Rethinking Learning Targets

This week I had the honor of filling in for a primary teacher for about a half hour. We were learning about lions. As expected, several students wanted to share their experiences and knowledge with the class.

One student commented that he went to Africa with his family and saw a lion’s skull during their trip. “Really?” I responded. He went on and explained that they brought the skull home with them on the plane. “Well, that’s something!”

Obviously I didn’t take this information as gospel. Even though his story was interesting, we moved on to the next part of the planned activity. And yet, the creativity in his thinking was something that, if I had more time, I might have encouraged him to put down on paper if he felt so inclined.

There was not a learning target posted for the lesson, but if there was, it would have likely stated something like “I can identify important facts about lions.” That’s great. Kids need background knowledge in order to develop a deeper understanding of bigger concepts that can relate to many areas of life. For example, interaction as a concept that can be revisited over and over throughout a unit of study on biology and the environment. That lens might accommodate more diverse thinking such as the students’ story about the lion skull.

Where do we start? Maybe we can rethink how we craft our learning targets. For instance, what if an “I can” statement became a question? I saw an example of this in a 4th grade classroom (see picture, second target). Posing questions vs. learning statements can invite new ways of thinking while still guiding students to focus on the content or skill to be learned. In my example with the lions, what if we asked, “What is important to know about lions?” Now we could not only build knowledge but also explore author’s purpose and/or generate more questions with students. Engagement goes up, thinking becomes deeper.

My belief about learning targets has changed. I used to think we needed to spell out exactly what we want our students to know and be able to do. “I can” statements are supposed to be in kid-friendly language. Now I’m wondering if in our efforts to ensure students meet standards, we are also diminishing the potential for creative and complex thinking in the classroom. Not so kid-friendly after all.

What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments.

How should we measure success in schools?

When I arrived at my current school as principal, one of the first ideas we implemented was a schoolwide writing assessment. At that time, writing was taught once a week as part of a life skill block. My thinking was, if we assess it more formally, then student writing will improve because teachers will see it as a priority and start to teach it more frequently.

And at first, the approach seemed to work. Shortly after announcing the schoolwide writing assessment, one teacher came up to me and asked, “So writing is a focus for the building now?” I was noncommittal in my response but I did not exactly correct her thinking.

The heightened sense of writing as a priority eventually gave way to reality. Specifically, while writing instruction was happening more frequently in classrooms due in part to dedicated professional development, the actual assessment results did not reveal a lot of helpful information. Our leadership spent a whole day in the fall and in the spring calibrating the rubric with samples, assessing writing pieces with partners, and then adding students’ scores to the spreadsheet. For all of this work, we couldn’t make heads or tails if students were collectively growing as writers.

This experience has led me to ask some hard questions. Why is it so hard to measure student success in complex tasks such as writing? Related, why are we as teachers often the only ones who should be making a determination of success? If students should be a part of the assessment process, can the task itself be used for more than just measurement, such as motivating students to learn? 

Defining Success

The dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”. So knowing what the aim is along with the purpose for our work seems important for students and teachers. Mindless assessment practices should be called into question, but not without a clear understanding of success in the broader sense of the word.

In their article “What Do We Measure and Why? Questions About the Uses of Measurement“, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers address the general culture of organizations and our infatuation with numbers. They note a disconnect between what is being measured and what the goals are of the group, along with how people move the organization toward these goals. 

“The desire to be good managers has compelled many people to become earnest students of management. But are measures and numbers the right pursuit? Do the right measures make for better managers? Do they make for a stellar organization?”

For our challenge, it felt (to me at least) that we were scoring our students’ writing in order to have a valid and reliable way of measuring their abilities. The result was a collective effort that was misaligned with greater goals.

  • There was misalignment between who was scoring the writing and who wrote it. For me, there was little context as I read and responded to each piece. For example, were they excited about the topic? If not, why not? Could the kids also present their work for an authentic audience? I wanted to pull each student aside to ask him or her more questions about their process that led them to what they produced.
  • There was misalignment between what was being taught and what was being assessed. Just because we had a common rubric did not mean the success criteria were clear for everyone in the school. Part of this issue is with rubrics themselves; they are lengthy and often too generic to use as a teaching tool. 
  • There was misalignment between our school’s mission and vision and how we were trying to realize these big goals.We were using simple instruments to give us information about complex work. Yes, kids had to respond to a task that had the potential to encourage students to write. But writing is more than words on paper. There is research involved, peer feedback and revision, and time to simply think, activities not a part of a writing assessment. 

Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers have also observed cognitive dissonance between the necessary actions people should take to realize an organization’s vision and how leaders choose to evaluate success due to a group’s actions.

