Thursday, March 24, 2016

The 40-40-40 rule

I am going to start out bold here, but the best book and resources for curriculum development is without a doubt Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.  The idea in its simplest form is that instead of teaching discrete content, we need to know what the big idea is that we are after, and have that in our sights the whole time as we plan goals, assessments, and instruction (in that order).

One thing that came from them also was this idea of the 40-40-40 rule.  The idea is that there are things that are good to know and be able to do that last us for about 40 days.  There are other things that are important to understand for about 40 months, and then there those things that are important to know and do for 40 years.  The problem with school, obviously, is that we tend to focus on the 40 day stuff.  I have started to ask myself more, "What is 40 year learning?"

My wife and I recently purchased an old farm house that needed a lot of work.  My mistrust and frugal ways allowed my DIY side to come out as we fired our electrician and contractors when they worked too slowly and wanted too much money.  One of the big things that was on my list to do was electrical work.  Here is a lesson in the 40-40-40 rule.

As I look at the wiring in my house from the 1940's, I thought about how things change.  Wiring is not the same in 2016 as it was in the late 1940's.  Obviously, this is more than 40 years, but the idea is still sound.  If an electrician from 1940 crossed the space-time continuum into my house and began wiring, he would be almost as lost as I was, perhaps more so.  It made me think...what am I learning now and how does that fit into the 40-40-40 rule.

For the 40 day stuff, the things that come to mind are the recall type things.  It is nice to remember, on the fly, what color of wire nut to use when I am tying together 2 or 3 wires.  You know what, I am going to forget that pretty soon.  I will remember that there is a color system, but if I don't use it, the specifics of some of that will be gone.  So, the specific content, that is the 40 day stuff.  The thing to remember here is that we should almost EXPECT ourselves and our students to forget this stuff.  Why do we teach it then?  Well, to have a platform for the 40 month stuff!

In wiring my house, what are some things I learned that are going to stick around for 40 months?  The idea of a circuit for sure.  Not any specific circuit, but the idea that we have to make a complete loop for electricity to do what it does.  The idea that there are methods out there to make it easier for others to understand the work you did.  The reasoning behind building and electrical codes, and that it is important to have experts available to check things over for you.  These larger concepts will last a while.  When I buy a new house, I will forget the size of electrical boxes, and how many wires can be under a staple, and the color of wire nuts.  I will know that there is a reason for some of these weird rules.  I will remember to look for circuits.

What about 40 years?  I am not 40 years old yet, so it is hard to say.  I haven't remembered anything for 40 years!  How can I judge what will last?  The other day, I was talking to some colleagues about fixing up the house and they said something to the effect that they couldn't do a project like that.

I hit me.  The 40 year learning isn't "stuff."  It isn't concepts, it isn't thinking.  It's belief that you can learn.  That is it.  It made me sad to hear educators say they couldn't do something.  I didn't know a whole lot about several projects that I am doing right now a few short months ago.  What I did know was that I could do it.  I knew I could learn how to do it.  I needed the tools and the time and some people to lean on.  Then I could do it.

When did I learn that?

I could probably point out literal moments in time when I learned 40 day and 40 month learning.  The habit and belief that I can learn...that came from somewhere else.  My dad, for sure.  My great teachers that always challenged me.  Awesome non-teacher teachers in my life.

When I learned about circuits sometime in 12th grade physics, the content didn't directly prepare me for the wiring of the 4 ways switch that I use to go up the stairs.  The belief in people around me that I could learn did.

For our students, content is important.  Why?  Because if we can show them they can learn content, then we can use that to help them make bigger connections.  Eventually, they will see, with the guidance of teachers along the way, that they can make connections on their own and always be able to learn.

I hope students forget a bunch of the stuff I teach them in class, but I hope they can never shake the idea that learning is possible.  Even 15 or 20 years later, they can have the confidence to learn something new, perhaps because I opened that door.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Every time I hear someone say Formative Assessment

Every time I hear someone say Formative Assessment...

...this scene keeps running through my head

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I Hate Formative Assessments!

Well, mostly, I hate the TERM formative assessments.  What does it really mean?  I think we get hung up on the term formative assessment and lose the real meaning.

When I think of grading and feedback, there is one purpose...communication.  The only thing that ever changes when giving grades and feedback is the audience.  So, instead of thinking of what sort of assessment we have (formative or summative), lets simply think of the audience of the result of the assessment and make decisions from there.

If the main audience of the assessment result is the student, DON'T USE A GRADE!  Why not?  If our audience is the student, our goal is to improve learning, and we know students do not learn from grades. When a student looks at a grade after an assessment, that is all they look at.  They don't look back at their work or task.  Instead, for learning, give descriptive feedback.

Some people say that the student is ALWAYS the audience.  In a perfect world where one student had one teacher, sure, that may be the case.  The truth is that most of us have classrooms full of 30 or more students. There are times when we need to "pigeon hole" students so we can keep things straight in our heads to plan flexible groups and future instruction. At these times we give some sort of formal assessment and write down a level of learning that reflects where individual students stand.  It isn't efficient to write down an entire descriptive comment for each student, so we summarize the learning with a symbol, or a grade. Anytime a grade is written down for a student, in my mind, it is a summative assessment.  I use this idea because if you assign a grade to a task, you are summarizing students learning.  But, who cares how we define it.  When a grade is written down, the audience changes.  The main audience is the teacher, because we use these grades to manage our classes.

Now, you can still use this information for formative purposes!  This is why things are so darn confusing!  As a teacher, now you know where students stand in terms of learning levels.  You can use this information to group students.  This doesn't mean that students are stuck at this level forever, but it is worth recording the learning level.  In my mind, it is entirely appropriate to put this information into the gradebook.  Why?  Well, you have a quality assessment that rates the level of learning of a student relative to a standard.  Write it down!  Then, when you do it again, write it down again.  After awhile, we will have a collection of evidence for each student relative to specific standards.  You are the main audience, but the student should still see this as well.

There are also times when the MAIN audience are people outside our classroom.  This would include parents, administrators, other teachers, etc.  Most schools have a system of report cards to accomplish this task with specific deadlines that these reports are due.  So, on that deadline, we have to look at our knowledge of where students are for each of our standards AT THAT TIME, and report that information out.  Obviously, it is more important to use more recent data on students.  This is one of the reason why we have been collecting this evidence over time, so when we need to summarize the learning at these specified intervals, we can.

Remember the MAIN audience:

  • If it's the students: descriptive feedback
  • If it's you: grade the assessment with level of achievement connected to the standard and record that grade in the gradebook.
  • If it's the report card: summarize what you know of the student, by looking back at the gradebook, at that time, per standard or per class depending on your situation.

Focus on the audience, not the type of assessment.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why Standards-Based Grading

A Twitter conversation prompted this post.  While doing a quick Twitter check before bed last night, I ran across @stopsbg and the associated website  Whoa.  After a few exchanges, it was evident I could not argue my point using the limited characters of Twitter.  I don’t think I will ever convince this party of anything, but I like to re-hash things for myself sometimes.

I have to preface this by saying that my perspective comes mostly as a 7th grade Life Science teacher.  I do a lot of work with other content areas in the middle level and some work with science at the high school level, but ultimately I know the level I teach the best.  From the website, it seems like the biggest concern is the result of Standards-Based Grading (SBG) after high school.  Perhaps my perspective is moot.

First, SBG isn’t something all in itself.  It is one tool/strategy from a multitude of strategies that are aimed at improving what we do as educators.  Whenever I try to think about these ideas about education, I always to try think about John Hattie’s work from his book Visible Learning.  The central premise of this book is that almost everything in education “works.”  Our goal isn’t to find something that works, it is to find something that works really well.  He tracks what works best using something called an effect size and charges teachers to “know thy impact,” which is to say that to not be satisfied with simply knowing that you made AN impact, but to know how large of an impact  you make.

I may be oversimplifying things, but my takeaway from Hattie was that we need to have clear goals of our teaching.  These goals need to be clear to both the student and the teacher.  In addition to these clear goals, interested parties need to know where students are in relation to these goals so appropriate adjustments can be made.   Those adjustments are how we can help the student move forward.  Perhaps they need some remediation to get caught up, perhaps they are right on target, or perhaps they are ready to storm ahead.  We need a classroom that purposely and properly identifies these students and provides the appropriate avenues.

So the above paragraph sounds like a bunch of edu-speak.  What does it mean, what does it look like?  We need clear goals, or standards, or targets, or objectives, or whatever you want to call them.  Our standards documents provide insight on what those are.  We need to work as teacher teams to make sure we all agree on what they are.  For example, I have a standard that is called “Explanation and Argument.”  It comes from information gathered from A Framework for k-12 Science Education to help student achieve the performance expectations outlined in The Next Generation Science Standards.   In order to do well on the standard, student are to be able to make a claim about something, supply or identify evidence that supports that claim, and explain how that evidence supports the claim using scientific reasoning.  Another standard I have is called “Survival and Reproduction.”  Part of this standard is the understanding of simple genetics.  Students need to understand how genetic traits are passed on from generation to generation and how scientists can deduce the genetic makeup of an organism by observing the offspring.

