Educators are constantly lamenting the lack of writing skill observed in their students. However, few teachers take any ownership over this often-cited deficit in their own students, preferring to blame social trends regarding technology, entertainment, and the popularity – or lack thereof – of reading.
Many English teachers claim that reading is the key to writing (Hanski, 2014). They suggest that the rules of English grammar will be learned naturally as one continues to read English prose. These same teachers suggest that the lack of writing skill we presently observe in our students is the result of a lack of such reading. While I would certainly agree that reading does improve writing skill, I must disagree with any position that views writing skill as being wholly dependent on reading. In truth, I believe that writing skill is a body of knowledge that must be taught - not absorbed subliminally. I believe that one must first learn the rules of grammar before one can even begin to recognize the various rules and conventions at play in our language. Otherwise, commas that come before coordinating conjunctions, for example, will seem like just another random event concealed in the apparent chaos of words, punctuation, and carriage returns. In my view, until one understands that there is in fact a rule being invoked, one will simply not realize that they are observing such a rule when they see it.
To be sure, it is widely believed that the quality of writing skill amongst English writers is on the decline. Few teachers would disagree with this. I strongly believe, however, that the cause of this deterioration is not a lack of reading, but rather the Whole Language movement that came to the forefront of educationalist theory back in the 1970s. Whole Language (also known as “New English”) is a learning theory that believes language is acquired most effectively when language is kept whole, and not fragmented into skills. The theory sounds very nice, and was without a doubt well-intentioned. However, I personally prefer the perspective provided by Steven Laffoley, a Canadian English teacher and school principal. In a 2004 CBC radio commentary, Laffoley described Whole Language as a movement that “blindly trusted a student’s individual intuition and ... encouraged students to write willy-nilly, unfettered by rules of grammar or qualitative evaluation.” Laffoley went on to say, “Unfortunately, Whole Language failed to produce competent writers. And worse. Whole Language imparted to students a fantastical and unwarranted sense of self-esteem and self-confidence in writing. They were told they write well, but in truth, they have no practical knowledge of English or of writing and certainly no sense of its craft. In truth, they are inexperienced and incompetent.”
Laffoley’s final assertion is the most damning, not just of Whole Language, but of the very future of the English language: “Even if we had the will to change our course suddenly, we would be left to confront the dark, awful truth that this generation of teachers is the product of New English. Frankly, many teachers are without the fundamental grammatical knowledge necessary to teach our children.”
While some may view Laffoley as cynical, it's hard to deny his point. If we teachers do not understand the mechanics of writing, then how can we expect our students to grasp the rules and conventions of the written word? Should we simply ask our students to read more? That’s an easy out... but I suspect that's not the answer. I say this for two reasons. The first is that any modern piece of published writing can, and likely does, contain numerous grammatical errors. As such, modern published writing cannot be utilized dependably as exemplars of grammatically correct writing. The second reason is this: reading didn’t work for us. Teachers read, do we not? Yet, how many of us have enough faith in our knowledge of grammar to qualitatively mark grammar? If we do mark grammar, then how often do we simply underline a phrase or clause and write [awk] or [revise] or [rewrite] on the student’s paper? If we do understand the notion of, for example, parallel structure, how often do we just mark the paper with [ // ] and then move on? Can we actually explain the meaning of parallelism to our students? Can we identify the non-parallel elements within the sentence? Can we describe these elements in terms of their parts of speech? How often do we find ourselves saying, “I know it doesn’t sound right, but I can’t really say why”? In her 1994 article, The missing foundation in teacher education: Knowledge of the structure of spoken and written language, Louisa Cook Moats discusses the findings of her study wherein she tested experienced teachers on reading, language arts, and special education to determine whether they have the requisite awareness of language elements. "The results were surprisingly poor, indicating that even motivated and experienced teachers typically understand too little about spoken and written language structure to be able to provide sufficient instruction in these areas." After these same teachers took a course focusing on phonemic awareness training, spoken-written language relationships, and analysis of spelling and reading behaviour in children, the teachers judged this information to be "essential for teaching" and advised that it "become a prerequisite for certification."
