Monday, March 7, 2011

They Didn't Fail, They Just Haven't Succeeded Yet

I just had a knock down fight with my students. They failed an assignment miserably, only one of thirty students even came close to doing it right. Ordinarily I would shoulder some of the blame for their failure, but I refused to do it this time. I think I was wrong....

My students were expected to do some real thinking. I asked them to read about the Wisconsin union troubles and identify what was going on. They were supposed to write a paragraph explaining both sides of the issue and then identify if CNN or Fox News had written stories that the students felt were biased. Here is a link to the assignment.

Today we reviewed their work, and it was not what I asked for at all, not even close. Most of the students had read articles from Fox and CNN and summarized them. Many did not even complete the project at all. After we looked at their work, I sat with them and told them I would not accept responsibility for their failure on this assignment. I went out of my way to explain what I wanted 3 days in a row. As I roamed the room I told them they were not doing the assignment correctly and would have them read me what the assignment asked for. I even told them to look at the one post that was closest to being done correctly, but still they did it wrong.

I allowed the students to give me feedback over the assignment. I got two arguments, both of which I dismissed. The first was about grades. They thought that even though they failed to do what I asked they deserved some points for effort. The second was about not understanding the assignment. This one I jumped on with both feet. What part of write two paragraphs did they not understand? Where does it say in the instructions to summarize the four articles? On an one I went. I was not a happy camper.

Now that I have had time to think about it, I think that maybe they are right. They don't know how to gather in information and think about it critically. For almost nine years they have been given small pieces of information to read and very specifically guided questions to answer. They in effect have been following a formula that all textbook companies (and most teachers for that matter) have been using for years. They really didn't understand how to do the assignment!

When I break down my "simple" assignment I can see where the problems are:

  • They have to find their own sources of the information instead of having it given to them.
  • They have to analyze that information to determine both sides of the problem.
  • They have to have to understand what bias means.
  • They have to identify if a story is biased.
  • They have to post their insights onto a blog.
  • They have to hyperlink back to the stories they wrote.
I guarantee that a very, very large percentage of the adult population of the United States would fail this same assignment. 

I am resolved that this assignment will not remain a failure. We will be doing this same assignment with a different topic tomorrow. Maybe the dissonance my students are feeling over this assignment will gradually give way and we can actually start doing some critical thinking.