Thursday, March 3, 2016

What if ...

What if we helped our students develop a growth mindset and taught them metacognitive skills to transition them into more enlightened and productive learners. We may be mistaking complacency and "laziness" for the lack of learning and study skills.

What if skills such as critical thinking, collaboration across platforms, communication, and creative problem solving are embedded in the learning process for all students? We know that inquiry based learning and problem/project based learning not only embed these skills but also engage the learning process towards more authentic and deeper learning.

What if the ideas of standards based learning and assessment are correctly used to focus on learning, feedback and continuous improvement? Students need to learn how to take charge of their own learning. Standards based assessments help identify shortcomings and encourage relearning opportunities.

What if social emotional or life skill issues do not muddy the academic grade but are given their rightful place as important non-academic outcomes that are reported separately? Students do not need to have their academic assessment diluted by behavior or habits. They however do need to learn to develop those good social, emotional and work habit skills for their educational and life journeys.

What if schools stopped linking learning to Carnegie units? We are told that technology is breaking down the classroom walls, implying that student learning is no longer dependent upon what is presented in the classroom. We talk of students taking charge of their own learning and progressing at their own pace, no longer bounded by time or space. In this context, the Carnegie unit is an unhelpful anachronism.

What if students were allowed to manage their own learning and able to use competency assessments to progress through a chosen learning path? Would this not be better than seat time linked to semester or year-long courses? Would this not be more in tune with the needs of individual students?

What if we simply stopped pouring new wine into old wine skins?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Sample Retake Policy

As schools continue to manage the continuous process of learning in a standards based environment, the option of retakes on summative assessments will present itself as an important and valid process step. The following is an initial policy guideline that may help such a transition. The policy instrument below was the result of a school's collaborative effort across learning disciplines. As all school communities may be at different places in this process, the policy below could be adapted without losing the focus for a responsible and manageable learning process for the student.

Criteria for Retakes
  1. A student who does not attain proficiency on a Summative Assessment is expected to take the initiative to apply for a retake.
  2. The common Application for a Retake should be completed by the student, signed by student and parent and returned to the examining teacher no more than two (2) school days after the teacher has returned the graded Summative Assessment to the student.
  3. On the Application for a Retake the student will identify the deficient standards/topics and include a clear learning plan and timeline to close the learning gap.

Limitations and Deadlines
  1. Only one retake will be allowed per Summative.
  2. All Formative Assessments must be completed prior to applying for a retake.
  3. The retake for any Summative in a unit must be completed before the date of the first Summative of the following unit.
  4. Semester exams and extended projects with ongoing feedback and clear completion deadlines do not qualify for retakes.
  5. Proficiency is the goal on a retake.
  6. The student will forfeit the retake opportunity if either the scheduled retake date or a scheduled teacher required tutoring session is missed.

Teacher Facilitations
  1. Teachers will group Summative Assessments around specific learning standards to help the student identify deficiencies and plan a successful retake.
  2. Teachers will post retake dates when the Summative Assessments are returned.
  3. The retake will only assess the deficient standards, allowing the student to focus on closing the learning gap and improving the Assessment score.
  4. Teachers may require that a student complete all missing assignments correlated to the deficiencies before the retake is administered.
  5. Teachers have discretion over the format of the retake Assessment which may be oral, written, online or project based.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Transitioning to Criterion/Standards Based Assessments

Here are some steps a High School can take when transitioning from a traditional grading system (based on the accumulation of points) to a criterion or Standards system (based on levels of achievement). These steps do not necessitate changing the way a school reports letter grades and corresponding GPA calculations to colleges.

  1. Remove all non-academic attributes from grades (e.g. behavior, tardy penalties, etc). These attributes while important, may be reported separately. Just this one step brings the academic grade closer to a true representation of what a student actually knows, understands and is able to do.
  2. Design a course as units of instruction with each unit focussed around a manageable cluster of related standards or learning objectives. The Understanding by Design framework from the work of Wiggins and McTighe can facilitate this process.
  3. Encourage teachers to write the assessments for evidence of learning when planning the course. In other words, once course and unit standards/objectives have been identified, design the semester exam around the key standards/objectives of the course. Then backward design the unit summative assessments. Thirdly, design the important formative assessments that come before each unit summative that will provide learning/progress feedback to help the students master the standards/objectives. This process of properly aligning formatives to summatives and end of semester assessments, helps students see their learning progression and provides clear and important feedback along the way.
  4. During the early days of transition, when students are getting used to the emphasis on the learning rather than the grade, include formative assessments into the grading mix. Some schools have used an 80-20 mix (80% of the grade from summatives and the remaining 20% from formatives).
  5. Introduce a retake policy for students who do not meet proficiency on a summative. Give a student at least one more opportunity to prove proficiency. Place the onus on the student to go through the necessary policy steps to apply for the retake in a timely manner.
  6. If semester exams (in step 3) truly reflect evidence of course proficiency, they could count for more than just part of the semester grade (traditionally 20%). Here is an idea which can be supported by the philosophy of criterion or standards based learning: A student whose semester exam result is at least one letter grade above the pre-exam grade, will improve his course achievement level by one letter grade. E.g. A student who goes into the semester exam with a C and receives an A on the semester exam will earn a semester grade of B.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

We Evolve through the Messiness of Engagement

In the Bible, the Book of Genesis tells the creation story from two traditions.

