Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Growing Past Standards

 I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen. - Henry David Thoreau

But to act, that each tomorrow / Find us farther than today. - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The very end...it was so sudden. - Fletch

Are we asking the right questions of ourselves? - Leadership mantra

I’ve just finished reading a spot on blog post from @garnet_hillman (The Freedom of Being a Beginner).  If you’re not yet following her work, story, and thinking, she is a co-moderator of #sblchat (Standards-Based Learning Chat, which used to #sbgchat - Standards-Based Grading Chat). She is also a humble, reflective practitioner and a strong, insightful advocate for the growing movement that’s bringing schools away from traditional assessment systems that allow many things to affect a student’s grade (think: assignment completion, timeliness, general compliance, and positive behavior mixed in with content knowledge and skill acquisition) and into a world where only a student’s capacity with defined academic standards will count towards his/her “grades.”  A standards-based program would define specific course-level expectations and - after summative work is completed - denote how far a student is along the trajectory towards mastery.  We wouldn’t average quarter grades together; we wouldn’t have percentages for homework and quizzes and participation and projects in our gradebooks; we won’t even be grading homework because that will be formative work, a chance to provide feedback without giving an actual grade.  

I love it. I’ve been a dedicated weekly contributor to #sblchat for a long time now.  What I love most is that the discussion is always about teachers and schools challenging themselves to grow beyond what they’re currently doing in service of students’ educations, which is exactly where educators’ thinking needs to be. In fact changing the name of the chat speaks to this because going from “standards-based grading says that the “movement” ought to be about our designing curriculum and teaching classes around standards, not just grading students on their mastery of the standards.  Even though the moderators have been very successful at pushing a philosophy and growing the discussion, they were willing to say: “What’s next? What can we be doing better?” And then to realize that this minor tweak to the name actually holds a world of deep meaning to our practice in schools.  

Garnet’s blog post insightfully prompts people to let go of the need to know everything in lieu of embracing our development as learners.  We ought to do this for ourselves and our students.  The expectation that we - and oftentimes students - already know everything and the following anxiety of being a “failure” if we’re caught not measuring up to that expectation have proven to be toxic to the learning environment in our schools and culture.  We are at a place now where too many people feel that they can’t admit to having to learn anything.  Whether or not we accept standards being set by national and state groups, I’d bet we can all accept that there are outcomes we’d like to reach, levels of achievement we’d like to attain, skills we’d like to master, and content we’d like to know.  It’s the process that we’re now struggling with...and it’s this process I’d like to suggest putting front and center.  Garnet alludes to it by saying that we have to give ourselves the freedom to be beginners at things, that we ought to embrace the discomfort of uncertainty because uncertainty is actually a signal that we’re learning.

So I want to suggest another shift forward...in semantics, something I really like to talk about because I think there’s power in purposeful messaging.  For example, in this post I wrote about education’s newly minted love for “failure” needing to use the word “struggle” instead.  I also changed my own messaging after reading a post from @swpax on using “vigor” instead of “rigor.”   
So, I want to think about a new message...a new tag-line that’ll express our (certainly mine) interest in focusing significantly more on the lengthy process of learning than on short moments that prove our abilities.  Once we stop haggling over who writes the outcomes or standards, we’ll realize that 1) they aren’t actually changing all that much (e.g. reading, speaking and writing is still reading and writing.  In fact, read this post about Indiana’s dropping the Common Core) and 2) we can’t expect anyone (students, teachers and otherwise) to meet those standards without the right culture and processes.  I wish PBL didn’t already mean so much to so many because “Process-Based Learning” is what I’m striving for.  In my opinion, focusing on the process of learning would positively affect everything we do.  We, after all, spend 98% of time going through the process of learning, whether it’s a good faulty process, and the assessment (time proving our abilities) at the end is just so quick.  

A culture driven by the learning process would include a class that helps students understand where they are on a particular learning journey so that they’re aware of what they’ve accomplished and what’s next to be learned.  I got my own kids’ “standards-based report cards” yesterday and learned that they’re “excelling at the standards” in almost all areas.  That’s great, but there are months left in the year.  Now, my question is “What’s next in the process?” I also realized that there are some habits my kids need.  These might show up as only “meeting” or “approaching” the standards, but they instead ought to have been organically included in “the process” of learning within the path toward the standard.  Why am I being told about this struggle now instead of hearing that my kids have been working harder on certain things before now? Because the school - and all of our schools - are spending more energy on where we want to go instead of how we’re going to get there.  

