No more pencils, lots more fun

October 13, 2009 at 9:00 pm

From Parent Central.
Kristin Rushowy, Education Reporter

No more pencils

No rows of desks in this classroom, and no teacher lecturing at the front.

In fact, that’s something Barrie teacher Liz Collett rarely does. Instead, she’s on the move, talking to students about their work, from the small group sitting on the floor playing Monopoly to others nearby figuring out a math problem.

The children in this Grade 2/3 class do not take a spelling test all year – in fact, the school avoids all pencil-and-paper tests – nor do they get assigned homework. Instead, their teacher gives them immediate feedback on their work throughout the day; they rarely hand in something for a final grade that she hasn’t gone through with them and handed back with tips for improvement.

Welcome to the school of the 21st century, a place where teachers and students collaborate and cooperate. Such cutting-edge classrooms, gaining ground across Ontario, are trying things some might consider coddling kids or even lowering the bar – using graphic novels instead of covering the classics, letting students submit a voice-recorded essay instead of a written one or even allowing teens to design their own courses.

Without it, educators say schools risk tuning out – or worse, turning off – today’s learners. And though critics accuse schools of dumbing things down – universities continue to complain about high school graduates’ poor math skills – others will say such changes are actually based on the newest research on how to appeal to today’s youth and boost not only their interest, but their achievement.

And a new report suggests these schools are on the right track. It found that many of today’s schools are not holding kids’ interest. And if they’re not interested, they’re not learning – and isn’t that the point?

The Canadian Education Association found that only about one-third of 32,000 students across the country, from Grades 5 to 12, are interested in class. Students today say they want their education to be relevant, and don’t want to be simply regurgitating the facts.

“That’s the kind of learning that requires you to think, and think deeply, and it may not be happening for many kids,” says Penny Milton, the association’s chief executive officer. “What we could argue is that to become good learners, they need to become thinkers.”

Principal Jan Olson at Prince of Wales elementary school in Barrie – where Collett teaches – says schools have basically been operating the same way since the Industrial Revolution. But the digital age is bringing an education revolution all its own. While using technology is a part of it, what’s important for students “is being able to use information and understand it, versus just remembering it.” Students know more about technology than their teachers; and they’re being educated for jobs that haven’t yet been created, he adds, so what they really need are transferable skills.

A few years ago, the school banned homework, arguing there was little evidence it helped boost student achievement and that it wasn’t fair to assign such work to students with challenging home lives when others had two parents at home able to help them. After the first year, grades went up slightly and parents raved about all the family time available.

Jim Greenlaw, dean of the faculty of education at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, says education is moving away from the “transmissional” – where teachers simply impart information – to transactional, or working together, and even to transformational, where it changes students’ lives. “And if you are a fair teacher who gives students something interesting to do, then you can be more demanding because they are more interested,” he says.

For Mary Jean Dickie, a kindergarten/Grade 1 teacher in Barrie, it means having her young charges explain, face-to-face, what they know, or have them write something down, or maybe both.

The cutting-edge practices at her school are part of an overall push by the Simcoe County District School Board to focus on 21st century learning and teaching.

Today’s learner needs fewer traditional tests and more “formative” feedback, ongoing discussion with a teacher, which studies have found is the number one factor in boosting achievement, says Olson.

“Some see this as redoing an assignment to improve their mark but it is about learning and improving and not about marks,” he adds.

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Entry filed under: Article, October 2009, Teaching Resources.

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