PD for an Entire Division: Part 4 – What Did We Learn?

After sixteen different Data Days with teachers from Grades K-12, what did we all learn? As I have stated in previous posts, learning is personal, contextual and complex. All I can do is consider this question from my own perspective and through the observations, comments and follow up questions we received as a result of these days. We had goals and we had lived out experiences. How well did they reflect each other and what are some of the things we figured out? Here are some realizations that come to mind:

  • Elementary teachers teach differently from high school teachers. No one was surprised by this but it is interesting to see data to back up your perceptions. In grades 1-6, 100% of teachers report reading to their students, while 62% read to them in grades 7-12. In grades 1-6, 94% of teachers explicitly teach learning strategies and this number drops to 54% in grades 7-12. In grades 1-6, 60% of teachers invite students to assess and reflect on their work and in 7-12 this jumps to 82%. We compiled data across grade levels and this was informative enough to allow us to see where we still need to target professional learning opportunities. I recommend this particular activity to other divisions.
  • Teachers found the Data Days to be positive, on the whole. In fact 126/150 teachers in grades 7-12 reported feeling energized, optimistic, validated and challenged after their Data Day. 20/150 left the workshops feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and 4/150 had no comment. Overall, this speaks to the professionalism of teachers and their willingness to learn.
  •  Data is really interesting. Anytime we look at data, it invites us to ask questions. One of our main assertions was that we weren’t trying to come up with all the answers by exploring our demographic, perceptual and academic data; we were trying to ask the right questions. It is only through asking the right questions that we can hope to provide responses that will have an impact. Anytime we engaged in data throughout the day, we had robust discussions. Patterns and trends are compelling.
  • We have a tendency to add on instead of release. Without judgement, I assert that I found it very interesting how strongly we work to defend our current practices. It is hard to explore the idea that we may be engaging in instructional approaches that may not be giving us the results we hope for. I, too, am guilty of this. So, when we were exploring that huge list of instructional approaches, every group found a way to justify most practices. I think it makes sense that things are contextual and that how we engage in practices impacts their success. However, I also know that we try to do too much and do not target our approaches enough based on student need (academic, engagement, skill set). So, this is a conversation that will continue into the future, no doubt.
  • Revisiting ideas again and again is essential for learning to occur. It is no different than in a classroom. We know we have explained something but it just didn’t sink in on the other end. We know we have discussed certain ideas but the person listening wasn’t positioned to apply that learning just yet. So, revisiting terminology during the triple Venn activity served a strong purpose to re-engage in ideas. We realized there were terms we regularly use that not everyone was hearing in the same way. Building a shared understanding and a shared language is essential for a system.
  • The physics article was the perfect route into a discussion about teaching and learning. Teachers behave just the same as their students and a simulation is a nice way to make this visible. It also helps us connect the notion of learning and stamina to emotional responses and pre-conditioning to certain activities. By giving the teachers an article at a level that was challenging for all (even our physics people), we forced them to activate their own learning strategies in a highly visible way. We saw their learning as it was occurring and documented it. This helped us show the power of anecdotal documentation and it also helped us explain the importance of activating highly able students in the same way – in order for these students to keep growing, they need to be challenged to use strategies in new ways.
  • It seemed to be helpful  to think about metacognition in the contexts we were facilitating. We have been talking about this for some time, but it was really clear on this day, for many, that inviting students to explore the thinking behind what they are doing is the key to growing learning in a responsive way. The Learning Strategy poster was photographed and discussed over lunch hour on many days, which led me to believe it was a helpful way to think about interventions and feedback. The stack of learning strategy cards was also requested by many (we sent it to everyone) and we were really happy to hear teachers imagining ways to use the cards, both on their own and with students in all subject areas. We think this is a pretty important piece of reflection, feedback, formative assessment , interventions, RtI, and daily learning experiences.
  • Exploring data and why students are struggling is something we need to find time for more often. In some of our sessions, we asked how often the teachers sit back and look at the learning of students by outcome or by strategy. The majority of teachers acknowledged doing this very little. We understand- teachers are busy. Really busy. However, many thanked us for the time to really explore their students in this way. This leads us to believe that sometimes, in order to be pro-active and build really good scaffolds and supports (or withdraw them when students are ready), we have to look at students with this diagnostic lens.
