Assessing student learning used to be as simple as giving a test that consisted of multiple choice, True/False, short answer, and/or essay. How many answers students got right told the teacher how much they knew. No need to look further. Simply grade, record, and move on to the next chapter.
Educators have come to realize that there are lots of reasons why a test score doesn’t reflect student knowledge. Maybe the student had a bad day; maybe s/he isn’t good at memorizing (and the test was mostly memorized facts); maybe education researchers are right that doing well on tests isn’t a predictor of student success.
Tossing tests makes a teacher’s job more difficult. I’ll stipulate to that. Habits, templates, and routines are much easier than reinventing the assessment wheel but a tool that results in passionate students committed to lifelong learning gets my attention.
That’s what the next twelve options are: assessment strategies that inspire student interest and allow them to share what they know in ways compatible with their personal communication style. These can be used formatively or summatively and can be created by teachers or students-as-teachers. Decide what works best for your circumstances. The uniting characteristics are that all assess:
Over the years, I’ve struggled to teach in ways my students would understand. Standing at the front of the classroom stopped working so I researched (and tried in some cases) Whole Brain Teaching (WBT), Socratic Method, Understanding by Design, Mindfulness, and a lot more options that colleagues mentioned as helpful with their differentiated student groups. They all worked for a while and then, maybe when the novelty wore off, I was back to the same Bell curve of successes, failures, and those in between.
The same could be said of Standards and curricula adopted in my varied teaching gigs. That includes everything from Common Core to the IB philosophy, from Depth of Knowledge to Project-based Learning. I confess, I found it frustrating. Everything worked for a while and nothing worked in the long term.
That’s when I heard about John Hattie at an education conference I attended and his concept of Visible Learning. John Hattie is a teacher but more significantly, he’s an education researcher. His life’s goal is to determine what education strategies work best for the largest number of students. He engaged in a fifteen-year evaluation of over 50,000 research articles and something like 240 million students — making it the biggest evidence-based education research project ever — and discovered something no one expected and few believed: Almost any approach will work if delivered well. The one foundational element required for success is passionate, involved, committed, flexible teachers:
“The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers.”
How can that be? According to John Hattie, what he came to call “visible learning” happens when we teachers look at what we’re doing:
“Visible teaching and learning occur when there is deliberate practice aimed at attaining mastery of the goal, when there is feedback given and sought, and when there are active, passionate, and engaging people (teacher, students, peers) participating in the act of learning.
If you have challenging students in your classes, there’s a good chance someone has suggested that you look into Whole Brain Teaching (WBT). Whole Brain Teaching is an active teaching method designed to maximize student engagement in lessons, positive interactions with classmates, and educational fun. Instruction includes vocal directions mixed with hand gestures, inflections, full body movement, head motions, and chants. Studies show that this multi-sensory approach is how the brain is intended to learn and will result in a much greater probability of reaching teaching goals.
Where it might have originally been intended for challenging classes — much like Orton-Gillingham started as a multi-sensory learning system for dyslexics — WBT has matured into a strategy that works for lots of learners, even the quiet ones. It uses “model and repeat” as ways to join the right and left sides of the brain (such as the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, and the motor cortex) in student learning with the idea that if the entire brain is engaged in learning, there is nothing left over for misbehavior or distraction. For many K-12 teachers, WBT has become their primary teaching strategy.
WBT is based on four core components (called Core Four — part of a longer list of techniques):
Orton-Gillingham started over seventy years ago as an instructional approach intended for those with difficulty reading, spelling, and writing, like what children experience in dyslexia. Sometimes, teachers recognized the special needs of a reading-challenged student, but just as often, it was blamed on disinterest or lack of effort, leaving the child to conclude s/he “just wasn’t good at reading.” When those same children were taught to read using the Orton-Gillingham (O-G) approach, many felt like that child who puts glasses on for the first time and his/her entire world comes into focus.
Since then, the Orton-Gillingham Method has enabled thousands of children to access worlds opened to them by reading, something they never thought would happen. In fact, it has been so successful, O-G is being mainstreamed into the general education classroom, as a way to unlock the power of reading for more students.
Have you ever walked into a classroom where students were engaged in serious on-topic discussion, debating ideas and challenging each other to provide evidence of their statements? And when you looked around for the teacher, s/he was calmly sitting in the back, observing, taking it all in but not participating?
Chances are, you entered a classroom using a discussion method known as Socratic Debate, aka Socratic Method, Socratic Circle, or Socratic Inquiry. Many teachers try this approach when they realize lecturing doesn’t engage students anymore. Sure, class members can memorize facts but too often the critical thinking required to analyze cause and effect — say, how a specific river encouraged ancient trade — eludes them unless the teacher spells it out, telling them the “right” answer.
In a traditional classroom, asking and answering questions is stressful to many students who are afraid their answer will be wrong. This is where the student-directed, no-right-wrong-answer Socratic Method shines.
What is it
It all started with this (supposed) quote from the iconic Greek thinker, Socrates:
“Let us examine the question together, my friend, and if you can contradict anything I say, do so and I will be persuaded.”
In a perfect world, vocabulary is learned in context: The phrases and sentences around the unknown word define the meaning. If that isn’t sufficient, students use affixes — prefixes, suffixes, and roots — to decode meaning. But because the world isn’t always that pristine, Dorothy Frayer and her colleagues at the University of West Virginia came up with a vocabulary teaching tool that has come to be known as “the Frayer Model”. Now used by thousands of educators, this approach to word study relies on analyzing words rather than memorizing definitions. Somewhat like Concept Circles, the Frayer Model uses a graphical organizer that asks students to describe words by much more than a memorized definition. They must:
- define the term
- describe essential characteristics
- provide examples
- provide non-examples
Because the Frayer Model digs deeply into understanding the word, it promotes critical thinking and a granular familiarity with unfamiliar vocabulary. It draws on a student’s prior knowledge to build connections among new concepts and creates a visual reference by which students learn to compare attributes and examples.
