Should observations “count”?

To have our first idea of things, we must see those things. To have an idea about a natural phenomenon, we must, first of all, observe it…All human knowledge is limited to working back from observed effects to their cause. (Claude Bernard, 1865)

If we make the observations with preconceived notions of what the truth is, if we believe we know the cause before we observe the effect, we will almost assuredly see what we want to see, which is not the same as seeing things clearly. (Gary Taubes, 2007)

Today, I am thinking about the power, value, and importance of observation. I am hoping that thinking “out loud” will help me clarify my ideas and stop them from flitting around like butterflies.

Observation is not new to education. In fact, it is a cornerstone of effective teaching and teachers have been doing it since teaching began. So, I don’t think recognizing observation as part of our work in schools is news to anyone. However, I think that accepting observation as an important indicator of learning, both formatively and summatively, is harder to accept. Maybe rephrasing my thinking as questions will help: Can observation of a learning experience “count” as an assessment event? Is observation enough to conclude that learning has occurred? Can we use observation evidence to report a summative grade?

Certain subjects seem to lend themselves to answering yes to these questions. If we are teachers of physical education, we depend on observation. We also seem to be comfortable assessing in this manner in industrial arts, drama, music…it seems that in certain subject areas, observation is deemed vital, and everyone accepts a teacher’s judgement as sound and reasonable. Teachers document their observations, certainly, but this is enough.

Certain grade levels also seem comfortable with observation as part of the documentation of learning. In Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten, the play-based environment lends itself beautifully to observation. Pair this with strong invitations to learn and effective verbal engagement between teachers and students and you have recipe for growth and development.  No one questions whether or not the teacher has the “right” to observe and make instructional decisions as well as report learning to families. This is how early years educators assess.

So, my question is if physical education and drama teachers or Kindergarten teachers are able to use observation of learning as an assessment event, then why can’t a middle years math teacher? I ask this because I have been puzzling over the strong tendency to have students write their thinking down at every turn. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate strongly the importance of literacy and writing. It is critical that students learn to express themselves in a variety of ways, including through the written word. My concern is more that writing is the only way students are being invited to show their understanding in some subjects.

I can think of a couple of reasons why we might be reluctant to use observation of learning as assessment. First, I think it is because we want to have visible accountability for the decisions we are making about student grades. There may be a fear that if a parent questions a grade, we won’t be able to support our decision. This leads me to think that we might need to learn how to document learning or make learning visible. There is a ton of literature around these two topics. If we document learning as part of observation, and keep track of our observations during learning experiences, we will have plenty of “evidence” to support our decisions. In fact, I think the evidence will be stronger and certainly more compelling than a single math sheet would. Second, I wonder if we are afraid to trust our own professional judgement. Is it easier to fall back on math as a justification of a grade than it is to assert our training, education and experience with children and learning? The truth of the matter is we are always making professional judgements, even when we grade a math paper. It is just that those judgements are often masked by a score.

It is the responsibility of a teacher to teach, to assess, and to report learning. We need to become comfortable with ourselves as professionals. We need to trust our observations. Once we do, we are free to experiment with learning experiences. We can move beyond paper into a three dimensional world. Using observation regularly allows us to be highly responsive in our instruction. It allows us the freedom to walk alongside students as they construct meaning, engage in inquiry, experiment, take risks and experience. No longer would we have to think: Wow, you really understood that. I sure hope you do well on your test next week!

Just thinking out loud…

Experiential Education in the Outdoors

This past week, I facilitated my last PD session of the year. It was called Experiential Education in the Outdoors, and I must admit, I use the term facilitated loosely because two teachers in our school division did most of the work. The day was the brainchild of a teacher colleague who does a great deal of learning with his class along the river near his school. He is passionate about the kinds of learning experienced outdoors and I felt this would be a great addition to our PD roster for the year. So, we asked another colleague from the opposite side of the division to co-facilitate with us and we were on our way!

