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What WERE You Thinking?

If you’re a teacher or a parent, or – like me – both, you have at some point in your life looked at a young person and said (or at least thought), “What on Earth were you thinking?”  Brain research tells us that if your interrogation suspect is a teenager, he or she probably wasn’t actually thinking at all when the infraction in question occurred.  Sometimes, in my teacher role, I wonder what students were thinking when they completed tasks for me that are clearly not according to my instructions or requirements for the project at hand.  In the past year or so, I’ve begun digging into their minds (scary, I know) with this really cool innovation: I ask them.

Thinking.Of course, I don’t just come right out and ask them face-to-face.  For the most part, I am dealing with middle schoolers, and they often have nothing useful to say when you ambush them with such questions as “how’s it going?” and “what did you do in school today?”  However, if you give them a little time to think along with some pointed questions . . . and the chance to do it online in a written survey format . . . you’ll be surprised how much information you can glean.  It also helps to make it a mandatory assignment worth a grade for their effort.

(Note: I use Google Forms, which are absolutely fantabulicious. And you can quote me on that.)

So my seventh and eighth grade students just created movies showing their own photography followed by a video clip of themselves discussing their work.  They spent over a month on it, and I saw some really fun, original pictures.  And about fifty thousand of this one shrub at my school and the new playground.  Before returning their project grades to them, I had the students complete a survey about the project.  What an eye opener.

First I asked what kind of grade they felt they had earned on their movies.  The ones who did really well on the project had pretty realistic responses.  And then the large number of kids who had earned low Bs down to Ds (and a few of the Fs) were sort of living in a fantasy world.  I asked them to explain why they thought they had earned such a grade.  There were kids who told me things like, “I worked really hard and did all the pictures, even though I didn’t put them all in my movie or do the video self-interview or the credits. So I think I got a B.”

Really?  No, REALLY?  Not doing the video clip started you at only 80% max before I started taking points off for all the other things you didn’t do.

I also asked the students to tell me about their work habits.  Of course, I didn’t say, “So, tell me about your work habits.”  I asked them how true some statements were, regarding the movie project and their efforts in completing it:

  • I managed my time well for this project.
  • I was prepared for every class period during this project.
  • I asked the teacher for help during this project.
  • I asked a classmate for help during this project.
  • I put my best effort into this project.
  • I took this project seriously.
  • I read the directions and requirements for this project very carefully.
  • I watched all the videos provided to teach me during this project.

I also asked them about specific elements of the project so they could tell me what parts they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy.  There were open-ended questions including one that gave them a chance to tell me what they would change about the project if they were in charge.

Again, the top performers on the project were pretty realistic.  And a lot of the ones who bombed painted a fairly accurate picture as well.  It’s that middle of the road group who don’t seem to be aware of their shortcomings that has me concerned.

I suppose, given what recent brain research has revealed (read more here), I should be neither surprised nor disappointed.  I also know that the entire ordeal, I mean “gratifying experience,” has taught us all a lot about not just the skills and the content, but also about each student’s strengths and weaknesses in these life skills and work habits that get exercised in each of my projects.  And I will do this project again next year, having learned a lot about the procedures involved and the common pitfalls students face.  And not just because 89% of the students said they think I should.

 Image from Flickr user sera_leaving, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.

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