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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ape: to copy or mimic, often with absurd or amusing results.

I am marking research papers this weekend. Or at least I am trying to, in between peaceful moments reflecting (see above) and frantic moments planning an enormous Sunday lunch.

Here’s what is worrying me – plagiarism. I have got at least one paper which is full of 'cut and paste' – and I have my suspicions about one or two others. What I am beginning to realize is that some of my students do not actually think they are doing anything wrong.

The information is so readily available, the phrasing so apt, and the point made so succinctly, that they just can’t resist it. More worrying are the students who have not ‘cut and paste’ but have simply changed the text a little. I probably won’t be able to find their stuff on the web, and therefore they will go unchallenged.

How can I teach my students to be more rigorous in their use of sources? How can I explain to them what plagiarism actually is, and why it might be wrong?

We really do live in ‘the information age’. There is so much on the internet that we can use without asking anyone. In the last hour for example, I downloaded some recipes whilst planning my Easter lunch and bookmarked a dozen pages for my own use as a teacher.

I also want to help students evaluate the sources that they use. I am collecting a few sites that explain how to do this. The first one I want to recommend is The Internet Detective. If you have found a website which explains plagiarism in a student friendly fashion, or guides students through the complexities of evaluating a source, please let me know.

I am also interested in how early we need to teach students how to cite sources.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Laughing Matter

A Laughing Matter

My British Literature classes have been studying the eighteenth century drama ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ and talking about the way comedy works. Its author, Oliver Goldsmith obligingly wrote an essay on comedy, setting out what he was trying to do. His thoughts can be summed up pretty simply by saying that comedy should make people laugh. Well, yes.

My students find the play mildly amusing. Humor doesn’t always translate and there is nothing more deadly to a joke than having to explain it several times. Having said that, we did get talking about why people sometimes don’t find something funny. It seems that finding something funny relies on two very different things. First of all you need to connect in some way with the situation presented. Goldsmith says it should be about human weaknesses that we can all make a judgment on ‘because all have sat for the picture.’ On the other hand, we all agreed, that for something to be funny, we need to view it as an intellectual exercise and not an emotional one. Once we relate emotionally to the object of mirth we are usually done for. Comedy just can’t be sustained. As soon as we feel we are being laughed at, it isn’t really amusing any more.

I tested these two ideas by showing my classes an episode of Dad’s Army, a British 1970’s sitcom which is set in World War 2. Dad’s Army relies on a lot of comic devices including slapstick, word play and farce. It also relies very heavily on satirizing the way we use stereotypes. The episode I chose was ‘My British Buddy’ where Captain Mainwaring’s platoon are required to welcome some American soldiers to Walmington-on-Sea. The Americans are dreadfully stereotyped, gum chewing and oblivious to any cultural signals given them. The real joke is that these stereotypes are being shown up for what they are: our own prejudices. My class struggled dutifully not to identify with the American soldiers, and as a result managed to laugh at some of the jokes. I consoled them by complaining about the stereotypical Scotsman, ‘Frazer’ who is taciturn, pessimistic, mean with money and difficult to understand. Nothing familiar there surely?

A couple of my students said they found themselves thinking about people close to them who would be similar to those being parodied, and then found themselves less inclined to laugh. It seemed like ‘being funny’ was more about how we felt about the subject than about the ability of the comedian. Sort of explains why writing humor is so difficult, doesn’t it?

Have you ever been the only one not laughing? Why was that? Are there some things we should never joke about?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Tough tests

Imagine you sign up for a job where your boss gives you feedback every week on how well you are doing. At first you feel you are doing well. Your boss is making allowances for it being a new job. You are feeling hopeful. You find the job quite interesting and it has several really good perks. Then things start to get a little sticky. Your boss isn’t actually publicizing your appraisal, but all employee appraisals are given out at the same time, so of course it is natural that you and your fellow employees will trade appraisals. Sometimes another person will approach you to ask you what the boss said to you about your participation in some project or other. Sometimes you will simply tell someone else what the boss said.

