Friday, May 18, 2012

The Quest for Quality

As this school year winds down, I'm reflecting on the big picture with thoughts of next year. One issue that I would like to bring to the level of discussion is the issue of quality student work. What constitutes quality for each individual student? How do we inspire it? How do we help students internalize it?
As a total aside: If you've read the classic "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (which I admit was a LONG time ago for me) it is largely about the quest to define the elusive nature of  what is "good" or "quality." In fact, the character Phaedrus, a teacher, becomes so obsessed with the question of quality that it drives him insane. :-)
In old-style school assignments- worksheets and tests- quality is not an issue. There is a right answer; either you have it or you don't. I think that, in many ways, this is one of the hardest things for teachers to let go. This type of feedback (percentage of correct answers) feels objective and secure, whereas assessing work that is meaningful, personal, creative and ongoing is more subjective and brings up uncertainty about the "grade"  (a concept which still carries much importance in our school and most others). 
Because I have been working with students on technology-rich projects, I have struggled with this concept for a long time, and I have some ideas, but no real answers. I love that I don't have to give a grade. It makes everything easier. However, some students need the motivation of a grade in order to perform. 
The book that has helped my thinking the most is "An Ethic of Excellence- Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students" by Ron Berger. I reference this book often and highly recommend it. It is an older book with no mention of educational technology. However, the principles that Berger used in his classroom to inspire students to internalize and strive for quality work, are very applicable to the type of shift that technology is mandating for all classrooms. 
The four principles are:
The overarching support for excellence in the classroom is a school wide culture of excellence. Students need to be helped to develop the habits of mind necessary for producing quality work. Like so many habits, it is not enough for students to be exposed during one school year. Structures need to be in place school wide in order for lasting change, learning and growth to take hold. 
The antithesis of this is the "I'm done" culture where students work in order to be "done." It's an emphasis on coverage and quantity, as opposed to depth and quality. I sometimes feel stuck here, and I've had a lot of individual discussions with teachers about how to overcome this. 

Some questions:
How do we create a school culture of excellence?
What external structures can support students' understanding and internalization of quality work?
How do we help students develop internal motivation to put forth the necessary effort to do high quality work?
Do we give our students enough time to do good work?
Can more integration between subjects and collaboration between teachers facilitate better student work?

A couple of thoughts:
As usual, I have more questions than answers. This is a topic that seems to arise in almost every post-planning/reflective conversation I have with teachers. I have tried several strategies to support student work, but I haven't found that magic bullet that leads to consistent quality. This is one area that I would like to devote to action-research: how I, as a "coach" can be helpful to teachers. 
  • Work that matters: How do we make the work meaningful without compromising curricular goals? Remember the Alan November TED Talk and the "digital learning farm?" School can't be a place where we park kids for the day until their real life begins. It is a delicate balance, though, between letting kids do only what they want and finding ways to bring new ideas to life. I have a vision that blogfolios will facilitate more meaningful work by providing a platform for students to publish and share their creations. 
  • Examples of excellence: Examples of excellence are key. Searching for and cataloging examples of excellence representing a variety of "products" at different developmental levels is one service that I can offer to teachers. As our students create more works, their excellent work will become part of our collection of examples. This may, potentially serve as a motivational tool. As part of the preparation for an activity, students should actively analyze and evaluate work samples of formats similar to what they might be producing.  
  • Public presentation: My vision is for our student blogfolios to provide a platform for public presentation of all work, as well as a document of each student's unique growth.  I am convinced of the importance of this piece; however, I don't think it is as simple as publish it online and get your "authentic audience." Although this is a nice idea in theory, it is harder than tweeting a link with #comments4kids. Students who want interaction, comments or an interested audience, really have to produce something worthy of interest. In the meantime, I think we need to continue to build the infrastructure and facilitate academic connections between students and teachers, students and parents, students and "subject-matter mentors," students and other students, etc. 
  • Critique: This is the one that I haven't figured out at all. How do we incorporate meaningful critique into our learning process? Ron Berger had real-world experts regularly provide critique to his students. For example, if they did an architecture project, he had an architect come in to the classroom and provide feedback to students. He also had students help one another in this way. I think this would be an example of where school wide structures could help support the process. For example, if students started with formal critiques in the lower grades, they would become used to this part of the process. I would like to spend more time next year learning about "critique" as part of the formal learning feedback loop. Is anyone interested in working on this with me?
  • Rubrics: Rubrics can play a role in giving students guidelines for what is expected. I know that a lot of teachers use rubrics with varying degrees of success. One interesting use of rubrics I witnessed this year was with Stephanie's 4th graders' use of blogging and commenting rubrics to assess their own and others' blog posts and comments. The more detailed and focused the rubric, the more helpful it can potentially be. For example, I knew a teacher who used a rubric for multimedia projects that had, as one of the criteria, that each slide contained original artwork with no white space. It sounds overly detailed, but her students artwork was some of the best I have seen. They took extra care because they didn't want to lose points on the rubric for leaving white space. Helping teachers create and use rubrics to support quality, might be another example of how, as a coach, I can support teachers. 
  • Types of work products, reflections, blogfolios: If a student chooses a test or worksheet with a 100% grade as a "best work sample" and their reflection is something to the effect of, "I know this is an example of my best work because I got a good grade" that is assessment of sorts, for us as teachers. If our goal is to foster independence and internal motivation, we have to find other ways of presenting findings about learning than just grades and test scores. This is another huge area of debate. I hear, quite frequently, that teachers feel that they are not preparing students for the future if they do not give tests and grades for every unit of work. I am interested in putting these theories to the test as well. I would love to set up an experiment where we assess students in a variety of ways to find out if and how assessment impacts learning. Any takers?
Or maybe I'm looking at it all wrong...
After I started writing this post, I remembered this blog post, Fail Forward, Move Forward, by Vicki Davis.
John Maxwell in his book Attitude 101 quotes a story from two artists David Bayles and Ted Orland about an art teacher who did an experiment with his grading system.

The ceramics teacher told the left half of the room that they would just be graded on the quantity of what they produced. If they had fifty pounds of pots on the last day, they'd get an "A," forty would get a "B" and so forth.

The right half of the room would be graded on "quality" and "needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A."

An interesting thing happened when it was time to grade.  The HIGHEST QUALITY came from the HIGH QUANTITY side of the room.  The author tells it like this:
"It seems that while the 'quantity' group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the 'quality' group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than gradiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

I think this makes a lot of sense, intuitively, and supports the idea that we learn through practice. I know that if I take a lot of photographs I am more likely to get one or two that I really like. That which we do the most, we will probably begin to do somewhat (or very) well. However, the context of a task like making pots might be different than a task like writing. Most successful writers describe a long process of creation, filled with drafts, edits and revision. 

What are your thoughts? Is consistent, high-quality work the goal? Or is working through failure and learning as a process the better goal? In either case, how to we recognize or quantify what is "good" and, more importantly, how do we help students recognize it?

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