Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Standards vs. Learning Targets: Training for the Marathon

One of the core components of SBL is the articulation of clear standards.  These standards help us design curriculum, instruction, and assessment within our courses.  Within a unit, however, students need to have more specific targets for their learning than the course or school or national standards. While the standards can provide our ultimate destination (looking at a body of work over time), they are often not very helpful (for us or for students) when it comes to specific instructional design and assessment.

Unit level targets, in contrast, are precise and specific, and provide interim destinations--where students should be along the way in order to be prepared to meet the year-long standards. They are smaller, more achievable goals that help build to the larger goal.

One way to look at this is through the metaphor of running a marathon.   My course level standard would be running 26.2 miles.

 In order to be able to meet this target, I will need to train over time; nobody expects me to be able to go straight from the couch to finishing a marathon.  It is essential that I will have small, achievable goals that will provide me not only motivation, but also valuable feedback about my progress towards my overall goal.  These smaller goals are equivalent to unit level targets.  

For example, in order to be on track for completing the full marathon, by week seven (of a 16 week training plan) I should be able to have a long run of 12 miles.  During this time it would not be helpful if the only feedback I was getting was, “you haven’t run 26.2 miles yet.”…as a matter of fact, it would possibly make me give up, even if I was actually making the expected progress.

The same is true in the classroom. Yearlong (or even semester long) goals may not be able to provide the incremental progress feedback necessary for maintaining motivation and growth. Neurologist and teacher Judy Willis writes about the importance of setting incremental goals. "The fuel that motivates the brain to persevere through increasing challenge, even through failed attempts, is dopamine. This neurochemical produces the pleasure of intrinsic satisfaction, and increases motivation, curiosity, perseverance and memory. Dopamine is released when the brain makes a prediction or achieves a challenge and gets the feedback that it was correct" (Willis). When students experience frequent success and can visualize progress, they are more apt to learn efficiently and effectively.

So what does this look like for standards and targets? Here are some examples teachers in our school have created. These scales move from left to right, increasing in complexity. Notice how the unit level targets inform the larger course level targets; they break down the larger goal and isolate a single part of the standard to focus on during the specific unit of learning.

Course Level Target
Reading: Comprehension:

I understand the main and supporting ideas of the text and can provide a summary, but my summary may be overly general or too specific; I can identify how the author structured the text, including how information is organized and presented.
I understand main and supporting ideas of the text and can provide a succinct and objective summary that supports my purpose; I can explain how and why the author structured the text and presented information.
I can determine which information from the text best supports my purpose, and can adjust my summary based on that purpose; I can evaluate the author’s decisions around structure and presentation.

Unit Level Targets (supporting the above)
Reading: Comprehension:
I can determine important ideas within a text.
I can determine main and supporting ideas within a text.
I can show how supporting details support the main purpose of the text, and can determine which information from the text best supports my own purpose.
Reading: Comprehension:
I can provide an accurate summary, but my summary may be overly general or too specific.
I can provide a succinct and objective summary that supports my purpose and includes a relevant Big Idea.
I can provide a succinct and objective summary based on my purpose, which connects the details to the big ideas within the text.

Course Level Target
I have a clear thesis; my paragraphs have separate and distinct topics that match my thesis; my leads introduce new topics; my purpose matches my audience; most of my paper matches my thesis.
I have a clear thesis with organizer; my purpose is appropriate to my audience and to the assignment; my leads support my thesis and organizer, and introduce subtopics; my purpose stays consistent throughout my paper.
I have a clear and multi-faceted thesis that determines my organizational structure; my paper shows awareness of my audience; I manipulate language and techniques to communicate my purpose; my leads and finishers further the understanding of my thesis.

Unit Level Target (supporting the above)


I have a clear thesis which can be proven with limited evidence and analysis.
I have a clear, arguable thesis requiring multiple levels of proof.
I have a clear, complex, and multi-faceted arguable thesis.

We know that learners are motivated by feedback and growth; therefore, our unit level targets must allow this.  The course level targets are often less helpful in an instructional sense, so we need to shrink the grain size in order to articulate what learning looks like along the way. By creating these specific unit level targets, we can design better instruction, monitor learning, and communicate progress toward the end goal, thus ensuring that more of our students cross the finish line.

Willis, Judy. "How to Rewire Your Burned-Out Brain: Tips from a Neurologist." Edutopia. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2014.

Friday, October 3, 2014

This SBL Thing is Freakin' Hard

We’re in the midst of a transition to standards-based learning at our school. Like any new learning, there are moments of clarity, but more often than not, the way is murky and clouded with doubt and uncertainty. Those of us who were excited and inspired in August, are now exhausted and questioning ourselves and our practices. Principles of learning that seemed clear and unassailable after reading Wormeli and Zull and Guskey and O’Connor now seem contradictory and unstable. Where we once felt so confident and competent, we are now feeling like first year teachers all over again.

Amazing things are happening in our classrooms. Students know their targets, talk about learning, and are taking ownership of their progress. Teachers are clearly articulating goals, providing low risk practice, responding to formative assessments, and communicating progress based on achievement. In other words, learning is happening for students.

But scary things are also happening in our classrooms. Students are asking about grading changes, challenging new practices, and misinterpreting our words. Teachers are struggling with new strategies, stumbling over explanations, and making mistakes with new technology. In other words, learning is happening for teachers.

We tell our students that we value risk-taking and that we want them to push themselves to work outside of their comfort zones. We know that learning only occurs in the Zone of Proximal Development, and we teach students how to work through challenges and persevere. We know that success is built on the back of failure. So if we truly believe what we tell students, then it’s time to hold ourselves to those same principles of learning.

  •       Learning is not always comfortable: If you haven’t seen the Dr. Tae skateboarding TED Talk, take a look at it (great to show students as well). Through video of skateboarding practice, Dr. Tae illustrates just how painful the learning process can be. When learning to improve student learning we will fall, we will mess up, we will sometimes even get hurt. But then we will get a little better and little better and a little better.
  •       Learning takes practice: We know that the one doing is the one learning. While we can certainly gain valuable insights and inspiration from reading and listening to the experts, we won’t actually learn how to improve learning for students until we practice it. And we’ll get it wrong (see #1), and we’ll practice it again and get it wrong again (and maybe again), but we keep practicing. And one day we’ll get it a little bit right. And then we’ll get it even more right (though by then we’ll be getting something else wrong).
  •       Learning takes time: We can’t expect learning to come quickly, particularly when the new learning contradicts what we’ve experienced and practiced for years and decades. After we’ve practiced this unit we will head into next unit a little more confident; and then we’ll head into next semester feeling a little more competent; and then we’ll start next year feeling even more prepared. Or maybe it will take multiple years.

So why go through all of this change? How is it fair to our students to practice on them?

If we don’t respond to what we know about learning by making major changes in the way we teach and grade, then we have failed our students and ourselves. Maintaining the status quo is ethically questionable at best, and immoral at worst. Unlike doctors, we don’t have the luxury of practicing new techniques on cadavers, and unlike pilots, we don’t have access to a classroom simulation program. Our practice is on real, live students in real, live schools (with real, live parents). That makes it unbelievably challenging, yes, but all the more important.