Before long, you realize that there are more people invested in that appraisal than just you. Your family, for example, want to know how things are going. They ask you every day. Some family members get really upset if things don’t go that well. Soon you begin to realize that you are being ranked against all the other employees in your section, and that you are definitely not one of the top achievers. Those who get that special status –usually the same people every week- are given a lot of praise and encouragement.

So what do you do now? Career counselors would, without hesitation, advise a career change. Not everyone can handle a job like that, although granted there are some who will thrive in that environment. Those who ‘perform’ better will love the affirmation they get from being placed top of the list.

You follow the advice of family and friends. They remind you that life is like this. It turns out that almost all of them have held the same job at one time or another. Some of them liked it, some of them hated it. They offer different kinds of advice ranging from ‘Try harder.’ to ‘The hell with them!’ You are hopeful by nature. You want to do well at your job. You try harder. But things don’t improve. No matter what you do you can’t get onto that special list of top people. You really feel like you want to get out.

There’s only one problem.

You are six years old and you have got 12 more years of this to go. The job you are trying to hold down is simply being a student and the boss is your teacher.

Okay, so I am being emotive, but that’s what we are doing with a high number of our children in school. We are obsessing so much about testing that we are failing to see how unhappy and unproductive our constant testing makes many students.

I am not advocating no testing or grading. I am not saying that we should pretend that some students are not academically more able than others. All I am suggesting is that we dethrone ‘testing’ as the central experience of school. Our schools should be places which focus on learning not testing.

We have to have tests –but let’s make them less focused on ranking students and more on how to learn better. Let’s give students targets for themselves, not bars that only a few can jump. Let’s stop putting our children through something we would refuse as adults.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Missing the point Mr Gladwell

My son sent me a link to this article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. After wondering if this was his idea (my son, not Malcolm Gladwell) of a Christmas present, I ploughed through the article. I found it fairly depressing. Perhaps it was the length of time he spent talking about American football which soured me, I don’t know, but I did start to wonder if Mr. Gladwell really appreciated what teaching was like. His central point seemed to be that we could improve educational achievement by recruiting the right people. Haven’t heard that one before. He accepted this might be difficult -we can’t really tell what a ‘star’ or ‘top’ teacher looks like. We can only identify those elements which make a good teacher. Then we weed out the ‘bad teachers’.
The sectors Gladwell suggests we might look to for pointers are –wait for it – the NFL and the financial advice sector. He describes the recruitment approach of Ed Deutschlander, the co-president of North Star Resource Group, in Minneapolis. He recommends you recruit by first selecting people who fit your criteria for success. You put them through a rigorous regime, losing those who don’t succeed along the way. After four years he claims he can expect to ‘to hang on to at least thirty to forty per cent’ of the original top performers.

Note to any aspiring financial gurus. Read Dickens’ Hard Times. You might find the character of Bounderby interesting.

