Half Way Through My 5 Year Plan

As part of my 5 year project for the Nova Scotia Community College (called my Faculty Learning College Portfolio, FLCP) I had to present my thoughts on the process and what I’ve learned to the committee at the half way point this June. Prior to the presentation the committee asked for a brief report on what I’ve learned so far. This post is a version of that document:

This project has been invigorating to my practice. The opportunity to research Education at this point in my career acts as a significant upgrade to my B.Ed and provides a new lens on what I’ve been doing up to now and what I would like my classroom to look like. In this report I will present some of the highlights of my growth and learning in broad strokes by FLCP goal:

GOAL #1 Explore Education science and best practices from other alternate programs as they pertain to adult education and learning. Incorporate them into my classroom in order to maximize student success

I’ve read a lot on this topic so far. Brain science is new to me having taken no biology in university. I have found my readings both fascinating and practical since how the brain remembers, learns and grows is the biological underpinning of Education. An unexpected discovery was how the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function and working memory also regulates emotional response and self-regulation. Working memory strength correlates with academic achievement, while appropriate emotional response and self-regulation tie into my second goal of developing non-cognitive skills. The fact that strengthening the prefrontal cortex dovetails two of my goals together is a pleasant surprise and a focus for the next 2.5 years (and beyond).

Another interesting fact I’ve put at the forefront is how stress (both past and present) affects the prefrontal cortex. Many of our students have had troubled childhoods (based on the stories many have told me directly) and this affects their cognitive and non-cognitive abilities even as adults. Providing a structured and caring environment are important measures to be taken while, again, developing the prefrontal cortex can mitigate the damage done.

I’ve created a “Prefrontal Cortex Exercise Machine” as a way of bringing this learning into the classroom. Refining and building on it are part of my continued journey.

GOAL #2 Define and develop a process to measure and assess non-cognitive skills associated with better learning, personal wellbeing and higher economic status after finishing the ALP program

This goal was the first one conceived when I began mulling over what my project would entail. The other two fall out of thinking about what I need to know and do to actualize this. Interestingly, it is the one I’ve done the least on. My brain research focuses on this goal as much as it does best practices for traditional scholastic things like remembering and forming connections, however, I have not been able to implement a way of measuring the development of non-cognitive skills. My research has lead me to Angela Duckworth’s “Character Lab” where diagnostic tools have been developed and the latest work on non-cognitive skills is being done. I plan on adjusting their resources to fit an adult classroom. These include student self-reporting and teacher monitoring.

One objective measure I consider a bellwether indicator is attendance. We have made missing class the easiest thing for students to do in the name of flexibility and the opportunity to have a transformative experience suffers. Attending regularly involves many of the non-cognitive skills tied to better academic success and higher wages later in life. This connects directly to our mission statement.  Since this project began I have been posting the weekly attendance by class on the wall as well as pictures from the week’s activities in order to demonstrate the importance I put on being in class as well as show students who weren’t in class that they have missed something fun and engaging.

A truly personal piece of learning I’ve done for this goal is to take guitar lessons. I started in the fall of 2012 in order to take on new learning as an adult and reflect on how non-cognitive skills play a role in my success or failure. There are many parallels between me learning the guitar and my students who are returning to high school. The guitar is something I tried and failed at earlier in my life. It requires commitments of time and effort to learn. And it is an additional load on top of my home and work life. I continue to take the lessons and have come a long way. Over the past 2 years it has provided me many opportunities to put myself in my students’ shoes. How do I prioritize practice when chaos reigns at home or work (or both!)? Or, when do I take ownership of my learning and when do I trust my teacher to guide me? More mundane things have also come up like, how do I get to my lesson when the car is in the shop? These are situations where I might have casually just cancelled the lesson and said ”See you next week” but the point is to work around these things as I expect my students to be able to do as well.

GOAL #3 Develop a standards based Narrative Feedback grading system that relies on continuous feedback for both curriculum content and non-cognitive workplace readiness development.

I have done a lot of reading on giving effective feedback and this goal is the one I am furthest along in. I decided to get rid of grades immediately in my general science class after starting this project and have been developing what is appropriate and effective in shaping both the quality of the student’s work and their approach to the learning. I’ve changed standards based grading (SBG) to narrative feedback, mostly because once I got started I realized that was the form of assessment and evaluation I was actually doing. Both are non-numerical and feedback driven, however, SBG is more suited to skill development in a technical or trades setting and narrative feedback is more focused on the entire course and experience.

A course is a relationship between curriculum content, student and teacher and what binds them all together is the assessment and evaluation. Switching from marks to comments has allowed me much more freedom to focus in on what the individual student actually needs to be successful. For example, I had a student who had a hard time keeping track of his work and would often think he’d handed in things he hadn’t or would hand in partial work thinking they were complete. Instead of losing marks for the missing question or incomplete section, I got to formally address the heart of the issue which was a lack of focus and organization. A narrative is on going and so a course with disjointed assignments on unrelated curriculum topics becomes holistic when the comments and feedback are able to point out improvement on repeated mistakes and show progress. It also ties into my goal of developing non-cognitive skills because I can also note things about the process not just the final product being handed in.

Overall, I now have a better understanding of what it takes to return to school and how that needs to be managed. I am much more knowledgeable about the brain and what it needs to maximize learning and I truly feel like I am on the right track when it comes to progressive assessment and evaluation.


2 Comments on “Half Way Through My 5 Year Plan”

  1. eileen burchill says:

    Andrew Andrew Andrew.
    You make me so tired.
    Stop being so awesome, it sets the bar way too high!

    I continue to feel that narrative feedback should be the heart of our system: it is unfortunate that standards based forces make us use things like gradebook. I will be interested to hear how you managed to work around that.

    As far as the guitar playing? I got 8 months into the drumming lessons and threw in the towel … but then again, I have always had a soft spot for students with too much going on.

    Please, continue with the greatness – you do us proud.


  2. wwndtd says:

    Fantastic! Congrats on the work you’ve completed so far!

    I’m super interested in your Goal #3… Since you don’t give grades on HW, does their HW count for grades, or just for practice?

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