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The nature of the subject
02-25-2016, 02:33 PM
Post: #1
The nature of the subject
The nature of the subject
'It is the mark of an educated mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness where only an approximation is possible'. Aristotle

Reading and writing go hand in hand. The two articles we considered prior to this session were excellent. Reid’s presented an incisive history of the Growth Model, I loved the quote from the Goons at the beginning, and Smagorinski’s was a more immediate consideration of current issues. Both were insightful, and served to encourage this critical reflection on practice.
Reid’s article, combined with one of the discussion questions put up on the screen (that we didn’t actually discuss in our group), made me think about how I implement some of the Growth philosophy in my own Master of Teaching classes. In particular, I want my students to take responsibility for their own learning; that’s how I see them as ‘growing’. I don’t want them to perform like trained circus animals, only jumping through hoops in order to avoid the misery that befalls those who don’t. So I invite them to embark on a risky journey with me. It hasn’t backfired yet.
At the beginning of our first session, every year, I let my students know that they will all receive 20/20 for their first assessment task. This task consists of a ten minute presentation to the whole class, accompanied by ppt slides where necessary. If anyone wants a lower grade, they are welcome to negotiate this with me. And I explain why we do it like this.
Students are each given a topic on which to present: ‘Use of the gerund’ is one; ‘Prepositions, how to identify, and the rules governing their use’, is another. ‘Alliteration and Assonance’ and ‘Euphemisms: Use & Avoidance’ are also good fun. The full list, containing as many topics as there happen to be students in the class, has been built up over the years, based on areas where students identify insecurity or lack of confidence. ‘Use of the apostrophe’ is a perennial.
Students tell me that they spend hours researching their topic on the internet, and we reflect that over all of their years of schooling, they would have been told countless times how to use an apostrophe, yet it was only when they had to explain it to others that the skill really permeated. It was the process of doing this work for a specific and public purpose – making a presentation – that generated the impetus to embark on such dedicated research. When someone else had previously done that work for them, then they did not absorb the information. So while the rest of us may enjoy one person’s discussion on the gerund, it is the person who has spent the time researching it who knows most about it. This therefore becomes a lesson in how we learn; it is pedagogy in practice.
For years I used to sit through these presentations, with a tick sheet, trying to differentiate between a 20 and a 19 or an 18 ½. The temptation to give a 25/20 was often strong. Rarely – if ever – did anyone perform poorly, and the arbitrary nature of the grade was ultimately unsupportable. It was the immeasurable quality of the presentation was more important than the grade. The criteria sheet was clear about what was required, and everyone had a copy of it. This is still the case; each student has a copy of the grading sheet I used to use, just in case they wish to go through the motions. We talk about the impossibility of measuring certain types of learning, we reflect on Aristotle’s idea of imprecision and quality, and we think about the purpose of education. Who gains when someone ‘fails’? What sort of a system would set students up for inevitable failure? As educators, we want to encourage our students to take risks and to learn; we want them to develop –to ‘grow’– as individuals, and constantly responding to narrow assessment criteria is not likely to achieve this goal. This is the ‘growth’ model in action, but it also draws upon Art Pearl’s ideas of holding high expectations for all students, and it draws on Donald Graves’s notion of the importance of audience. Woven into the exercise is an understanding that indeed it is important for English teachers to know about grammar, punctuation and linguistics. But this is tempered with an acceptance that English a complex study, and is about more than one single simple thing, such as, for example, personal growth.
Colleagues who are addicted to the Bell curve might object if they knew what we were doing in our English classes, but the students themselves seem to be relatively comfortable with it.
Another related professional pleasure involves posing a direct question to my students about assessment. I ask them to share a story about when their own learning was assisted by a particular assessment task. Usually this is met by an initial period of protracted silence. Even this silence is worthy of consideration. We wonder why it takes so long to think of occasions where assessment has had a clear and direct benefit on learning. What on earth are we doing in schools when we assess our students? The corollary to this question is: Do we need to assess, and if so, how can we make it more relevant to learning?
If this relates to ‘growth’ at all it is because it is a way of inviting pre-service teachers to reflect critically on their practice. With any luck, they might take some of this critical reflection into their careers. It seems that in English classrooms in Australia, there is still the space to do this.
The story that Arlene told this evening about the teachers at her school who devoted a week of classes to NAPLAN preparation, and found that this had a markedly positive impact on the NAPLAN scores for that year, impressed me. One week is likely to be about four hours. This doesn’t seem unreasonable, out of a whole year, and it would be interesting to ask the students for their opinions on that approach, and to articulate what they thought they were learning during that week. a dual purpose is served here: students become successful at completed mandated tasks, and they also learn how to critique such tasks.
Thanks, VATE, Scott and Graham for the opportunity to spend some precious time writing and sharing with colleagues. Should be more of it!

Aristotle: 'It is the mark of an educated mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness where only an approximation is possible'. Nicomachean Ethics, Book One, Chapter 3.

Pearl, A. (1972). The Atrocity of Education. New York: Dutton.
Graves, D 1983, Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, Heinemann Educational Books, Exeter.

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.docx  Notes from 2nd STELLA session 24th Feb 2016.docx (Size: 20.87 KB / Downloads: 1)
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