For the day, we headed to Greenwater Provincial Park, which is located in the south eastern part of our school division. We wanted a place that would offer unique opportunities to explore the outdoors with the teachers who had registered. Even though spring was late this year, the leaves had just burst and we had plenty of beautiful environment to enjoy. The weather prediction turned out to be conservative and we ended up with a scorching hot day, filled with plenty of sun.

In the morning, we met in a parking lot on the edge of the park and loaded up the fifteen passenger van and a couple of trucks and headed to a remote-ish location along the lake. One of our co-facilitators had set up the kitchen area early in the morning, so we just had to finish up by finding spots for our lawn chairs. Our two big ideas for the day were: 1) Being outdoors creates a physical and emotional response that readies us for learning because it makes us feel good; and 2) Learning outdoors can be integrated into any subject with any age group. We encouraged the participants to take stock of their feelings throughout the day and to imagine how each activity we explored could be adapted to the age group of students with whom they work.

For the first three hours, we rotated three groups through three different locations, where we engaged in learning experiences that tied to multiple curricula across multiple grade levels. The first activity occurred down by the river, where the participants engaged in a study of the water ecosystem and made plaster casts of animal prints. The second grouping occurred in the forest, where the participants built a shelter. The final group gathered with me and we created watercolour paintings and wooden block artworks based on Australian Aboriginal paintings. We also looked ta several ways to take students outdoors as part of English Language Arts classes.

Our lunch was amazing! One of our facilitators did a fish fry, which included delicious battered fish, homemade french fries, and salads. He had even brought an appetizer. The participants could not stop talking about the food (and I can’t stop thinking about it!) We all sat in a circle and enjoyed the sun and good conversation. It felt really colleagial and everyone was enjoying themselves. We all reflected on ways we could bring this same vibe to other professional development events. I continue to think about this as I plan for next year.

In the afternoon, my two teacher colleagues shared their tips for safety, permissions, and planning an outdoor experience. They gave us insight about hunting times, ways to avoid pesticides, and how to keep students safe. They also shared some of their best contacts in the environmental world – we live in a very outdoor-sy area of the province and there is ample opportunity to engage in the environment in really meaningful ways.

We took a couple of breaks in the information sessions to play a First Nations game and learn how to set beaver traps (a very new experience for me!) We finished the day by looking at curricular outcomes and rubrics and discussing ways the learning experiences for students could happen outdoors. There were many really creative ideas shared and it was a good chance to look at our curricula again and think about it in a new way.

Before we loaded back into the vehicles, we headed down to the river to grab our animal print casts and share some of the things we had seen (mostly leeches and bugs…ugh.) Everyone seemed very energized (and quite sun-drenched as well.) I could not believe how quickly the day flew by! It was definitely one of my favourite PD days this year. A huge hats off to my co-facilitators, whose commitment to this day was amazing.

Here are a few pictures:

A deer track Artworks Building shelters Eating lunch Fries!! Getting our animal prints In the bush More painting Naomi in the water On the bus Our chef Setting traps part 2 Setting traps The fish

PD for an Entire Division: Part One – The Set Up

This year, our team made the decision to host one workshop day for every teacher in our school division in order to look at student data. In our most creative moment (enter sarcasm), we called these days Data Days. As I type this introduction, I can almost hear the gasps – PD for everyone? Where every teacher listens to the same thing? More sit and git (or whatever else we call terrible PD these days)? And about data…the dreaded data that hinders real student learning? Well, I know we worked pretty hard to make sure our Data Days were responsive, constructive, applicable and personal. And, while each teacher who has attended will have all sorts of perspectives on our success, I can only offer my perspective and thoughts (based on reflection, feedback, follow up emails and conversations) about why I feel this has been an incredible journey despite the “whole group” beginnings and my own personal anxieties about doing this with any success.

