Monday, October 29, 2018

Assessing to Develop Skill, Not Identify It

Thomas Guskey said that a teacher’s job should be to “develop talent, not select talent.” This statement is easy to agree with on the surface--of course we are developing talent, we’re teachers! Students come to us, we teach them, and they leave knowing, understanding, or being able to do more, right? But the true test of whether we are actually developing or selecting is to examine our assessment systems. Does the way we assess ensure growth, or does it just happen to capture growth when it happens? Is the system we set up designed to intentionally improve all students’ skills, or to identify those who can or cannot? 

Here’s an example:

Yesterday in class, we asked our students to use what they had learned about brain-friendly and brain-hostile practices (From Thomas Armstrong’s Power of the Adolescent Brain) to evaluate a half-dozen models of education. They had spent a previous class learning about the models (i.e. Montessori, KIPP, place-based, language immersion schools, etc) and taking notes on each, and they had read and talked about the neuroscience; ultimately, we wanted them to use their evaluation of the models to determine which model (or combination of models) would be most effective in our community.
Simple, right?

Out of 20 students, here’s what we got:

  • Three students nailed it. They applied their knowledge of neuroscience to the provided models and then used that application to evaluate the potential effectiveness of the models in our own community. 
  • Eight students were close, but they jumped right to the evaluation, so their findings, while occasionally referencing the neuroscience, lacked the weight of the first set. 
  • Six students were close in a different way. They had very thorough application of the neuroscience, color-coding and using symbols to critically read and apply a variety of elements of the brain research, but they forgot about the overall goal, which was to evaluate effectiveness of a model in our community. 
  • Three students gave very detailed explanations of their own opinions about the models, using the lens of their experience to highlight pros and cons. 
In the (not-too-distant) past, we would have scored these (using our general critical thinking scale, which includes evaluation), written comments to 17 of them about what they were missing, recorded a few 4s, lots of 3s, and a few 2s or 1s in the grade book, and then moved on to the next set of content. In other words, we would have “selected talent,” identifying those that could do what we asked and those that could not.

Even though we thought we had been clear in our expectations, we fell short in our instruction of the central skill we wanted--evaluation. We assumed that because we had taught the content--the neuroscience--that students would be able to successfully apply it to a skill we had explained. The results of our assessment showed otherwise.

Instead of recording scores and moving on, we discovered that we had do the hard work of determining and articulating what exactly it means to evaluate an idea or a model. It’s not enough for us to know what we want, we also have to be able to communicate the increasing levels of skill complexity that will lead to what we want--and then we have to design incremental instruction and practice to ensure that all of our students improve on the skill. In other words, we have to intentionally develop the talent. (And after our next assessment that uses this skill, we will likely need to differentiate in order to continue that development.)

After yesterday’s class, we determined we needed a separate learning scale for Evaluating a Claim, Model, or Idea, as it’s a skill we will continue to instruct and apply throughout the year. Our general critical thinking scale would have allowed us to assess, but not to instruct what we really intended to instruct. The student work we collected yesterday has helped us figure out what this might look like, and we will continue to test and revise this scale until it becomes an effective tool for development of the skill, not just for assessment of the skill.

Evaluating a Claim, Model, or Idea (Working Draft!)
There used to be an element of assessment for us that involved closing our eyes and crossing our fingers and hoping students nailed it. And honestly (and with a bit of embarrassment), there was often an element that included rationalizing poor performance by blaming the learners (they didn’t try, they didn’t listen, they didn’t focus, etc…). We used rubrics to assess--and maybe to explain requirements--but didn't see their value as instructional tools--in other words, we used them to select, not to develop.

When we accept that our job as teachers must be to develop learning, not merely to identify it when it happens, then everything changes. Our assessments become diagnostic and the results are as much (or more) about us and for us than they are about or for our students. We become compelled to use the results of those assessments to shift (or completely change) direction in order to improve student success. And when our success as teachers becomes inextricably tied to our students’ success, we become better teachers. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Stop Judging and Start Trusting: We are ready to change the world

Guest Post: Written by 10th grade student Sabine Foerg

There are so many factors in life that tell us we can't do things.
From a young age, it is the societal norm to teach kids not to take risks. Don't jump off the swing set. You aren't tall enough to go on the slide. Don't talk to strangers, don't cross the street alone.

This is protection, the teaching of survival. At some point in every child's life, they need to take risks, for risks are what define who they are. I am not referring to risks like jumping off the swing set (although some kids just have to learn that one the hard way) . I am referring to larger, scarier risks, where the jump feels much further than the drop from a swing. They start small, with the raise of one's hand in class when they aren't sure of the answer. The risk of the unknown, the risk of being judged. Soon those risks turn to standing up for oneself, one's beliefs, or a peer: the risk of speaking one's mind, no matter the cost. 

There are people in this world who tell youth that we can't do things. We are too busy being on our phones, we don't care about the world around us, we don't know how to interact. They say we have lost the ability to think for ourselves for the sake of the comfort of avoiding risks. This unfair stereotype brings us down as we are told we are stupid. It brings us down as we are told our ideas are invalid. In my own school, I have been told that my generation's collective mind is hollowed out with our lack of ideas. I have been told that we need information spoon fed to us like we are small children in need of constant care. As this opinion of my incompetence was drilled into my brain, a constant stream of busywork and worksheets piles onto my desk. My hand cramps at the end of a long classes of notes, and my brain is filled to maximum capacity with facts and dates and formulas.

Contradiction? I think yes. 

When the worksheets are shoved aside and conversation is finally allowed, conversations filled with ideas and opinions begin. My generation marched for our rights and our beliefs. We have raised thousands upon thousands of dollars for causes we deem important. We debate current issues and share solutions with one another. We talk to and write to and email our representatives and government. We take risks because of who we are, not because our textbooks taught us to. Those risks can and have changed the world. 