In the first tradition (Gn 1 - 2.3), we witness the smooth flow of God's creative Word: (1) Day and night; (2) The sky; (3) The land and the sea and the variety of vegetation and fruit trees; (4) The sun, the moon and the stars; (5) The creatures of the sea and sky; (6) The creatures of the land and man. At the end of the sixth day God saw all that He had made and found it very good.

The second tradition (Gn 2.3 - 3) appears a little more messy and disjointed.  It does not have the orderly and sequential flow of the first tradition. We read that God forms man from the dust of the ground and blows life into his nostrils. He places man in a garden and gives him a multitude of trees that are good to look at and to eat from. In the garden He also places the tree of Life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He gives man the freedom to eat the fruit of any of the trees but warns him not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then, God realizes that the man is alone and needs a helper. He creates the birds and the animals and brings them to the man to name but none appear to be a suitable helper. God then puts the man in a deep sleep, removes one of his ribs and forms woman out of it. Then comes temptation, the eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the introduction of sin and suffering.

Upon reflection, the first tradition reveals God's mind and will for the good of creation. The second places man at the center of the story and we see the tension between the free will God bestows on His creation and His will for good. Perhaps the second story of creation is a foreshadowing of all our stories - that we evolve through the messiness of that engaging and testing of wills, until we allow ours to be redeemed by His and we are able to share and live His vision of creation as very good.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year Resolutions

Today is the first day of 2015 and tradition calls for the making of resolutions. I have found over the years that specific or particular resolutions tend to fall by the wayside unless they are knowingly linked to some bigger basic need. So, I offer 3 worthy considerations to satisfy each of the needs of our Mind, Body and Spirit in this New Year.

  1. Read every day. Never be without a book you are reading. Pick up a new one when you are done. Reading is much more cognitively stimulating that watching TV or listening to the radio.
  2. Keep and write in a journal. Take 5 minutes each night before going to bed to write about one or two highlights of your day, a short reflection, some "aha" moment that presented itself, or something you learned.
  3. Filter your thoughts and stretch your thinking. Your brain is a muscle that needs good stimulation - be continuously learning and improving. Learning is satisfying. Take up a new and interesting hobby. With time and effort you can learn anything. 

  1. Exercise regularly. Start with something you know you can accomplish regularly, like taking a 30 minute walk every day. Try doing some body resistance exercises (pushups, sit ups, squats) three times a week. Start small and work up as your strength increases. Regular exercise is good for the mind, body and spirit.
  2. Have enough sleep each day to recreate your mind, body and spirit. 
  3. Eat balanced, moderate and regular meals. Cut out excess sugars, sodas and comfort foods. Include a variety of vegetables in your diet. Try a vegetable and fruit shake with protein powder in the mornings. They are fast and easy to make and energizing. Make water your drink of choice.


  1. Take ten minutes at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day to pray, reflect or meditate. If this is new to you, begin with short inspirational readings, prayers or spiritual reflections written by others. 
  2. Develop the habit of being thankful. Give thanks for being alive, your family, your friends, your job, and for the good you have or have experienced. Share your blessings by supporting a charity or contributing your time to a meaningful cause.
  3. Your relational interactions can either nourish or sap your spirit. Remember the Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Make amends or say you are sorry when you have done something wrong. Focus on the good in people. Don't sweat the small stuff. Do something for someone very day. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Collaborating – Sharing – Learning

In the early nineties, Roland Barth wrote about the power of school improvement through teacher collaboration in his book Improving Schools from Within. He placed teachers in one of three groups when describing the initial resistance to collaboration. It may be useful to personally reflect on these group descriptions and place where one personally stands now, how one has moved, and the possibilities yet to come.

(1)  Teachers who are unable and unwilling to critically examine their teaching practice and unable to have other adults – teachers, principals, parents – examine what and how they are teaching …

(2)  Teachers who are quite able and willing to continually scrutinize and reflect on what they do and make use of their insights to effect periodic change. They plan tomorrow on the basis of how things went today. But these teachers are uncomfortable accepting examination of their practice by other adults …

(3)  A small number of teachers who are able and willing to critically scrutinize their practice and are quite able and willing, even desirous, of making their practice accessible to other adults …
                                                                                                            Barth, 1990, p.53 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Global Survival Skills

Our children today live in an environment, which demands educational experiences to help them cope and succeed in a rapidly challenging global society. This in turn demands that as educators, we examine and tend to the practical ends and means of their educational experience. Harvard professor and researcher Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap questions whether conventional curriculums in the United States pay sufficient attention to what other researchers have named 21st. Century skills. He posits seven “survival” skills that our children will need in order to engage, succeed and excel in their future environments.

1. Critical Thinking & Problem Solving
2. Collaboration (including across networks) and leadership by influence rather than authority
3. Agility & Adaptability
4. Initiative & Entrepreneurialism
5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
6. Accessing & Analyzing Information
7. Curiosity & Imagination

In his research Wagner gives examples of countries that understand the importance of education to their social and economic futures. One example is Singapore, whose educational motto is: Thinking Schools, Learning Nation. To quote from Singapore’s Education Reform Movement: Thinking Schools will be learning organizations in every sense, constantly challenging assumptions, and seeking better ways of doing things through participation, creativity and innovation. Thinking schools will be the cradle of thinking students as well as thinking adults and this spirit of learning should accompany our students even after they leave school.

This is the kind of learning community we should be developing in our schools: where teachers engage in collaborative and reflective learning and in turn provide learning opportunities through teaming and collaboration in the classroom; where questions are asked and welcomed and used to influence, reason and promote thinking and deep understandings; where teachers and children are both encouraged, supported, empowered and motivated to be the best they can be.