First of all, the planning team consisted of three coordinators – our Early Learning Coordinator, our Continuous Improvement Coordinator and me (Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment). We later added one Superintendent, who shares provincial and divisional data at the beginning of each Data Day. We rounded out the facilitation team with the addition of one learning coordinator at each day as well as one IT support person to ensure we could access our data electronically. Finally, and on a very positive note, our Director and all three Superintendents of Schools have ended up attending days here and there and have immersed themselves in working groups, co-constructing with teachers. While this could have been intimidating for teachers and boring for these leaders, it has turned out to be incredibly positive for shared understanding and relationship-building as well as very supportive to the Early Learning Coordinator and me, who have facilitated each day.

Our team planned and re planned; constructed and deconstructed; researched and reflected for well over a year on how these days would look. We settled on the Pre-K to grade six teachers attending with their grade level cohort group (these groups have spent five years together, working on curriculum, planning, assessment and responsive instruction). Those eight days were held before Christmas and they involved extra reading, observational and environmental data sets acquired from some division-wide assessments we do. In January, we hosted a day with K-6 teachers who do not teach ELA (and likely don’t have a Homeroom). We have since followed up with four days with grades 7-12 teachers, with the last three of their days happening next week. In other words, sixteen days in total when we are done (and from a teacher or administrator’s perspective, one day each). When I consider the learning, discussion and questioning that has occurred as a result, I don’t even know where to start! These days have certainly achieved the goal of acting as a catalyst for further discussion and, for me, have given me so much to be excited about for our students.

In documenting the set up of our Data Days, I should explain the PD journey our Division has travelled since we became a larger school division, amalgamated from several smaller divisions eight years ago. This is important because we could not have had these days work the way they did without the previous ground work. So, some highlights:

We have spent time on PLC development, including developing strong Mission, Vision and Values in each school and as a Division (based on the work on the DuFours).

We worked together to examine renewed curricula with a UbD lens (see Wiggins, McTighe and Ainsworth), unpacking each and every curricular outcome, creating strong Essential Questions and thinking about what student needed to know, do and understand.

We spent years exploring assessment, resulting in an Assessment and Evaluation Handbook (based on the work of many authors, including O’Connor, Wormeli, Cooper, Marzano, etc.). We also created a rubric for every curricular outcome, adopting a consistent four level continuum in every subject at every grade level. We then created possible assessment events for both formative and summative purposes. We also developed our own divisional grade book and new report cards for all grades. We moved to reporting documentation in Pre-K and K, alpha codes in 1-8 and percentages in 9-12 (but still based on outcome-based learning and assessing as well as rubric use for creating responsive instruction and offering timely and specific feedback.)

We created a division website called Curriculum Corner ( http://curriculum.nesd.ca/) where we house all the above work. We share this work with the world as a show of solidarity in our global desire to support learning.

We have spent years exploring differentiated instruction, including embedding DI Facilitators in every school. Our work was based on authors such as Tomlinson, Silver and Hume, among many others. We have since shifted to co-teaching in all schools this year, with workshop days held to support this work.

We have spent three years developing our RtI approaches, forming response teams in every school. We have adopted PBIS as an pro-active approach to behaviour and learning and each school has developed their own Behaviour Matrix. We have also purchased and modified a data tracking system for RtI purposes.

We have worked with early learning educators on creating and nurturing play-based environments, documentation of learning, invitations to learn, etc., focusing on the work of Reggio Emilia.

We have worked with all teachers in grades 1-6 on readin; in particular, administering and responding to the Reading Assessment District and Diagnostic Levelled Reading. We have talked a great deal about learning strategies and metacognition in our many days together as cohort groups.

We have offered optional PD within our division from well-known presenters like Deb Silver, Rick Wormeli, Damien Cooper, Karen Hume, Tom Schimmer, etc. We have also held our own workshops on topics like: Inquiry, Daily 5 and Guided Reading, Creating Responsive Environments, Learning Strategies, Core French, Arts Education, Health Education, FNMI Art and Math, Physical Education, Leadership, Google Ecosystem, I Pads, Digital Storytelling, Digital Citizenship, Anxiety in Students, etc.