So here it is in a nutshell: transitioning to SBL is not easy. We will screw up and say things we don’t really mean, we will try strategies that flop and waste time, we will have moments when we don’t know how to answer a question (maybe even in front of parents at Open House), and we will probably need to be more honest with ourselves and our students than we ever have been.  And just like we tell our students, we need to tell ourselves it's okay, that learning isn't easy. But it's better than the alternative. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Shrinking the Field: The Importance of Targeted Practice

It seemed like an easy task. I wanted my soccer players to work on 1-on-1 defending.  We had struggled with it in the last game, and like a good coach, I was going to focus on our biggest need.  So I partnered my players up, started them at midfield, and said go. After only five minutes I was beyond frustrated. Though I had told them the purpose, they weren’t getting it.  Some attacking players simply drifted from side to side and some whacked the ball by the defender into the 50 yards of open space and made it a foot race. I had made my purpose clear and had designed the drill to address the purpose, so why weren’t they getting it? 
My problem? I hadn’t shrunk the field.   If I really wanted to work on 1-on-1 defending, I needed to make sure the space I was using matched my purpose.  Of course half of a soccer field was a disaster; there was too much room for kids to make other choices and in essence change the drill. I needed to shrink the field to a size that allowed my players to efficiently and precisely practice the skill I intended them to practice.

The same principle holds true when working on academic skills. Our “practice field” needs to match our purpose and allow for precision and efficiency. So often we assign tasks that are too big, tasks that are sure to provide too much open space in which students can get lost, get distracted, or change direction. By shrinking the field we can help isolate skills for students which will lead to more efficient and effective learning. (feedback gets distracted or off base too)

Here’s an example:

One of our learning targets this year is about supporting ideas with evidence. Our scale (see below) shows the progression of this skill, differentiating between evidence that relates to the purpose, evidence that supports the purpose, and evidence that helps prove the purpose. The distinction between levels is subtle, particularly between levels 3 and 4, and students were having trouble seeing how to improve. We had just done an activity where we had asked students to do some research and to decide whether aliens exist. They needed to develop their thesis and then find the best evidence to prove their position. They had a great time and came up with some good evidence on both sides of the argument…but overall, the activity did not help them improve with the skill. They were unable to see the difference between levels of evidence, and we were unable to determine whether they had stumbled upon good evidence by chance.  

3 (target)
(ESL 2.3e)

I can support my ideas with evidence that relates to my purpose.
I can support my ideas with multiple credible pieces of evidence that support my purpose.
I can support my ideas with varied, vivid pieces of evidence that work together to help prove my purpose.

While the alien activity was a fun way to introduce the importance of good evidence, it was not a good way to instruct or assess the target skill. It was clear that we were asking them to do too many things in the initial activity, so we (and they) were unable to isolate the skill we had meant to focus on. Some of them struggled to come up with a thesis, some got distracted by bad you tube videos, and some ran out of time and picked the first evidence they could find.

So we shrunk the field.
We provided students with a thesis, gathered the evidence they had collected in the initial activity, and created a chart with about 20 pieces of evidence.
The next day in class we asked them to evaluate each piece of evidence in relation to the thesis. For each piece they had to check whether it was “good” (related), “better” (supported), or “best” (helped prove), and then provide the rationale for their choice. Then they had to choose the three pieces of evidence they would use if they had to convince someone of their thesis, and explain why they chose these.

When we shrunk the field and narrowed the scope of the practice to focus precisely on the difference between good, better, and best evidence, students got it. And we were able to see—specifically and precisely—where they struggled with the skill, which allowed us to design more practice for some students.

A week later, we set them loose on the larger field again, asking them to research the Mongols, determine whether they were civilized innovators or savage barbarians, and support their thesis statements with the best evidence.  This time, they nailed the evidence. Shrinking the field during practice allowed us to target--and them to hone--the skills necessary for success in the big game.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cleaning the Counters: Changing our Habits to Improve their Habits

