Tuesday, May 7, 2013

'Parking Lot' Question and Response

“How many times should I have students ‘re-hand in’ their work before I mark it or before I don’t allow for any more revisions?”

The parking lot…a place that we drive around until we find a spot for our car that is open…a place where the ‘meeting after the meeting’ can occur…a place for us to post our questions as we are learning.  The latter is a strategy that we, as leaders, use, so that adult learners can post their questions as they arise.  

Learners write down their questions on sticky notes and place it on a piece of chart paper that is hanging somewhere in the learning space.  It can also be done virtually, through a back channel like todaysmeet.com.  In either case, the questions can remain anonymous (if that is what the group has agreed to); they can be addressed and responded to throughout the time of learning by the facilitator; or they can serve to fuel conversations between and among the participants.   

There is one question that I have been asked many, many times.  A couple of weeks of ago, as I worked alongside a large group of secondary teachers from across a district, it was raised once more and placed in the ‘Parking Lot’.  “How many times should I have students 
‘re-hand in’ their work before I mark it or before I don’t allow for any more revisions?”  For me, it is evidence that teachers are thinking deeply about their instructional stance and I appreciate this level of reflection.   

Each time, my response begins in much the same:  “I don’t know how to give you a precise number in answer to that question.”   However, I do have some ideas that generally follow that initial statement.  I would like to highlight two of those thoughts here.  

Firstly, when students remit their work a second or a third time, often after a round of specific and descriptive feedback, it is important that they indicate the way in which the work has changed.  That is, as busy educators, we do not have time to review a piece of work a second time, only to pore over and through that lab report, that essay, or that problem and realize that only a surface, singular, or simple change has been made.  Instead, students should be asked to prove to the teacher the ways in which that work is different and better aligns with the descriptions and expectations of quality.  This might be accomplished by having the students either literally or virtually attach ‘sticky notes’ to the spots where changes have been made.  Or, this might mean that students indicate, in point form, what they did differently this time.  Possibilities abound in order to allow this to happen.  The key point is, though, that students have a shared responsibility with their teachers.  

Secondly, when students receive specific and descriptive feedback from either their peers, their teachers, or themselves, the instructional cycle needs to allow for that feedback to be considered.  This means that the feedback loop is not an end, but rather a means to an end; it is not an event that is to be endured, but a process that precedes the revision of student work.  Last week at the 2013 AERA (American Educational Research Association) conference, two research papers were presented in this regard.  Exploring the Content of Teachers’ Feedback:  What are Teachers Actually Providing to Students by Lois Ruth Harris, Jennifer Harnett, and Gavin T. Brown and Identifying Characteristic of Effective Feedback Practices:  A Literature Synthesis of Feedback Studies in STEM Education by Min Li, Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo, Yue Yin, Yuan-Ling Liaw, and Andrew E. Morozov.  Both considered over 1000 other research studies regarding the role of feedback in schools.  Through the researchers’ analysis, only a mere handful dealt with feedback that was descriptive and specific, rather than evaluative in nature.  This might seem surprising , but the moment that left me wondering was when the discussant, Dr. Heidi Andrade, encouraged the researchers to go back to those few studies to determine whether the definition of ‘feedback’ actually included the opportunity for the learner to “interpret and use the feedback in order to improve the learning.”  Her hunch was that the majority of research in this area put forward a round of feedback that ended the learning, as opposed to moving the learning forward.  And that relates strongly to my experience over the last three years talking and working with students across this country.  For many, the cycle of providing feedback to themselves or to peers is an activity, as it does not result in a chance to revise or refine their work.   

And for these two reasons and others, I find it difficult to simply respond to that ‘Parking Lot’ question.  It is not an answer that can be quantifiable, but rather relates to our instructional and learning beliefs regarding ownership, engagement, and purpose.

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