The words of our students. Are we listening?

Through my participation in a few EdCamps, I have had the complete pleasure of meeting and chatting with North Surrey Secondary senior humanities teacher  Jonathan Vervaet(@jonathanvervaet).  I knew about his contagious passion for inquiry and assessment for learning; what I did not know was that I would also be completely awestruck and inspired by two of his grade 12 students.

During Edcamp43 in Coquitlam earlier this year, I attended a session on TEDxKids.  I strongly believe in the power of our students voices and the TEDxKids idea is one that needs to be shared and promoted; I went to gain more knowledge about the event.  Halfway through the session, two students spoke up about their experience in high school.  My ears perked up and my heart started to race as they made a comment about the power of inquiry as well as the movement away from grades.  I encouraged them to expand on their thoughts and during the next 5-10 minutes they shared one of the most powerful stories about pedagogy that I have ever heard.  They spoke about how moving away from grades and using inquiry as a focus made them realize they actually loved to learn.  I was so engaged that I did not take a single note or tweet.  The room was silent the entire time these boys spoke.  Two grade 12 students had completely captivated a room full of administrators, teachers and parents.  It was the first time anyone outside of their classroom had listened to them. At this EdCamp, these boys were being heard and they completely seized the moment.

I wanted to figure out how these two students, Kenny (@Kennycolosie) and Dylan could share their story and thoughts to a wider audience.  I spoke to Jonathan, who unfortunately missed their amazing story, immediately following the session as well as in the weeks following EdCamp43.  We tossed around the idea of a guest post or the boys skyping into our district admin meeting. He came up with an idea to try to recreate the conversation with them and then send me the audio.

The following quotes are the summarized ideas of Kenny and Dylan, two History 12 and Comparative Civ 12 students from a school in Surrey, BC (I have not separated who said what as they both seemed to agree and build upon each others’ responses… I apologize in advance to these guys as my words probably do not do justice to what they originally so passionately stated).

From Kenny and Dylan:

The typical classroom work we see is work… copy… regurgitate… repeat.  We do this for teachers and they ask us questions right away and we can answer.  However, if you asked us next week, or even the next day, we won’t have a clue.  We have memorized but we have not learned.

When we first started Mr. Vervaet’s classes, we hated it.  We were like, “just gimme the worksheets and tell me what to do and I will do it”.  He was talking about inquiry and not giving us grades.  We thought it was dumb… we said forget this feedback stuff… we wanted a percent.  It was so hard at the start.  Then, about a month into first semester, we had to do another assignment for a different class (basically had to copy and paste)… and we were like, wow, this sucks! We realized how much more we liked projects using inquiry and appreciated the ongoing feedback.  From that point on, we started to see that inquiry allowed us to research an area, based on a learning outcome, in which WE were interested.  We got to look at the learning outcome from a point of view that worked for us… inquiry helped us to become way more engaged.  Inquiry helped us to have a voice.  Rather than copying and pasting from Wikipedia, we were actually learning.  Mr. Vervaet makes the learning outcome clear, helps us to understand what it means,  and then helps us to come up with ways we can demonstrate our understanding of that outcome.

Allowing redos and not having percents has been huge to our learning too.  We can show our learning over time and keep improving rather than our stuff at the beginning and end being averaged into some number.  With Mr. Vervaet, our final mark is where we are at NOW rather than an average that includes when we struggled at the start.

Keeping the focus on learning rather than percents makes us take more risks.  We find in other classes that we don’t take risks – we don’t get a chance to redo an assignment so when it is done, it is done.  If we screw up, we lose marks with no chance of changing anything so why would we take a risk? Without redos there is no chance to show learning if we learn something after the due date.  This adds more stress because there is so much pressure to get things right the first time and there is less chance for feedback from the teacher.  If you figure things out late, there is no way to change your mark.  High-stakes learning (without the chance for improvement) makes school suck… makes us not want to be there.  When teachers focus on marks, marks, marks, it puts so much pressure on students to get marks that when the marks aren’t there, students become demotivated, disengaged and sometimes even depressed.  We see most students motivated about learning when there is flexibility of deadlines, projects that we are interested in, and a chance to redo assignments.

Clear criteria is also so important to us.  When you don’t have an idea of what you are aiming for, you end up trying everything and hoping that it is what the teacher wants.  When you know the criteria, the learning outcomes are clear and our efforts can be focused because we know what we are aiming for (rather than guessing or trying to cover everything).

Up until Mr. Vervaet’s class, we struggled to be motivated to learn in school.  We would watch the clocks and count down the minutes until the end of the day.  With inquiry-based learning, we found we were WAY more motivated in school, the learning was more relevant to us, and there were times when we even wanted to stand up and applaud.  At the end of the semester, we were like, “wow, can we retake that… we don’t want it to end!”.

If we could change a few things in high school education it would be to move away from the pressure of grades and strict deadlines.  We still know we need to get things done but having more flexible deadlines so we can plan out our work will make things less stressful for us.  Having the chance to redo assignment also removes some of the pressure and actually improves our learning.  In grade 8, we actually liked the pressure as it was kind of new… but then it wore on us and by the time we reached grades 10-12 we just wanted to get out… the focus shifts to getting to the end and you miss the learning along the way.  We also feel that thigs are changing; students lives are different than they were when teachers were in school and sometimes teachers still teach the way they were taught.  Times are different now so school should be different too.

There is clear research about the power of inquiry-based learning as well as the importance of ongoing descriptive feedback based on clear criteria and learning intentions.  If you look at the image at the top, the words that stand out to these students make it clear  what matters in THEIR learning and that we need to not only listen to the researchers (particularly Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, Paul Black) and teacher leaders but also to the students in our classes.

Dylan and Kenny have provided clear feedback to us and are some of the voices of the most important people in our schools.  Their views align well with education research…. so this begs the question: how do we make mindsets like inquiry and assessment for learning become the norm, rather than the exception, in schools?  

I want to thank Jonathan for taking the time to do the legwork for this post as well as modelling and sharing his passion for education reform.  Thank you to Dylan and Kenny for their all important inspiring voices on education… keep speaking up boys!