Created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (UbD) is a lesson planning approach that visualizes the end result (what students should understand) to better select learning activities (the path that will get students there). Tens of thousands of educators use it for unit and course planning; hundreds of districts and schools use it as the basis for their curricula. Look at who has adopted UbD:
- the College Board, to guide the revision of its Advanced Placement (AP) subject matter courses and for the development of its courses AP Seminar and AP Research
- the framework for the national curriculum in the Philippines and Puerto Rico
- the state of Massachusetts, for its Race to the Top federal grant program to create more than one hundred exemplary units and associated classroom videos
- the Next Generation Arts Standards
Additionally, the two largest textbook publishers, Pearson and McGraw-Hill, use the UbD framework in many of their textbooks and programs, similar to this example from Pearson’s biology curriculum.
Students learn best when they are relaxed, happy, and feeling loved. It is challenging to include those characteristics in classes when you are concurrently trying to achieve school goals, comply with curriculum timelines, juggle parent concerns, and blend your lessons with those of colleagues.
This is where mindfulness becomes important. It reminds teachers that the fulcrum for learning is the student’s emotional well-being.
Let’s back up a moment: What is mindfulness? Buddha once said:
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
If that’s the plan, mindfulness is the path. It teaches students how to quiet themselves — get to a place where their mind is settled sufficiently to pay full attention to the task at hand. Experts offer many suggestions for incorporating mindfulness into your classroom experience. Consider:
- pause and take a deep breath before beginning an activity or in the middle of performing it
- reflect on an activity as a group
- reflect on the student’s own experiences and background and how that relates to the topic
Delving into these rudimentary steps isn’t the goal of this article (find more about that in Janelle Cox’s TeachHUB article). Today, I want to show you how to take the incorporation of mindfulness into your classes to the next level. Here are five ideas:
The norm in classrooms across the country used to be the teacher at the front lecturing, students taking notes which they then memorized for a summative test that decided their grade. Because the teacher was the expert, students learned at their feet, absorbing knowledge from the person who knew everything. In the early 1900’s, John Dewey suggested the education focus be switched to students when he introduced “learning by doing”, today referred to as Project-based Learning (PBL).
“All genuine learning comes through experience.” – John Dewey
This approach to learning has been successfully employed for more than one hundred years. Throughout modern history, PBL in the form of apprenticeships has been a valued and iconic approach to preparing children for adult jobs. Even before that, young chimpanzees learn to eat from termite mounds by mimicking what they see adults do — “learning by doing”.
What is PBL?
Project-based learning (PBL) asks teachers to act as facilitators, not lecturers, guiding students to find the necessary answers for the theme-related project they are completing. Students are no longer passive listeners who expect the teacher to have all the answers. In fact, students take charge of their own learning as they make choices about how to learn, plan how it should be done, solve their own problems, and present the results to fellow learners.
I recently got a question from a reader asking how the lessons in my K-8 curriculum supported Dr. Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge philosophy — an integral concept to her school’s mission. It got me thinking about lesson plans in general — how far we’ve come from lecture-test-move on. Now, exemplary teachers focus on blending learning into the student’s life knowledge base with the goal of building happy, productive adults. There are several concepts that address this reform in teaching (such as Art Costa’s Habits of Mind, Bloom’s Taxonomy, the Hess Cognitive Rigor Matrix, or the tech-oriented SAMR Model). Depth of Knowledge (DoK) is arguably the most thorough with its four concise levels, each supported by a collection of words that contribute to delivering content at that level. Like the SAMR Model, involvement grows with each level from a basic recall of knowledge to the ability to use that information in new circumstances.
Here are general details about Webb’s DoK:
- With Webb’s DoK chart, not only can you figure out how to teach a subject more deeply and expect students to demonstrate complex understanding, but teachers can evaluate where students are in the four-step process starting at the rote application of knowledge to its synthesization from various sources that is then transferred to other uses.
- Level One: Identify details in the text, specific facts that result in a ‘right’ answer. Tasks that require Level One thinking include words like memorize, state, and recognize.
- Level Two: Show a relationship between an idea in the text and other events. ‘How’ and ‘why’ are good questions to bump an activity into Level Two. Tasks that require Level Two thinking include words like compare, infer, and interpret.
- Level Three: Analyze and draw conclusions about the text. Support conclusions with details. Use a voice that is appropriate to the purpose, task, and audience. Tasks that require Level Three thinking include words like hypothesize, differentiate, and investigate.
- Level Four: Extend conclusions and analysis (which might be the result of Level three) to new situations. Use other sources to analyze and draw conclusions. Tasks that require Level Four thinking include words like connect, analyze, and prove.
- As Dr. Karin Hess says, DoK is not about difficulty, it’s about complexity. Level One may be difficult for some students, but it isn’t complex. They may memorize a calculus formula (which I’ll stipulate is beyond difficult), but it doesn’t represent rigorous thinking. That happens in Level Four’s application to the real world.
- For DoK’s Level One and Two, there are usually right answers. That’s not true in Levels Three and Four.There, it’s about higher-order thinking.
- DoK is not a taxonomy (like Bloom’s). Rather, it itemizes ways students interact with knowledge.
- To work at a Level Three or Four requires foundation. Show students how to accomplish Level One and Two goals first.
With that in mind, here are seven steps to transform your current lesson plan into one aligned with DoK guidelines: