New year, new philosophy

Last Wednesday we began the fourth Master Teacher course, Assessment as Learning. Which means – more journal entries!!
Since the beginning of this new course, I have been rethinking my teaching philosophy. Way back in College Teaching, I formulated a philosophy based on the idea that “you can’t teach in a vacuum.” This philosophy – which I still hold to be true – states that neither teaching nor learning happens in isolation. Teachers and students must be aware of, and be prepared to exploit, prior knowledge, preconceptions, subsequent goals, and so on.
At one specific point in the last week, though, it suddenly struck me that I have a new philosophy, whether I wanted it or not. As a fan of analogy, this is how I see the birth of my new philosophy – an Ikea DIY leaflet…

Last weekend, we bought a new bed from Ikea. The four boxes arrived Saturday morning, and I unpacked everything and found the leaflet. On the cover is a picture of the bed, completely assembled. This was my objective. The first page features a box which details which parts are supplied, and which tools I needed to provide myself – prior knowledge and new content. The leaflet then clearly outlined the assembly in four consecutive boxes – you cannot jump to step three, you need to complete step one, then step two, and so on. The last picture in the leaflet is the same as the first, the completely assembled bed.
In this case, the ultimate assessment was a good night’s sleep!
As Wiggins’ article on backwards design outlines, course design should begin with the end: where do we want the students to be in fifteen weeks? How will we know they’re there? How do we get them there? The leaflet worked the same way – first, the picture of the end result, then the tools and parts. Imagine the chaos if the assembler had no idea what to aim for!
Coupled with this leaflet revelation is a quote I came upon recently from Abraham Maslow: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.” Add to that everything we’ve said in the first three Assessment as Learning sessions about bringing everything together. Throw in the old adage about teaching a man to fish (I realize this is turning into a real witch’s brew, but bear with me) and the stated goal of teachers, colleges and the MEQ of creating life-long learners, and allow to simmer for a few days.
My job as a teacher is to show students what they can accomplish, give them the tools and parts they need to get there, teach them how to use the tools, and judge their progress. In a sense, then, my students are apprentice learners. Eventually, they will be ready to learn without the master.
A few years ago, my dad gave my husband a circular saw for Christmas. The saw has been used once – by a friend who helped us fix our porch steps – and has otherwise gathered dust in our toolroom. Why? Because we have no idea how to use the saw, and it’s a pretty terrifying instrument. Now, granted, there are very few learning tools with which one can lose a finger, but the point is that even though we have the tool, it is useless to us because we were not shown how to use it. So as a teacher, I have to give my students the tools they need, and to show them how these tools work.
I am beginning to appreciate how assessment fits into the bigger picture – how do I know I assembled the bed correctly? It’s not enough to say it looks good; an essay with a pretty cover page does not guarantee an A. The true test is does the bed fulfill its function – does it support a boxspring, mattress, a number of pillows and two adults, preferably without squeaking? The true test of an essay is whether or not it fulfills its function, too. Does it support its thesis with strong arguments, evidence and clear writing?
I am interested to see how we’re going to reconcile a constructivist view of assessment with the norms and standards of institutional instruction. In my job interview last week, one person asked me “if a student completes all the work in your course, is it still possible to fail?” This question has been bugging me ever since. My answer was that yes, it was possible for a student to complete all the assignments and still fail the course, because in the end, no matter how hard a student has worked, I have to decide whether or not the student is ready for the next stage. I added that there’s a difference between doing an assignment and doing it successfully. Of course, so far I have not been offered a job based on this interview, so maybe that wasn’t the answer they were looking for.
In another interview – which did procure an offer – the question was posed this way: “if more than half the class fails a test, what do you do?” I said that I would review the test, because there was obviously something wrong with it. I added that I would not include the test in the final assessment.
In the few years that I have been teaching, I have yet to encounter the second situation. I have, unfortunately, encountered the first, although only in Prep courses. Perhaps this is a cop out, but it seems to me that the pre-Intro courses suffer from bureaucracy. We cannot offer ten different courses based on the levels and abilities of the not-ready-for-Intro students; we have to design courses that attempt to address all the needs of a mixed group of students. Furthermore, these classes are usually overpopulated, even with imposed enrolment limits. The result is that some students end up stuck at the Prep level for two or three semesters, and even when they do get the passing mark, it may be from a sympathetic teacher, and not from a genuine leap in ability.
Every semester I refine my approaches, strategies, resources and assessments. Occasionally I feel a little guilty – if only my students from three years ago could have had me as the teacher I am today! I’m not sure if it’s possible to reach a level at which any student who completes every assignment is guaranteed a pass. I am sure that I can give them more than a hammer to work with.