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.