Today I was told that my grade nine classes are too difficult and I should make them less so. I’d never heard this before and this one time it was mentioned in passing while on another topic of conversation so I was kind of stunned by the comment. Seeing as I have a perfect pass rate in an open grade nine course, ‘too hard’ doesn’t seem very accurate. Do I push my students to do their best work, certainly. Is it challenging? Absolutely. Do I expect a lot from them? You bet. But too hard? I have some thoughts on that…
My classes are hands-on and reality is pretty demanding. I can’t tell a student they have great ideas like I used to in English when I was handed a grammar abysmal paper. If the circuit they built doesn’t work, their work is obviously inferior. I can’t tell a student that they’re brilliant at coding if their code doesn’t run, because it doesn’t run. Unlike slippery academic courses where students are producing abstractions within abstractions, I’m facing reality with my students head on, so being stringent with them isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.
Reality is all about mastery, not learning expertise; it’s a boots on the ground situation, not a generals talking around a table kind of thing. The students who often struggle with my class the most are the A+ academic types who are have figured out how to game school and get great grades; they aren’t used to this kind of non-linear struggle against such an implacable foe (reality). The people considered the ‘middle’ of our learning continuum (‘applied’ students) are my main audience. My top students tend to be college bound applied students, though I try to tend to the academic and essential needs as well. These students tell me they enjoy the demands I place on them because most other teachers take applied to mean just do less (ie: make it easier?), which I’ve never done. Maybe that’s why this passing comment stuck in my craw so much. If the entire system assumes non-academic courses mean make it easy and fun then I think we have failed a large portion of our student population. Education shouldn’t be easy and fun, it should be challenging and satisfying in a way that easy and fun never is.
My grade 9 classes are hands-on computer technology classes that have students race across a wide variety of curriculum because computer technology, in spite of being an emerging kind of literacy, is treated as a dumping ground for any related material. Electrical engineering has less to do with programming or information technology than physics does with chemistry or biology, but the sciences are logically separated. Computer technology curriculum in Ontario is like taking SCIENCE (all of it, at once), and yes, it’s a lot to do.
In the circumstance I’m in covering all sorts of not really related specialties at once, I’m still able to effectively operate an open level course that delivers me everything from grade 9s who can’t read to grade 9s who will one day become nuclear physicists, and I’m able to challenge and engage them all. The only ones who might complain that it was too hard were also the ones that took a couple of weeks off each semester for a family holiday and then missed a pile of other days for reasons. When they are in class they are looking for reasons not to be. Anyone who is there regularly is engaged by the hands on and collaborative nature of the course. I’m not going to dumb it down because it’s an applied course and I’m not going to cater to the students (and parents) who want to treat school like a sometimes daycare by demanding lower expectations.
I feel better about this already.