Feb 17, 2010

The Over Under Conundrum

I was reminded again this week and last how easy it is to misjudge your students' skills. My latest example of underestimating my students was working with a high school special education class. The teacher is thinking through how technology could be used to improve his students' reading. I thought thought they might be interested in a little SSR through RSS (sustained silent reading through really simple syndication). We also added a twist in that the students would create a wiki page that contained the 5 newest links from their RSS and the 5 newest comments they had added. In a sense, their reader's response journal was on the same page as an ever fresh set of things to read on a topic of their own choosing.

So, after showing the students an example of what they would be creating, drawing them in with an Olympics topic, we demonstrated to the students how to use Google News to create an RSS feed. We talked a little about what topics might be better for a News site, but told them to try whatever they were interested in, provided it was appropriate for school. Then, we showed them how to take the address for that feed and add it to a new wiki page. After that, we showed them how to add a second section to the page that would display the latest discussion posts. Finally, we showed them how to add a new post in the discussion tab where they could link to a story and comment on it. The mini lesson must have taken a close to 10 minutes. The students would need to remember at least fifteen steps and off they went in pairs.

As they worked, we ended up having a couple of little computer issues, naturally enough, and I was getting a little concerned about time. Instead of my preferred method of letting the students fiddle with the wiki while trying to remember the mini lesson, I tried to help a couple pairs. As the words were coming out of my mouth, the kids' mice were already there. Eventually that observation trumped my thoughts about time and I realized I had underestimated these kids' ability to remember so many steps. I stopped talking. They finished on time without me. How quickly I could have taken away their confidence in themselves and their ownership of the process.

On the way home I mentally chastised myself as I thought about the students and their ability to first focus and take in so many steps and then to remember (I don't think that is actually the right word, since I don't think they put the individual steps into memory, more the overall feel and order of the process) the steps well enough to complete the process. Soon though, I also started thinking about the flip side, when the previous week I had overestimated my own students ability to apply skills we had learned earlier in the year.

My students were researching three subtopics related to diversity in the metro Detroit area. After brainstorming what they thought they knew about the topics and what they wanted to learn about them, the kids set off to find answers or partial answers using the internet. Though my students used a set of thoughtful keywords, not once did I see any of the pairs using Google's advanced search techniques. This despite having worked on using phrases and Boolean logic several times earlier. How quickly they reverted to their old practices! How slowly I thought to stop them as a group and point this out! They didn't need a mini-lesson, only a reminder to use the skills they had.

How often we must misjudge our students' abilities. By taking too inactive role, without watching the kids and reflecting on their processes, or by taking too directive an approach, how can we help but either underestimate or overestimate their abilities. Is it any wonder that informal and formal formative assessment is so integral to students learning?

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