Without all this work, we could not have had the conversations we did when we met in groups at our Data Days this year. In my next posts, I will attempt to explain the format of the Data Days, the data sets we were examining, how we tried to make the days personal and constructivist, how we ensured the work was relevant to what teachers would be doing in their classes the very next day, the challenges in our approach and, most importantly, the fantastic learning that resulted for me and those around me.

Assessment, inferences and making learning visible

What if we thought about assessment as the act of making an inference? What if we imagined that the learning we see in school is not all the learning that happens inside a student’s head? What if we thought about school as a place where we could structure experiences so students have the potential for learning above and beyond the learning they might do through living, playing and simply existing? What if we embraced the idea that capturing continuous acts of learning in all their complexity and diversity would make us better able to infer a student’s level of understanding? How can we make learning visible and then how can we turn this visible learning into a recursive dialogue that becomes the catalyst for future learning? These are some of the things I am thinking about today.

Imagine a suitcase. Imagine it is not your suitcase; it is, in fact, a suitcase belonging to someone you don’t know. Imagine opening this suitcase and taking out a single item – a bird-watching book. What might you think about the owner of the suitcase, based on this single item? Likes birds? Is planning on watching birds? Now, remove another item – a wide-brimmed hat. What now? Maybe the person is going bird-watching in a warm climate. Maybe they are fair and the sun bothers them. Maybe this person is a female? A third item – a map of Costa Rica. Now you are piecing together a story – this person is travelling to Costa Rica to go bird-watching and they are bringing the hat to protect them from the sun. You are making inferences based on artifacts in the suitcase. The more artifacts, the more robust your story becomes.

This act of piecing together a story, based on artifacts is the exact same inferring process we use when assessing students. We collect samples – papers, posters, oral presentations, problems, observations, and we use them to put together a story of student learning. The more samples, the more robust our inference about understanding. Sometimes we get it wrong – maybe the owner of the hat was a man. Maybe they borrowed the book for a friend and they don’t enjoy bird-watching. Similarly, maybe the student doesn’t understand a concept as well as we thought. Or maybe they understand it better. This is where we might need to accept that assessment facilitates making an inference but it isn’t fool-proof. This is why we might need to collect more evidence; change our opinion; replace old evidence with new.

Added to this idea of assessment as making an inference, is the notion that this metaphor should be more complex – someone is always adding to the suitcase as we unpack it. It continues to change and shift over time, just as learning continues over time. The contents of the suitcase today will not be the contents tomorrow. Learning today will not be learning tomorrow. So, we have to keep checking.

I think the whole act of making an inference gets easier when we also imagine that looking at the artifacts could go hand-in-hand with dialogue. Assessment doesn’t need to be one-way communication (take in the test and try to figure out what the student knows.) We need to feel comfortable asking questions. We need to embrace the idea that learning should be a conversation that continues all the time; in fact, it is through this conversation that learning continues to happen. Coming to know the owner of that suitcase is much easier when we can ask questions of the owner (Do you like bird-watching? Are you going somewhere hot?) And asking those questions is much easier when we have the samples/ artifacts right in front of us (What did you mean by this? How can you expand your thinking a little on this point? Where could you go to support your ideas further?) It is this conversation that is the crux of what we do in schools. Through conversations about learning, we know how to adjust, enhance and correct learning experiences so they take learning further.

It is essential for both teachers and students to capture learning as it unfolds. Portfolios, photographs, videos, reflections, observations, work samples, and rough drafts, are all ways of capturing learning and making it visible to both the teacher and the students. Settling for the single, final product is like accepting the bird-watching book as the entire story of the suitcase owner. It simply isn’t enough if we are going to make strong inferences about student learning.

It would be arrogant for anyone to believe they fully know what is inside another person’s head. And yet, teachers are tasked with measuring understanding and reporting it accurately. They also have to take the information they gather and adjust their instruction accordingly. Given these realities, making thinking visible is essential for teachers if they are to be effective assessors and facilitators of learning. Thinking about assessment as the act of making an inference helps us to think about how we can do this as effectively as possible. Because if we are going to return the suitcase to the correct owner, we had better figure out who the owner really is.

