Saturday, 26 May 2012

In the Real World

Dave works on the chair while Elaine holds Tas in position
I actually wasn't in school much this week because I needed to take our daughter down to B.C. Children's Hospital for some tests and some work on her wheelchair. I began this week with three days in the "real world", came back and spent a day at school and then finished off today by marking English 12 Provincial Exams.  Let me start with a description of some of my experiences earlier in the week:

The picture above captures the amazing team of Elaine (OT) and Dave (Technician) who have been adapting our daughter Taslyn's wheelchair and positioning devices for over ten years. Basically they (along with the rest of their small team) design and build mobility devices for most of the  handicapped children in the Province of B.C. The work that these two do absolutely fascinates me (and I think they are tired of all my questions!) Basically Dave and Elaine's careers are completely based in collaborative, creative problem solving. They assess the individual needs of each child (spasticity, mobility, positioning etc.) and then the create an original design that will suit the needs of the child, and then they literally build it (on site) over the next few days. There is absolutely no textbook or design manual for the work that they do. Many of the most ingenious designs on our daughter's wheelchair have actually been created by Dave himself. From the beginning of their day to the end they are coming up with creative and individualized solutions. Their job is particularly challenging because as Dave says: "None of these kids play by the rules. There are no rules". Every child has unique demands so Dave and Elaine need to start fresh with each new patient, and because each of the children they work with has a handicap (or many) none of their bodies are "logical". 

Flash forward to the experience I had today. Today I spent approximately 7 hours staring at a computer screen reading hundreds of essays written by students about the same 2 articles on the English 12 Provincial Exam. I found it interesting to think about the fact that it was so different from my very recent experience in the "real world" and yet, aren't provincial exams what we rely on to ensure our graduates are prepared for the rigour and accountability of life after high school? 

The English 12 Provincial E-Exam Marking Committee (Good Times!!)

Here is what I observed in the situation around the English 12 Provincial Exam

  • Students write the exam at the same time and they have a finite time frame (3 hours) to complete the exam
  • All students write identical exam questions regardless of personal interest or background (the three key texts on the May exam were based on a) technology b) hockey goaltenders c) baseball ) 
  • The exam is written completely out of context. The questions are simply "exam questions" and have no higher purpose (once the exams are read and the mark recorded the exams will eventually be discarded)
  • Students write the exam independently
  • Marking the exam is as uninspiring as the writing of it must have been
  • The exam is worth 40% of a student's grade in English 12
  • Students all write the exam under identical conditions (on a computer in a lab). During larger sessions in January and June, students also write in an exam setting such as the one below:
Students at my school during January Exams

In contrast, here is what I observed in the "real world": 

  • Many problems are often not solved on a set time line. For example we had a specific issue with my daughter's wheelchair and Elaine needed to let it "ferment" in her brain overnight. When we came back the next day she had a solution ready. If she had been required to solve it in a three hour limit she would have "failed". 
  • Most problems have more than one possible solution
  • Problems can be solved with the input from more than one person. Elaine often jokes that she and Dave "share a brain". They are constantly consulting with each other, with other members of their team, and with the parents and the children themselves
  • Problems change over time and what once worked may not work in the future and may have to be adapted
  • Solutions just can't be "memorized" if you are always dealing with new issues and situations
  • If an idea fails it just means you need to try another solution (our daughter's wheelchair has been altered many times because initial attempts were not successful)
  • Real problems have a context and a purpose. Dave and Elaine can directly see the impact of their work and the actual people that they are helping. While their work is extremely demanding, they are directly able to experience the results and thus remain inspired and motivated

Now, I do need to provide a disclaimer. As a senior English teacher I must mention that I believe that the skills assessed by the English 12 exam (including reading comprehension, writing, synthesis, and original composition) are completely valid (and extremely important). I also believe that these skills should certainly be assessed in all students. The problem is in the way we assess those skills which completely de-contextualizes everything and (with the exception of the original composition section) leaves no opportunity for personalization or creativity. For the record, approximately 75% of the responses on the original composition section are also presented in a formulaic expository essay format (despite the fact that students are given freedom to respond creatively if they choose). The majority of the test leaves no room for individual interests and completely separates the skills from a real purpose, (and don't even get me started on the multiple choice section!). As provincial exams at the high school level go however, it is potentially superior to the rote memorization of trivia demanded by many sections of the Socials 11 and Science 10 exams. 

Daniel Pink writes:
A quick thought about the disconnect between how we prepare kids for work and how work actually operates:
In school, problems almost always are clearly defined, confined to a single discipline, and have one right answer.
But in the workplace, they’re practically the opposite. Problems are usually poorly defined, multi-disciplinary, and have several possible answers, none of them perfect.

As someone who works with grade 12s I am constantly reminded of my responsibility to prepare students for their lives after high school.  Therefore, if the main argument for provincial exams is that we are enforcing "standards" and "accountability" and "rigour" so that our students are prepared for the "real world" I think we need to think about what "real world" we are actually talking about. The real world I was in for most of the week had very little connection to the provincial exams that I marked today. 


  1. Well put. I am still in favour of having exams of some sort to protect the core skills as we push outward and become more flexible, but I am sure they really need to get more open ended and relevant. The English 10 and 12 are closer to where they need to be, but aren't there yet, and Science 10 ... not close at all. "Tell us what you know, not what you don't." Pass on my regards to your husband. My sis and her two boys (the Zag bros) were big fans. PJ

  2. Thanks Peter,

    I agree with your comments and I am not opposed to final assessments. I just feel that when it comes to final exams for all students in the province the priority is on efficiency and manageability (for the markers) and not on student learning. Unfortunately when many provincial exams (such as Literature 12, Bio 12, etc.) became optional, many teachers just continued giving their students old provincial exams (and still counted them for 40% of their grade). We should be taking advantage of the freedom we have been given, and we should design final assessments that are still challenging but are more "open ended and relevant" as you said. Just yesterday our physics 12 teacher requested that his students not write their final in the gym but instead be given two classrooms so they could conduct both written and active, practical problems for their final. You can see how this causes issues with supervision, marking etc. but in my opinion it is definitely a step in the right direction.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and I'll definitely say hi to Dave! He definitely remembers the Zag boys!


  3. Hi, Naryn

    This kind of post is why I love Twitter and Blogs! Thanks for telling the story in a way that is easy for people to comprehend. I have a lot of mixed feelings about Provincials. I am prepping students for two right now - English 10 and BC First Nations Studies 12. In any case, I love the way you describe what 'the real world' looks like and your list of solutions. My colleagues and I are working on structures and processes so that this list can be more routinized as we work with students. I am also trying to integrate more and more of this kind of process into my own classroom. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I love it Naryn. The real world calls for us to prepare kids differently!! The collaboration and creativity you recognized earlier in the week is what we need to be exposing our kids to daily. If that is what we were doing... "exams" would look entirely different... so much more exciting... so much more focused on solving a problem, creating a solution, or showing some depth of understanding. I loved the blog - what a wonderful contrast... the pictures alone tell such a story.
    Thanks. Keep pushing our thinking!