Friday, December 11, 2015

Rigor and Standards-Based Learning

Last week a teacher from another school told us she philosophically agreed with SBL for regular kids, but that for the “high-flyers,” it just doesn’t work. She said that SBL means you have to cover less content, so those upper level kids can’t be challenged like they are in the traditional system. She went on to say that it was her responsibility to prepare students for competitive colleges, and she just couldn’t be rigorous if she had to teach to the same standards for all kids.

Ok. So there are clearly some real misunderstandings here about SBL. Let’s be clear right off the bat: standards-based instruction and assessment does not guarantee rigor, just as traditional instruction and assessment does not guarantee rigor. Rigor comes from our expectations and our ability as teachers to know our students well enough to determine appropriate challenge levels. Ensuring rigor requires understanding learning and the brain, knowing our content well enough to be able to add or subtract complexity, and recognizing the difference between difficulty and complexity.

Understanding Learning and the Brain:

Rigor requires understanding about learning. New learning occurs when learners work within their Zones of Proximal Development. This is that area between “I got this” and “This is too hard,” the Yellow Zone as we refer to it in our school. Learning is challenging in this zone, but possible; students can feel their brains engaging and neither coast through nor give up. It should come as no surprise to teachers that student ZPDs are not all the same. Even within tracked classes (from remedial to AP) there are incredible variations based on the precise skills being addressed. Because of the variation in our learners (which, though inconvenient, is a fact), we have to have a way of figuring out each student’s ZPD for each skill. Yes. We know there are a lot of students. But if our goal is to provide rigor for all, then we need to determine what is rigorous for each.

Knowing our Content:

Rigor requires deep content knowledge. If you think of learning as a road trip, with our goals (targets, standards, outcomes) as the destination, then our content is the actual map. We use the content to get to the destination. The more we know about our content, the more detailed the map can be. The more detailed the map, the more options we have to shift the complexity of the trip itself. Some of our students will get stuck partway to the destination, some will get lost, some will struggle leaving the garage in the first place, and some will be well on the way to the destination before we even begin. The better we know our maps, the better able we are to raise or lower the complexity of the journey for individuals so that all students can be both successful and challenged. From a student perspective, the more content they learn along the way, the more interesting and meaningful (and ultimately memorable) the trip to the destination will be.

(And here’s another note on content, since one of the biggest misconceptions about SBL is that content isn’t important. Content is vital. Without content, there’s no map. There’s no scenery. There are no roads or bridges or signs or rest stops or World’s Biggest Balls of String. Without content, the cars won’t leave the driveways.)

Recognizing the Difference between Difficulty and Complexity:

Rigor is about complexity, not difficulty. Here are some examples to illustrate. A student has a 3 page reading to do. To make this more difficult, we could do a variety of things, including adding more pages, leaving out every 5th word, making the font tiny, or requiring that the student do the reading while upside down. These are silly, yes, but they all would make the task harder to do, right? But do they add complexity? No. Years ago in our team taught humanities class, we attempted to challenge some of our stronger readers by asking them to read two novels instead of one; we asked them to write eight pages instead of six; we gave more homework. All of these increased the difficulty without increasing complexity.

If we are trying to judge rigor, we should be looking at the quality of the thinking demonstrated by students in that class, not at the amount of work assigned or the hours of homework. 

Are students regularly expected (and taught to) think at Bloom’s highest levels (ALL students)? During the class itself, what type of activities are the students engaged in? Are they thinking? Grappling? Struggling? Or are they sitting and listening? Are they working with the content, using it, testing it, questioning it? Or are they passively receiving it?

Rigor is about complexity, not difficulty. We should be attempting to raise the former for all students, not settling for the easier task of increasing difficulty.

