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

Practicing what I preach

It was time for a change. I have been working as a Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for five years and, in that time, have become comfortable with the many facets of my role (staff developer, instructional leader, learning supports designer, cheerleader, professional listener, evangelist, everything-related-to-learning coordinator). Nevertheless, as a collective leadership team, we knew it was time for a change and now, as the wheels begin to turn on this “restructuring,” I find myself needing to reflect on what this has meant for me already and what it will mean as we continue to walk in this new direction.

As I have articulated in many past posts, we have been working for five years on developing and supporting a common understanding and language around learning as it relates to renewed curricula, shifting assessment practices, responsive instructional design, planning using UbD and formal, data-focused reflection. The professional development we have undertaken with all staff in our division is immense. But, as we move into our sixth year and also, as we move into a new provincial sector plan, we began to see that it might be time to move from whole-group instruction (so-to-speak) to targeted supports. For this reason, I am shifting from working with 21 schools to working in one of three pods, with a much more focused seven schools. My fellow coordinator of early learning and my new coordinator colleague in student support services will also have pods and, along with our two superintendents, we will share understanding, assess needs and construct supports and responses for our schools, based on information we glean from a wide variety of sources.

So what does this mean for me, personally (I ask myself)? Well, I will need to learn a lot! I will have to build a greater understanding of both the early learning and support services portfolios. We will continue to have our specializations but we will also need to share understanding across all areas in order to work with our assigned schools. I was well on my way in understanding the connections between our work but had done so with broad brush strokes. I will now need to examine the finer details. In fact, my title is changing to Coordinator of Learning (which I share with my other coordinator colleagues).

I am also now working with staff through professional growth plans, observations and conversations. This is an expanded role. I have always worked with our support personnel within a leadership team, but again, next year will require a much more intensive relationship as I work with them to specifically develop their professional growth plans and support them in their important work.

I will be much more immersed in my assigned schools. This year, I worked very hard to visit all 21 schools as often as I could, but found myself spread too thin and my supports were often not as robust as I would have liked. The focus to seven schools will change my work significantly. Couple this with a shift to far less whole group professional development, and I will be able to work alongside others in a more meaningful and targeted way. My assigned schools are at least an hour away, so this will also mean more travel. In fact, my pod team will be located in a town an hour from my office.

This is just a lightly painted picture of, what I think, are significant changes to my work. So, how am I feeling about this change? Well, I believe I am feeling much the same way others feel when changes occur in their work – excited, nervous, scared, unsure, motivated, curious. I am very used to defining my own job. Sharing my job description with two other people is new to me – the last time I shared the same role as others was when I was a classroom teacher. Co-constructing a role will be interesting. I am also very accustomed to being confident in most aspects of my work. At the moment, I am confident I can do good things but less-confident in all aspects of understanding that this new role will require. This is very good for me but it has been a while since I have not felt sure of how things would “roll out.” I am committed to being the best leader I can be for my pod team but I know I have to spend much time listening and learning as part of that leadership. I will have to become more comfortable in saying “I am not sure” and “let’s try this and see what happens.” I am excited about spending more time talking about specific students and their learning. I am equally as excited to engage in my own learning, which is already happening. I think this new understanding will only make me and the work I do better.

Change is scary and exciting all wrapped up in one package. I am no stranger to change but this one feels new to me. I have learned that the more new something feels, the more opportunity it provides me to grow and adapt and become better at what I do. I look forward to travelling a new path.

Nuggets from ASCD 14

I have a travel blog and when I journeyed to Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago to attend the ASCD Conference, I documented the trip on that blog. However, I cannot resist capturing some of the educational wisdom I gleaned from my time there on this blog. I guess I think of the two different blogs as the the physical journey (travel blog) and the journey in my mind (this blog).

My colleague and I started by attending a two-day pre-conference called “Engaging Educators with Data to Create the Future of Your School,” which was led by Victoria Bernhardt and her colleague Bradley. Here are the nuggets from that session:

  • The people you meet from around the world are one of the very best things about going to large conferences. I think it is important to take advantage of this networking because it really facilitates reflection about your own system when you listen to others.
  • It is very important to look at demographic, perceptual, system and academic data when making decisions. Too often, we focus on a single data set and limit our ability to determine root causes, influences and responses. (I know we have not looked at demographic data enough.)
  • “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” Abraham Lincoln. This was a huge focus of this session- moving forward.
  • There is a huge difference between compliance and commitment in continuous improvement. Our assumptions determine which side we are on. Therefore, discussing the why behind decisions as well and inviting engagement in information from which decisions are made is a must. Superficial compliance is not transformative. (I concur wholeheartedly. Compliance without commitment signals we have not done a good enough job yet.)
  • When looking at data, jot your thinking and connection-making as you go. The “in the moment thinking” is rich. First, wonder, question and wonder some more. Then, synthesize. But don’t move ahead before taking time to notice. (This is tough. We always want to rush to solutions without letting the thinking, noticing and connection-making happen first. We are always in such a hurry. I teach this exact same lesson to students in my art class.)
  • Having a strong process is essential for examining data and making decisions. Without a process, everything falls apart. Think about successes, challenges, implications for a school or system and additional data needs. (No processes = chaos.)
  • When facilitating data analysis, control the misconceptions. Be ready to step in and clarify when needed. (This reminds me of the same discussion we have around inquiry. There is a time to let things happen and there is a time to step in. Knowing the difference is the sweet spot.)
  • A good first step is to inventory the data available to a school or system. Then “clean it up” or make it easy to read, triangulate and reflect on.
  • “Your school is perfectly designed to get the results you are getting.” (Reality check moment.)
  • “Avoid random acts of improvement.” Ensure work is targeted and focused. (This happens so much in education. Good intentions lost due to lack of strategic focus.)

Our first keynote was Daniel Pink. I had read his book, Drive just prior to attending and was looking forward to his wisdom. This is what I gleaned from his session:

  • Teaching is persuading. Not only that, but it is persuading children to do what we want them to do instead of what they think they would like to do. In other words, it is no easy task.
  • Education has changed because we have moved to a place where educators have information parity with students. It is no longer a case of telling students things they don’t know. Instead, we are persuading them to manipulate the knowledge we all hold in various ways. (I hadn’t thought of education in this way. I think this is an area where we feel some discomfort as educators right now. We are used to having the answers.)
  • Remember, small wins cascade to other small wins. Aim for small wins.
  • There are six ways to increase your chances of persuasion. Tip 1: You can increase your effectiveness by temporarily decreasing your feelings of power. This allows you to empathize, which has tremendous impact.
  • Tip 2: Ambiverts are the best persuaders. There are studies that show that the most persuasive people are those who are both extroverted and introverted. Either extreme has less persuasive ability.
  • Tip 3: Interrogative self-talk is the most effective way to ensure success. Instead of saying to yourself, “You can do this,” ask yourself, “Can you do this?” After a question like this, you are more likely to prepare.
  • Tip 4: Ask these questions of the other person- “On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to…?” Follow up with, “Why didn’t you pick a lower number?” This way, the other person works to defend your position.
  • Tip 5: Context drives behaviours so make it easy for people to act. As Pink says, “Show people the off ramp and they will more likely take it.” Don’t worry so much about changing minds. Change behaviours first.
  • Tip 6: Explain why…even more than how.

Next up was Jay McTighe and Essential Questions. I have to explain that what I learned may have been different from others because we have been working on using essential questions in our division for years now. So, this is what struck me as particularly worth considering as a person who already knew a lot about EQs:

  • A good questions is like an itch – you want to scratch it. That is why finding the right question, whether students do it or teachers do it, is so important. (We have spent so much time on finding the “just right” question in our division. Once you find it, you know it but I think we under-estimate the brainstorming that has to happen before we find the compelling question.)
  • Essential questions require a defense. It is important that students understand that it isn’t just about the answer…it is about why that answer was given. (This is actually articulated on many of our rubrics.)
  • Essential questions should recur. They are part of larger understanding. (And they should recur authentically. Again, compliance or commitment?)
  • There are four categories of essential questions: Philosophical, Epistemological, Meaning Making and Metacognitive or Reflective.
  • Essential questions must be kid-friendly. They can be part of making this so!