When she was about nine months old, my springer spaniel Stella had an issue with counters. Nothing made of paper was safe—paper towels, tissues, cardboard, lists, mail…anything paper. Somehow, she managed to leap, reach, climb or crawl onto any surface where we had paper stuff. And then she would destroy said paper stuff.
It was a problem.
Bad Stella! 
We yelled at her (a lot), we growled at her (training book #1), we rewarded her when she was being good (training book #2), and we tried to wait out the phase (Internet research). But nothing worked: when there was paper stuff on the counters, Stella found a way to get it and destroy it.
Clearly there was something wrong with her, so we hired a trainer.
After spending 15 minutes with us, the trainer solved all of our problems: clean your counters, she said.
It worked. When we stopped leaving paper stuff all over our counters, Stella stopped destroying paper stuff. And she stopped looking for it. So after about 6 months, when we slowly reintroduced necessary products to the counters, she left them alone. Problem solved. We changed her habits by changing our behavior.
When we began the switch to standards-based grading in our classroom, it didn’t work so well. Because we had stopped grading practice, many students didn’t do it. Because we didn’t take points off for late work, more and more students began to turn their work in late. Because we allowed retakes, some students stopped trying as hard the first time around.
It was a problem.
We yelled at them. We lectured them. We called their parents. We gave them the disappointed parent look. But nothing worked. Because we had no way to hold them accountable with grades, they stopped being responsible.
Clearly there was something wrong with them. Clearly standards-based grading wouldn’t work because kids are not responsible enough or mature enough to make it work.
Clearly we were wrong.
When changing grading policies, we cannot change student habits without significantly changing our own behavior and habits. This does not mean that we ignore bad (or ineffective) student habits; it means that we first address our own behaviors in order to train them to build the habits we want.

Here are three of the most common complaints we hear when teachers begin the move to SBL...and ones we said ourselves a few years ago:

  • “If I don’t grade it, they won’t do it.”
  • “If I don’t take points off, they won’t turn it in on time.”
  • “If I allow retakes, they won’t try hard the first time.”

All of this is absolutely true...if we don’t change how we think about grading. In SBL, grades communicate where a student is in relation to an established learning target or set of targets. They are not used to motivate, to punish, to reward, or to threaten. But the traditional system--the one we are all used to--is a system of compensation: we “pay” them to do work. Every time we grade something, we pay them with a grade, and in most classes, they get paid for everything. We sometimes give them extra pay for extra work, and we even more often dock their pay for poor work, late work, or a variety of other more arbitrary reasons. Students are used to this system, so if we suddenly shift our philosophy and the purpose of grades without retraining them and without changing how we design learning, of course they will stop doing work.

How do we retrain? Build new habits by cleaning the counters.
  • Start by changing how you define work. Do not separate work into classwork  and homework. Work is work, and when students start seeing that your class is a place where they come to do work--and when you provide them the time, resources, and guidance to do that work--they will build that habit.  By doing the majority of work in class early on, you can ensure that it gets done, which builds the expectation that your class is a place where work is expected.
  • Make the work relevant and respectful. This doesn’t mean pandering to teenage interests (you don't need to connect photosynthesis to snowboarding or Candy Crush). It means showing students the relationship between their work and their learning. Establish clear purpose for every assignment; show them how this work will help them reach the learning target. Provide immediate feedback by using their work to design the next steps; when students see that the work they do determines what they do next, the work becomes relevant. This helps build good habits.
  • Don’t allow students to opt out of important work.  Do what you need to do to change how you use class time or how you structure learning. Learning needs to be your number one goal--teaching accountability and responsibility is secondary (and will be a byproduct of making learning the center of your class)--so don’t allow students’ immaturity to dictate their learning (thank you, Rick Wormeli). If a student doesn’t hand in an assignment that is essential for their learning and your understanding of their learning, then sit them down at the beginning of the next class and make them do it; whatever they can do in that time will provide you some evidence of their current level of achievement. When not doing an assignment isn’t an option, students will begin doing the assignments on time. Since they know they will have to do it anyway, they learn that it’s just easier to do it on time the first time, and so they will build that habit.

