metacognition and awareness for all my students, beginning far earlier in the year, and not just as a one-time exercise.  That will require me to rethinking completely my AP syllabus, not as to content, but as to delivery, both in what I do and in what I require them to do.  

This is a major part of teaching.  It is not just opening up skulls and pouring in knowledge, as the image from "Waiting for Superman" would have you believe.  It is in reaching out to students, challenging them, the teacher modifying what s/he does according to what the students demonstrate that they can do.

One thing very satisfying for me was the performance of one young lady, R__.   She has struggled all year.  She does not do well with multiple choice questions because she tends to overthink them.  The kind of writing she needs to do for the AP exam is painful for her, because she wants to write a proper essay, and spends too much time trying to craft a proper topic sentence.  The task here was to create an essay question.  In the process of doing this assignment R__ was, in her reflection, able to identify why she struggles on the other written test questions.  In her answers I could see not only a self-recognition, but a growth in confidence - now that she understands she feels it is within her power to make adjustments.

She was not the only one to comment about the implications of the recognitions coming from this experience.  For those students, the experience can potentially make them far more confident in challenging themselves, and far more effective in how they work.

It was not a great week in school, although we finally persuaded our administration of the need to do hall sweeps, and we finally have the vast majority of kids making sure they get to class on time.   There were things I tried that did not work as well as I wanted.  

Overall, I am pleased.  I took a risk, and asked my students to take a risk.  Most of them trusted me enough to do so.  As a result, we all learned from the experience.   With what they shared, particularly in Part D, I have some important information that can help make me a better teacher for them.   That is where the focus has to be for me:  where are they, how do I reach them, how do I help them move to a place that will enable them to grow in confidence, knowledge and skill?

By the way, only one student got a grade of less than B.  He rushed through the exercise with no care and no effort.   I could have failed him.  I think his realizing that out of more than 100 students he was the only one who got less than a B is sufficient, and I do not want to crush him -  but he is on notice that he must take responsibility for his work.  I may not be successful in reaching him, but then, students have to take some responsibility for themselves.

The exciting thing is how many did, which is why the five hours it took to read through and respond to the papers was time well spent.  

Welcome to my world, welcome to part of what it means to be a teacher.  


Originally posted to teacherken on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 03:58 AM PST.

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