I would even go so far as to suggest that we teachers – many of us the products of Whole Language – have simply tuned our ears to our own writing styles, and remain oblivious to the countless errors that we commit on a regular basis. We do this simply because we, quite frankly, find ourselves in constant agreement with the mechanics that we taught ourselves all those years ago in middle school. Thus, we think ourselves competent writers, yet we cannot really explain our system of writing to anyone else. Until we subject our own system of grammar to scrutiny, and dare to acquire an understanding of the grammatical rules that have governed our language for centuries, then we cannot know for certain whether our knowledge of English is truly knowledge, or simply a fairy tale told to us long ago by our Whole Language teachers.
All is not lost
If we do indeed have the will to change our course, then each and every teacher who deals with the written word can become an advocate for the authentic English language. There is still an abundance of grammar books available on the market, and more grammar blogs and websites come online every year. Any one of us can access these resources in an effort to improve our knowledge of English grammar, and, in so doing, we can help our students do the same. We even see evidence of a writing revolution in places like New Dorp High, a New York high school wherein "students suffered from a writing deficit that neither huge technology investments nor radical staffing changes could remedy" (Tyre, 2012). In 2009, the school finally resorted to implementing a cross-curricular program that required students to write expository essays and learn the fundamentals of grammar. "Within two years, the school's pass rates for the English Regents test and the global-history exam were soaring. The school's drop-out rate — 40 percent in 2006 — has fallen to 20 percent" (Tyre, 2012). "Homework got a lot harder. Teachers stopped giving fluffy assignments such as, “Write a postcard to a friend describing life in the trenches of World War I,” and instead demanded that students fashion an expository essay describing three major causes of the conflict" (Tyre, 2012).
Knowledge of grammar is not a destination: it is a journey. It is unrealistic to expect anyone to learn all of the intricacies of our language, but that does not mean that we, as teachers, should not endeavour to expand and improve our knowledge of grammar, and then teach that knowledge – true knowledge – to our students. The only question we must now ask ourselves is: do we have the will?
Hanski, Mike. Want to be a Better Writer? Read More. Huffington Post, June, 2014. Web. Oct. 2016. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-hanski/read-more_b_5192754.html>
Krashen, S. (1989), We Acquire Vocabulary and Spelling by Reading: Additional Evidence for the Input Hypothesis. The Modern Language Journal, 73: 440–464. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.1989.tb05325.x
Strom, Ingrid M. "Does Knowledge of Grammar Improve Reading?" The English Journal 45.3 (1956): 129-33. Web.
Tyre, Peg. “The Writing Revolution” The Atlantic.com. The Atlantic Monthly Group, October 2012. Web. Oct. 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing- revolution/309090/>
Mastery learning is one of the most discussed but little pursued concepts in education. We hear a lot of talk about mastery learning, but how many teachers actually do it? I mean actual mastery learning, where students have the opportunity to establish "a level of performance that all students must master before moving on to the next unit" (Slavin, 1987). Sure, we might see the odd educator referring to test rewrites as "mastery learning," but that is hardly establishing "mastery" of the material. At best, it is a chance to revisit the material once. At worst, it is simply marking a test twice.
Unlimited mastery learning across the entire curriculum of a given course is, without a doubt, a daunting prospect. However, it can be done. As long as a teacher leverages the tools currently available, and maintains focus on the true intent of mastery learning, then mastery learning can indeed be achieved in many modern learning environments. What follows are a few of the keys to mastery learning that I have discovered in my practice, as well as some practical advice on implementing these keys.
Key 1: Mastery learning is mastery learning... not mastery marking.
Mastery learning occurs at the formative level. Multiple opportunities provided to student to improve their summative marks is a separate (albeit related) issue from mastery learning. Make no mistake: true mastery learning is about learning – not marks. (More on that later.) Assessment designed to provide feedback and direction for improvement is, by definition, formative assessment. Ergo, genuine mastery learning occurs at the formative level. The relationship between mastery learning and the student’s summative marks should, if the endeavour is pursued correctly, simply follow as a natural positive correlation. Now, as for the whole "pursued correctly" thing, well... that's the whole trick of the endeavour. (Again, more on that below.)