So, no, maybe I don't have an opinion on the effects of an obscure war that happened hundreds of years ago and has since been forgotten. I don't care about the chemical makeup of the stalk of a plant, but this does not make me or my generation mindless. We want to know how to make the world a peaceful place now. We want to help solve global warming, we want our opinions valued. The things that we care about don't come from a textbook. We are not shallow, and we do take risks. We can prove society's opinion of us wrong over and over again, and we will continue to prove them wrong for the rest of our lives. Our current education system only prevents us from taking these risks. We should be learning about how TO change the world, not only about how it has changed in the past. We should be out in the world sharing our ideas and opinions, because they ARE valid. Education is stuck in a parked car on the highway while the rest of the world speeds past us. All they have to do is give us the keys.  

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Proficiency, Personalization, and a Cocktail Napkin: or, how PBL became PPBL

Adam (our principal) had these two sentences written on the whiteboard in his office last summer when we came in for a meeting:

Personalization creates ownership without the certainty of integrity.

Proficiency creates integrity without the certainty of ownership.

He had been playing around with the relationship between the two “initiatives” that have taken over the state of Vermont and that had been at the center of our school’s thinking and planning and implementation for years. We all created a mind map around the two sentences that day, listing programs, structures, and systems we had in place to support both proficiency and personalization, and how we would need to balance ongoing professional development to ensure equal focus on each.

But it wasn’t until last week at Lake Morey that we truly understood the implications of those claims and how we needed to make a single, simple shift in our thinking. More about that in a minute.
Our 6 member Curriculum Instruction Team was at Lake Morey for a 2-day conference with personalization expert and researcher Allison Zmuda. Allison is a bit of a legend among our CIT at CVU because of some direction she gave us years ago at a conference in San Antonio Texas. We had been struggling with some heavy thinking and she pulled us out in the hallway, listened to our rambling, abstract, unpolished ideas, asked a few questions, and then cut right to the heart of our intent, providing the direction we had been seeking. That evening we finally figured it out...on a cocktail napkin. We drank to Allison at that moment, and since then she has taken on symbolic status among our group.

The conference focused on personalization and habits of mind, and Allison had done her homework about Vermont. She had met with the Vermont Agency of Education, read extensively about the direction Vermont is headed, and had been on the websites of the schools of the participants. She had name-tags for us all with our first names printed large enough to read from across the room, and by the end of the two days, just about all of us in the room were on a first-name basis. She asked us all about our questions, our concerns, and our interests on the first morning, and then shifted her focus throughout to address them all in some form. She set clear outcomes, provided lots of structure early on, helped us design our own guiding questions a bit later, and then supported us as we broke out on our own towards the end. In other words, she personalized the experience for each of us while remaining true to the integrity of her desired outcomes; through a gradual release model, she gave us voice, co-created goals for our work together, provided opportunities for social construction of meaning, and ultimately set us up for self-discovery.

And just like in San Antonio, our self-discovery happened in the hallway where Allison sent us to push through our stuck points. We had brought tiles (small pieces of paper with words and concepts printed on them) so that we could be flexible in our thinking (we had each sat at the hotel the evening before trying to make sense of the ideas with our own sets of tiles), and we spread them out on the table and spent an hour moving them, challenging each other, revising our thinking, and trying to figure out how to represent the relationship between personalization and proficiency and the way all of our systems, structures, and programs supported this relationship. It was hard. It was unpleasant at times. There was tension, frustration, misunderstanding, disagreement, and awkward silence. But we knew our task (to represent relationships), we knew our purpose (to develop a common understanding in order to drive professional development), and we believed so strongly in the need for clarity that we kept going. And then we got it. And by “got it” we mean we finally came to common understanding of the interaction between and among complex elements driving our work. By no means was this the fact, it finally gave us a solid starting point.

So what did we figure out about the two sentences on the whiteboard from last summer? We figured out that we cannot move forward at CVU thinking that proficiency and personalization are separate components of or pathways to learning. We cannot plan for each separately, divvying up time between them like cake to siblings. We need to shift our thinking to see these as inseparable parts of the same system, not only relying on each other for integrity and purpose, but demanding each other in order to have any chance of transformational learning. 

Transformational learning results in engagement, direction, purpose, and skills that transfer to the world outside of school. That is such a great goal for our students--so much better than a high GPA or polished transcript or a certain number of credits. And the way to encourage that type of learning for ALL students is right in front of us. We are in the middle of real transformation, not just for student learning, but for our entire school system (and state!), and it’s PPBL (Personalized, Proficiency-Based Learning) that will allow us to get there. 

Personalization and proficiency are not the goals; they are the means to the greater goal of transformational learning. Many of us have experienced personalization without clarity of goals and intentional design, and while some students may have positive experiences, we cannot ensure learning or challenge for all. As Allison Zmuda said at the conference, “Creativity appreciates constraints--it thrives on constraints.” Clear goals, constant and timely feedback based on those goals, and intentionally designed opportunities for instruction, practice, and reflection allow students to find their voices, discover their strengths, interests, and challenges, and collaboratively construct meaning. When combined, the elements of both Proficiency-Based Learning and Personalized Learning provide the constraints, the creativity, and the freedom that transformational learning requires.

Now, on our whiteboard we have written:

Proficiency and personalization provide the integrity and ownership necessary for transformational learning experiences.

We have so much work to do as a school, a district, and a state as we all try to improve learning for students. One of the great reminders we took from the conference was that our profession is not about getting it right--it’s about constantly getting it better. Educators need to think of work the way artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs do using the design, prototype, iterate process of thinking. So our school will now move forward with this next iteration knowing that it too will need to be revisited, revised, and reimagined as we continue to work towards transformational learning for all.