 

Four surefire ways to improve learning

School is one big experiment of stimulus-response. We try things and measure the impact; try new things and measure the impact…until we get results that show learning. Many times, it seems like there are so many ingredients to consider, it can be overwhelming. I have been thinking about all the literature I have been reading, all the discussions within my PLN, all of my experiences inside schools and all the things I see and hear when working with adult learners. I have been wondering which things are the most powerful for learning; if I could distill it down to a few things, what would they be? I know what the literature says (See Hattie and Marzano’s work as examples – links below) but what have I seen? I think if we try these four things, we will see immediate growth:

  • Share criteria for successful learning with students – You can call this learning targets, outcomes, standards, rubrics…whichever, but the point is that every time you start a class or learning experience, be explicit about where you are going and how it will look, both as you travel and when you arrive at the destination. Share the criteria each and every time. Even better, co-construct it with students. No surprises, no fuzziness. Even if you are engaging in inquiry and the destination is a little looser, share the criteria for strong inquiry (the process).
  • Structure in daily feedback – Whether it is the students or you giving feedback, plan to do it every day for every student. If face-to-face isn’t an option, do it digitally, do it with peers, or ask for guests to offer feedback. If students can’t think about their thinking and their process, they can’t change it if it isn’t working. Also, consider that feedback isn’t advice or correction. Feedback focuses on those criteria in point number one and it invites further thinking and problem-solving. The most effective feedback can often be in the form of questions: Did this presentation have the impact you hoped it would? How can this paragraph more clearly reflect your thoughts? Why is this part unclear? How did you solve that problem? Did anything give you difficulty and what did you do? 
  • Equip students with the learning strategies they need to experience successful learning – I have blogged many times about learning strategies and how they are different from instructional strategies. I prefer the term “Habits of Mind.” Without explicit teaching and then practice in applying these strategies, students cannot grow. There is a difference in the mental processes of students experiencing success and those experiencing challenge. We have to build the repertoire of processes for all students so the processes can become independent habits. Things like activating prior knowledge, asking questions, organizing thoughts, conferring with others, identifying the main idea, and so on, are many of the reasons why communication works well for some and not for others. We cannot assume students know how to approach tasks, assessments and learning experiences. We have to help them get there. Looking at each learning experience critically and identifying all the places where challenge could be experienced helps us anticipate and prepare for support.
  • Make reflection part of everyone’s day – As I stated in my introduction, school is like a giant experiment. We DO things all the time in school, but if we don’t stop to consider the impact or results, we can often continue to repeat ineffective practices. Observation is key to experimentation; without it, we cannot make strong conclusions. So, as educators, we have to stop and observe. We can heighten the impact of this by involving students in this part of the learning cycle. They need to reflect daily, too. It is an unhealthy system that depends on one person to decide whether learning is rich for all people. Students should be able to discuss their progress as clearly as teachers. Of course, this point is tied directly to my points about criteria and feedback. They are all connected and all essential. They also all require a paradigm of continuous growth and reflection as opposed to an activity-assess-activity-assess model, where this is not often built in.

In the end, I think all of these speak to the idea that learning must start and end with students. They tell us how to teach and how to re-teach. They tell us what topics to focus on and the ways to do it to increase engagement. They tell us when we are going too fast and when we are going too slow. They tell us when they need support and when they need extra challenge. We just have to be willing to listen and watch.

Hattie’s article (2003):

lexiconic.net/pedagogy/RC2003_Hattie_TeachersMakeADifference_1_.pdf and http://www.

Marzano’s article (2001):

http://www.ntuaft.com/TISE/Research-Based%20Instructional%20Strategies/marzanos%209%20strategies.pdf

 

 

Working through the logistics of re-demonstration of learning

Our school division has been working through the practicalities associated with our philosophical beliefs about learning and how we assess it for well over six years. We have an assessment handbook, we have held multiple learning sessions for all teachers, we have a common grade book and reporting system in all grades, and we revisit this topic often through multiple contexts. The belief that all students can learn, that learning is continuous and that assessment of/for learning guides all future learning are the basis of our stated philosophical beliefs. We believe that students should demonstrate their learning often while receiving frequent feedback and should be encouraged to learn from their mistakes.

