Setting the stage:
Three years ago, I set out to recapture the adventure in learning through a Rowland Fellowship. I embarked on an amazing journey of discovery–visiting innovative schools, attending conferences with innovative educators, and embracing innovation as a matter of course. Three years later, I’m still chasing adventure, working to encourage and implement the innovation I saw elsewhere into our small Vermont school. It’s been a slow process. Personalizing learning takes time, among other resources difficult to come by. Still, I’m inspired by the hard work taking shape.
With each day I teach over the two decades I have already logged, I am reminded that
teaching is a practice that must continually be improved.
This year, I practiced in the role of technology integrationist for Lamoille Union, a 7-12 school in Hyde Park, Vermont. In addition, I co-taught two classes: a semester-long course called Exploring Education (with my colleague, Pat LaClair) and another semester-long business start-ups course (with my colleague Bob Fredette). Both classes had small enrollments of students (cannonballers like myself) in grades 9-12 who took a chance on a new way of doing things.
I dove deep into personalization this fall in Exploring Education. Our small group of seven students in grades 9-12 rolled up their sleeves and worked to make change at our school through the open PBL (project-based learning) structure of our class. Over the course of the semester, and through a lot of research, our students decided on three main focus areas: flexible learning spaces, project-based learning, and revamping our proficiency based graduation requirements.
The essence of the class was this: choose something you’d like to change at our school; create a presentation, and pitch it to decision makers. Once our students chose an area on which to focus (a feat in and of itself), they did just that. They presented their pitches in January to our superintendent, director of curriculum, high school and middle school principals, two department chairs, and two guidance counselors.
With each passing class, Pat and I struggled to find the best means to assess our students’ learning. Did we really need to assign a grade to a design thinking challenge? It felt as though that grade would somehow cheapen the experience.
Eventually we came to the conclusion that meaningful reflection was the only logical answer.
We asked our students to consider these questions and craft a response. Although we read them, we never graded the students’ responses. They remain in our Schoology course with the blaring blue “needs grading” flag beneath each student’s name. And we never graded them because they were shallow. They were curt replies to our attempts to deepen understanding through what we thought were probing questions. However, from conversations with our students, I knew the writing didn’t accurately represent what they had learned. And I started to wonder…
In retrospect, I can clearly see the disconnect between traditional grading and assessing project work. Two of our nine students were on a traditional grading system, and the other five were on our new proficiency system. In our minds, we had adopted the proficiency philosophy, and our discussions about how to translate an “emerging” grade into something between 1-100 shone a spotlight on the arbitrary nature of traditional grading. For us, we felt that it was perfectly suitable to simply say that everyone was progressing. That said, it was clear to me that our students didn’t fully understand how to engage in the process of reflection.
I envisioned something similar to how this 4th grader reflected on her learning experience. Was it too much to ask high school students to think about why they thought the way they did? Was metacognition out of reach? Believing that more practice would help, we asked that our students reflect often on their experiences–from empathy interviews to school visits–and they still struggled. We finally pared down and simplified our approach; we asked a few focused questions and drilled the WHY, and we started to see success. How do you feel about this? Why do you feel that way about it? What does that lead you to think about? Why? Why? Why? We had to embrace our inner toddlers. We realized that there is so much UN-learning that must happen around quick answers and shallow thinking, and that takes time. Here, a great example to illustrate that idea:
In Handbook for Personalized Learning for States, Districts, and Schools, Murphy, Redding, and Twyman discuss metacognitive competencies (one of which involves “evaluating one’s own behavior” (23). The authors call attention to the fact that it takes “a period of years” to adequately teach these types of skills (23).