It’s a curriculum process that leads a teacher to know (s)he needs to teach students how to use word processors and internet databases before assigning a research project because those - and many more things - are necessary parts of the process that must take place before “meeting the standard” can ever be a reality.

It’s essentially analogous to “showing your work” in math class.  If we were nailing all of the answers to modern students’ needs, I’d say that maybe this is overboard. Since we’re far from it, though, we need to be more transparent about where our issues are...somewhere in the process.  

It’s a society that says wanting all students to meet high expectations is only selling public relations bullet points unless there’s a viable plan that changes the methods and resources we access as means of getting everyone there.

If I think back about first reading Garnet’s posts and finding out that she loved the idea of standards-based grading, I have to wonder how her blog might currently read differently if she evaluated herself by outcomes instead of allowed herself to grab onto process and grow over time.  I want us to follow this model and own not only that growth mindset, but truly shift our focus beyond the standards to adapt the laser focus on what it takes to reach them.

As good as standards-based learning is, as much of an improvement as it represents, I think we can do even better.

Am I missing something?  Taking something too far or too seriously?  Making no sense at all? I’d love your feedback.


  1. Hi, David. You really have me thinking here. I love how changing the words of the title shifts the focus from the outcomes to the process. How are we going to learn this? Great post. Thanks for challenging my thinking. Again. Well Done.

  2. I hope we will learn it the same way as everything. If we're working to understand students' needs and planning classes in a way that helps them move forward it all works. The harder part is going to be changing the connected paradigms, including achievement's reign as our top concern and the notion that "they" need to get on board with "our" lessons. Thanks for the feedback, Jim

  3. Hey David! I enjoyed reading this post & agree completely about Process-Based Learning. I think that one of the keys to that in my classroom is the art of the mini-lesson. Stolen from Writer's Workshop, mini-lessons have become ways that my students or I can interrupt the learning process with important, timely information needed by many. Sometimes I plan mini-lessons ahead of time, but more often opportunities for mini-lessons arise from needs that I couldn't have predicted. If we can convince teachers to create classroom environments where students are actively collaborating with each other and teachers are actively interacting with their students, there will be an increased awareness of the "process needs" of our students.

  4. I couldn't agree more, Paul. The combination of mini-lesson, inquiry and collaborative philosophies creates so many opportunities for issues to arise, struggles to ensue and learning to happen at all stages of learning. This further solidifies my belief that 6-12s running short periods throughout the day need to retool their schedule so that teachers can implement such methods. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  5. Interesting and thought-provoking post.

    Question for consideration: You quoted (paraphrased?) Garnet as saying, "we ought to embrace the discomfort of uncertainty because uncertainty is actually a signal that we’re learning." Embracing discomfort is indeed a good idea, rather than discarding it, but what about people who are absolutely certain but still have much to learn? (And yes, I count myself among them.) It's a pithy enough remark, but what of it? What next? What else?

    I have to agree with you, though, that we "are spending more energy on where we want to go instead of how we’re going to get there." Too little understanding of the neurological bases of learning, especially in the early grades, is going to set our students up, I fear, with a shaky foundation for future learning, but RttT's relentless pursuit of "higher standards, whatever the cost" is costing us far far too much IMO, not just monetarily but in terms of our students' very childhoods.

  6. Hi CrunchyMama - Great to have you in the conversation. In my admittedly limited experience, there are so many times when people come up with an "answer" to a school's or student's issue(s) instead of being willing to admit that they aren't certain and - even worse - may be out of their depth. I think this is the acceptance to which Garnet was referring. I agree that we can be certain of some things (positive relationships between students and teachers dramatically increase the likelihood that learning will happen) while realizing that there are many things out there in our field that we each need to know more about (how best to help acclimate English Language Learners and help them overcome their possible language and learning barriers).

    I also agree that teachers need a deeper background in psychology and brain research than we've been willing to admit. The junk course I was forced to take in child development won't help, but my ed school was in bed with the psych department, so no change was happening, regardless of my suggestions after graduation.