“We believe that these behaviors are never produced by measurement. They are performance capabilities that emerge as people feel connected to their work and to each other. They are capacities that emerge as colleagues develop a shared sense of what they hope to create together, and as they operate in an environment where everyone feels welcome to contribute to that shared hope. Each of these qualities and behaviors-commitment, focus, teamwork, learning, quality–is a choice that people make. Depending on how connected they feel to the organization or team, they choose to pay attention, to take responsibility, to innovate, to learn and share their learnings. People can’t be punished or paid into these behaviors. Either they are contributed or withheld by individuals as they choose whether and how they will work with us.”

Described in this way, assessment is framed as an essential part of the learning journey toward success. The qualities of a community of learners should be embedded in the mission and vision of a school. Pulling these qualities out so they are understandable by all requires a description of success along with more authentic approaches for developing assessments that allow students to make their learning and thinking visible to all.

Engaging in this work is not necessarily more difficult. As Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers note about organizations that make assessment work for them, “their process was creative, experimental, and the measures they developed were often non-traditional.” It may instead require a shift in how we view success for all students, especially from their points of view. Maybe the word “measure” is itself too basic a label for what we are trying to really do: help students see themselves as genuinely successful and know how they arrived at this point. 

What I’m Reading: March 2019

Black and Blue Magic by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (children’s literature)

I read this aloud to my son. It was hard for him (us) to put it down. Think of it as an original superhero story only told with all of the challenges and small details that come with a changed identity. This book would definitely work as a read aloud for upper elementary and invite students to explore more books by Snyder.

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (young adult graphic novel)

A graphic memoir (?) that is in the same vein as Sunny Side Up and Ghosts but for older readers. The story is memorable and well suited for the visual nature of the text. Definitely a book to have in the secondary classroom library to build diversity and cultural relevance.

Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray (nonfiction)

A succinct and readable summary of how beliefs drive our actions and how people can change them. There is a lot more to this topic than what is covered here, yet the accessibility of Gray’s text is well-suited for anyone to take the ideas and apply them immediately.

Love and Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt de la Peña (picture books)

I had the opportunity to listen to the author read aloud some of his books at a reading convention. He stopped at several points during the reading to explain a sentence or illustration and how it brought meaning to the text. Both books are excellent are for conveying the human experience from a unique perspective.

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan (nonfiction)

This is an important book and maybe Pollan’s best yet. Through his both personal and historical investigation into psychedelics, the author removes much of the stigma from this hot button issue by revealing the potential it has for mental health.

On Life After Death by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (nonfiction)

A staff member recommended this title to me not long ago. It is a provocative and hopeful book about what may happen when we die. The paradox of a scientist describing the afterlife, citing studies to add credibility to her position, made for interesting reading.

The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin (fiction)

My introduction to this series, which apparently continues to this day. My guess is Rebus, the detective and main character, is always close to retirement which must give him license to ignore authority at any possible opportunity. The dry humor and colorful characters makes this police procedural a good series to get acquainted with.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (children’s literature)

Using the template that made Harry Potter a household name, Townsend offers a new story of unique characters trying to make sense of the world. The question “Who am I?” seems to be a central theme in this book. I look forward to reading the next one with my daughter.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl (memoir)

I think to fully appreciate this book is to understand the influence that it has had on so many other areas. For example, I am taking an instructional coaching course, and the teachers often reference Frankl’s memoir as an example of self-actualization. The past is clearly described in this short book. I believe it should be read so we can better understand our present and future.

Write Smart, Write Happy: How to Become a More Productive, Resilient and Successful Writer by Cheryl St. John (writing reference)

If you are struggling to get started with a writing project, or you need strategies to keep going with one, I recommend this resource. St. John’s voice is reassuring and confident, a successful author in her own right. Each chapter is brief and gives you concrete ideas for a successful writing life.

Reflecting on My Reading: Identity, Beliefs, and Change

I find it beneficial to list out some of your books you have been reading for the past three to six months or so and see if you can find any trends or patterns. (I am assuming reading is a habit for you.)

Looking at my list, one theme that seems to surface is personal change.

This certainly relates to school. As a principal, one of my primary roles is to facilitate growth with teachers. This interest has been sparked by the cognitive coaching course I am enrolled in this year. How does one influence change in another without projecting their own beliefs too much in the process? How does a person’s identity factor into one’s capacity for self-improvement?

“Real leadership challenges the leader before it challenges others.”

Eric Glover

Subsequently, I have started to examine my own beliefs and my capacity for change. You study something long enough and you start to see it everywhere, you know? Deep learning reveals new insights. Different points of view can serve as mirrors to my own identity and provide me with critical space to determine if I am satisfied with the current status.

