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.