So is an SBL class more rigorous? Not on its own. But, the conditions above are much more easily met within a standards-based system than they are in a traditional system.  In a standards-based class, students and teachers know the destinations. And when those destinations are skill-based rather than content-based (reminder: see above note on how important content is!), teachers and students have much more flexibility to ratchet complexity up or down throughout the learning experience. Does this ensure rigor? Of course not. We, the teachers, are ultimately in control of that, and if we don’t know our learners well or hold them to high enough standards, that’s on us, not on a system of learning.

Monday, October 26, 2015

“Wow me!" The Importance of Articulating the 4

“How do students get a 4? They need to WOW us, that’s how.”  This was the answer we got when we asked this question to a panel of teachers three years ago during an out of state school visit.  The school had been recommended as one that was transitioning to SBG and we were eager to talk with teachers about implementation. They had done a great job defining, articulating, and even calibrating their level 3 targets (Meeting the Standard), but had decided to leave the 4s undefined. As we sat and listened to this explanation, warning bells went off in our heads.  

In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously remarked that while he could not define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. We cannot take this same approach to learning. Excellence and rigor are too important to be left to subjectivity, chance, or a student’s ability to read our minds.

“Wow me” does not encourage excellence, says more about the teacher than the student, and most importantly, does not at all support what we know about learning.

We know that the brain learns best and most efficiently when it has clear targets, which is why standards-based learning and grading (SBL and SBG) are smart moves for education. SBG requires intentional learning targets and scales (continuums of learning). Over time, these targets are calibrated and crafted until they are clear, appropriately rigorous, and consistently understood by all parties (students, parents, teachers), leading to much more objective assessments of achievement than most more traditional ways of grading.

Our goal as assessors is to be as objective as possible. “Wow me” is not objective.

Besides “wow me,” there are plenty of other things NOT to say when students ask how to get a 4 on a target:
  • “Go above and beyond the expectations.”
  • “Be creative.”
  • “Do more. Do extra.”
  • “Add color or glitter.”
  • “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

What should we say when a student asks how to get a 4?
  • “Take a look at the language on the scale.”
  • “Here are some benchmarks or exemplars.”
  • “Remember how we all worked through the level 4 together in class last week?”

In order to be as clear and as precise as possible with our students, we created benchmarks and explanations to go along with the targets and scales for our current unit.  This is the first time we have used these and they are a work in progress; that said, they have already helped immensely.  Creating these documents has really forced us to articulate and specify what it takes to move along the scale. This intentionality has improved our ability to talk to kids about skills, to provide targeted feedback, and to more intentionally design and differentiate instruction.  

Here are our links to the explanations/benchmarks we are currently using. We are playing around with a few different styles and formats, and will ask students at the end of the unit to give us feedback in order to improve these:

How to get a Level 4 on Note Taking Strategies:

How to get a Level 4 on Graphic Representation Target:

How to get a Level 4 on Big Ideas Target (Analysis):

The greatest benefit of all of these documents has been for the students. They now understand the goal of each target and can actually see what achievement looks like, which in turn lowers anxiety and increases the quality of their thinking and consequently their work.  Providing benchmarks and exemplars does not encourage students to mimic and does not lessen creativity; in fact, it increases creativity and challenges students to push beyond what they thought possible.

And you know what happens then? They wow us.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Don’t Stop the Learning: Using summatives to extend learning, not just measure it

There’s a lot of education talk about the difference between assessment of learning and  assessment for learning. Most sources define the first as summative assessments, meaning assessments that are designed to determine what a student has learned at the end of a particular period of time or topic of study. The second is usually described as formative, or assessments that are designed to check on learning during the middle of a unit or topic of study.

For years, we thought about our assessments in just this way. Our summatives were tools that helped us record what information students understood and could recall. They looked backwards at the learning, assessing what we had already taught and what students had already learned. We created tests, determining the right mix of multiple choice, short answer and essay questions; we designed projects that allowed choice about how students could tell us what they knew; we challenged ourselves to find new and creative ways for students to present what they had learned. All of this was great, and there were many summatives that we loved for many reasons.  

