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Un-Doing School: Increasing the Connections Between Intellectual Engagement and Student Success

Posted on: September 27th, 2012 by Stephen Hurley  4 Comments »

​The following is a cross-post from the Canadian Education Association blogspace where I hang out when I’m not here.

It was a chilly and very windy day in May, 1994 when I first began to become aware of the difference between schooling and education. I had taken my grade 6/7 class to the Canada’s Wonderland amusement park for their annual “Math and Physics” Day, hoping to somehow get them excited about something more than just being at Canada’s Wonderland! My friend, Roger Kenyon, and I were huddled in one of the very busy eateries on site, trying to warm ourselves with a morning cup of coffee. We had settled down at a table with a group of Grade 12 math students who were busy manipulating numbers on one of the many pages in the official Math and Physics Day student guide. I was fascinated by the intensity and speed at which they were performing their calculations. Being someone that was never very successful in my high school math and science courses, I’ve always held in awe those that demonstrate a sense of ease with formulae, number-crunching and abstract proofs.

“You guys are good pretty good at that,” I commented.

“We’re all “A” students,” one of the students offered.

“Oh, so you really know what you’re doing.”

“No,” another student said, “We’ve just learned the formulas (sic)!”

Well, that began a brief but powerful conversation with the students about their math classes and how, after being shown the formulae, they simply had to figure out how to “fill in the blanks.”

Now, I’m not naive enough to believe that you can get an A in an upper level math class without some level of understanding—likely more understanding than these particular students were willing to admit—but perhaps this was my first encounter with the idea of doing school.

A new series of reports has just been released by the CEA, based on their widely recognized initiative, What Did you Do In School Today. The first of these, which examines the relationship between various dimensions of student engagement and academic success, poses some sobering questions about the connection between institutional engagement and school marks.

The research indicates that, despite best efforts of many jurisdictions to recognize that behaviours like attendance, effort and homework (p.7) don’t actually reveal a whole lot about understanding or depth of knowledge, review of actual practice indicates that use of these to determine academic success (at least in terms of marks) is still quite common. Although effort is a strong indicator of intellectual engagement, it seems to be overshadowed by evidence that institutional compliance trumps a whole lot of other things when it comes to school success.

Despite the rallying cries that have emerged over the past decade—cries for more authentic assessment and more focus on depth of understanding—it appears that the practice of following the rules of school may still be the most effective way to get good marks.

In my opening story, the students I met had learned that they could do well in math if they learned how to plug in the numbers. Doing math was different than understanding math. And, although my Canada’s Wonderland experience took place nearly 20 years ago, the WDYDIST research suggests to me that things may not be changing at the pace that we would want.

Traditional thinking and the actions that go along with that thinking are both very stubborn things, requiring critical examination of current practice and the sometimes invisible assumptions that hold them in place. That said, we know that there are efforts being made across the country to challenge and change both policy and practice, allowing us to move from doing school to, in a sense, undoing school.

So, in your experience, how are traditional ways of getting marks being supplemented, if not replaced, by other measures of success? How are the marks that we’re assigning to students becoming more authentic reflections of what they know and are able to do?

Is the idea of marks too closely attached to the idea of doing school to affect any sort of realistic change?

Will our desire to have students go beyond merely doing school require that, as educators, parents and policy-makers we first undo school, taking it apart in ways that allow us to examine, challenge, critique and rebuild?

The new reports from the WDYDIST project are important explorations of one of the key dimensions of school transformation. I look forward to further conversation and perspectives!


4 Responses to “Un-Doing School: Increasing the Connections Between Intellectual Engagement and Student Success”

  1. Debbie says:

    Hi Stephen,

    I’m not really going to be able to answer your questions, but I really need to share my reflections and my personal experiences (as well as the experiences of my two eldest children, now in university) with “doing school.” My upbringing was the traditional “doing school” type of schooling, where Sister would read out the rankings from “first to last” when giving out the report cards. That was okay for me because I was either #1 or #2…my friend, Frances, always in competition with me. Despite that, my true nature called to me when I chose to take art in high school instead of physics (my engineer father was not happy!). I continued to explore my creativity and studied Art Education at McGill, taught Art, and then continued to explore new ways of approaching learning through attaining my Special Education Specialist, both L.D. and Gifted. My classrooms have always been places where I’ve tried to “undo school, taking it apart in ways that allow us to examine, challenge, critique and rebuild.” That said, my daughter and son are exemplars for both ends of the doing-undoing schools of learning. My daughter has always been the “perfect student” and she learned very early on how to “do school.” She has been taking notes in class since at least grade 3 and her notes are regarded as masterpieces by both her peers and teachers. She learns every rule and formula and has excelled in Math, even though she has trouble sometimes figuring out a calculation when shopping. She has also written incredibly detailed research papers, following the outlines and rules for essay writing and received marks over 95% in third year university! This, even though she has never read a fiction novel for pleasure…really! Well, maybe Charlotte’s Web in grade 3, but she does not read for fun! To analyze, research or answer questions, she’ll read, but her honours level learning has been a result of her dedicated hard work and adherence to the rules. In her case, as you stated, “the practice of following the rules of school may still be the most effective way to get good marks.” My “identified gifted” son was always the opposite. He was one of those kids that teachers like to say “is not living up to his full potential.” Eventually, he became less bored when he went to the self-contained gifted class and he enjoyed the explorative nature of the class, as well as the open-ended, self-directed learning. (thanks, Mrs. P!) Getting high marks has never been a priority for him, except in Grade 12 when he applied to Queen’s, where he now studies Computer Science. “Doing school” was never something he wanted to do…he was in pre-IB but wanted to continue computer studies in grade 11 so went into regular academic. My daughter was also in pre-IB, but wanted to take a specialized phys ed course, so she, too followed the academic stream. I guess all this is my way of saying that I really, really, do not think that there should be one type of schooling. I have long thought that all educational curriculum should be developed in the way we develop IEP’s for identified students. All people have preferred learning styles and learning differences. Some strive for high marks and perfection, others just want to explore and discover. Some need a template of rules, others prefer following their own parameters. If we “undo school” I believe children like my daughter would struggle to establish themselves and children like my son would flourish. We need to look at our education system in a more wholistic, all-encompassing way. We need to be creative, but we need to be realistic, as well. Assessments need to be more than just marks, and we do need to allow students to become aware of “what they know and what they are able to do.” We need a balance.

