Friday, August 15, 2014

Chapter 9- Learning Targets

“When you make an observation, you have an obligation.” – M.K. Asante

First, let me share that I have enjoyed my little summer project.  I got to read a great book and share it with my friends….last time I checked the stats, the Learning Targets blog had been viewed over 6,000 times.  I realize that may not be much in the virtual world, but I have to believe it is better than me reading it alone.  So what happens next?  Well, I guess the point of doing this to begin with was to help teachers plan better lessons so that students would understand what they are learning.  That is the goal…to design dynamic learning experiences for students. However, as this last chapter suggests, teachers can’t do it alone.  Effective schools call for effective leadership.

Principals and others placed in the role of observing in classrooms all enter with certain beliefs about what is important.  As Moss and Brookhart share, principals use typical lists of “best practices” to create “look-fors” in the classroom.  The danger in this is that too often these lists are only centered on what the teacher is doing.  We focus on teacher actions, occasionally even scripting every question they ask, or strategy they use. Sometimes we look for “student engagement”, but how do you really determine if a student is engaged? No, the “jugular” question, as the authors put it, is “Engaged in what?”.  Too often we have students working on well intend, but poorly designed lessons and they become meaningless in pushing students’ learning forward.  Someone has to provide support to ensure this doesn’t happen.

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Last week, our District held its annual “Administrators’ Academy” and each campus brought together their leadership teams for two days of intense learning.  This year, the focus was very much about moving toward becoming a more effective school by improving the instructional culture.  In this chapter, Moss and Brookhart discussed the value of leadership teams in a school and the power they possess to improve instruction.  However, it is not easy.  The leaders of the school, be it the principal or a group of leaders, send a very clear message about what is important, by what they focus on.  If a leadership team values what the students are doing in the lesson rather than simply what the teacher is doing, a transformational shift can occur in the culture of the building. 

On page 151, perhaps my favorite quote of the whole book arrives:

“There are virtually no documented instances of turning a troubled school around without intervention from talented leaders.  Although there are many factors….leadership is the catalyst.”

Intentional Planning!!

At our Admin. Academy, we talked about the influence of the teacher and how important he/she is for their class, but study after study has shown that an effective school, lead by effective leadership teams, have a larger impact on a student’s educational career.  What this means, is that while the teacher matters most for that individual school year, students make the m
ost gains in a school with strong leadership over time.

So what type of leadership is important?  The term “instructional leader” by the authors’ estimation has become a watered-down term with varied definitions and expectations. A few characteristics of an effective instructional leader that I took from the chapter:

·      Instructional leaders create a common language about what they consider evidence of effective teaching and meaningful learning. These shared beliefs allow a campus to know what is working, what is not working, and do something about it.
·      Instructional leaders engage in targeted professional development WITH teachers about improving what happens in the classroom.
·      Instructional leaders ensure that strategic instructional practices that raise student achievement are embedded in each lesson.
·      Instructional leaders conduct strategic observations, provide targeted feedback to teachers, and forge strong learning partnerships between teachers and students.

I hope those of you that have been reading along this summer have enjoyed the book as much as I have.  I found a ton of helpful reminders about the importance of students being partners in their learning and it reinforced my belief on the value of good lesson planning as the key to high student achievement.

One final question:

·      What does your campus leadership do to support the instructional culture of your building?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Chapter 8: Using Learning Targets to Guide Summative Assessments and Grading

Grading is one of the most laborious tasks a teacher endures as part of his/her job description.  However, if done correctly, it can provide a useful tool to help teachers and students know where they are in the scope of larger learning standards.   The authors take a pretty firm stance on the practice of grading such things as effort and behavior.  They advocate that feedback on such things should be kept separate from actual grading practices, but I believe that this is one area that makes grading so difficult.  Most teachers naturally feel for a student that works really hard and is trying his/her best to learn a new concept or complete an activity.  However, giving credit for effort does a complete disservice to the learning targets process.  The process, in its purest form, calls for student self-regulation against a target.  If grades are inflated, a student (and their parents) may get a false sense of where they are in the learning progression.  Honest feedback is key to student self-regulation against any performance of understanding.

The other common error we make in grading is a misalignment of the task to the true learning target.   If the target asks for a student to learn or demonstrate a particular skill, but the activity does not align with those expectations, it is difficult to determine if the student met the learning goal.  This is why pre-planning of the lesson becomes essential.

When creating a summative assessment, teachers following a true learning targets process should find it fairly straightforward to create their assessments.  First, if you are using the learning targets process, then there should be multiple opportunities within a unit of study to assess student progress.  This also allows a student to know exactly what to expect on the summative and have support measures built in throughout the unit.  The Assessment blueprint on pg. 137, gives a great example about how a well-planned unit with multiple learning targets can easily form an aligned summative assessment.  In my District, our assessment blue print this year will rely on Supporting and Readiness Standards as prescribed by the state.  However, a challenge for teachers will be making sure their daily learning targets align with the written curriculum but also the assessment.

Reflective Questions:

1.     How do you feel about students having an opportunity to re-do an assignment in which they received a poor grade?
2.     What is your opinion on grading students on effort? Or Progress?

3.     How confident are you that the grades you give students on their report cards truly reflect what they have learned?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Ch. 7: Using Learning Targets to Foster Higher-Order Thinking

"Our schools are not teaching students to think. It is astonishing how many young people have difficulty in putting their brains definitely and systematically to work
-Thomas Edison

One of the most difficult things teachers face is the ongoing quest to teach and assess higher-level, critical thinking skills.  It challenges us in many ways: First, teachers’ content knowledge and understanding of the concepts must be at an extremely high level.  Second, the lesson design that includes thinking skills must include the use of a taxonomy level.  The most popular, Bloom’s, is often used by teachers as a way to measure their lessons, but embedding ‘thinking-skills’ and assessing them remains challenging on a day to day basis.

As, I read this chapter and thought of its implications I was reminded of the opening portion of the book when Moss and Brookhart discussed the idea of an “espoused theory of action” vs. an actual theory of action.  We often say we believe that higher-order thinking skills are important and we want to improve them for our students. However, the assignments we require of students many times do not align with those beliefs.  A stroll down a hallway in almost any school will reveal a “learning objective” posted on a bulletin board or whiteboard that uses statements such as, “Students will investigate, analyze, and interpret…” , but when you really examine the task or activity, students get by without doing any of those things.  Why?  Is it a lack of knowledge on the part of the teachers?  Is it a deficit within our curriculum that does not provide appropriate activities? Is it that our students are ready for these types of activities, so we change them?  Any of these answers may be partially true. 

How does the learning target process change that?  Well, maybe it doesn’t, however I believe it has the potential to help.  Misalignment is a huge issue with curriculum writing and lesson planning.  Teachers must establish the instructional objectives in such a way that students have to apply thinking skills within the assignments.  This involves flexibility and the use of formative assessment throughout a lesson. If the tasks that we give to students do not ask them to utilize their thinking skills, we are not challenging their thinking as we should.  Differentation (see Chapter 6) is the key to successful implementation. As the authors note,  “Not all students will learn exactly the same content details and processing skills, but at the end of the lesson , they should all be able to say “I can do those three things.  If not, they should be able to say, “I cannot do this yet, so here’s what I need to know.” (pg. 120)

Reflective Questions:

·      How do you measure thinking skills and/or creativity in  your classroom?

·      How often do you use rubrics, not for content knowledge, but to assess higher-order thinking?