Monday, May 21, 2012

"I've Become Comfortably Dumb." (A First Year Student's Lament)

I know followers of this blog will recognize that the title of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek (a play on the title of a great Pink Floyd song) and not intended as a negative portrayal of every high school graduate’s experiences at college or university. As the school year heads to its conclusion, I’ve been thinking a lot about the transition that happens for some of our most successful students and reflecting on past conversations. 

Conversations that have occurred with top end academic students who have let me know halfway through their first year how much they are struggling and how they have received their first low grades. Or the recent conversation with a friend who let me know that his child was receiving a mark of 108% in a high school course. These have led me to consider if our current approach is doing enough for our most academically able students or if we are lulling them into a false sense of accomplishment. If we are, in essence, allowing them to become “comfortably dumb” knowing full well that what lies ahead will stretch their thinking and not reward “compliant behavior” or provide bonus marks.

According to a report by Statistics Canada, approximately fifteen percent of first-year students won't make it to their second year of university. Success in high school doesn't seem to translate to preparing students for university. A study by the University of Manitoba suggests that even former high achievers in high school, those kids who graduated at the top of their class with straight A's, are at a high risk. The study indicates that nearly one in four of those students will be asked to leave, thanks to failing grades. First year students are often shocked to see their marks drop as much as 15 percent from what they were used to earning in high school. Nearly two-thirds of students end up feeling uncertain about what to study, with many changing their majors.

And here’s the kicker from the Statistics Canada report - those high school students who tend to succeed at the post-secondary level are those who have already developed good work and study habits. It’s not the students we have over-rewarded and acknowledged for being very good at what we want them to do or what they already know. Students who receive 108% might be better served by being challenged and stretched in things they don’t know and get a lower grade rather than being given more of the same. The problem of grade inflation at the high school level suggests that students have been given an inaccurate assessment of their performance and the consequence of this is pretty clear early on in their post-secondary career.

There are also financial repercussions. In 2008, Maclean’s surveyed the rate at which students who received entrance scholarships kept the necessary grade point average to maintain their scholarship going into second year. The author’s (Ross Finnie and Felice Martinello) provide data showing the rate dropping into single digits for some institutions. These two economists state, “the highest achieving group (in high school) has the largest decrease in grades.” Students entering university with an average of 90 percent or higher experienced a drop of 11.9 points. Students with averages in the 60-79 per cent range had a drop of only 4.4 points. Of course, there are the significant challenges of the entry requirements to get into university. Twenty years ago a solid B average was sufficient. A decade ago it shifted to an A average. Today, an average in the low 90’s is not a lock for entrance. This may be a contributing factor to the push by a student to maximize their results and might be a part of the grade inflation conundrum. 

So, where does this leave us?  The more information we have before us, and the more accurate the data is, the easier it should become for us to change what we are doing. In my recent book one of the central themes is this – if we can predict it, we can prevent it. This theme might also hold true as we look to help our strongest academic students prepare for the challenges ahead.

Monday, May 14, 2012

“I’m just not used to being good at stuff.”

I spent two days visiting with the students and staff at the DSBN Academy. Regular readers of this blog will recall a previous post about this newly established school ( that lives and breathes the singular mission encapsulated in two words – “We Believe”.

I visited every classroom and watched kids in action, thoroughly engaged in their learning. At the end of each visit I spoke with the teacher and gathered perceptions on the year thus far, and their personal highs and lows.  I’m not sure what I expected as my previous visit had highlighted for me some of the challenges associated with starting a new school and particularly a school for students who had experienced limited success in previous locales. I also was aware that they had embraced the key tenets of “Pyramid of Behavior Interventions: Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment” and was interested to hear about some of the outcomes of their approach.

Once again I was deeply inspired by the passion and commitment of the teaching staff. This team of eight absolutely gives their all and were wearing both the joy and the anguish that comes when we heavily invest in students and their success. I heard what has now become my favorite analogy to describe this:

Every day is like being at the amusement park. 
You’re exhausted and have spent the day in long 
lines, ate great tasting (and largely unhealthy) 
foods, and been over-stimulated on the rides 
but you can’t wait to get back there the next day!

I also sat in on great group conversations where strategies were debated as the teachers contemplated next steps to ensure all of their students “finish strong”. We spoke of the remaining time in the school year being the true test of the commitment and desire to let students know that this year will be unlike any they had experienced previously. Success for all isn’t a trite saying but an absolute, embraced by all whom cross the threshold to the Academy each day.