  • It is a delicate balance to provide support but also build independence. I read a really good article called Are You Scaffolding or Rescuing? by Terry Thompson. It speaks to our discussions about equipping students with the strategies to be successful but also knowing when students are ready to make some of these decisions on their own.
  • Small group instruction in a whole group setting requires finesse. When we discussed small group time with our grades 1-6 teachers, it wasn’t quite as huge a stretch as with the 7-12 teachers but every group had to do significant thinking and discussion about how to structure classes to facilitate this idea. Some people shared their work with Daily 5 and Guided Reading. Others talked about their center work or work in classrooms as co-teachers. However, translating these processes to a grade 12 physics class (for example) wasn’t easy. We also had to clarify that small group instruction is different from flexible grouping. The role of the teacher is different in each. Also, it is really important that when the teacher is working with a targeted group, the rest of the class is reinforcing skills using processes they are already familiar with. This is the only way to ensure all students are engaged in meaningful work all at the same time and won’t interrupt the teacher while they are working with a smaller group. We discussed essential skills in each subject areas that could be practiced during set times, so interventions could be directed more easily in a predictable fashion by the teacher.
  • Providing enrichment for those students who are ready requires consideration and works better when we anticipate it occurring. Our discussions around exploring outcomes with enriched understanding took different flavours depending on the grade levels we were working with. Our grades 1-6 teachers were concerned that they were not structuring the opportunity into their learning and assessment experiences. Once we clarified that the EU level on our rubrics wasn’t about “impressing the teacher” or “blowing the teacher’s socks off” but rather was more about showing they had walked through the outcome door with confidence and were ready to explore the landscape beyond, teachers began to consider how this could look. In grades 7-12, the discussion was more around why so many students were achieving this level and whether or not our assessment was authentic. They also seemed concerned with the marks conversation piece and in finding ways to ensure that if students were achieving EU, then it was based on solid time spent exploring the outcomes more deeply to this degree. I had several follow-up conversations with teachers about this very point.
  • Elementary teachers have a homeroom, which means increased flexibility. It is really hard for 7-12 teachers to explore cross-curricular learning and building in structures that invite flexibility when they are tied to one hour a day with a new set of students each time. On top of that, curricula is really demanding and all teachers are feeling the pressure of “getting it done.” That kind of mindset means that reflecting on responsive instruction and providing interventions feels like a way to guarantee you will never “get through your curriculum.” These factors make solutions more challenging for sure.
  • Pre and formative assessments are essential for responsive instruction and timely and specific feedback. You simply cannot target instructional approaches if you don’t authentically know how students are doing. You cannot engage students in goal setting and reflection if they don’t know how they are doing. Assessment as learning does not yet have enough emphasis in classrooms. Many teachers acknowledged this as an area for growth in their reflection forms. Everyone agreed that students are challenged to reflect well and set meaningful goals but in order for this to get better, teachers have to work hard at helping students be a part of the assessment experience. In the past, we have spent too much time talking about the number of formative assessments we should be doing and not enough time thinking about what these assessments tell us and the students with whom we work. Formative assessment cannot be a check-box in a  list of “to do” items. Educators have to be clear about the purpose and the information it provides and base decisions on the information they get. I have written a more in depth blog post about this previously called, “Assessment, inferences and making thinking visible.”
  • Learning strategies are the destination and content is the vehicle. This idea, shared in the Data Days, was one that seemed to give much food for thought to participants. Many people approached me and wanted to discuss this idea in one of three ways: 1) They agreed completely and wanted to express relief at having this stated 2) They have always felt this was true and wondered when our curriculum would catch up 3) They found it hard to understand how this could be the case, and still “get done” their curriculum. No matter the response, it was a great catalyst statement for discussion and I am quite sure we will be talking about this in education for some time. We still have some things to figure out.
  • Teachers are committed, caring and enthusiastic about their work and their students. On our reflection form, the final prompt was “My students are…” There was not a statement made on a single teacher’s form that wasn’t positive. Teachers feel very strongly about their work with students. There are times when we hear contrary stories and opinions but I would challenge anyone to have attended these days and not seen the passion teachers displayed. It is a privilege to work in this profession and I feel incredibly optimistic about learning for our students.

