24 September 2007

The Courage to Question

I share an office with another science teacher. I've been having fun tweaking him by getting the students who stop by after hours to ask him questions. "Mr. So-and-So, is this a formative or summative assessment?" or "What are the learning targets for this assignment?" Mr. So-and-So is a good natured soul and has been a good sport about the questions kids have asked...even though neither the teacher nor the students have been entirely certain what the conversation was about. All of this has led to some interesting questions on his part---and we are having an ongoing dialog about grading practices.

Today, he asked if I thought the high school would ever have a standards-based report card like the elementary schools. I told him I didn't, even though I wish we would. When he asked why we wouldn't move that direction, I didn't tell him the real reason (Boss Lady 2.0 doesn't have the balls to start the conversation with secondary schools), but rather we moved into talking about why it was more difficult to develop for junior and senior level offerings. Our state standards only go through 10th grade (although there are some draft "college readiness" standards now available for math, language arts, and science which are meant to target 11th and 12th grades). The real crux, however, is that there would need to be some agreement among the teachers of those classes (such as chemistry and physics) about what content was most important.

These conversations should happen, regardless of what format the report card takes. Does it not seem odd that every chemistry teacher in the district makes a decision about what constitutes "chemistry," let alone what a passing grade means? My hunch is that most would agree about the basics: structure of an atom, chemical bonding and reactions, properties of matter. However, what about acids and bases? equilibrium? Is stoichiometry really that important---or it is the concepts that are meaningful? I would expect some fights here, but all with good purpose.

It's unlikely that any of this will happen within the district. There's not enough interest---people are very comfortable in doing the same old same old without having to think about why they've made the choices they have. While I doubt that very many babies would be tossed with the bathwater, I still believe that as professionals we should engage in this kind of thinking. If we can't explain to one another the value of what is taught, how will we ever convince students of the value of learning it?


Hugh O'Donnell said...

Ingenious way to open a peer conversation, SG!

If enough conversations got started, maybe something could bubble up.

Where does all the fear come from?

The Science Goddess said...

I think a lot is Union generated---it has regularly pulled the "academic freedom" card anytime there was any question to a teacher about what was being taught. Thankfully, that misunderstanding was hammered out in the last contract.

Another part of the answer is simply that many teachers feel it would be a waste of time. They assume every teacher is doing the same thing, and if they aren't, well it's up to the others to find out what's "right."