I know these goals, as do the people in my department.  We studied the standards and come to the conclusion.  Students know these goals, but in a slightly different way.  I don't tell them, “Hey, you need to know how scientists can deduce genetic makeup of an organism by observing the offspring.”  Instead, I use intriguing examples from nature to spark their curiosity and we practice the deduction and argument process.  Oh, by the way, I (like most teachers) have about 150 students spread across 5 classes with all sorts of different needs and current background knowledge.  I’m not special, every teacher has a similar situation.  I need a way to figure out what students know and what they don’t know, and then let them know their precise situation so we can move as far forward as possible.  This is where assessment comes in.  Part of that is conversations with students while they are working on examples that we come up with.  Part of it observation.  At some point though, I need them to sit down and prove to me they get it.  And we do that periodically too.  So then, we take a quiz to see what is up.

At this point, nothing is different from any other good teaching.  Formal assessments where a grade is given is where things change.  Now, a grade is given in two different categories: Explanation/Argument and Survival/Reproduction.   I have students who can make an “OK” argument but don’t have a great understanding of genetics.  Conversely, and more commonly, I have students who get the whole genetics thing, but can’t set up an argument well.  In both of the above situations, in my “traditional” grading practices when I started teaching and how I think a lot of teacher grade now, both of these students would receive a mediocre grade.  I am not inclined to say what because that is dumb, but it would probably be “passing” and not “excelling.”  When parents and or students ask what they could do to do better, the response is, “study harder/better.”

Enter Standards-Based Grading.  These kids get grades in two different categories.   I literally have students that approach me that say: “I see that I get the Survival and Reproduction part which I know goes with genetics, but what how do I do better in this Explanation and Argument category?” We have a conversation about what the difference is between evidence and reasoning in this situation while we bring up how we did this in the past.  We do a little more practice that is TARGETED on what needs to improve.  And then sometimes a student asks if they can “redo.”  No, not directly.  But, as a prepared teacher I have other assessments in store.  I’ll let them show me how well they can produce an argument using evidence using a different assessment in the short term or we will discuss when this will naturally come up again because of the design of the class.

Not only can I help students who have the confidence and drive to approach me with questions, I can also target groups of kids who are trying to sneak under the radar.  Again, with traditional grading, both students would have received a mediocre grade.  Some kids are OK with mediocrity.  With SBG, I can figure out what is causing that, and invite (make/compel) them come in and learn it better.  I don’t want a kid to leave my class that doesn’t understand genetics at least at a basic level.  Using SBG, I can identify whole groups of students and work with them.  Based on their grade, I have a reasonable idea as to where they are and can provide small group remediation, followed by directed practice, followed by another quiz where they can prove to me if they now understand.

No, this does not happen with traditional grading.

Sure, traditional grading can have clear goals.  Traditional grading should still go through the same formative feedback loops.  But at the end of the day (or unit), the data is useless to remediate students who didn't get it.  It is a ton of work to go back through to figure out the issues…so most teachers don’tThey move the whole class on and tell them to study harder next time.

SBG encourages students to ask more specific questions about their learning.  Also, it allows confidence to build in students.  Very few quizzes are total flops.  There is almost always at least something they did OK at.  Not only that, if they did poorly across the board we can make small steps.  Since I know what they know and don’t know, I can be more helpful.  And then, once those kids start doing a little better, they know they can do it, and they now will hold themselves to a higher standard.  Students where were OK with a “2” a few months ago know that they should be at a 3 or 4.  I have a couple dozen of those examples from this school year along.

Remember, it comes back to clear goals and feedback to and from the students about those goals so a teacher can “know thy impact.”  SBG, when done well, is an efficient way to know your impact.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Updates on NGSS and SBG

I previously posted some thoughts on connecting NGSS to SBG.  My ending question was: Is 18-19 standards too many for SBG.  I have since concluded that as yes, that is too many.  Below is how I am tackling this now.

Over the summer, I spent a lot of time reading NGSS, the Framework, and anything else I could get my eyes and hands on.  Upon returning to plan for the upcoming year, what was hanging over my head was how to set up the gradebook.  What standards do I use?