So, there you have it. Our PD for an entire division in four easy blog posts! Needless to say, it was challenging and rewarding all rolled up into one package.

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.

 

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.

 

Don’t forget to celebrate what’s great!

These days, Twitter and the media are filled with all kinds of political rhetoric, controvery and general commentary about education in Saskatchewan. This post is not about any of that. Instead, I wish to encourage myself and others to remember that amid all cries of a system gone bad, there are a number of people working each and every day, fuelled by their passion for students, who are supporting amazing growth and excitement for learning by children in this province. Let me share my journey around my school division in the last couple of weeks:

Oct 20131

A principal in one of our schools shared with me her approach to combining assessment and learning, thereby ensuring students achieve the desired outcomes in arts education. Firstly, yay art!! Secondly, the mindful consideration this educator gives to her practice is inspiring.

October 20133 October 20132

A fellow coordinator and I were invited on this field trip one windy October morning. The students were observing the local Canadian Foodgrains Bank Project Field being harvested. They were learning about the interdependence of countries and the impact of Canadian resources on both local and global economies. Local farmers spoke with the students about the project and the canola itself. This real-life example allowed students to make powerful connections and apply their learning to real-life contexts.

October 20134

All over our school division, I see examples of this – students asking their own questions. It could be argued that a question is even more important than an answer. Certainly, honouring student questions is essential for making learning meaningful.

October 20135

I spent an hour with these grade two students as they learned a new concept relating to patterns. It was exciting to share in their experience as each and every student made the learning transfer, using manipulatives. The dedication of the teacher to find just the right combination of guidance and exploration was wonderful to see.

October 20136

Inviting students to reflect on their learning and engage in metacognition is challenging, especially in K-2 classrooms. However, this class made “thinking about thinking” visible, proving that children are smart and their teacher is pretty great, too!

October 20137 October 20138

Student art always makes me smile and these two examples are no exception. Encouraging creativity and innovation is so important to brain development as well as the development and expression of personal identity. Our schools are filled with examples like these. Note that no two artworks are the same – the sign of great creative expression.

October 20139

These grade seven students were preparing for a re-demonstration of learning. Their first assessment had not gone well enough to leave the topic, so their teacher was re-teaching before the second assessment event. The students were taking the science concepts they had been learning and were connecting them in concept maps. It was clear they had learned the material more deeply as a result of the additonal time spent on the topic.

October 201310

On a cold Thanksgiving weekend, I volunteered my time at my husband’s school, installing their new playground. Not only had the school community raised tens of thousands of dollars for this play centre, but over thirty volunteers showed up to help install it over two days. The commitment of this school community brought tears to my eyes. Our communities care about children and this makes the work of schools so rewarding!

October 201311

My colleague and I hosted the grades 1-3 teachers in our division for three data response days last week. We will be having three more days next week for grades 4-6 teachers and then 7-12 teachers will follow after Christmas. Nevermind the time it took these professionals to prepare for a substitute teacher so they could come to these workshop days, but their engagement in the data and in the learning associated with it was a testament to their commitment to children. This photo shows an activation exercise we did at the beginning of the day, when we asked the teachers to reflect on their current instructional practices. We spent our time looking at the data around student reading and refecting on the strategies that offer the highest impact on learning. We then collaborated on what our ELA could look like to maximize learning opportunites.

All in all, much to celebrate and consider. Even when a “system” seems to be in turmoil, there are always people doing great work inside schools.

Visible Thinking

The following photographs show evidence of student thinking and learning. I collected this evidence as I travelled through schools this week:

Learning 1 learning 2

These students travelled to a local gallery to view art by Saskatchewan artist Wendy Weseen. They then created their own art in response. Their work made visible their learning about the techniques the artist used. You can see the learning outcome posted next to the work, which makes the destination clear to students and viewers alike.

learning 3

This is an exit strategy for this classroom. Each day, students place a sticky note with a description of what they have learned over top of their picture. This encourages reflection and metacognition and also serves as a formative assessment for the teacher.

learning 4

Look at these students thinking and learning together. As I stood beside them, I heard them discussing their reading selection. They were working together to capture the main idea and supporting details. They are seated around a low coffee table, which sits at the front of the room. This change in environment seemed to encourage collaboration.

learning 5

Look at this Pre-Kindrgarten self-portrait. Looking at the artwork of these young students really clarifies the developmental nature of learning. This is a student who has moved along quite far on the continuum of body awareness because this portrait has legs and the start of a body. Ears and hair also show a more well-developed understanding of how our bodies fit together. From here, the teacher can decide where she will spend time next, in order to further develop understanding.

learning 6

Pre-Kindergarten in this school has been exploring fall artifacts by collecting them and placing them in jars. The students can then observe what happens to the jars over time. As I was looking at the display, a student approached me and shared which jar belonged to him. This demonstrates an ownership for the learning that occurred. We talked about the objects collected and why they were chosen for the jar. Conversation is essential in early learning environments!