This is what I enjoy most about reading: Being able to visit new places that are different than my own. Fiction or nonfiction, I put myself in someone else’s shoes while reading. The result is often a broader perspective of the world, with the hopeful benefit of becoming a little bit better as a person.

Beyond the Standards

I was in a 1st grade classroom conducting an instructional walk. The students were quietly working on their informative writing projects. They had researched a topic of choice, using strategies to read nonfiction texts. Now they were using their notes they had taken and were applying them to a writing project.

I sat next to a couple of students. One student looked up, saw me and asked, “You know how to write books, right?” I nodded. “I am not sure where to put the end. What do you do?” Honored that he asked me for help, I asked if he would read his writing to me. I listened actively, celebrated his work, then went into a description of my own writing process, admitting that conclusions could be very difficult for any writer. He looked at me, unsure how to respond.

The teacher stopped over by us, checking in on our conversation. After a moment, she stepped in. “I think what he’s trying to ask is where he should put ‘The End’ in his book.” Literally. I laughed, then suggested putting those two words on the back of his last page.

I enjoy talking the writing process, mine and anyone else’s. Each is unique. There are some very general pathways from drafting to done (typically revision is a major part), but the specific journey for each writer is their own. Whatever it takes to get it on paper and get it published.

Reflecting on our chat, I appreciated that our conversation revolved around the writing itself and not on a rubric or a specific standard. Writing, like many crafts, is a messy experience from start to finish. Spelling out what “good” writing looks and sounds like can make the process a bore, seem more like work in its starkest sense.

I’m fine with standards as a part of the educational experience. They give us some guideposts as to where our students should be at in relation to their age and development level. Used thoughtfully, standards can help define a ladder of complexity in what students should know and be able to do.

Yet history is not kind to the standards movement. In an excellent article for Phi Delta Kappan, Gamson, Eckart, and Anderson reveal the reality behind why standards have been introduced into U.S. public education.

In virtually every period of American educational history, but especially in times of national crisis, critics have argued that American students were floundering academically due to intellectually feeble and flabby academic objectives. Time and again, Americans have retreated to the bunker of clear standards as protectors against educational fuzziness.

These “times of national crisis” include Sputnik and the National Reading Panel’s infamous report “A Nation at Risk” (the latter a document I recently discovered and then threw out while cleaning my office). The context for these concerns is competitiveness. In this type of environment, learning is no longer the focus. It is about achievement. Curiosity and mistake-making are seen as frivolous time wasters when standards need to be met.

I understand society’s desire to simplify school outcomes to try and understand the quality of education. Doing so, though, has consequences, one of the most dire being the removal of process as an essential part of the learning experience. When there is no opportunity for people to take risks and pose important questions, such as asking the principal where to put “the end”, there is little incentive to put ourselves in positions where we are vulnerable and open to new ideas. We cannot boil down these necessary experiences to a set of standards. That should tell you something.

What should our kids know and be able to do?

The art of reinvention will be the most critical skill of this century.

Yuval Noah Harari

This is a question that my current district is wrestling with (along with everyone else?). I wrote an article that appear in Choice Literacy’s newsletter today that briefly addressed this topic.

David Perkins describes a curriculum that is worth learning for today’s students as “lifeworthy”. Summarizing his book Future Wise for this Educational Leadership article, he breaks down lifeworthy learning into six descriptors.

  • Beyond content to 21st century skills and competencies.
  • Beyond local to global perspectives, problems, and studies.
  • Beyond topics to content as material for thinking and action.
  • Beyond the traditional disciplines to renewed and extended versions of the disciplines.
  • Beyond the traditional disciplines to renewed and extended versions of the disciplines.
  • Beyond academic engagement to personal choice, significance, commitment, and passion.

Yet Perkins holds short of making specific recommendations for what students should know and able to do. “I don’t think there is a universal answer for every school and society in today’s diverse world.” Fair enough.

Yuval Noah Harari takes the torch from Perkins and does offer specificities regarding what kids need to learn to succeed in the near and distant future. In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari offers insights on what we might expect and what we as educators can do about it. He starts by delivering a hard pill to swallow for educators.

Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050.

Harari is referring to many of the subject-specific topics and ideas about our world. Perkins alludes to this in his lifeworthy criteria, listing “competencies”, “perspectives”, and describing content as merely “material for thinking and action”. Harari agrees, pushing the reader to consider the larger, more intangible outcomes that we might expect of our students to acquire.

The last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and, above all, to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.

This shift from a “sit-and-get” approach to education to building knowledge and skills applicable to many areas is not new. The concept of constructivism (Piaget) has been around for decades. Maybe what is new is this sense of urgency we now feel in an age of complexity and not being able to predict even the near future. Harari himself concedes this reality.

