Student Learning and Social Capital

This past week at John Oliver, our whole school participated in our annual mid-year special presentation week.  In an earlier post, Personalizing Learning: From Capable Students to Good ThinkersI wrote of how during this week all of our students wrote exams as formative assessments, providing staff with the opportunity to teach the art (because that’s what it is) of test taking.  However, unlike the traditional exam week, we also offer grade appropriate presentations that align with our School Plan to reinforce and improve social responsibility within our community.  This year’s presentation topics included, among others, Anti-Racism, Legal Education and Adolescent Mental Health.

During the week, I had the opportunity to walk around the school and watch my staff in action (they truly are the gift that keeps on giving).  I’d like to share with you the learning experience that was created by the Science Department for their grade nine students. As a starting point, or backward map if you will, these Mid Year exams partially serve the purpose of helping these students become accustomed to the environment they will experience next year during the Science 10 Provincial Exams. The Grade 10 exams follow a multiple-choice format with no open/written response questions. What our Science teachers observed was that within this mandated format the sense of academic rigour and, concomitantly, extended thought was being neglected. To address this twofold issue, the Science teachers came together and collaboratively created a 1.5-hour lab exam. The first hour of the exam consisted of three 20-minute stations based on the topics learned in the first half of the year. As you can see from the Student Observation Booklet (which includes the lesson plans for the three labs) and the accompanying photos/video, the experience was as engaging for me to watch as it was for the students to participate in.

Lab One: Periodic Table Puzzle

20 minutes, the students switched classrooms to start a new activity.

Lab Two: Chemical Reactions

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During these labs, the students recorded their observations in their booklet. They then moved to the final lab, which due to the content, wound up being, for me, the most enjoyable (although caloric threatening).

Lab Three: Tasty DNA (marshmallows and licorice)

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At the end of the third activity, students moved to a fourth classroom where they were allowed to use their observation booklet to help them answer the lab exam questions. All responses were free response questions.

The whole 90-minute experience blended formative and summative assessment.  It engaged, fully, over 200 grade 9 students.  In fact, I made a point of asking one of the “edgier” students what he thought.  His reply: School should be like this everyday.

In discussion with the Science Department the following day, I learned that philosophically, since they viewed science as a process, they felt that assessment should reflect the personalizing aspect of process and not only the fill in the scantron world of prescribed product. The process of having students engage in lab activities allowed teachers to see them practicing science and being assessed in that practice. While background knowledge was required to undertake these lab activities, it made for assessment in an environment that was more authentic of the skills of science. The written exam component (the summative assessment) served as a check for understanding of the scientific concepts studied in the first half of the year.  

In the end, the Science teachers felt that the two days of lab exams were an overwhelming success. Students felt the process was “fun” and they also experienced a sense of accomplishment in this environment. Set up of the day was meticulous and allowed for smooth transitions of groups of students from room to room. Student pairings were based on alphabetical order of last name and this randomized the pairings, creating social interactions that normally do not occur. Students adjusted well to working with those they were not familiar with. The process also uncovered holes in student understanding surrounding lab techniques and this will help inform the Science Department’s future practice.

Student learning informing teachers in their practice If Moses was a teacher and he was coming down Mount Sinai with his Ten Educational Commandments this would be number one! For me, beyond the benefits to student learning, the winner here are the Science teachers who came together and focused on student learning to make a large, measurable difference on achievement and sustained improvement. Michael Fullan, in his unpublished paper, Learning is the Work,  calls this social capital: the widespread belief in the power of teacher human capital to transform public education.  It is not a characteristic of the individual but instead resides in the relationships among teachers and between teachers and principals.

The Science Department continue to refine their craft informing me that activities next year will move towards inquiry based learning in addition to assessing lab skill and techniques. The assessment will be based on PLOs surrounding the processes of science. They will also explore an earlier timeline that will allow them to work backwards in their lesson planning towards the goal of the lab exam.

So . . . from me to you: thank you.

To Sangeeta Kauldher for being the point person on the lab exams. Her keen eye for detail kept the project running on course. Further thanks to Lester Leung, Shamsher Singh, Carl Sommerfeld, Sharween Siddeeq, Dhanook Singh and Jeff Spence for contributing to student success, for developing your social capital and for allowing me to come along and learn.

  1. Wow – I spent Friday invigilating a Science 10 multiple choice exam as a TOC, thinking about exactly this. If we are only assessing our students with multiple choice we aren’t assessing their comprehension of science process, or their adoption of science skills. A lab write-up doesn’t always include these assessments. Thank you so much for sharing the fine work of your science teachers (including the transparency of process and acknowledging their individual efforts).

    I look forward to sharing this work with teachers I am working with (as part of my role as teacher support specialist at Science World). I look forward to following along with your teachers’ learning process as they adapt this to include more inquiry.

    Our team at Science World has developed a rubric for assessing scientific process (can be downloaded here: ). It’s not perfect, and I would be happy to receive feedback if teachers test it in their classrooms.

    • Thanks for the comments, Kate.
      Our Science Department is doing wonderful “stuff” here at John Oliver.
      I will pass on the rubric to them – you can expect a response from @lsleung in the near future.

  2. Gino, Thanks for the RT on twitter this morning. Spent time reviewing your blog and especially enjoyed Engage Me, Please. The summer before the recent Winter Olympics in Canada, we had the pleasure of spending a delightful week in your beautiful city of Vancouver. A memorable trip for this couple of San Antonio Texas!

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