I have just finished reading An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger and wanted to put down a few thoughts.
I have been looking forward to reading An Ethic of Excellence as it has come highly recommended from a number of sources. It is one of those books that takes a while to read. Not just because you have to stop every few seconds to highlight and write on post it notes but you also end up having to get started on work that it inspires. Berger’s passion is evident on every page and there is a real sense of the impact that his approach has had on the students he teaches. The final paragraph about his former students is lovely.
Much of it chimes with some approaches to teaching that I have adopted this year e.g. involving real audiences and project based work. However, it is clear that I was only playing at this and Berger proves that the potential is far greater.
He writes about ‘Making Work Public’. Often, pupils’ work is put on display in classrooms and sometimes in public forums. This is usually the best work or the prettiest and certainly isn’t something the students are generally bothered about as they do the work. I am currently reading some homework completed by my year 8 class. Most of the work is a joy to read, the result of hours of effort and real pride. The remainder are good but there are a couple of pupils ‘phoning it in’, producing work that is good enough but not the best they can possibly do. As it stands, I am the only person who will read the work. They will get good quality feedback but as I mark each piece I can’t help thinking that I am missing a trick. Would the work be even better if pupils knew that it would be published and visible to the world? If every piece was to be framed and, say, placed in the Principal’s office, would the quality improve? Also, how much more would they have enjoyed it? Berger ensures that the exhibition of work is central and the answer to the question ‘what’s the point of this?’ is obvious to the pupils. Nobody hands in anything less than their very best work.
The approach of ‘critique’ is quite an eye-opener too. I have seen peer assessment take place where it is frankly a waste of time. All too often a piece of work is completed and it is ‘marked’ by another pupil. However, without a structure and a clear understanding of how to effectively critique a piece of work the feedback is rarely very useful. Also, without the opportunity to redraft, excellent feedback can be wasted.
I was also struck by Berger’s acknowledgement that he is lucky:
“I’m trusted in my job…I’m encouraged to innovate…I have support…lots of support. I’m not working alone. I’m part of a community of educators who work together, help and critique each other.”
I am looking forward this year to helping create opportunities for teachers in my school to collaborate and innovate and I have no doubt that Berger’s ideas will heavily influence a lot of what we do.