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!

Standards Based Reporting: All about the Learning

In a few days, parents will receive a standards based report in the mail from us, right around the same time they are able to go online and access their students' grades. While we have provided standards based reports in addition to traditional grades for the past few years, this is the first year that we are determining our grades solely based on these standards. We are more confident than ever that our grades are the most accurate representation of student learning we have ever assigned.

The standards based reports include a brief overview of the unit, which is common to all students, as well as a personal comment about individual student growth and goals. The learning targets (standards) for the unit are then listed below, with the student's end of unit score for each. A three (3) is the target for 10th grade. Any students who do not yet achieve a 3 will revisit the targets in upcoming units, with new content. This allows students to move forward, yet still ensures that they (and we) are able to address areas of need.

JumpRope Standards Based Report

In a true standards based system, the individual score for each learning target would be the only judgement necessary, but we are still required to provide a single, composite grade for the unit. The grade is determined by averaging the scores from the targets (which we weight based on importance and amount practiced), and then using a conversion scale to come up with the grade. Our conversion scale is currently slightly higher than the traditional 4.0 GPA conversion, as we believe the students who meet the targets deserve a grade that represents that learning.

The standards based reports help our students understand that grades are tied to achievement. Habits of learning are not included in the calculation of the grade, though good habits most often lead to good learning. Since beginning with this level of precision, we have found that our students are more motivated to learn, are able to make greater gains in learning, and are able to ask better questions. The conversations we have with students (and parents) are about specific learning goals, not about grades. This is a significant and important change in mindset.

We are excited about the potential for standards based learning at our school, and look forward to gathering feedback from parents and students!

Thanks for reading, and feel free to ask questions. The web-based program we use to track and report student learning is called JumpRope. We encourage you to visit their site at or to follow them on Twitter at @jumpropers.

Stan and Emily