Image from Phillip Tanzilo's website.

“Doc, my head hurts.” Image from Phillip Tanzilo’s website.

My favourite readings in this course have revolved around a teacher’s role in helping students develop a metacognitive approach to their studies. My main approach to teaching has been based upon tried-and-true methodologies and classroom interactions; this course has illuminated a host of philosophical approaches — and thus differing perspectives about roles in teaching.

Last year I contracted a personal trainer. Since turning 40, I had exercised a handful of times; I felt fat, slow, and at a loss to explain how I’d gotten that way. I set a goal: to set a record and get into the Guinness Book of World Records. It involved standing in one place for 30 hours, so I went in search of help. This would be much easier with a little more core strength and a little less core fat.The trainer worked me hard, but fairly, and she spent much of our hour together explaining why we were doing the things we did.

After two sessions, she told me flatly that we only had ten more appointments left.

“Why do you say that?” I asked, as there were still months left before the record attempt.

“My job is not to carry you to the finish line, Jason,” the trainer said. “I’m going to teach you how to train yourself, then you’re on your own.”

Not only did this trainer deliver the service she was contracted for — to challenge me within that hour — she took it upon herself to give the tools to move beyond her instruction. In her words, “If you still need me six months from now, either your needs and goals have changed dramatically or I haven’t done my job.”

This mirrored my own words to students; I’d often told them that their responsibility was not to me, but to themselves — that they were not writing to practice for a test, but taking the test to practice writing for life. I had long been surprised by many a student’s puzzlement, but I found myself aghast that I’d be abandoned by my trainer so long before the event.

A year later, I not only have a world record to my name, but I’ve also lost twelve kilograms and now run four times a week in preparation for my first half-marathon. My health is better, my diet is improved, and my mood is (except when challenged by mystifying inane governmental policy changes) brighter. All stem from 12 one-hour classes with a trainer 15 years my junior who taught this man to fish. I hope those students who buy into my approach have similarly positive long-term results.

All the philosophies discussed in this course have merit from my point of view. As I continue through this program, and this career, I will attempt to wrestle my collection of beliefs and go-to exercises into a definable philosophy of teaching. But for now, I will fold all that I have read into my existing belief that I am more coach than professor. I encourage my students to view both their successes and failures, and to learn from them both. I observe their performance, and offer advice about how to improve. Whether students achieve very little or a great deal, I challenge them to strive for more. I ask them to visualize success. And I hope and pray that they will, sooner than later, have no need for my help to reach their goals.


Trends in ESL – Portfolio-Based Assessment

Trends and Roles Blog — Trends

Image borrowed from Ashley Tipton.

Image borrowed from Ashley Tipton‘s teaching blog.

Stay in education long enough, and you’ll be able to identify the relative age of instructors by the buzzwords they drop in staff room conversations. Teachers today do not refer to “the Three R’s” — not in the original sense of ‘Reading, Rhetoric and Reasoning’ nor in the Americanised ‘Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmatic’. Nor should they nod to the fact that “Johnny can’t read”. Since these much simpler times (and admittedly inaccurate ones much of the time), educational vocabulary — what some derisively call ‘Educanto’ — has shifted with such consistency that exasperated teachers have responded through rebellion, retirement, or the creation of snarky websites like the Educational Jargon Generator.

Sometimes this jargon isn’t unnecessary rebranding of existing concepts, such as ‘gym class’ becoming ‘physical education’ becoming ‘kinetic wellness’. New phrases and terms occasionally highlight a legitimate, necessary shift in pedagogical approach. So it is with the emergence of two of the most common utterances in English staff rooms and departmental meetings: ‘Portfolio-Based Assessment’ and its acronym ‘PBA’.

Portfolios collect assignments and minor assessments throughout a term, then assign a grade of completion; students are given more flexibility and control over how and when they attack and organize their learning. This contrasts greatly with standardized testing, which applies great emphasis upon preparation for single-day assessment in mid-term or final examinations. Anecdotally, I can report that many teachers concur with the theory of PBA.

With few exceptions, however, they resist the move away from testing, borne of two main sources of reluctance: familiarity and workload. Most instructors were themselves assessed through final papers and exams, so they value this form of evaluation. They’ve already used examination-heavy methods for years, in some cases decades, so change is difficult. To make things worse, PBA is a much more time-intensive method of assessment. Tests, especially the multiple choice and short answer forms favoured by many course designers, can even be passed off to assistants or the students themselves for marking. There are no answer keys or easy percentage calculations in PBA, however; instead, complex subjective marking rubrics must be learned and consistently applied.

Over the past few weeks I’ve waded through material like this Bow Valley College recommendation for implementation of PBA governmental pieces like this Saskatchewan policy paper / persuasive piece, and the more personal, such as Sarah Trudell’s critical survey of 1990s PBA literature.

I am preparing to meet the challenge of mandatory PBA by voluntarily introducing elements from the proposed curricula in my current classroom. I have given students folders in which they should maintain a record of all drafts, essays, quizzes and exercises. They have been asked to arrange this is a visually appealing way for the end of the term, and will have an opportunity to assess their own portfolios as well as those of their peers. The final course grade will then comprise elements from final examinations, weekly quizzes, peer assessment, self assessment and teacher evaluation.

It has been, I’ll admit, a terrifically remarkably hellishly time-intensive term. Time has been spent learning and/or creating new rubrics and applying these parameters to more and different assignments. Somewhat surprisingly, more extra time has gone into justifying the value of portfolios to students than anything else. Many of them are even more reluctant to let go of standardized testing than are we as teachers. This term, they still have final exams, so learners used to structured, standardized tests can hold onto that bastion of familiar evaluation. It will be interesting, as PBAs gain prominence, to see if the disappearance of finals has a lasting effect upon future students who aren’t taught to expect them.

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