Pedagogical Epiphany: A Collegial Conversation

“There have been many measures taken to try to turn the educational system towards more control, more indoctrination, more vocational training, imposing a debt, which traps students and young people into a life of conformity… That’s the exact opposite of [what] traditionally comes out of The Enlightenment. And there’s a constant struggle between those. In the colleges, in the schools, do you train for passing tests, or do you train for creative inquiry?” –Noam Chomsky
Background Info:
When I heard the term COMMON ASSESSMENT a few years ago, my initial thought was: Oh that’s cool… a way to see if teachers are teaching the same skills. The context of it was for a history class, whose students were given excerpts of source documents that they needed to incorporate as support when answering an opinion- based question on a given topic. Teachers corrected other classes’ work using the same rubric. My understanding was that the purpose was to see if students were able to form a plausible opinion on a topic while incorporating outside sources. Sounded like a good idea.

As time passed, my department (English) was given the task of creating common assessments for certain courses. Our first attempt was to focus on common units, such as C.A.P.T. ( the Connecticut Mastery Test for sophomores). The attempt was a good one with predictable outcomes, such as the level of mastery had a lot to do with the level the course was being taught on (for instance: level 1=high achieving students, level 2=moderate achieving students, level 3=low achieving students). That worked until the thrust of the collapsing of levels became a movement to which we responded. Then, we saw more or less the same results but within a given class.

The focus of common assessment quickly took a turn from the actual assessment to data driven instruction which meant we needed to move to assessments with measurable outcomes. This is where the grey area needed to turn to black and white, but this didn’t occur in a collegial fashion because while commonality exists in our classes in the sense that we are all working from the same curriculum, approach, emphasis and methods vary by the very nature of 12 individual teachers coming from different backgrounds of experiences and styles– not to mention pedagogical philosophies.

The problem:
Data driven instruction was problematic for me, by in large, due to the fact I just stated, but more so in the goal of insuring all students learn the same skills AND content in order for an accurate predictor upon which to modify teaching. It’s one thing to ask us, as teachers, to teach the same skill and content, it’s quite another for the student outcomes to be a determining factor in our ability to teach our students. It even took a turn in various educational systems to be the basis upon which teacher’s success in the classroom is measured. Suddenly, data driven instruction had painted, in my head, one hundred and twenty five robots where one could not be distinguished from the other. Sameness is the word that ruminates when I hear D.D.I. mentioned.

We are not the same. Teachers are not the same as each other, even in a given department. Students are not the same as each other. They will not learn the same. They will not retain the same. They will not test the same. They will not, by their very nature, become the same. I am reminded of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale every time I think about common assessment and data driven instruction. And if that wasn’t enough, we were then asked to create common FORMATIVE assessments. We were set up in teams, to tackle this next venture in teaching, under the guise of “collaborating.” Only, collaborating, in my mind, is working together on a shared interest. Interest being the key word.

Pretty soon, teachers will become obsolete and we’ll be replaced by computers so education is delivered the SAME everywhere to everyone all the time. I will resist that kind of teaching with ever core of my being.

The conversation:
Completely fed up with the idea of creating C.A.’s, C.F.A’s to address D.D.I, another colleague and I asked if we could branch off to form our own “team” to work on the curriculum that only the two of us teach. We have met periodically for a solid year now, sometimes even on our own time, beyond our “team” allotment or curriculum hours. While I have taught this course for 9 years, now, my colleague was in his first year last year. What began as a mentor-like relationship has morphed into more of a collaborative effort. We discovered that the basis of all of this is a shared interest. While our philosophies are unique to each of us, there is a compromise that takes place in the way we create opportunities for learning for our students– thus, enriching, as I see it, our own pedagogies, not to mention the outcomes for students. We feed off one another’s ideas, something that first took place on Google.docs last summer as we created a common assessment based on the summer reading we’d assigned. Openness is essential to the success of such an endeavor. Since, we have mirrored the same experience in developing other common assignments– oftentimes, sharing the outcomes or answering questions, posing what if scenarios.

In our second year, after looking at the work we’ve done and the results of what the students have produced, we are currently looking at ways to refine our initial work in order to make it more effective. So, at our “summer” meeting today, we sat across from one another (after discussing, debating, creating, revising, concluding)– and I asked “How is this type of collaboration so effective in the sense that we are creating common assessments and utilizing data to drive the revision of our instruction and not so much for the teams we’d been assigned earlier in the year?” This is work that I look forward to because it makes what I’m teaching better, it makes me a better teacher, and it makes my students better educated.

The solution:
What I’m saying is that if the alphabet soup of all this new philosophy were modeled after what my colleague and I believe we have accomplished, the essence of our students’ (and essentially, teachers’) individuality will not be lost, only enriched. The nuts and bolts would include two teachers with a shared interest or pedagogy beginning with a collegial conversation about what they teach and why, what they want their students to achieve and why, and how they will accomplish it all. The rest will work itself out. Ultimately, invite more teachers in on the conversation. My colleague described it as achieving the same goals through a more “organic” process.

”Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and inquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us. That’s far more significant than passing tests and, in fact, if that’s the kind of educational career you’re given the opportunity to pursue, you will remember what you discovered.” — Noam Chomsky

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