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"Examining Student Work" - Reflective PD

This year our Professional Development goals are focused on three question:

1. What do we want students to know?
2. How do we know that they've learned it?
3. What do we do when they haven't learned it?

These questions are so deceptively simple - yet as you begin to unpack them - so many discourses about good teaching and learning come falling out. Even taking seriously the first question - what do we want them to know? - unravels into many questions about what counts as something worth understanding.

In our experience, it's difficult to boil a curricular topic down to a key essence or 'enduring understanding.' If we're looking at forestry, or pi, or european explorers, what are the core outcomes that I want students to 'get' or 'develop' or 'uncover' ? (or whatever metaphor best fits the experience of understanding something) This requires a solid understanding of the content knowledge, in addition to having an ability to connect the content knowledge to real-world disciplines, and also finding space for students to locate themselves within the study to build engagement.

But as a staff, we've also seen how crucial it is to take the time to make these core goals clear before starting on a project or study. If the teacher isn't sure where a particular project is going, then how are students going to be able to know where to go - and how is a teacher going to collect evidence that they've demonstrated or performed the core understandings that are the focus of the study?

The second question - how do I know if they've learned it - relies heavily on the first. As teachers, we need to set clear outcomes for the study and for the students. These outcomes need to be clearly articulated, and then the assessment practices that are used need to be strongly linked to helping students improve their understanding of the core outcomes.

One of the key PD experiences of our staff this year is to work through a process where they take one project/lesson/study that they've done in their class, and reflect back on it using these three questions. And this year, we want to focus mostly on the second question - how do we know if students have a deep understanding of a particular topic? What would constitute evidence of deep understanding? To achieve this we're having our teachers work through this reflective structure.

At the end of the day, the focus must be on the student work. We want teachers to be able to collect artifacts of learning - evidence that students have demonstrated deep understanding of the core outcomes of the project. We are asking teachers (in teaching paris) to collect assignment sheets, rubrics used and finally, examples of student work that demonstrate beginning, novice and mastery of a given topic.

Our school's plan is to collect these reflections, along with student work, rubrics and assignments and make them publicly available through this site. For our teachers, this becomes yet another level of vulnerability - being willing to admit what worked, didn't work, and what you'd like to change about a project is something not many educators are willing to share in a public forum. But we're moving ahead - and these reflections are a key part of our school wide focus on making our practice more public.

For now, we'd appreciate feedback. What do you think of the structure? The questions? And as an outsider - what would you love to hear from our teachers as they wrestle with building strong inquiry - based work?

As always, we continue to appreciate any thoughts or comments shared.


spec said...

I enjoyed reading your overview and would like to contribute a brief response to your questions, "How do we know if students have a deep understanding...?".
For me, the question is "how do I enable my students to express their understandings along a cognitive--affective continuum? Unless they have had a chance to do that, I can have no way of engaging the depth or range of their knowledge (which, in my view means both understanding and appreciation, the first measured using cognitive tools, the latter affective means). As well, I like to observe students moving from a casual awareness of new knowledge toward a formal expression of it. Too often, in my own classrooms, I have them leap to the formal response (tests, papers, reports, etc.) with no accounting for the journey that develops understanding and appreciation. Finally, I suspect that if there is no casual acquaintance and rough expression of new learning, its formal expression is likely to be shallow and suspect.
Hope this was of some value.
Jerre Paquette, PhD, Language and Learning
Mount Royal University, Department of English

Neil Stephenson said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. You bring up some great, and necessary, questions about assessment.

One of the common understandings that emerged out of the two times we've led teachers though this process is the need to design different forms of assessment. Both sets of teachers realized that the final 'product' that students created did not capture or demonstrate evidence of all the thinking and processing that occurred throughout the learning process.

We hope that as a staff, as we move through this process, we'll continue to develop different assessment practices, ones that get at the cognitive and affective, as well as the problem solving and process components of a learning experience.

Michael said...

I think your overall structure has the hallmarks of quality professional development: sustained over time, job embedded, focused on student outcomes.

One thing we are doing differently (not necessarily better or worse - slightly different spin) is that school leadership identifies an instructional need (i.e., literacy practices) and we introduce and model how some of that instruction can be incorporated into one's practice. Then teachers are asked to incorporate in a way that makes sense to them and they (a) are observed, videotaped and receive feedback from colleagues, (b) bring their lesson plans and reflections of how implementation went back to a small group and use protocols to receive feedback and (c) bring student work produced as a result of implementation and we use protocols to dig into what we can infer from the student work.

We keep this focus for one school year. Planning the time together is done with a core team of teachers and leadership but all meetings are open so interested additional teachers can come and plan sessions anytime they want. We run the PD planning sessions itself as a critical friends group using protocols to look at our plans and studying some common text together (i.e, reading Linda Darling Hammond).

I'm pretty jazzed about how it's going and I love learning about different flavors of this overall approach as you have described here.
@tiomikel on Twitter

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