However, when this philosophical belief met up with actual experiences inside classrooms, we saw a need for some clarification about the term re-demonstration and the implications for teachers and students. The term “re-demonstration” had been interpreted multiple ways and in some schools, it was viewed as a “given” after every summative event while in other schools, it rarely occurred, which created challenges for both the teachers and students. Most schools were somewhere in the middle.

To reconsider this idea, we had to clarify that learning begins with outcomes and an authentic learning experience followed with multiple opportunities for formative assessment and feedback. Explicit instruction, practice, revisiting criteria, assessing and reflecting on our learning and “re-demonstrating” are all parts of the learning cycle. It is only when teachers feel quite certain that students are ready to “show what they know” that a summative assessment event should occur. At many grade levels, there aren’t even formal summative assessment events. Instead, teachers observe students, honour the learning cycle and when they are sure a student has reached an outcome, they document that event and move on. However, as students get older, there tends to be an increasing number of summative events.We encouraged teachers to consider which assessments should be summative (reflective of large portions of an outcome) and which should be formative. When we ensure that students engage in learning strategies and receive timely and specific feedback, there will be less need for re-demonstration.

Further to this, we saw a need to explore ways to engage students through an authentic purpose for learning. For example, if students know they will be sending a persuasive letter to a musician they respect, they will be more likely to engage in the learning cycle and ensure their product is strong. Further to this, in this instance, there is no re-demonstration; once the letter is sent, it is sent. But before this happens, we will have worked very hard to ensure that what was sent was strong writing.

In instances when students are not ready to summatively demonstrate (and we will know this from our formative assessments), we may choose to wait until they are ready or we may take the summative snapshot but allow re-demonstration after further engagement in the learning cycle. This practice should be encouraged and these decisions will be supported by formative evidence, observations and through feedback with both students and parents when appropriate.

A second example of when re-demonstration may occur is when the summative assessment event shows results that are vastly different from previous formative results and observations. In these instances, the teacher has conflicting data and may need to seek out further evidence of learning. It is helpful to consider that a teacher has a responsibility to help learning and collect evidence of this learning as it progresses over time. Formative assessment doesn’t “count” (in terms of number calculation) but they do help both teachers and students understand where the learning is and where it needs to go. This is all part of making strong assessment and instructional decisions. At the end of the day, a teacher has the responsibility of making a professional judgement about how students are doing on each outcome. The whole picture is important, as is the most recent evidence. Both need to be considered when making reporting decisions.

The term “re-demonstration” is perhaps better clarified by referring to it as continuous learning. If that isn’t happening, then re-demonstration is not working for either the teachers or the students. Continually revisiting the purpose of schools is helpful when navigating the practicalities of everyday life inside classrooms.

 

Sharing a risk: Flexible groupings and visible learning

I feel like a pretty lucky person, when in one week, multiple teachers send photos to me celebrating a risk they have taken with instruction that has resulted in enhanced learning for students. This was one such week and I want to share the photos and acknowledge the work of the teachers who tried something new.

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This picture combines big ideas, essential questions and visible learning. This teacher posted some unit questions for students to explore. As students were learning, they took photos of their processes and posted them next to the questions. What a great way to capture learning and connect it to enduring understanding.

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This image shows differentiated instruction and flexible grouping, based on a mid-unit assessment. The students at the back are exploring outcomes to prepare for their summative assessment and the students in the front are working on a project that takes them further into the outcomes because they are ready to do so.

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This final image shows an online learning class in one of our rural schools using a fishbowl to track tactics and strategies used by their classmates as they play games. WA10.2 asks the students to become familiar with strategies in various games and this activity allowed them to observe the strategies in action. The whole process was captured on video for the teacher to see, and offer feedback.

I continue to be excited about the learning opportunities available to students in classrooms like these. And I thank these three educators for recognizing that trying new things can and should be celebrated.