Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Setting a High Bar for Learning

Setting high expectations and standards means, first, that the department’s curriculum must account for students needing to be prepared to successfully create, innovate, decipher, empathize, connect, compete and persevere within an ever growing international cohort of ideas, ideologies, perspectives and cultures.  We must secondly acknowledge that all of a school’s and district’s students must be included in that success.  The times are too demanding and the stakes too high for anyone to opt out. Finally, we must plan for how to use meaningful assessment data to identify students’ skills, run courses in a way that places them each in opportunities to meet those expectations and establishes means of supporting anyone who needs an alternative and / or additional strategy.

Educators with high standards will have to meticulously craft necessary scaffolds, which I see best being done by having teacher write the curriculum in teams.  First, ideas will have the best chance of getting from being proposals to a written curriculum and then to a taught curriculum.  When the teachers do the planning and creating, they are more fully invested in the framework and less likely to allow students to give up on themselves in times of struggle.  These teams will also serve as the best source of support and feedback loops.  If a class or student is struggling or if a teacher is going to try something new and innovative, it’s often important that they have another set of eyes to help them troubleshoot, prepare and reflect.  Teachers will often rather do this with their peers and then “show off” when administrators come in to observe than get initial feedback from administration.  Finally, creating curricula in teams means that the work will be more cohesive both vertically and horizontally.  Setting up such a system for an ELA curriculum, for example, means that writing standards can both play out in numerous content area classes across a grade level as well as progress from year to year.  Seeing how argumentative, narrative or informational text appears within social studies, science, media-driven, and literary contexts will help students better understand assignments’ designs and therefore meet higher standards than if each teacher had his/her own requirements.

Courses with low expectations have students do work that they can already accomplish.  Educators who want to push their students, though, need to create the means to help all students achieve these high standards.  When teachers and administrators begin by learning who students are and what strengths and struggles they have, appropriate pedagogical tactics can be designed and clearly communicated to students and families.  Simply said, people won’t hit a target they don’t know is there.  In a standards-based learning world, students ought to be fully aware what’s being asked of them.  Educators have to help students understand why they’re learning particular content and skills and what each looks like when completed.  For example, if the goal is to write an editorial piece that’s to be submitted to a professional news outlet, educators must help students find a variety of such articles to read and an interesting topic on which to write their own.  

Finally, teachers with high expectations will design units around open-ended essential questions with embedded formative benchmarks.  Students should be allowed to explore, create, synthesize, and apply the skills and knowledge they’re acquiring instead of stopping at being able to identify, label and define information.  With multiple means and points of ongoing assessment in place, educators will be able to individually support students as needed, keeping the next stage of their work towards high expectations always at Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.

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