Key 2: Mastery learning can occur anywhere, but is most important to pursue for foundational concepts.
I will never be a master of memorization. My brain just doesn’t work that way. However, many people have incredible memories. We don’t want to design formative assessments to promote mastery memorization, though. The memorization of facts is, without a doubt, critically important to learning: even skill-based learning. As is often said amongst brain researchers, “You need to know something before you can think about something.” I will certainly concede that there is great value in memorization of knowledge, and I will also concede the fact that mastery learning can in fact reinforce that knowledge. (Just ask any music student who has repeatedly used flashcards to memorize the notes of the treble or bass clef.)
Indeed, knowledge is the soil from which thinking grows, and thinking can be thought of as the branches from which the leaves of creativity spring. Yes, people, organizations, businesses, society, and civilization all need people who can think and exercise creativity, but before any of that can happen, knowledge (actual knowledge... not opinion) must be in place.
Key 3. Formative assessment can only generate mastery learning if students have some way to examine and understand their own formative results.
I cannot emphasize enough the need for the student to understand… not be told by someone else who understands. The student must have the opportunity to engage in self-assessment (i.e. assessment as learning) following each formative assessment. Otherwise, the student is essentially spinning a dial each time he takes the assessment, and hoping that the dial will eventually land on “Mastered!”
The formative assessment must not only provide a mark to the student, and record that mark for both the student and the teacher, but that mark must be broken down into its constituent parts as well. In other words, a quiz comprised of ten questions must present the student with a result for each question.
As counter-intuitive as this might seem, providing feedback to the student on each and every aspect of a given formative assessment, is, almost by definition, not particularly required for assessment “as” learning. The more salient issue is whether the student has the opportunity to look at an incorrect result and process, for himself, why the result is wrong. Only when that critical step is facilitated, and then the student has the opportunity to test and confirm his new understanding in subsequent assessments, will the student experience what is perhaps the most powerful form of learning available: assessment “as” learning.
But... who can do all that marking?!
A very small percentage of teachers have ever pursued unlimited mastery learning across their entire curriculum. Ask most teachers about the least favourite part of their job, and they will undoubtedly say it's the marking. Marking is relentless, and most teachers find the prospect of marking all of their assessments just once to be incredibly challenging at best. (At worst, it's impossible.) Now, add into this equation the following realities associated with formative assessment in a mastery learning environment:
Remind most teachers of these elements, and they will tell you that true, unlimited, mastery learning is simply not a reality.
Enter the new reality
For the most part, teachers who balk at the idea of genuine mastery learning would be correct were it not for one thing: the incredible opportunities now provided to educators by way of technology. The technological tools and applications available today provide educators with the opportunity to provide their students with assessments that are not only completed online, but marked immediately by the online application and then recorded in the application's central grade manager. Admittedly, that’s a lot of data crunching, but remember: that’s what computers do.
Make no mistake though, in order for genuine mastery learning to be pursued, teachers must leverage technology that can manage the recording and tracking of marks. (Remember what I said about the "impossible" thing above. A teacher's memory and vague impressions will not suffice in the effort to administer formative assessment.)
Developing a Mastery Learning Lab
So now, what can you do in your classroom to start implementing true, unlimited, mastery learning, today? You can go out on the web and register yourself with any number of free online learning management systems (such as CourseSites or Schoology to name just a couple) or set up an account with one of the pre-developed learning systems (such as Khan Academy or Mathletics), and then establish an online Mastery Learning Lab!
To create a Mastery Learning Lab (MLL), you will need to develop a collection of quizzes and activities that the Learning Management System (LMS) can mark and record, or you will need to register for a pre-developed system that marks and records its own pre-existing quizzes and activities. Either way, the quizzes in your Lab are "mastery learning" quizzes because you can invite your students to take these quizzes repeatedly until they master them. (Note: Online Learning Management Systems generally provide teachers with the option of emphasize the most recent mark, the highest mark, or the average of all attempts on a given quiz or activity.)