The evening keynote was Sir Ken Robinson, who is funny and thought-provoking all in one! Here is what I learned from his session:

  • Life is chaos. It is a continual process of improvisation and anyone who claims otherwise is misrepresenting reality. As a result, few of us know where our life will head when we are in school. It is simply impossible. So, if we create our lives, do our school systems reflect this? Do schools invite this process for students? (And do we expect students to have made decisions too early? Are we giving them enough time and opportunity?)
  • In order for us to end up doing the things we are meant to do, we need to figure out what we are good at and look for opportunities to use that talent. To be “in your element” means doing something for which you have an aptitude and a spiritual energy (love). If you are in your element, others are drawn to you. The big thing is finding your element. How often does our school system overlook or marginalize the “elements” of our students? We have to help students find the things that they love!
  • The basics of education are not the core subjects…they are the four purposes (economic, cultural, social and personal).
  • There are two worlds that exist for every human – the larger world and a world of our private consciousness. Both are really important to the decisions we make.
  • Human beings are built with a tremendous capacity to be creative and think of alternatives. Creativity is not some special feature of a few select people. We have to foster creativity because all fields move forward by people contributing original ideas. What teachers pay attention to is what students think is important. If we give attention to creativity and innovation, so will students. (This makes me wonder what students think is important now? Being quiet? Handing in work? Getting stuff done? Behaviour is more important than learning?)
  • When students perceive there is one right answer to a problem, creativity and imagination shut down. Don’t let creativity be educated out of our children! (I loved the video he showed to demonstrate this. I even tried it with my art students and found that when they were allowed absolutely freedom, they were far more creative.)

My last session was with Grant Wiggins and John Kao, who were talking about innovation in education and specifically about their project: EdgeMaker. Here is what I learned:

  • We have still not arrived in education. Grant stated he has been engaged in education for a long time and we are still working on getting to where we need to for students. (Agreed.)
  • “…the idealism and passion of the young are one of the most underutilized resources on the planet.” This session communicated the belief that children are full and complete humans, capable of creativity, problem-solving and risk-taking. We no longer need to wait for students to get old so they can solve the world’s problems – we need to let them begin to solve them now, because they may, in fact, be the most capable of doing so. (This was a huge aha for me. Not because I didn’t know it but because, when stated so clearly, I realized we have some very huge assumptions in our society about children. I have said it before-kids are hugely tolerant of adults and our systems.)
  • Maybe it is time to facilitate and listen in different ways in the classroom. Maybe we need to re-position ourselves with students and the “wicked problems” they want to think about. Do adults really believe children can be innovative? Do we invite this nearly enough? We need to get students out of the bleachers and put them in the game!
  • We need to aim for self-sustaining student learning. If the teacher is solely responsible for sustaining learning, then the purpose for doing the learning is not nearly compelling enough. On top of this, when adults do all of the sustaining and then students move on to post-secondary, they are under-prepared to have executive control over their own learning. We have taught them to look to others for motivation.
  • We are living off our innovation inheritance. It is time to change this and one way is to let children innovate.
  • We also need to design units around wicked problems using essential questions. Let them be project-driven so the students can have executive control and the teacher can step back and let students think.

My colleague and I have already started to use many of the data pieces we learned in our pre-conference. It is so exciting to attend PD where the learning is immediately applicable. ASCD put on a fabulous conference and it was a privilege to attend.

 

 

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.

PD for an Entire Division: Part 3-The workshop

Now that I have clarified the set-up and goals of our Data Workshops, I will explore how the day was structured, for the most part. I offer a small disclaimer because no one day was exactly the same as the next. Like classroom teachers, each day we reflected on the feedback, our observations and the flow, and made changes to meet the needs of the group. We also shifted in mid-stream to be responsive to questions and concerns. The day was mostly constructivist and this meant we had to be open to the direction we traveled, even if it wasn’t anticipated.