Good habits lead to good learning.
Making these changes early in the year does not let kids off the hook or discourage responsibility. In fact, it does the opposite. When students believe that their work is valued for its relationship to their learning (and not as an arbitrary way to collect or lose points), we are holding them accountable to a much higher standard--a standard of learning, not of compliance. And  it’s habits of learning that we want to encourage. Habits (both ours and our students') take time to form, and take even more time to revise. It will take time for all of us to change our thinking, change our behaviors, and build new, more effective habits.

So in the meantime, we can continue to complain, yell, growl, punish, and loudly lament the state of our youth and the impossibility of changing our grading policies. Or, we can clean our counters, and start building true habits of learning.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Shift from Teaching to Learning

Here's a link to a guest blog we recently wrote for JumpRope.

Changing the Metaphor of Grading: from Compensation to Communication

At a recent conference, presenter Rick Wormeli said that we need to change the metaphor for grading: we have to stop thinking of grades as compensation, and start thinking of them as communication. While I had heard this before and while I had even said it to colleagues and parents, I don't think I had truly made the shift in my head until that moment. Since the conference, Stan and I have done a lot of thinking about the new metaphor, and here's what we've come up with.

The Old Metaphor: Compensation for Learning

Traditional grading works on a system very similar to currency. Students can "earn" grades or points like they earn money. Points are given and taken away for many reasons--some about learning and some not. This means that traditional grades vary greatly from teacher to teacher. In addition, because this is a system of compensation, we (teachers) can use grades as reward and punishment as well.

Grades as Compensation

The New Metaphor: Communication of Learning

Imagine you're trying to get to the Revere Hotel in Boston. You click on your MapQuest app and it asks you to enter your destination. You do. It asks you to be more specific. You are. Then it asks you for your starting location. You type in your address and click Calculate Directions.

This is the start of standards based learning. First, we determine our learning targets (our destination). We need to be specific...not enough to say we want to go to Boston, or to a hotel in Boston. We must precisely define the target. So let's say our target is "I can analyze an author's use of rhetoric." Second, we must determine where we are starting. This may be where the whole class is starting, or it may be where our individual students are starting based on a pre-assessment. If we have students starting from different locations, it becomes obvious that we will need to use different routes to get to the destination (and that it won't take the same amount of time for all students).

So we have the destination (learning target) and the starting location (current student knowledge, understanding or skill), and we hit "Calculate Directions." The map comes up. This is where our expertise as teachers and content area experts comes in. Do we know only one way to get students to the destination? What if there's a road block? Are there pitstops we want to take on the way? Do we want to take the student on main roads or back roads? We are the GPS. We are that programmed voice that suggests u-turns, locates coffee shops, calculates (and recalculates) estimated time of arrival, and ultimately that says, "you have arrived at your destination."

So what is the grade? The grade is the blue dot. It's the exact location of the student in relation to their destination. That's all. There is no judgement. The grade is a clear communication of the student's current achievement of the goal.

This metaphor has changed the way we think about grades. Grades are no longer a game. It's not a system of compensation, where you "earn" points or "lose" points based on an incredibly wide, varied, and frankly, arbitrary set of rules. They are a way to clearly communicate achievement of a goal. That's it. Is standards based grading perfect? No. And it's certainly not easy. We have a lot of work to do to write good targets, calibrate expectations, and most importantly, to make our maps as detailed as possible so we are able to help more of our students reach (or go beyond) our destinations. Ultimately, I feel much better acting as my students' GPS, than I did acting as their banker.

Thanks for reading! Emily and Stan @CVULearns

A Standards Based Lesson: from Start to Finish

As many of you know, our class is completely standards-based this year. We thought it would be interesting to show how a standards-based lesson looks from start to finish.We are currently in the middle of a unit on Leadership, specifically looking at moral decision-making in the play Macbeth through the eyes of political adviser Machiavelli. In addition, we began the unit exploring multiple philosophies of moral decision making, including categorical and consequential models of morality. We will culminate with an essay that asks students to evaluate Macbeth's decisions through a variety of lenses.

