Friday, 1 July 2016

Feedback and Finals: The Problem with Culminating Tasks

In the field of education, one of the big buzzwords right now is "growth mindset". In essence, it asks students and teachers to visualize themselves on a learning journey in which mistakes can lead us to interesting places and new opportunities for learning; where a positive attitude is vital and reflection and improvement are key.

And yet, we still have final exams and unit tests.

Of course we can't spend forever on a specific topic, but to end the learning with a judgement activity that gives no feedback other than a mark does little to inform a student or contribute to further learning.

Perhaps I am still fixated on my high school's motto from many years ago, which was "Know the Reasons". I certainly live with that idea firmly implanted in much of what I do. However, it seems to me to be an important concept for continued learning, reflection and critical thinking which are sometimes found lacking in wider society (not to name any recent political campaigns or such, but I'm sure we can all find a real-life example in which critical thinking was found to be lacking).

So how can we approach summative assessment while encouraging students to continue to reflect on their understanding beyond "the test"?

Some teachers allow for re-tests, although this is becoming unpopular in some circles. Many teachers opt for summative projects rather than tests or exams. Some incorporate a self-evaluation into the culminating task. Are there other ways to approach this?

We've all seen it: student x gets back the test, looks at the mark at the top, then tosses it in the recycling bin never to be read or seen again. All of the notations and feedback on the paper are ignored, and an opportunity to learn from the assignment is lost.

This happens at all stages of a particular strand or unit, but is most common after the summative, perhaps because the student knows it will be a long time before they see that concept revisited. However, this is a valuable time in which to receive feedback because it is likely to address the student's highest level of understanding yet for this topic, skill or subject.

How do we get students to buy into such reflection?

The learning cycle is a lot like using a lint roller: every time you go over an area, a little
more stuff sticks. That also applies to reviewing all tasks. The mentality of "I'm so glad it's over, I never want to see x again!" is hard to overcome. Part of the issue may also be the idea that since the course has been passed (or not), the learning on that subject is no longer necessary or worth pursuing. When students see the report card or credit as the goal rather than the learning itself, the idea of review after the last task may seem pointless to them.

When students see the report card or credit as the goal rather than the learning itself, the idea of review after the last task may seem pointless to them.

Some schools have a period of time in which students can go over their final exam or assignment with the teacher. Other ideas might include a class discussion over the classes website, Facebook page or other online discussion venues, or a scheduled drop-in time where students can meet with their teachers. Some teachers build a reflection component into the final task itself. Although it can also be argued that a little more time and feedback could aid in reflection, taking time to do so at all is still a positive step.

I am curious about how students in classes wherein a growth mindset is strongly and embraced by the students might respond to such opportunities to receive more feedback and review/reflection when compared with classes who continue on a more traditional path. I welcome your insight in the comments below.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Life with Bees

My son and I have become bee havers this spring. I use the word "havers" rather than "keepers" since the bees pretty much take care of themselves. We've only been doing this for a couple of weeks so far, but I've already learned much along the way. 

It's an interesting and calming activity to share with a kid who has always had a fascination with nature and small creatures.

Honey bees, for the most part, are docile and will only sting when the hive is under attack or they perceive it to be. There are Africanized honey bees that are more aggressive, but those only survive in warmer climates much further south than Canada. Our bees are a mixture of various European breeds that have been bred locally for several decades.

Honey bees are not native to North America, but since their introduction, they have become very important pollinators, and much of our food is the result of pollination of honey and other bee species. They may be known for their honey and wax, but their true importance to humans lies in their pollination abilities.

Many people mistakenly call wasps and hornets bees, but they are very distinct species with different habits.

Wasp nest--not that it is paper, not wax
Above are a wasp and wasp nest. Note that the wasp's nest is paper-based, not made of wax, and that while it has hexagonal cells and rows of paper comb, the overall shape looks like a round paper lantern. Below is a picture of a hornet.

Below are some honey bees on comb, and below them is a bumble bee.

Honey bees, on wax comb
Bumble bee
Wasps and hornets can be aggressive and most stings people receive come from these insects. Bees tend to be more docile, although they will defend their hives.

If you have bees on your property, do not use insecticides or call a pesticide company. Instead, contact your local beekeeping association and they will very happily remove the bees. Everyone wins as the beekeeper gets free bees and you get the safe removal without the use of toxic products.

Most honey bees are female. There is the queen, who is central to the hive and the only bee that reproduces in most cases (occasionally worker bees can become fertile, but can only lay unfertilized eggs which become drones). The queen is an egg-laying machine who depends on several workers to feed her.

The majority of bees in a hive are worker bees, who take on different roles during their short lives, including nurse bees who feed and care for larvae, foragers, builders of comb, defenders, etc. All worker bees are female.

A small number of bees are males, called drones. Drones are slightly larger than workers, have no stingers, and their only job is to mate with a distant queen. 

On our recent visit to the apiary (bee yard), we noticed that the bees at the entry were being groomed by other bees from the hive. This is an important activity as it helps the bees keep down the number of mites in the hive. Varroa mites are a serious threat to honey bees, but healthy hives are able to keep down their numbers through various activities, including grooming.

Some of the bees watched us as we took out frames for inspection to determine the health of the queen. I would guess that they were trying to determine if we were a threat to the brood. Since we moved slowly and carefully and did not threaten the hive, we became more of a curiosity than a threat.

Since these are new hives, it is important for us to know that the queen is healthy and laying new eggs. If she stops, the hive will need to build queen cells and start making a queen. They do this by choosing young larvae to feed royal jelly and bee bread, which is a mixture of pollen, honey and various enzymes. This feeding difference is the key to determining whether a bee will become a queen or a worker bee. Several queens are created. Upon emergence from the cell, the quickest and strongest one fights off the others to become queen of the hive.

Those who have not visited a bee hive may think this sounds absurd, but watching the bees go about their business has a very calming effect on people. It certainly does for me (and I was very hesitant about the whole idea not very long ago!).