An important caveat about formative assessments
Formative assessment is great, but it's not perfect. Let's just acknowledge two elephants in the room when it comes to formative assessment: students often don't do them, and, when they do, they don't tend to provide them their best effort.
A simple solution: Make your Mastery Learning Lab the best of both worlds!
Did you know there's no law against making an assessment both formative AND summative? Yup. It's true. Go ahead... look it up. No law!
So, here's what you do. You make sure that your students understand that the quizzes and activities in your Mastery Learning Lab are "formative" during a unit because they are mastery quizzes that students can take over and over again during the unit to help them develop their understanding of the topic. Moreover, the results on these assessments will help both the student and the teacher identify areas of strength and weakness as you move through a unit, thereby helping to guide next steps. However, at the conclusion of the unit these quizzes and activities become "summative" because their final marks will indeed be counted toward the final grade as of the conclusion of a given unit. (See more on this approach by examining the post on Index Marking.)
Boom! Best of both worlds! The student gets to attempt assessments in a non-threatening, low-stress, mastery environment that is formative during the unit, but the students are also motivated to not only do these assessments but to provide them their best effort because they know that the assessments will eventually count toward their grade.
Setting up a Mastery Learning Lab is definitely a big time investment. This investment can be reduced markedly if one utilizes a pre-developed learning system such as Mathletics or Khan Academy, but, either way, it requires an investment. The question then becomes: Is it worth the investment? In my opinion, it is well worth the investment. Especially if you are confident that you will be teaching the same course for a number of years. I might even suggest that the payback period on a teacher's investment in a Mastery Learning Lab could be as little as two years. In other words, the time you put into your Lab will be returned, with dividends, after two years.
Consider setting up a Mastery Learning Lab for one of your courses today, and let me know how it goes.
Slavin, R. E. (1987). Mastery learning reconsidered. Review of Educational Research, 57, 175-213.
Looking for a Practical Way to Record and Utilize Observations and Conversations? Try the Ongoing Triangulation Index!
Teachers in Ontario have been spending a lot of time over the last couple of years discussing the use of observations and conversations in assessment. The discussion stems from approximately one paragraph of material found on page 39 of the Ministry of Education's Growing Success policy document. The paragraph begins:
Evidence of student achievement for evaluation is collected over time from three different sources – observations, conversations, and student products. Using multiple sources of evidence increases the reliability and validity of the evaluation of student learning.
Ontario teachers have not found much guidance from the Ministry on the implementation of this directive, nor have we found any real consensus amongst teachers about how one would actually record conversations and observations, how one would use this data were it to be collected, or even how one might differentiate a "conversation," from an "observation," from a "product."
Nonetheless, I like the spirit of triangulation, and so I have set out to create a practical, reliable, and useful tool that allows a teacher to both collect data regarding conversations and observations, and then actually use this data in a predictable and transparent way to inform a student's final grade. I have called this tool the Ongoing Triangulation Index.
The OTI - A Summary
The OTI is a tool, administered via ClassDojo, that records and analyzes daily in-class observations of learning, and then translates these observations into an index value that is associated with a mark. (In my courses, this mark is worth 5% of the final grade.) The Index carries on as a fluctuating, formative value throughout each unit, but is then recorded as a summative mark at the end of each unit. The Index is reset at then end of each unit, allowing a new value to be generated for each successive unit. Thus, the OTI acknowledges the learning that is demonstrated by students in class on a daily basis.
The Ongoing Triangulation Index
The Ongoing Triangulation Index is a value based on recorded observations and conversations in class. Each observation or conversation is time-stamped, dated, and accompanied by a brief explanation. Within this index, students can accumulate both positive and negative observations, the sum of which will determine their overall Index value.
The Index provides each student with a percentage mark, which essentially indicates the percentage of positive to negative observations. Moreover, some analysis of these observations is also provided, which can be used by students and academic advisers to identify areas of strength and weakness, and to set goals in response to these observations.