    • Debbie,

      Thanks so much for your story. You know what’s kind of interesting. We’ve been working in the same district for how many years? And our professional careers haven’t really bumped against each other as much as I would have liked!

      I love the message of balance!

      • Debbie says:

        I agree, Stephen. So much of what you write and what you’ve experienced in teaching seem to be in synch with my life in education. (and in some ways, family life, as well…my youngest is still in h.s. and yet, many of my teacher friends are grandparents). I guess, through our sharing of thoughts and ideas with our mutual friends and colleagues as well as other teachers, we are still somehow connected and working together!

        Have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family!


  2. Nancy says:

    “We need to look at our education system in a more wholistic, all-encompassing way. We need to be creative, but we need to be realistic, as well. Assessments need to be more than just marks, and we do need to allow students to become aware of “what they know and what they are able to do.” We need a balance.”

    I agreed whole-heartily. As a parent, I only know too well the ‘unbalance’ in the schools. Would you not agree, that a percentage of students, perhaps a larger percentage are students that need a combination of ‘doing-school’ and ‘undoing schools’? My dyslexic child, had to be taught the ‘doing school’ part, in order to blossom in the ‘undoing school’ part. My child, wanted so much to be like your daughter – the prefect student in some education circles. To get there, I had to sit down teaching her all parts of ‘doing school’ – to master them before her creative dyslexic brain went to work. Her creativeness in math, has gotten her into trouble, but as I point out the answer is correct, and her math calculations are short and sweet. Last week, both my 17 year old and I had to put our brains together, to find a solution where marks would not be taken off. It was solved, by inserting the missing steps, that my 17 year found no use for, after she finished solving the problem. What my 17 year old did in one or two steps, the teacher wanted 5 steps, and by last week, the teacher settled for 3 steps in her case. Her dyslexic mind, and the solid foundation in what I call basic and advance mathematics to mastery, has allowed her to explore advanced mathematics with the same ease, as in Stephen’s description of the grade 12 students, “I was fascinated by the intensity and speed at which they were performing their calculations.”

    As I have observed, including my own experiences – there is too much of ‘doing school’ that mimics your daughter, and other students like her, who have always done very well in school from the beginning. I was more like your son, where I was berated and lectured on B grades. This was on top of what I called the brown-nosers, the students that excelled in ‘doing school’, who always could count on me to make the class more lively and interesting on the questions that I would posed to the teacher. Creative, outside of the zone of knowledge, and sometimes my questions would side-line the lesson of the day where doing school became undoing school. As an adult, I only know too well, I was not the model student, and when I was acting like the model student, it was view with suspicion and questions on ‘what is she up to now’. I was in the doing school mode, for only one reason, to obtain the grades needed to make my parents happy. The doing school bit kicked in usually after mid-terms, and where the brown-nosers would glare back at me, because I received the highest grade. And the teacher, would always make remarks, that I must have studied for more than ten minutes.

    I could not have done what I did in high school, if I was not taught the ‘doing school’ to mastery in elementary school. I needed to be taught the rules in writing, the mastery in all things arithmetic, and to which I suspect the majority of students are like me, that needs a balance between the two -doing school and undoing school. The focus in today’s schools, is doing school that mimics students who have always excelled in school from the beginning. At least it was, for my children. The first two, like your daughter, doing school was their thing, but not my youngest one. Being dyslexic like her mom, doing school was a very difficult task, and more so, when the role models being pointed out, were the students who had always excelled from the beginning. Being a Special Education specialist, I think you would appreciated and understand, that the education practices and pedagogy of a school matters, and is of the utmost importance, rising above all other variables.

    Too bad, there is not a lot of teachers of your understanding – “We need to look at our education system in a more holistic, all-encompassing way. ” I have a funny feeling, my youngest child would have been rescued way back in grade 1, to be taught the doing school bit in reading, writing and numeracy, just like the first assessment at the end of grade 3, where one of the recommendations, to be instructed in grammar and all things in the mechanics of writing. Not on the menu at the school, but fortunately, it was on the menu at home. Or otherwise, my 17 year old would not be ‘doing school’ well, nor would she be putting her dyslexic mind to work in the ‘undoing school’ part very well either.

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