This spring I have read two very different books that I’ve found inspiring and affirming. The second book was ‘Stoner’ by John Edward Williams. I’d seen it eulogised by Julian Barnes at Christmas, but it took recommendations by colleagues to get past the tagline on many reviews, that at first the tale might seem bleak and miserable, and Stoner’s life a failure. Spring term was hard work, I felt I didn’t need any prompts to believe that effort was pointless. The book’s message turns out to be the opposite. While every other aspect of Stoner’s life seems dire or doomed, teaching is celebrated as worthwhile. More than that, conscientious teaching with integrity is honourable and sufficient to give an individual a justified sense of self worth. I realise that I am biased. Professor Williams is preaching to the choir here, but I am immensely grateful to read such a brilliantly written testament to the teacher’s vocation. On a different tack, Stoner’s wife seems to be a distillation of every woman that Williams has ever hated, and I am now resolved to stop talking to myself when concentrating.
The first volume was very different. It is a memoir (An Ethic of Excellence) by Ron Berger, an American craft teacher. Berger’s thesis is that students need to learn craftsmanship, that they need to have time to draft, and re-draft, to reach standards beyond their initial capabilities. In common with ‘Stoner’ it is engaging and inspiring. Berger’s anecdotes are interesting and convincing, As a teacher, reading the book I was thinking ‘this is what I want to do, this is what we should do, how can I do this with my students?’ In fact I was muttering it, because I hadn’t then read Stoner.
Berger’s method seems to be through Project Based Learning (PBL), something easier to implement in craft subjects and in (in the UK) primary schools, than in Physics in a college teaching students in their five years before university entrance and so driven to prepare for public examinations. We expect students to redraft and improve some coursework, but too often in Physics students have one try at a task, get feedback, move on. I know the tradition is different in some subjects, and I felt that we should be able to do better in mine.
I decided to work on two types of student tasks, recording and explaining students’ practical work, and making explanations of terms and phenomena that they would share with other students. Digital, electronic methods of submitting their work turned out to be a great enabler. Students could compile scanned or photographed handwritten or drawn work, photographs, word processed accounts, spread sheets, etc. and hand them in electronically. I gave feedback and suggestions electronically, something that could be done quickly, and done at any time. It is easier for students to modify on screen than to rewrite several pages of text. I’ll write about feedback in another blog, but the feedback recognised what was good in what they had done, expressed confidence in their ability to improve, and told them what was needed to progress to named higher grades.
This is where Showbie (http://www.showbie.com/ ) comes in. In one folder I can see all of a class, and add instructions/comments/support links for the whole class or just for individuals. Very good work can be projected as a model. Students can submit and resubmit, and trace the history of their improvement. This is a task in progress, not yet embedded in the students’ culture. I can see how peer review and collaboration on tasks should be built in. However the results so far are promising, and I have added the work of several students (with their permission) to our college VLE as a resource for their peers.