Nobody can predict the specific changes we will witness in the future. Any particular scenario is likely to be far from the truth. If somebody describes the world of the mid-21st century to you and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then again, if somebody describes the world of the mid-21st century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction, it is certainly false. We cannot be sure of the specifics; change itself is the only certainty.

So if we had to focus on one thing for preparing our students for an unknown future, what might it be? For my money, I want to help kids develop a strong sense of personal identity within the context of a big world that has as many perspectives as it does communities and individuals.

For example, can students describe their beliefs and values and be able to revisit them over time in light of new information and different points of view? All while maintaining a strong sense of self? Being able to change one’s mind while maintaining our identify seems like a prerequisite skill for living and succeeding in this world.

To keep up with the world of 2050, you will need to do more than merely invest new ideas and products, but above all, reinvent yourself again and again.

Yuval Noah Harari

Final question: how can we foster this ability with our students? I believe it starts with ourselves. We need to model what it means to be a lifelong learner. For instance, students should see and hear us hold two different points of view at the same time and not succumb to bias or our emotions. This invites literacy and many other subjects areas to work together, an interdependence of ideas that our current curriculums have yet to address.

Writing and the Gift of Time

I made a goal for myself in February: to write a book proposal for submission to a publisher to-be-determined (topic: building a culture of literacy). Knowing what was expected of a proposal – an outline, a description of the work, and at least one chapter written – I could generally project out how much writing I would have to do between the 1st and the 28th.

Part of the plan was to write every day, around 350 words. That didn’t happen. A few days I had lots of time and motivation, and I wrote well over 1000 words. Other days, I didn’t feel like writing. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood or I had other priorities to take care of. Most days I persevered and put something down on paper. And there were a few days where I didn’t write at all.

My experience reminded me of what Patricia Polacco shared in her interview with three of our 5th graders during a recent author visit at our school. They asked her about her writing process.

I’d love to tell you I am a dedicated writer, but I’m not. I’ll do anything not to work.

She laughed and then expanded on this answer, explaining why she needs to motivated to be an effective writer.

I don’t believe in sitting down and forcing yourself to write when the words aren’t here.” (refers to herself) “If the fire isn’t in your belly, the words are going to show it. The words are going to be lifeless. The motivation has got to be there.

Patricia goes on to share the story of Jerome, a student at another school she visited. Jerome stared at his pencil for the majority of a writing period. Patricia later found out that Jerome wrote an eight-page essay on all the wonderful uses of a pencil.

As I think about my February project, I reflect on Patricia’s words. If I wasn’t feeling it, I didn’t force it. Instead, I would read excellent literature, hang with family, or simply give my mind a break. I did eventually get there because I gave myself the time, I did not rush myself, and I found joy in the process.

As we think about our own learning environments, how have we (or might we) shift toward a culture that is conducive for authentic literacy experiences, within the constraints of public education? How might these two worlds be compatible? Please share in the comments.

Building a Literacy Culture: Fostering Trust Through Beliefs and Commitments

In the midst of my third year in my “new” school, I feel fortunate that I can reflect on my past experiences as a building principal in one elementary while leading a literacy initiative right now in my current building.

We started at Mineral Point by delving into the foundations of literacy instruction: the reading-writing connection. We are moving forward, feeling more comfortable with our pace and expectations regarding what to try and apply in our classrooms. Some might want to move forward more quickly than others, which seems common in schools.

This is a challenge as a building principal/literacy leader:  What is the right pace in which to move an entire school toward a culture where every student is expected to become an independent reader and writer?

Answer: there is no right way. Many pathways can get you to the same destination. Yet it starts with trust, defined by Dr. Anthony Muhammad as “feeling confident in another person’s ability to follow through on a commitment.” People feel safer in these types of conditions to innovate.

To move toward a literacy culture as a whole faculty, trust has to be cultivated. Trust is founded on various elements of which many are tacit and hard to see. Two concrete ways to build trust is through examination of a school’s beliefs and an agreed-upon set of professional commitments. Beliefs and commitments are commonly-held agreements about what we think and how we act. They are the foundation on which a culture sits upon when ensuring that all students are successful readers and writers. Beliefs and commitments are rudders that guide our work toward our goals.

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I’ve written about examining literacy beliefs before; you can read about two recent experiences here and here. Regarding collective commitments, you can find this culture-building activity in Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (Solution Tree, 2016). I also shared about our school’s collective commitments on my school blog.

School leaders need to be able to determine when a school is struggling with its culture, such as when teachers are feeling too much stress while implementing new practices. I rely on our instructional leadership team members plus other staff to help discern how faculty is feeling about our work. I am not a mind reader. We have to rely on others’ perceptions regarding professional learning. This dialogue can be improved when we have concrete statements about what we believe and how we will conduct ourselves in accordance with these beliefs. They are words we live by.