Perhaps one of the more touching anecdotes was the one that concluded with the quote that is the title of this posting. A teacher had come across one of her students who was deeply engaged in work that she had not been directed to do, but had chosen to do during her break time. When the teacher complimented her and said how impressed she was, she was met with some shyness and withdrawal. This was a student the teacher would have described as having made great gains during the year, one who had taken risks in her pursuit of learning and put herself out there. The comment “I’m just not used to being good at stuff”, made by the student was a reminder that, despite all of the successes experienced over eight months, fear of failure and a return to previously held adult views of her, were not yet eradicated. The power of negative experiences resonate so deeply with some of our students that significantly more time, energy, and positive feedback will be required until they can completely let go and totally immerse themselves in the success ALL of our kids so richly deserve.

Thanks again Academy staff. You continue to teach beyond the walls of your school.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Learning is a Marathon Not a Sprint

I'm writing this after completing my 43rd marathon on a great day in Vancouver. As often happens when I have lots of thinking time (and running 42k gives you lots of thinking time), my thoughts drifted to my work as an educator. I began to compare what happens in a marathon with what happens in school.

As we lined up for the start of the race, I though about students coming in to write the “big test”. The nervous energy that flowed in the corral reminded me of what I saw with my students. Some wanted to get their exam right away, some were not 100% on test day, and some wanted to know how many questions were on the test and how much time they had. A runner approached me and asked if I knew of anyone who ran a marathon with a cold because he had a bad one and was certain it would affect his results. Others approached the pace bunny and wanted to know what they would need to do to achieve their desired time. Still others hoped Mark Donnelly (anthem singer at the Canucks games known for his unique style of involving the audience in the performance) would do his fast version of the national anthem so they could get on their way.

When the gun fired to start us off I took notice of the runners all around me. I saw a variety of clothing that spoke to personal preference and said something about each person. For a glorious sunny morning I was convinced some were overdressed and I was absolutely convinced the guy dressed to look like a fairy princess was inappropriately dressed. The eventual winner, who hails from Ethiopia, remarked how cold it was and why he needed gloves. Our schools also reflect this diversity and our students also share things about themselves with the clothes they wear. While I’m not suggesting it should be “anything goes”, I also know that the recent story of a student in Nova Scotia suspended for having a statement about Jesus on his shirt likely went too far.

As the run progressed I also noticed different running styles. Not everyone ran like I did and I couldn’t run like anyone else (even as they flew past me and I wanted to grab their speed!) as I had worked on all of this during my training. Some runners favored the uphill stretches while others thundered downhill whenever those sections appeared. Clearly no two runners were alike and it would have been wrong to expect they would all achieve the same on this day (or any day) despite the work put in prior to the event. Similarly, our students bring different strengths to each class they attend. Some have a particular passion for a subject, others have a strong desire to learn, and still others have strengths in areas one of our colleagues teach.

It also became apparent that the results of the day were impacted by the conditions of the day. While I enjoyed the sunshine, it did start to get a little too warm for an optimal run. Some of the aid stations only carried water while I must have my Gatorade to keep my electrolytes in check. This reminded me that the results of the day were just that. Taken in isolation they only offered a snapshot of any of the runners. To get a more complete picture you would have to look at results over a period of time and in other events and conditions. So too is it for our students. One result tells us something but many results and from many sources, provides a clearer picture of their capability.

As I moved into the latter stages of the race I know I reaped immense benefit from the feedback I received. Spectators yelling out encouragement helped but those who personalized it (our names were on our race numbers) and offered something deeper (“your on pace for”, “keep your stride length”, or “keep your pace on the last stretch of this hill”) meant more than the random (although appreciated) “looking good”. Some of the feedback was off base (the guy who yelled “your almost halfway there” at the eight mile mark), not effective (“you can catch her”), or just wrong (don’t tell me I have four stoplights to go on the home stretch when it’s actually seven). How much more valuable is our feedback to students when it is personalized and descriptive? When we detail how they can close the gap we help them to do just that. I also realized the value of formative assessment and the penalty one pays for ignoring the message contained within. I had my watch on and had hoped to run just over five minutes per kilometer. Despite being told repeatedly (every kilometer marker) that I was going too fast, I kept the pace high and paid for it in the second half of the marathon. It took me about fifteen minutes longer to do the second half and that was as a result of ignoring the information I had on hand. That I have run numerous marathons didn’t help as I passed on what I need to pay attention to on this particular day. If we use formative assessment to gauge where our students are, and adjust our instruction to get them to the desired end point, more will arrive having achieved their best and feeling capable of the next challenge.

As I get older I love the challenge of doing a marathon and the training that goes into getting ready for the event. I also love the learning that each race brings. You can’t fake your way to the finish line of a 42-kilometer event. You also can’t fake your way to being a competent learner. But in both cases you can benefit from all of the factors present each day and from the value offered by a good coach.