But recently, our thoughts on summatives have changed.  Sure, there needs to be a chance for students to grapple with the content and understandings from the unit and to show us what they have already learned, but what if our summatives also required new learning? What if the end of unit assessments actually extended the learning, requiring transfer of skills to new content and understandings?  Once we started to think about summatives as a chance to continue learning, not simply a way to show what had been learned already, everything changed.  

What led us to this change? Learning targets.  

Since we made the shift to standards-based learning (SBL) and more specifically, shifted to using learning targets to drive instruction and assessment, our work has changed dramatically.  As we have mentioned in previous blogs, we started to focus not just on content and understanding, but on what a student can DO with the content and understanding. Our targets switched from content based outcomes to transferable skill targets. This skill focus has opened up a world of ideas about assessments, and has helped us turn them into learning tools that extend knowledge and understanding, not just record it.

Here’s an example:

Our upcoming summative will focus mainly on the Mongols.  Students will be given  a packet of reading on the Mongols and a complex, multi-part thesis statement that they are asked to prove (in class--all of our summatives are done in class only).  Students will break down this thesis statement to help them organize their reading and note taking (a learning target and strategy we work on a lot in this unit).  They will then pour through these readings, looking for evidence to help them make sense of the thesis and then ultimately prove it (this will take multiple days).  They will take notes, organize notes, and think.  Next, they will be asked for the five best pieces of evidence they would use to prove this given thesis.  Along with providing the evidence, they will supply a rationale for why they chose each piece, and why they would put the pieces of evidence in the order that they selected (another learning target we work on throughout the unit).  

Oh, one thing we forgot to mention: during the unit we don’t study the Mongols.  We spend no time teaching about the Mongols. They spend no time learning about the Mongols. When the students get to the summative it is on brand new content. During the assessment, the students apply the skills we have introduced, instructed, and practiced (multiple times) to content they have never seen before. In the second part of the summative, they bring in some of the understandings and content from the unit; but, do so in relation to the Mongols and their new learning.

In the past, we spent days “teaching” the Mongols. We told students why they were important, what they did, and how controversial they were, and on the test they could repeat back what we had said. But the sad truth is that our past students never learned as much about and/or thought as much about the Mongols as our current students do without us doing any of the teaching.

Here’s another example:

A Current Issues teacher in our school is wrapping up a unit on the primary season and elections. Students have been learning about the election process, common political issues, and the many candidates running for President. They have researched, debated, watched, read, and listened. For their summative, rather than taking a test or writing a paper or creating a political ad, students are extending their learning through a complex critical thinking map (link to description here). Here are the transferable skill targets the teacher is assessing:

CVU Graduation Standards
3.c. - Analyze, evaluate, and synthesize evidence, arguments, claims, and beliefs.
Target not yet met.
I consider a singular perspective when evaluating information.
I consider multiple perspectives when evaluating information.
I consider multiple perspectives when evaluating information and I can formulate my own perspective using evidence-based arguments.
Target not yet met.
I can present  different claims and beliefs.
I can analyze, evaluate, and synthesize evidence, arguments, claims, and beliefs.
I can analyze, evaluate, and synthesize evidence, arguments, claims, and beliefs. I can distill my findings into coherent and lucid writing or a presentation.

Students worked for 3 full 90 minute class periods on this summative. They were allowed any resources they wanted, could talk to each other, and could even look at each other’s work as they created their map. You can see from the examples below, that each map was completely different, as it represented the individual student’s thinking. Students were forced to grapple with issues that were important to them, with their beliefs about candidates, with personal biases, and ultimately had to justify their choices and evaluations. They learned as they went, pushing themselves to seek out new learning in order to rationalize, justify, challenge, or support their positions. The critical thinking maps are visual representations of their thought process as well as their ultimate claims. The summative was not a static demonstration of previously learned knowledge and understandings, but rather a living representation of continuous learning and thinking. 