Gladwell shifts back to teaching. According to the article ‘Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material…’ The smart solution then seems to be going for better teachers rather than making class sizes smaller. ‘And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.’
Got it? You select teachers from anyone who has ‘a college degree and a pulse’ (there goes several of my favorite teachers). It doesn’t matter what their qualifications are. You ‘try out’ those teachers in schools, rigorously evaluating them on a regular basis. You might hope to get one good teacher out of every four teachers tried out.
Gladwell admits that salaries would have to change because once we find those hot shot teachers ‘who can teach a year and a half’s material in one year, we’re going to have to pay them a lot—both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.’
Those who survive the winnowing. Good phrase isn’t it. I wonder if Gladwell is aware of the numbers of teachers who leave teaching in the first four years, without being ‘winnowed’ but because they find the conditions too difficult. Does he really imagine the teaching profession is easy already and that there are hundreds of people lining up to get into it?
Aside from the practical problems his suggestions would create (Is he suggesting no teacher training at all? Who writes and grades the tests that chart student progress? How long before you can ‘prove’ that the teacher is the problem?) there are a number of issues in his approach that I want to take issue with.
Firstly, why does he say so little about the systems of education that most teachers find themselves in? Many of them positively interrupt good teaching. Take the obsession with testing. How often does a test mask or distort the learning that is going on? Three students get B minus in a test. One of them has a B minus because they have done the material before, found it boring but can regurgitate it with enough accuracy to get a reasonable pass. The second student has worked really hard and despite finding the material difficult has made a great stab at understanding it. The last student has a good memory and a nice turn of phrase and can flannel their way out of any test with very little effort. Each of those test results come from completely different learning experiences –but the students are graded the same. A good teacher might decide that the first student need not do the test, the second should continue on the learning journey and the third should be given a different test altogether. But where’s the room in a grade-oriented classroom for that? Students must be given their grade – regardless of how useless that label may be for their learning.
Secondly, schools are not financial institutions –but they are constantly hampered by financial issues. Otherwise we would stop coming up with good reasons for lowering class sizes, get more staff in and just do it. Teachers’ pay is another issue. A good teacher does many hours work outside of a classroom. The perception of teachers is that they have short working hours, with long holidays. This doesn’t take into account the extra time and energy you must put into teaching after hours and during vacation time. It doesn’t take into account the inflexibility of the school year. I don’t know anyone who went into teaching for the money, although I do think it says a lot about our society that we pay teachers so little.
Thirdly, I don’t believe that good teachers are just born, any more than good quarterbacks are just found. Teaching, itself can be taught. Teachers should certainly be taught whilst on the job. But teaching teachers needs to be given more than lip service. You can hardly expect teachers to do all of their job training during their free time, although many of us do.
Finally, and most importantly, I reject the vision of Education that is at the heart of Gladwell’s proposition. I do not believe Education is just about ranking students, so why should I believe it should be about ranking teachers? I accept that teachers can improve, and no doubt there are teachers who should not be in the profession – just as there are people in every profession who should move on. I think a complete overhaul of our education system is probably called for –but it shouldn’t involve the ‘old fashioned ‘ approach of setting the bar and them seeing who doesn’t manage to hop over it. We should be looking to educationalists like Dylan Wiliam to help us change our schools, not the football coaches. We are talking about the education of our children here, not the Superbowl.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Assessment for Learning in the USA

Well, I did it. I found Assessment for Learning in America.

At 7.30 am on Wednesday of last week, I found myself in Plymouth, Minnesota, parked outside an oddly shaped building with an enormous sign saying ‘Intermediate District 287’. I was there to attend a two-day workshop.

Before I knew it I was sitting in a conference room eating a chocolate chip bagel and listening to the course administrator explaining earnestly that that we really cannot smoke. Not even, she explains apologetically, outside the building. It’s against the law and the local cops make a habit of regularly swinging by on the look out for offenders. It’s an education building, you see. I get all annoyed until I remember I don’t smoke.

And then the course began properly. Our speaker, Carol Commodore instructed us to find out why the people around us are here. Some of them aren’t exactly sure. Fortunately I am not tempted to ponder the existential questions that are being raised. I know why I am here. I am here because I need to be here. I started out with so many good intentions to use Assessment is for learning (AifL) techniques in my American classroom. But the obsession with GPA (Grade Point Average) that seems to dominate everything had very nearly defeated my good attempts. How do you fit this into an American setting?

Then, an instance of providence. After much googling, I found that ETS, that’s the Educational Testing Service, were sponsoring a workshop on Assessment for Learning. Now, is this I wondered, the same ETS that allegedly made such a mess of the English National Curriculum Assessments? It was. The irony of it all appealed. And besides, desperate times called for desperate measures. So, I spoke to the person responsible for staff development at my school, and before you can say Minnetonka, Minneapolis - I am sent to the ‘Assessment Training Institute’ for one and a half days.