We started the day with a pre-assessment, which helped us not only frame the day, but bookend it as well. We placed a number of questions around the room and asked the teachers to read each one and place a check mark or dot on every question to which they could answer a firm “yes.” We then totaled up the responses and ordered them from most frequently used instructional approaches to least. I will comment more on this in my next post, but it was interesting to see that as we worked our way up through the grades, the responses varied. Even in our Grades 7-12 days, the results were often different from group to group. In some, inquiry was used often and in others, not so much. Most groups acknowledged they didn’t provide opportunity for students to achieve at the Enriched Understanding level on our rubrics. Also, providing reading material at a variety of reading levels was not done often either. On the other end, most teachers explicitly teach behaviours and offer feedback regularly.

October 201311

At the end of the day, we returned to this list and re-ordered them according to potential impact. We sorted into three groups: those approaches that affect most students a great deal; those approaches that impact some students a great deal or most students a moderate amount; and those approaches that have very little impact. As expected, we were able to make a case for almost anything because it depends on the context and how each approach is carried out. The premise, however, is that we have a finite amount of time to encourage specific learning in all our students. Therefore, we have to choose the approaches that have the greatest impact and stop using some that have little or no impact. This final conversation was a great discussion piece, for sure.

checked question #1

Following the pre-assessment, one of our superintendents shared data relating to both our province and our school division. The data ranged from demographic, to perceptual, to teacher-related, to academic. We found that most of the follow up discussions centered on the engagement data and the academic data. The discussions were very interesting and had a different lens, depending on the grade level. We also shared our metaphor for the rubric we use for assessing all outcomes (see previous blog post – Re-imagining the Rubric), and reviewed the RtI triangle and the numbers of Level 2 and 3 students our system can support compared to the numbers that currently exist according to our data (15% vs 30% respectively). This introduction to data was a great springboard for the rest of the day, and we found ourselves referring back to the data several times (as should be the case).

Once we had shared the profile of teaching and learning in our school division, we were ready to talk about some vocabulary associated with education as it relates to the three data sets we were focusing on for the day (SudentsAchieve outcome data, TPM RtI data and Tell Them From Me perceptual data). We used a triple Venn diagram and a wordle filled with vocabulary in order to encourage discussion and meaning making.

triple Venn

Some of the words we invited teachers to fit somewhere in the Venn were: assessment as learning, assessment for learning, inquiry, Tier 2 interventions, and behaviour. Following time to place the words, we then asked the groups to identify words they weren’t sure where to place or words they weren’t sure of the definition. These were the terms we discussed as a whole group. It didn’t matter where they placed the words – in the end, the conversation was the destination and it gave us all a chance to review some of the ideas so important to learning.

Following this activity, we paired the participants up and asked them to engage in an assignment. We explained that they needed to read an article, follow the directions, and answer the questions. We then gave them a doctoral physics paper that was very cumbersome. While they worked with their partners, we circulated and recorded their actions, the things we heard and their responses to the articles. As expected, we had a variety of responses, which I will discuss in my next post. However, the teachers acted as students do and we had plenty of fodder generated from this simulation to engage in a discussion. We took time to talk about our purposes for engaging them in this difficult task: Firstly, we wanted them to remember how it feels to struggle and we wanted to remind them that some students feel this way every day. Further, because they are proficient learners, we wanted to engage them in a challenging text in order to activate the learning strategies that they do not often recognize themselves as using. Much to our pleasure, teachers began to underline, whisper-read, highlight, collaborate, identify key vocabulary and so on. In other words, we were able to use them to demonstrate the next topic of discussion – learning strategies or “habits of mind.”

We then asked each pair to take a package of cards on which 31 learning strategies were written and choose the three that they felt would have been most beneficial to helping them understand the article better.

cards

Once everyone had chosen their learning strategies, we asked each pair to share, one at a time, until we had listed all strategies on chart paper. Each day, we found the same ten or so were chosen. As they explained their choices, we drew lines to other strategies they mentioned in order to determine if some strategies needed to be attended to early in the learning. We always came up with the same five: activate prior knowledge, engage in new words, make connections, identify main idea, and confer with others. This helped us discuss the importance of these strategies to developing strong learning. We also took time to share how these strategies can be explicitly taught and then reinforced in all subject areas.