Enabled by Technology
The OTI would not be possible without the assistance of technology. While I have experimented with a number of class management apps, I have decided to use ClassDojo to track the OTI. I made this decision because ClassDojo allows me to record a given observation for several students at once. (For example, all of the students who participated in a class discussion, or the top five scorers in a Kahoot review exercise.) In addition, ClassDojo allows me to communicate my in-class observations, as well as my general class story, to my students, parents, and even academic advisers.
Mandate from the Ministry of Education
The mandate to implement the Ongoing Trinagulation Index comes from three interrelated documents: i) Growing Success, ii) The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 11 and 12, Canadian and World Studies, and iii) The Ontario Skills Passport.
Page 39 of the Growing Success policy document outlines a mandate for triangulating a student's mark based on products, observations, and conversations. Specifically, it states:
Evidence of student achievement for evaluation is collected over time from three different sources – observations, conversations, and student products. Using multiple sources of evidence increases the reliability and validity of the evaluation of student learning.
“Student products” may be in the form of tests or exams and/or assignments for evaluation. Assignments for evaluation may include rich performance tasks, demonstrations, projects, and/or essays. To ensure equity for all students, assignments for evaluation and tests or exams are to be completed, whenever possible, under the supervision of a teacher. Assignments for evaluation must not include ongoing homework that students do in order to consolidate their knowledge and skills or to prepare for the next class. Assignments for evaluation may involve group projects as long as each student’s work within the group project is evaluated independently and assigned an individual mark, as opposed to a common group mark.
The evaluation of student learning is the responsibility of the teacher and must not include the judgement of the student or of the student’s peers.
The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 11 and 12, Canadian and World Studies
Specific Expectations for the Grade 12 Economics Course (CIA4U) include the development of transferable skills. Page 94 of the The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 11 and 12, Canadian and World Studies states that throughout the course, students will:
A2.1 describe ways in which economic investigations can help them develop skills, including the essential skills in the Ontario Skills Passport (e.g., reading texts, writing, document use, computer use, oral communication, numeracy skills) and skills related to financial literacy, that can be transferred to postsecondary opportunities, the world of work, and everyday life.
A2.2 apply in everyday contexts skills and work habits developed through economic investigations (e.g., use skills related to budgeting, or weighing opportunity costs, to help them make responsible financial decisions; analyse trade-offs to make informed consumer decisions; analyse the meaning of statistics in a news report; apply work habits such as collaboration to help them deal with conflict and build consensus, or self-regulation to monitor their progress towards a particular financial goal).
The Ontario Skills Passport
The Essential Skills area of the Ontario Skills Passport outlines and provides a brief description the following essential skills:
Moreover, the OSP outlines a separate list of skills under what it calls "Work Habits." The habits under this section are described below:
As it is critical that everyone in both academia and the work force possess strong work habits and skills, the Ontario Skills Passport includes a section on work habits. The work habits section of the Ontario Skills Passport includes:
But... I thought we weren't allowed to mark learning skills?
Many teachers, parents, and students in Ontario are familiar with the Ontario Ministry of Education's general policy stating that the evaluation of learning skills and work habits should not be considered in the determination of a student’s grades. This directive comes from page 10 of the Growing Success policy document, under a section entitled Learning Skills and Work Habits in Grades 1 to 12. However, this particular policy is rarely cited in its full, original form. The directive actually states:
"To the extent possible, however, the evaluation of learning skills and work habits, apart from any that may be included as part of a curriculum expectation in a subject or course, should not be considered in the determination of a student’s grades." [Emphasis added.]
After discussing a couple of specific examples where the evaluation of learning skills would in fact be associated with a mark for courses that do include learning skills within their curriculum expectations, the document goes on to state:
"In fact, achievement of the curriculum expectations in many curriculum areas is closely tied to learning skills and work habits." [Emphasis added.]
Thus, the inclusion of transferable skills across the entire social studies curriculum does not represent the policy contradiction that some people might believe. As we can see, Growing Success does indeed allow for learning skills to be considered towards the determination of a student's grade as long as those learning skills are associated with specific curriculum expectations. And, as Growing Success itself states, this actually occurs "in many curriculum areas" (page 10).
The New Learner Lab
Exploring the ever-changing, often challenging, and always controversial world of teaching.