Our classes should be about using content to practice skills that students will need for the rest of their lives (see great Tony Wagner video about what the world wants from its students).  These transferable skills are essential, and using our summatives to practice using these skills when they need them--when they encounter new material and unfamiliar ideas--is much more important than measuring what they already know.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Newsflash: SBG Does Not Improve Student Learning

Standards-based grading isn’t the answer. It will not boost our students’ achievement. It will not increase our students’ engagement. It will not raise the rigor of our classrooms.

But standards-based learning (SBL) will do all of these things.

SBG without SBL won't work. These terms and initials are often used interchangeably, but the distinction is critical. We would like to argue here that schools and teachers must understand and embrace changes in learning before attempting changes in grading. We must transform our instructional practices if we want our grading practices to reflect learning.

While mandating changes in grading can force teachers to make changes more quickly, these changes will not produce the desired results if teachers continue to approach class in the same way we always have. Here are some examples of what can happen when teachers move to SBG before fully understanding SBL:
  • SBG says we shouldn’t grade homework, so I stopped grading homework and the students stopped doing homework.
  • SBG says I can’t count habits, so my students’ grades went down.
  • SBG says I need to grade using a 1-4 scale, but kids still convert to A-F in their heads, so it’s all just semantics.

When the only thing we change is how and what we grade, SBG will be confusing at best and inaccurate at worst. All of the above may very well happen if we keep teaching as we always have, so when teachers and parents and students say, “SBG doesn’t work,” they may very well be right. Because SBG does not work with traditional teaching practices.

It is vital that we transform our teaching practices to support what we know about learning. After 5 years teaching in standards-based classroom, we can honestly say that class looks entirely different than it used to. Here are some of the main ways our teaching has changed:
  • Targets, not content, drive instruction: I used to decide what to teach based on content. For example, if I was about to teach the Mongols, I would think of all the things I wanted them to know about the Mongols. Then I would try to come up with engaging ways to deliver that content. Now that I am standards-based, I start with the target instead of the content. If my target is about choosing valid evidence to support a thesis, then I design instruction that uses the Mongols to have students practice choosing evidence. This does not mean that content isn’t important; it means that content now serves skill rather than the other way around (see: A Standards-based Lesson Start to Finish). As Tony Wagner says, “The world no longer cares what our kids know..., what the world cares about is what kids can do with what they know.”
  • Teachers plan in response to data from formative assessments: One of the biggest shifts in SBL is that the majority of a teacher’s time goes into planning for class, not grading.  Once we are aware of where a student is in relation to the target (think the blue dot on a GPS) we must adjust instruction to help them reach and exceed their goal. For example, once we know that groups of kids are at different places on a scale, we must adjust instruction accordingly.  I will very likely be using the same content with everyone, for instance photosynthesis; however, if I know that kids are at different places with understanding cause/effect and relationships, I will have three groups doing different things with it.  The goal is to make sure that I am pushing each student to improve at the given skill, all while grappling with the rigorous content.
  • Students spend the majority of every class practicing and playing and thinking and trying: I used to think about class in terms of what I was going to do. First, I’m going to tell them...then I’m going to show them...then I’m going to have them...This meant that I spent a lot of time in front of the room delivering content which I then hoped they would internalize and give back to me a few weeks later. Class discussions involved me asking questions and facilitating participation. Overall, the majority of the class was about me doing and them sitting and listening or sitting and following directions. When class is planned based on targets, this has to change. Now I start by thinking about what they are going to do. We know that doing is learning and that listening is not learning (Dr. Duke); so in order to learn, students need to be getting messy with the skills in class.
  • Groupings, furniture set-up, and classroom structures change constantly based on the learning needs: Just as we intentionally alter our instruction to match the needs of the students and the class, we also need to make sure that the class set up matches our needs. Depending on the purpose of the class and the activities planned, the class set-up must be intentional and support the learning.  A socratic discussion, peer editing, a small group activity, and practicing speeches all require different set ups and needs.  Creating the perfect learning environment for the day can be the most important part of an effective lesson and is worth the time it will take to set it up.
  • Students track their own learning and take control over the paths they take to that learning: The ultimate goal of any standards-based class is to create an environment in which students can have more control of their own learning. This does not mean that the teacher is off the hook--in fact, it’s the opposite. Designing opportunities, instruction, and assessment that allow students to navigate their learning is much more difficult than traditional teaching. If we are doing our job right in a standards-based class, students will know what their targets are, will know where they are in relation to their targets, and will know how to close the gap (DuFour). This clarity and self-awareness will open up so many possibilities for student interest and choice, and ultimately increase engagement and learning.

