So what's next after the numbers game?

13th October 2006 at 01:00
Rather like the cocktail dress, it never went entirely out of fashion. It's just that, for now, it's the topic on everyone's lips. Here in Ontario, the workshop du jour (including refreshments, a name tag and a pre-sharpened pencil) tells teachers how to grade their students using four stylish categories: knowledge and understanding; thinking and inquiry; communication; and application.

Every assignment must cover each one, and come complete with a tailor-made rubric brimming with pizzazz: "Student demonstrates understanding of cause and effect with moderate success."

Perhaps most importantly for the fashion-conscious teacher (although we prefer the word "educator" this season), letter grades and percentages are out. They're just so 1997. We use levels 1 to 4 : 3 is the provincial standard, 4 is tremendous, and 1 is crap. Got that?

Younger teachers, the ones who know that double-breasted suits are on the brink of a revival, are lapping it up. Their older colleagues are more cynical, and would much rather figure out their pupils' marks with a calculator, just as they always have. As far as they're concerned, Ontario's new levelling system is a whim that will soon be looked back on with embarrassment and shame. Like Ugg boots, then, or jeans with elasticated bottoms.

But perhaps the oldies have a point. In the past five years we've had more hot topics than we can handle. In 2001, it was literacy, especially where reluctant readers were concerned. Our provincial government introduced a literacy test that was compulsory for all high-school graduates, local education authorities hired literacy co-ordinators, men with sinister-looking beards set up literacy consultancies, and publishers began churning out books to, well, promote the love of books. These are still going strong (the series editor I know drives a fantastic BMW), but are beginning to feel a little tired. At least literacy had a good run until it was time for numeracy.

Did you know, for example, that many pupils are unable to make connections between the sums they do in maths class, other aspects of the curriculum and transactions in everyday life? Yes, I'm sure you did. But until literacy was a bit passe, we left the whole numbers thing at the back of the wardrobe. Then, of course, numeracy became hot, responsible for the creation of numerous PowerPoint presentations, the consumption of egg sandwiches in conference rooms and the publication of another slew of books. Teachers of all subjects had to integrate numeracy into their lessons, saying things such as, "Turn to page 42!"

Then came the gender issue. Boys are not doing as well as girls, you know.

Most of them would rather play on skateboards than do homework. Fewer of them are getting good marks and going to university, and there's an exceedingly slim chance that males are at risk of losing world domination.

Some Canadian schools responded to this crisis with single-sex classrooms for core subjects. And serious TV stations made documentaries in which middle-class mothers cried because their sons wouldn't read Harry Potter.

Such poignant scenes meant that the gender crisis lasted a while, until assessment kicked in, which brings us up to date. Except I'm writing this in the aftermath of a spate of school shootings - first here in Canada and later in the United States. It's no surprise that school violence has suddenly become the big issue, or that I've just joined a safe schools committee with new government funding.

To call this concern a passing fad would be ridiculously inappropriate, but it does illustrate just how reactive we are as a profession. Something happens and we respond, until the next thing comes along. I'm not saying that we'll stop worrying about bullying and the too-easy availability of guns, but as another need is identified we'll jump in to meet it.

So it makes sense that those cynical older teachers often arrive for professional development days and ask, "What is it this time?" And that they shake their heads when trivial concerns, such as whether we use numbers or letters to grade pupils, monopolise our time.

I often think of them on my way home from school, when I pop into the local faculty of education. The lure is an ever-changing stack of ex-library books that are free for the taking, and that makes up a messy, slightly embarrassing kind of teaching history (Please, no - not an essay on ditto machines!) How fickle we are. And how certain, back in 1977, that we had curriculum licked. Nevertheless, I do bring some of the books home.

You never know when they'll be back in fashion.

Nicholas Woolley teaches in Ontario, Canada

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