The first thing to think about was whether to have the performance expectations as my standards, or something else.  I decided upon using the dimensions from the Framework instead as I feel that they are more lasting.  Students can work on the idea of data analysis and interpretation from Pre-Kindergarten through forever.  I see the individual performance expectations as some of the ways we can tell if students are understanding the dimensions.

I tried to just throw everything in the pot.  That gave me 8 practices, 7 crosscutting concepts, and 5-6 disciplinary core idea.  From the get-go, this seemed like an overloaded gradebook, so some pruning had to happen.

The first thing to go from the gradebook was the crosscutting concepts.  I am not saying by any means that the crosscutting concepts are not important, but I am saying that I don't see them as a "thing" to assess and report on.  I see the crosscutting concepts as themes and ideas to organize the class.

From there, I combined and cut some of the practices.  First, I cut out the practice: "Using mathematics and computation thinking."  Again, this is not to undermine its importance, but I feel students have a whole class on math that does a better job teaching and assessing those concepts.  Also, we don't have a lot of performance expectations in Life Science that requires a lot of computational thinking.  I also combined the practices of "explanations/solutions" with "arguments."  I feel these are very similar.  As one is explaining something, you generally need to use the evidence that was gathered connected with reasoning.  A good explanation is a good argument.  The same goes with solutions in engineering.

Finally, I put in 5 "Disciplinary Core Ideas."  I can't remember the exact document I used to do this.  I teach 7th grade Life Science and I used: structure and function, growth/development and reproduction, matter and energy in organisms and environments, organisms interactions, and survival and reproduction.

This gives me 11 standards total.  I don't think I have stumbled upon a lucky number or anything, but it is where I am right now.  What I still like about standards-based grading though is how having these standards keeps me grounded in what I do and more importantly what I assess.  It is so easy to try to teach a lot of stuff.  Having the practices on hand has kept me from having kids spout out a bunch of content.  Instead, I feel like we are doing more with the content.

With this said, improvements can always be made.  For next year, I will likely keep the 6 practices.  For the DCI, I will use 3 or 4, as they are written in the framework.  We don't "cover" a lot of ecosystem interactions in our class, so I think we could fit in the other 3 DCIs.

The next big step...getting rid of the overall grade so we can just focus on these standards.  We shall see how that goes.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Origami Frog Natural Selection

Just a neat activity to share:

We are working on genetics, and just took that the next step to see how genetics would change as the process of natural selection was happening to a population.

To do this, students made origami frogs as seen in this video:

The frogs have 4 different "genes" that can be varied:
  • The size of the starting paper (3 or 5 inches square)
  • The number of folds that make the jumping mechanism (2 or 3)
  • The color of the paper (either reddish or greenish which the students colored)
  • The stiffness of the paper (regular paper or index card)
All groups started with the same frog genotype.  They used the genotype to figure out the phenotype of the first frog.  Then, that frog "mated" with another random frog.  This happened by the genes of the original frog being mixed with some random genes.  They used these genes to create 4 "frogletts."  Each of the frogletts were then lined up and students made them jump.  The one that jumped the furthest was allowed to breed, the others were gone from the gene pool.  Then, the "successful" frog's genes were mixed with other successful frog genes to make another generation.  We continued this process for several generations.

The results are pretty neat so far.  There is a very clear type of frog that is most common, but the other types of frogs continue to pop up in the gene pool.  Neat to see some genetic diversity from a simple set of genes and some clear microevolution as well.

The following link should take you to a site where you can download the actual activity, if you are interested.  Origami Frogs

Monday, June 3, 2013

Letting them go

About an hour ago, I flat our cried in front of a student, thanking her for the inspiration she provided me this year.  It seems so backward.  Shouldn't I be inspiring them?

We have the greatest jobs in the world.  I hate this final week of school.  The farewells, so longs, and good-byes hit me straight in the heart.  I will miss each and every one of these little kiddos.  One of my biggest fears is that I get more from them than they get from me.  I get 140 different perspectives on the wonders and tragedies of our world, the smiles and tears, the joys and the sorrows.  The worst part about my job isn't the workload, the pay, the hours, the administration, or the public perception of public education.  The worst part is letting so many kids go after getting to know how awesome they are at the end of the year.  Another awesome bunch will take their place next year.  One one hand I get bummed out with the good-byes.  On the other hand, who else in the world gets to do what we do.  We are in the profession of getting to know people and helping them along the way.  Hooray for us!