Once again, another week filled with learning.

What is the purpose of learning, anyway?

I am starting to think that a number of the challenges we puzzle over in education boil down to a lack of authentic purpose for the learning we are asking students to do. Perhaps I overstate this, but I am not convinced that we are talking about this in blunt enough terms. We spend a great deal of time playing with ideas that address this need for authentic purpose – Problem-Based Learning, Inquiry, Invitations to Learn, to name a few, but I am starting to see that the reason we are so intrigued by these kinds of learning is that we see evidence of a strong disconnect for many students in our system. To make matters worse, when we examine even those students who appear to be connected (the high achievers for, example), we see that their buy in is based on factors that often have little relationship to meaningful exploration. They are engaged because they want good marks and approval and sometimes feelings of accomplishment. They are not engaged because the work really means something to them; because they are doing something that is compelling and relevant and beneficial.

So, as I see it, this is a pretty big deal for most of our students. I don’t mean to imply that there is never a purpose to what we are doing in schools. I think there is – certainly a number of adults have spent a great deal of time designing curricula they feel has definite purpose to students. I also don’t mean to imply that there aren’t teachers who are thinking about this because there are. I know of teachers who invite students to write persuasive letters to people who can actually effect change. I know of teachers who invite students to ask questions that are meaningful to them. I have visited many classes where students are highly engaged and excited about what is happening and feel very compelled to learn. There is much good learning happening in education. The times when I start to think about the need for authentic purpose are when I see students putting in time, completing work for one audience and purpose (the teacher, for marks), asking why they have to learn this, finding excuses to engage in activities that are meaningful to them but not their teacher. This is when I start to really think about authentic purpose.

I had a couple of conversations with teachers in a high school recently about re-demonstrating learning and the authentic purpose discussion soon followed. The teachers were articulating the challenges associated with their re-demonstration policy (and our Division’s philosophical statement that expresses the appropriateness of having students re-demonstrate learning.) There was agreement with the idea that some students need more time than others to adequately demonstrate learning. There was also the acknowledgement that it makes sense that learning can and will always continue and students should have the ability to show growth on required outcomes at any point that it happens. However, the challenge occurred with some students’ interpretation of this policy – namely that there was no need to put forth an effort or adequately complete the work first time around, because they could always re-demonstrate at will. The results of this interpretation have culminated in teachers running themselves ragged assessing and re-assessing the same work over and over until the student grows tired of the exercise. This is not working for the teachers and, I would argue, isn’t really working for the students either.

So, what is re-demonstration and what does this have to do with authentic purpose? Well, I have noticed that this term is used most often in middle and high school settings. In elementary school, teachers seem to call it formative assessment and feedback because there is not always a summative “event” that defines the demonstration. Students demonstrate learning when they are ready in a whole bunch of ways and it is usually preceded by feedback. However, in middle and high school, this seems to be interpreted a little differently. There are specific summative events and re-demonstration follows this event. So, what it means is that teachers are trying to re-teach after they have moved onto a new set of outcomes.  Then, they are scrambling to find time to re-assess students and score these assessments. No wonder they are tired and frustrated!

What I am curious about is how we can invite students to want to do well the first time, so this does not become a game of math and manipulation. And, what this leads me to is the authentic purpose challenge. If the reason for learning and then showing our learning is connected to something we care about and something that holds intrinsic accountability, then we want to do well. For example, if I know that at the end of a unit I will have to actually mail a letter to a musician I respect, I am going to have a vested interest in ensuring the letter is coherent and persuasive (if needed) and engaging. There is no real re-demonstration in this case, because once the letter is sent, it is sent. Instead, the re-demonstration (if you will) occurs before the letter is mailed. We work on it through inquiry and continuous feedback until it is ready. This is the learning cycle. I suppose if things don’t go well, we can try another letter but I think the chances of this are less than if the only reason for writing the letter is because the teacher said so and it is for marks.

I know this is an over-simplification of a very complex issue but I keep thinking about this each time I find myself talking about engagement and assessment. I understand that every single thing we do in schools cannot always be connected to an authentic purpose for each and every student. I also understand that sometimes the best purpose is “because it is fun.” That’s okay. However, I do propose that we could think about this a little bit more. The purpose has to extend beyond the purpose adults have for placing an outcome in a curriculum or bringing it up during the day in a classroom. The purpose has to connect to the student. When that happens, other problems sometimes fall away.