Anyway to get back to the bagels, or the course actually. Before long we were striding forward through the material. Carol’s presentation was music to my ears, honey to my… oh well you get the idea.

I am being reminded just why I find AiFL such a great way to teach. Carol is explaining that, of course, it is not just about assessment but about how we teach in the first place.

Day One flies by really quickly. Yes, that’s right. It was a professional development workshop and it ended too soon. Day Two I have to leave early for parent teacher conferences and drag myself away.

Lots of stuff to think about. I start small, taking notes of words they use differently. ‘Attainment’ is ‘achievement’ over here. ‘Targets’ are ‘goals’. ‘Objectives’ are ‘targets’.

Carol shows us ways to put our learning targets together so that we can show real progress to students, even when using the grade book. She talks about descriptive feedback –we all discuss how to overcome the ‘I see only my grade’ problem. She talks about schools being places of hope, where the point is learning, not grades.

Interestingly, Carol taught us just as she recommended we teach. She made clear her goals at every stage. She stopped regularly to have us discuss and summarize what we were learning. She asked us for feedback on what she had just taught us.

So I am not, by any means, the only teacher in the USA who wants to use Assessment for learning, not grading.

Carol is an independent consultant with the ETS Assessment for Learning Institute. She has her own website here.

If you read this Carol, thank you for reminding me why I love teaching.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

This week a student surprised me. He wrote that he actually enjoyed writing on the topic I had given him and ‘would not mind writing some more.’ Granted his comments were slightly out of place in his formal essay on whether or not we should be studying Greek mythology, but it cheered me up for two specific reasons.

First, he was a key member of a group of students in a particular class who seem to opt out whenever they find English boring or challenging, in any aspect.

Secondly, he had actually turned in his work, rather than done his usual act about not having access to my webpage assignments, or a computer with a printer, or a book, or a pencil or a piece of paper.

It warmed my heart a little. Perhaps it was his version of the ten dollar note that was stapled to the exam paper of a desperate student. I don’t know. My gut feeling is that even a step in the direction of trying to share my enthusiasm for writing, regardless of the motive, is a good thing. Who knows: the thought may be father to the deed… and all that.

If someone had asked me to nominate the task and subject that most enthuses students in their writing, the chances are that I would not have highlighted the essay question which motivated my student. It was: The Greek myths are outdated and irrelevant for study in a modern high school. Discuss.

What sort of things did you like to write about at school? Please comment.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I am generally happier with teaching vocabulary in context, but sometimes I find it necessary to give students a list of words that they will be encountering in our next book or poem. That is especially the case when we are looking at older texts where familiar words are used differently. It is also helpful when giving students the correct critical terminology for language features.

I'm not sure how I came across quizlet.com. However I find it enormously helpful as a teacher. It's a site which allows you to make up vocabulary sets and share them with other users.

The story of its origins is also rather inspiring. Its founder, Andrew Sutherland, from Albany, California was fifteen years old when he decided that the easiest way to learn his French vocabulary was to make it digital. He began developing the website after school and at weekends. Andrew graduated from high school this summer and headed off to college (MIT) with the best wishes of his 200,000 users. Read about it here on his blog.

As a teacher, I think the two features which I like best are: the ability to create a group where all my vocabulary sets are accessible; and the games testing option to help you memorize. I also like the fact that Quizlet will make up tests for you, which can be customized to include questions that genuinely test a student’s understanding of the word, not just their ability to match words from a word bank.

It’s simple for my students to sign up at home, and all they need to view my vocabulary sets is a password I give them. Some of my pupils have told me they are beginning to make up their own sets for other subjects too.

If I had any suggestions for improvement, it would be a request for a feature that allowed you to hear the pronunciation of a word when you moused over it. That way the website would be playing to all the learning styles at once, visual, kinesthetic and auditory. On the other hand that would mean I would no longer have the fun of hearing my students pronounce new words as I do, unconsciously following my Scots accent. They can always go to dictionary.com to hear it in American.

Have a look at quizlet and see what you think.