I was looking at some of the EQAO (Ontario’s standardized test in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10) questions in an attempt to understand why many of our students are not doing well. The problems were hard! They were tricky! I actually had to read one of the grade 6 math questions a few times to figure out what to do! And I think of myself as fairly competent in math, and quite literate. When looking at some of the other questions in math I noticed that quite a few of the questions required me to perform multiple steps, think beyond one strand in mathematics. In reading, the questions often required me to pull multiple sources of information together. In writing, I had to determine the form based on the prompt; I wasn’t necessarily told what to do.
In a conversation with one of our elementary consultants, she expressed surprise that our students, in writing did not score very well in organization. She said, “But our teachers teach writing forms to death!” What was happening?
We, as educators, train our students to learn in particular ways. It could be that the way we organize curriculum delivery actually trains students NOT to think. So when they go to write the EQAO assessment, or end of term exams, and have to think, have to pull multiple sources of information together, make decisions, our students don’t do so well. Not because they are incapable, and not because we didn’t teach them the stuff, but because they have not been given opportunities to practice making their own decisions. Let’s look at two examples:
When students learn writing through units that have students write one form of writing (letters, reports, procedural writing, etc.) over and over for many weeks, teachers end up making all the decisions, not the student. The student isn’t faced with the challenge of determining the form best suited to the audience and the purpose. Instead, the teacher has taken control of the most important aspect of the writing process and the student only needs to comply by writing in that form on a particular topic, not think. It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with organizing his or her thoughts on a topic during an assessment (or even in real life) the student may be at loose ends. Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?
Problem-solving in mathematics classrooms is current practice but there are many misconceptions. It is not problem-solving if the teacher guides the student through the problem. It is not problem-solving if the student isn’t challenged. It is not problem-solving if the student only works in groups and never independently. Students are assessed individually. And, if every problem for the last 3 weeks has been about the same concept, it really isn’t problem solving. It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with a year-end assessment or exam, many students are at loose ends. Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?
We may give lip service to critical thinking and open-ended tasks. But I urge us all to think about whether our classroom practice is really training our students to be independent thinkers, or whether we actually train them to rely on our guidance. It’s hard to be a teacher and watch your students struggle. It’s hard to find that ”just right” amount of struggle. But, standardized tests, like EQAO, end of semester exams, and real life, all depend on students being able to make their own decisions about what needs to be done. Let’s help them to do that by providing them with many, many opportunities to do so throughout the course of the year.