I then took some time to share my diagram for helping us understand how learning strategies fit into all the other things we have been talking about in education. I explained that thinking about what students learn and how they learn it is the bread and butter of our planning and teaching. However, if we do not explore how students think about what they are doing and how they are doing it, we cannot hope to develop deep learning and offer targeted interventions. I explained the importance of learning strategies to giving constructive feedback and to offering small group, targeted instruction. if we do not develop thinking habits, then all we can do is hope the learning experiences we provide will stick somehow.

Diagram

After this series of discussions, the workshop varied from day-to-day. We explored multiple ways to find the sweet spot of connecting everything as we looked at student data. I think we did fine each day, but seemed to get better as time went on. Nevertheless, the rest of the day rolled out with the following activities in a variety of sequences.

We moved into our “Putting the Verbs on the Table” activity. The purpose of this activity was to begin to dig deeply into the reasons why students are having difficulty with particular outcomes and strategy use. The teachers formed new groups and, in the center of each table, we placed the seven most common verbs in our provincial outcomes: analyze, assess, create, reflect, read, demonstrate, and apply. (With our 1-6 teachers, we focused on learning strategies measured in their reading assessments as opposed to verbs. The activity was the same.) We first asked the group to reach consensus on the meaning of each verb. We included rubric examples in order to help with context. Once we agreed on the meaning, we sorted through the strategy cards and identified those that would be important for achieving the outcome. The next step was to ask ourselves If this is what students need to be able to do and these are the strategies students will need to use to be successful, why are one third of our students still not achieving at grade level? Teachers wrote all their ideas on paper that covered the table. We encouraged them to think of intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and spiritual reasons. We also asked them to re-examine their reasons and explore more deeply by asking why? For example, if they wrote “unmotivated,” we asked them to ask the question why? What are all the reasons they might be unmotivated? We wanted to get at reasons that would be helpful for teachers in order to a provide targeted response. A summary of this work was sent to each teacher following the workshop and can be found here, under each verb:

http://curriculum.nesd.ca/assessment/assessment-tools

The next part of the day involved teachers logging onto their electronic, outcome-based gradebook and identifying two things: 1) The outcomes that will likely be delivered through whole group (differentiated) instruction (those outcomes that most students still need to demonstrate) and 2) those outcomes that need small group, targeted instruction (those outcomes where students are having difficulty, where pre-assessments show a varied class profile, or where students will be offered a differentiated approach due to learning preferences, choice, readiness). We asked the teachers to identify students by name who fit certain criteria (reading below grade level, have difficulty working in groups, have difficulty being creative, etc.) We the invited them to work in groups to determine how they would respond to these varied needs. We invited them to consider the next two weeks of school and the varied learning needs in their classes and plan for some targeted instruction.

This conversation led to our next point of reflection: How can we offer targeted, small group instruction within a large group setting in a way that meets the learning needs of both the small and larger group? As can be imagined, this was a hearty discussion point, since much of the targeted intervention in 7-12 settings currently occurs at recess, and before and after school. Thinking about the structure of our classrooms to invite purposeful and varied learning experiences all at the same time, was worth considering. We shared some of the models from our grades 1-6 classrooms (Daily 5, Guided Reading, Math Centers) and tried to imagine how this could work in a secondary classroom.

As mentioned before, we ended the day back at the instructional approaches questions from the beginning of the day. We had come full circle, discussing everything from assessment to planning, from class structures to targeted interventions and learning strategies. We ended the day with a reflection page, which always helped us to make the next workshop even better.

feedback

As you can see, they day was absolutely packed full of learning experiences. It was clear that different activities were more meaningful to some teachers than others. Everyone brings their own experiences to a workshop and leaves with their own meaning. Our goal was to provide ample opportunity to construct meaning and engage in rich conversation. In my next blog post, I will explore the extent to which our plans gave us the results we were hoping for and reflect on the kinds of learning we witnessed and experienced ourselves.

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.