With this summative in mind and the list of targets for the unit, we looked at our grade book and saw that in order to be prepared to write the essay, students needed more practice with one of our critical thinking targets and needed some instruction around one of our writing targets. So here are the targets we knew we wanted our upcoming lesson (note that the targets are written as a skill continuum, with the bold being the goal for the unit):

SS Critical Thinking:
(ESL 5.2)

I can identify and explain a variety of ideas, and can make some connections between and among them.
I can show relationships between and among ideas, including cause and effect, contradiction, and support.
I can show and analyze relationships between and among ideas, including cause and effect, contradiction, and support, and show how these relationships inform Big Ideas.

(ESL 2.1)

I have a clear thesis which can be proven with limited evidence and analysis; my leads introduce new topics.
I have a clear, arguable thesis requiring multiple levels of proof; my leads support my thesis and organizer, and introduce subtopics.
I have a clear, complex, and multifaceted arguable thesis; my leads further the understanding of my thesis.

Once we knew our targets, we thought about the content we would need to use to work on the targets. We had just begun reading the play Macbeth, so students were ready to work with Acts I and II by the time of this class. So we needed to design a lesson or activity that used the first two acts (content) to further develop the targets (skills). Based on a variety of factors, we chose to make this a two-part (two day) lesson.

Part 1:  Here you will see the task sheet (given to students to explain the why and what of the task); a critical thinking template; a completed mind map from one of our students; and some students working. The activity allowed students to practice with our critical thinking target, as well as circle back to an analysis target we have been practicing for a while, and to set up for the next day's thesis task (Part 2). In addition, the task helps students set up for some evidence work we will do as we get closer to the essay (the post-it notes are specific quotes from the play that support their connections).

Task Sheet
Critical Thinking Template      
Student Critical Thinking Map

We collected the mind maps and scored them (gathering evidence of achievement which helps us determine whether students are prepared for the summative--we may determine that some students need more practice or more instruction before beginning the essay, while other students are ready to move on to more complexity or different targets).

Part 2: Now it was time to move on to the the thesis instruction. Based on some pre-assessments, we had determined that all students needed instruction prior to practicing. We began with a full class example, modeling on the board how we develop a complex thesis from a provided topic. We then provided 4 thesis statements about the same topic, ranging from 1-4 on the target, explaining how each progressively improved. Here are the examples we used (the bold level is the goal for this unit):

  • Level 1: Macbeth kills King Duncan and becomes king. (Can be proved with 2 pieces of evidence and no analysis)
  • Level 2: Macbeth is originally loyal to King Duncan, but betrays him to become king. (Can be proved with 2 pieces of evidence, but needs some analysis to show loyalty and purpose of betrayal)
  • Level 3: Macbeth's ambition leads him to betray his loyalties to King Duncan. (Needs at least 3 pieces of evidence to prove, and will require more analysis)
  • Level 4: Blinded by ambition, Macbeth betrays his king and his country, remaining loyal only to his imagined destiny. (Will require many pieces of evidence and sophisticated analysis)
Working in pairs, we gave students a new topic and asked them to come up with all 4 levels of thesis. This allows students to understand the difference in complexity--without well-defined and precise targets, students often spend more time "guessing" what the teacher wants than actually learning the skill. Working together allows them to share ideas and learn together; conversation improves learning, so it's often helpful to allow students to talk through their thinking. During this time, we were able to check understanding, re-teach as necessary, and monitor the learning.

We ended the task with individual work. In order to help our students as individuals, we need to know where they are individually--not what they can do with a group or a partner. So we ended with a series of practice thesis statements which we collected. Based on what we see with these statements, we will be able to determine whether we are ready to move on as a class, or whether we need to differentiate more as we prepare for our essay.

There is a lot that goes into a standards based lesson, but more importantly, there's a lot that comes out--greater precision of learning, greater efficiency of learning, and greater ability to differentiate based on individual student need. Thanks for sticking with such a long post--and please let us know if you have any questions!