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…

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.

This Week’s Visible Learning

I have had the good fortune of getting into multiple schools in the last few weeks and here are some of the great things I have seen:

20140210-094837.jpg
The writing process was displayed in this classroom and I watched students move their names as they learned their way through their writing task.

20140210-095030.jpg
This student was excited to share his patterns on the light table in Kindergarten. It was so nice to see him try more and more complex patterns all on his own!

20140210-095308.jpg
These students frequently have Mystery Readers in their classroom and this display documents these visits, which are clearly an important part of classroom experiences.

20140210-095414.jpg
This photos shows a group of grade seven students taking part in their Social Media Cafe. Ambient lighting, soft furnishings, food and technology are all essential components of the day, as students explore the concepts of digital footprints, digital citizenship, cyber bullying and social media.

20140210-095625.jpg
These students were engaging in word work, in flexible groupings. The process was the same for all groups but the word lists varied. On this day, they were looking for patterns in words.

20140210-095753.jpg
This class was goal setting on their Twitter board outside their classroom. I noticed that their goals were very specific to criteria within learning outcomes, which was exciting to see.

20140210-100138.jpg
This class was engaged in the Daily 5 organization structure and the Cafe for learning strategies. It was especially nice to see student writing on this anchor display.

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.

 

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.

20131218-065017.jpg
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.

20131218-065324.jpg
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.

20131218-065526.jpg
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.

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.