Once our learning is driven by mastery and not content or seat time, and once these instructional changes are part of our routine, we will need a grading system that can communicate learning. And that’s when SBG not only makes sense, but becomes necessary.

Without significantly changing what learning looks like, SBG won’t work any better than the current broken system. But when we do change instruction and assessment based on what we know about the brain and learning, then SBG becomes not only logical, but essential.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Five don’ts that might just lead to better learning

Habits take time to form...that’s how they become habits. And if  we don’t start to form new habits immediately, the old ones will take over because life will get complicated and we will fall back to our defaults to survive. So this month, for one full month, be bold and vocally and publicly declare new (soon-to-be) habits. Here are 5 suggestions for the first month:

  1. Don’t assign homework. Here’s what this will do: you will be forced to use your class time differently right away, demanding high-quality, rigorous, focused work during class. You will need to talk less (see #3) and let them do more. Students will learn what it means to work hard while you are there to guide, redirect, and watch their learning. You will have more time outside of class for high-quality, substantive feedback based on the work you watched them do in class. Ultimately, you will learn more about your students more quickly when you are present during their learning. When the month is up, decide if you want to start giving homework…but you may see you don’t want or need to. If you do decide to give homework, here’s a link to a helpful infographic called “Homework in a Standards-Based Class.”
  2. Don’t grade anything. Grades cause anxiety and anxiety leads to a variety of behaviors, all detrimental to learning. Some students will give up when graded, some will become obsessed with the grades (not the learning—big difference), and some will stop taking intellectual or creative risks. Allow students to learn safely for the first month, providing feedback, but no grades. Show the students where they are in relation to your targets, show them benchmarks, celebrate risk taking, and encourage redos and retries and retakes. After a month, if you must, grade away…but again, you may find you don’t need or want to. Curious about grading changes? Join #sblchat on Wednesday nights at 9pm ET.
  3. Don’t hog the learning. Limit yourself to 5 minutes of talking (to the whole class) in a 90 minute block. Why? Because the one doing is the one learning. If our goal is to have students learn and make meaning, then we need to make sure that we are setting them up to learn. And as the wonderful Dr Duke reminds us (see amazing video here), “Listening isn’t learning.”  Brain research has clearly shown that people need to play with content in order to learn content in a way they can use beyond simple recall. They need time to talk and to experiment and to write and to chart and to explore--all things they aren’t doing if they are listening to us. So rather than telling them about supply and demand or the functions of a cell or the themes of Macbeth, allow them to discover these things. It’s a lot harder to plan for what they will do than to plan for what we will do, but the learning (theirs!) will be worth it.
  4. Don’t focus on the wrong things. The more we focus on what we don’t want students to do, the less we focus on what we do want them to do. When we spend lots of time and energy making detailed rules about hats and gum and food and bra straps and cellphones in class, you know what’s going to happen? We’re going to spend lots of time and energy enforcing rules about hats and gum and food and bra straps and cellphones in class...time and energy we could be spending on learning. This does not mean allowing class to be a free-for-all; it just means being thoughtful about what really matters to us and to our ultimate goal: to improve learning.
  5. Don’t stand at the front of the room. In fact, don’t have a front of the room (this will help with #3 as well!). That means being really intentional about how we set the room up each class. Yes, this takes time, and yes, it may be a bit loud. But how we set up the room can make a huge difference in learning, attention, and engagement. So think about the purpose of each class, the tasks you are having students do, and then determine the BEST setup possible for that purpose.

