Although its been nearly twenty years since I graduated high school, I remember that chapter of my life with incredible fondness and clarity. I remember the movies my friends and I went to see, the hijinks of school dances, romantic blunders, course of study and the good, bad and ugly of learning. In regards to courses, whether it be English, Art, Technology, History, the ISU (Independent Study Unit) was placed upon me and my peers with great authority. Now, as a teacher, I often reflect on that time and the great amount of stress my teachers placed on the ISU; the percentage value was the driving narrative. Completing the ISU for a Grade 13 (this was back when we had OAC), course was as if you were being chased by the T-Rex in Jurassic Park; I was Jeff Goldblum, limping to the finish line hoping for survival and a place to hide out.
Today, like then, I wonder:
What really is the point of the ISU?
Who I am as a teacher, derives from my own experience as a learner both in high school and post-secondary. The two worlds are most definitely connected.
What I wasn’t in high school:
In high school, I wasn’t the academic over achiever I was in College and University. In high school I was entrenched in my goal of studying and making movies. I loved all things media and as a visual learner did not connect to most teaching styles. This was at a time before differentiated instruction was a pedagogical approach – learning was strictly taking notes and taking teacher information as gospel. (Remember, this was pre-Google and having immediate access to facts and other point of views).
Although I valued the importance of learning and moving onto post-secondary, I didn’t benefit from a culture grounded strictly in Quizzes, Tests, ISUs and Exams. It seemed all so purposeless; all internalized and did not motivate me.
For example, take my Gr. 13 English course. Although I was able to squeeze out a B (trust when I say it was a challenge to score that grade), the entire experience was sterile. Although, my teacher was a dramatic lecturer, helpful and importantly a good person, the experience was terribly isolating. I wrote strictly for marks and assessment (not knowing any better) as the sole end result. I worked for the grade but not the learning; I didn’t receive descriptive feedback but rather lengthy notes once a submission was made with no opportunity to resubmit (nor would I ask, as such a culture wasn’t in place).
As such, I’m not sure what I really learned.
Yes, I learned (to some point) how to write an essay, but I didn’t learn how to think critically, apply that to my world view, construct knowledge, show learning, share etc.
So, what about the ISU?
Like my time in high school, today I still wonder about the ISU. As I see students stressing days before their exams, is their ISU really worth all of the stress and drama? Is it something we do as teachers because it was what we did or is there room to reimagine?
Are students really learning with the ISU or are they merely doing?
Is the ISU serving student learning or are students serving the ISU?
It’s because I was looking to really learn something new, that I choose College as my first post-secondary experience. Disenchanted by a high school experience that was linear in thinking, I was looking for something experiential (even though I didn’t know that term). It was while at Humber College’s Film and Television Production program that I found my academic grounding; a provocation that the work I was doing is learning, leads to a final project and the final project is going to be experienced. Unlike high school where I received my ISU mark on the exam day or not at all, my work in college was going to be lived and was shaped by constant feedback. This was game changing.
Further, my elective courses in Communications, English and the Humanities, served my specialized program in Film; teachers were teaching me to be a critical thinker and shaped what that could look like. Whereas in high school, I could memorize effectively, in college I learned to think. It was because I felt empowered by that thinking that I not only worked thereafter in production but successfully completed a BA in Film Studies with Distinction – working not for the marks but a love of learning (the great marks were a bonus).
With all of this, as students in my Communications Technology program finish their ISUs, the stress they feel differs. By no means, do I want them to share in my past experience; their ISU is about deep learning, collaborating, provocation. They are not working to serve the ISU but rather the ISU serves them to produce work that their proud of and that will be experienced (I’ve written about this recently) well after the term ends. By the time they “submit” they’re aware of their success because of descriptive feedback. Their learning isn’t isolated.
I suppose, as so many of my students are now running around completing ISUs, I only hope that their not running from their own T-Rex. If they are, it may be time to reimagine the ISU and what is really stands for.
Here’s an example of a Gr. 12 ISU from my College/University Comm-Tech class. All projects, will be screened at Yorkdale Silver City – ensuring that the ISUs are lived and shared.