Thursday, July 23, 2015

Challenging Assumptions: A Post Flipcon15 Reflection

John Armato // Flickr
The last few years of teaching has forced me to challenge normal assumptions about teaching and learning. I’ve done a great deal to test these assumptions, whether through my work on flipped learning and standards based grading. This year’s FlipCon showed me that there is still much work to be done.

The great Paul Andersen of Bozeman Science gave a wonderful keynote and workshop on the first day. I must digress for an interesting observation; Paul Andersen’s Blended Learning Cycles are similar to my Mastery Learning Cycles. At first, I thought I may have unconsciously borrowed from something I read or watched about his course. But I soon realized that we had similar inspiration. We were both inspired by the mastery flip class movement, as well as Ramsey Musallam’s criticism of mastery. Ramsey, another flipped educators, argued that inquiry should play a large role in science instruction; therefore, exploration should happen before direct instruction from video - hence the creation of flipped learning cycles. A second similarity between our models is the mandated small group or one-on-one discussions with students after the first year of experimenting with our flipped learning cycles. Both Paul and I experienced a disconnect from the learning of our students when we incorporated asynchronous learning in our respective courses. We both saw the need to fix our courses by putting us back into our courses. 

This is where Paul’s insights have helped me going forward. He advocated the use of design thinking in education. He bluntly, and correctly, argued that teachers need to accept responsibility for fixing issues in our courses. If the class is not working, it is most likely the teacher who is the issue. Just as Paul and I identified and responded to a major issue after year one of our flipped learning cycle, teachers need to redesign their courses to address problems. Whenever something is not working in my course in the future, I will remember Paul’ challenge to use design thinking to fix it.

Kate Baker and Lindsay Cole led an engaging discussion about grading practices during their presentation. It dovetailed with my presentation with Amanda Meyer about standard based grading. Both sessions touched on assumptions about grading practices. I was pleased to see that there is an appetite in the flipped learning community to rethink what we grade, how we grade and the purpose of grading. In the polls conducted by Lindsay and Kate, a majority of the teachers were in favor of flexible due dates and allowing students to redo work. Even though I consider myself progressive about grading, I am still trying to figure out how to discourage students from taking advantage of my willingness to make accommodations. Specifically, Aaron Sams raised the question of making students feel the sting of procrastination without contaminating the grade, which should reflect learning.

The final workshop I attended was also led by Lindsay Cole. She discussed the use of student generated content. She advocated letting students teach other students through the creation of content. Lindsay made an important distinction between student projects and content. Projects typically cover content already covered and are typically made for the benefit of the teacher to evaluate the learning. On the other hand, student generated content is generated for the purpose of teaching other classmates. Of course, projects are typically shared with classmates during presentations but student generated content is intended to actually teach or cover the content of the course. This topic is of great interest to me. Some of my students who strive for level 4 on some learning targets create similar projects that I use for remediation for other students. Lindsay’s presentation showed me that I haven’t pushed the envelope enough. Rather than relegating the student mastery artifacts to the remediation library, these projects can be the main vehicle for teaching the content. I do wonder if students, especially middle school ones, will be able to internalize the content while creating the projects and whether the audience will effectively learn the content. The final obstacle is Lindsay's structure seems more consistent with synchronous rather than asynchronous courses. However, I am encouraged by Paul Andersen’s challenge, I’ll have to redesign the course such that student generated content is a viable option - moving to synchronous learning for certain units and having student groups initially learn from learning cycles before teaching to other students are ideas that come to mind.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Looking Back on My Second Year of Asynchronous Learning

Due to specific issues in asynchronous learning last year, I started the year by scaffolding mastery. The scaffolding seemed to help students learn the organization of the course before attempting the challenge of asynchronous learning. This year, students were closer together at the end of the year, than in the previous year. While most students were successful, the students who lacked motivation and follow-through continued to struggle.

The most frequent piece of advice my students left for next year's students have to do with keeping up in an asynchronous class. To help students stay afloat, I will mandate cumulative exams. I hope the exams will act as deadlines without completely taking away independence, which many of my students valued. The added benefits of cumulative exams is preparation for final exams and it provides more data for me to evaluate student progress on learning targets.

I tried differentiating the final exam with three versions based on percent of the content covered: 90%, 97% and 100%. After some protests from students, I let students choose which final to take rather than mandating the version. The overwhelming majority opted for the most difficult exam and averaged a "B+." Unfortunately, the students who opted for the lower exams performed poorly, with only one student earning a respectable "B." Aside from a few marginal passes and the lone "B", the handful of students who opted for the less rigorous finals failed. I wonder if announcing there will be different finals altered the study ritual for struggling students. In addition, all but one of the struggling students worked from behind and used a lot of effort in the final weeks to play catch up, rather than prepare for the final. Another confounder is these students also failed other final exams.

Earlier in the year, I missed the synchronous discussions of past years like Socratic Seminars. Perhaps along the way, I got use to doing without them but I no longer see them as a great loss. If I'm being completely honest with myself, these discussions weren't as transformative and powerful as I know they are in some other courses. At this point, offloading these discussions to online forums in the engagement segment at the beginning of learning cycles, seem to be an appropriate decision.

I do, however, need to refocus on offering some synchronous activities like formative assessments to build a sense of community and maximize opportunities for students to collaborate and help peers. In an asynchronous class, group member choice is limited to the students working on the same step. Including more of these synchronous assessments and learning opportunities, students can collaborate with new group members.

The asynchronous debate is still the biggest source of concern and pride. In the exit surveys, many students cited the independence as their favorite part of the course, while roughly the same number cited it as the most challenging aspect of the course. Right now, I plan to continue running an asynchronous course, not only for reasons cited in previous blog posts but because so many students never have to opportunity to learn how to work independently, set priorities and manage their time. These skills are needed by adults but are infrequently developed in primary and secondary schools. I'll continue to fight the good fight...