These suggestions may seem extreme, but think about the underlying premise of each “Don’t”. Our goal as teachers is to maximize learning for all students, and so many of our teaching defaults get in the way of this goal. By being more intentional about daily decisions and structures and policies, and by doing these class after class after class, we can start to build practices and systems that become...well...habits.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Thank You, Grant Wiggins

The first real education book I actually read was Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design. It was 1998 or 99, shortly after it was first published, and our principal bought the book for the entire faculty to read over the summer. I had read parts of education texts in the past, of course, but all seemed so theoretical or irrelevant or merely a means to credit in my teacher prep classes. But UbD was different. It made so much sense. It was so intuitive. It was so practical. As a new teacher, backward design was just what I needed to help me make sense of a profession that seemed so confusing and arbitrary.

Over the next decade and a half, I devoured education books, continuously searching for better ways to improve learning. I read about multiple intelligences, differentiation, personalization, standards-based grading, mindset, grit, habits of mind, performance assessments, and every book I could find about the brain and learning. At the beginning of this school year a colleague said to me about our school’s move towards standards-based learning, “I’m just going to buckle down and wait this initiative out like all the others. Believe me, it will go away.” She then cited many of the above as evidence. I didn’t say anything, but here’s what I should have said. For good educators, nothing we learn about improving learning goes away. As new research about the brain and teaching emerges, we have a professional responsibility to incorporate the new into the old, to take the parts that work, tweak the parts that should work but don’t, and think critically about what we are doing and why. The connections between and among “initiatives” are clear when we look for them—when differentiation became big, it didn’t replace earlier knowledge we had about learning, it built upon it. And everything I have learned about education has built upon the idea of backward design.

Here’s the point. Understanding by Design was foundational. All of my professional learning seems to stem in some way from the ideas in that book, ideas that are just as relevant and effective as when they were first written down. In fact, I would argue that they are even more powerful today when combined each successive “initiative” and what we know about the brain and learning.

A few years ago, some colleagues and I were lucky enough to see Grant Wiggins present. We were at the edge of a transition in our school, and we had been asked to grapple with some big ideas about vision. After our first day listening, we became more confused than ever. Grant recognized this (Adam Bunting doesn’t have much of a poker-face) and approached us. He listened attentively, asked a few really pointed questions, and then sent us out into the hallway for the rest of the conference to work out our ideas. With the help of his colleague Allison Zmuda, we crafted what became known as our “napkin vision,” lots of notes actually written on a napkin. There were hundreds of teachers at that presentation, but at the end of the day, Grant asked us what we had come up with. He asked if he could take it back to his hotel to look at it more closely. He didn’t need to do that. And he certainly didn’t need to give us the incredible feedback he gave us the next morning. The questions he asked and the suggestions he made are a large part of why we are where we are today as a school.

In the past few years, I have followed @grantwiggins on Twitter and have read every blog post on his incredible blog “Granted, and…” at His January posts about differentiated instruction were some of the most powerful and important to our current work, and came at a time when we needed some intellectual weight to support the hard work our teachers were doing. And his recent posts, including his last, on reading strategies, will be powerful for years to come. There are so many times in the last few years when I have envied Grant his direct approach to critics and his candid opinions about the moral necessity of good teaching.

Today, we lost one of the most influential thinkers of our time.  I did not know Grant Wiggins personally, but I can only imagine that he was as good a man as he was an educator. His work has and will continue to inspire teachers, and I am grateful that I was able to be one of them. Thank you, Grant, for such important work. You will be missed.