So this is officially my first blog post since the start of my adventure as a Helping Teacher. To be honest, it hasn’t been easy – I’ve pretty much gone through, internally, a multitude of significant events related to this shift in environment – from simple withdrawal (from feeding off of the excitement and energy of students) to an excruciatingly entertaining existential crisis last week. That being said, what I have learned most in the last few months on the job is that growth is a ride to be celebrated – and real rides go up, down, and all over the place (no cruise control here). Fail forward.
With my position being brand new and the redesigned curriculum and assessment being fresh on people’s minds, educators in our district really wanted to get a grasp of 1) What is this fellow with great hair all about? and 2) What’s the deal with this shift from reporting to communicating student learning and what is being explored? Not being a fan of simply transmitting the answers to the questions (that’s Google or Wolfram’s [<— You have to check this out] job) I decided to tell some stories, ask some questions, and unpack some itchy queries from the field for our secondary principals. As requested by a handful of them, here is a transcript and slides. Enjoy.
In preparation for this quick introduction for you all today, I thought back to the many interactions I’ve had with my colleagues so far in my position as a Helping Teacher. My intention today is to give you all an overview of my observations and conversations with school groups so far since I started my journey supporting teachers in their shift towards Communicating Student Learning at the Secondary level. I’ve had the opportunity to get a general glimpse into what groups of teachers are exploring at their schools when it comes to conceptualizing the connections between assessment, evaluation, reporting and the redesigned curriculum.
As teachers and I navigate first and foremost the redesigned structure of the curriculum and then the instructional implications and redesigned assessment, I notice a natural urgency to jump to what reporting would look like, what the reporting order would be from the Ministry, what we would need to do to check off the reporting box. When it came down to it we were asking this: what would the final product look like? In many cases the mysteries of the reporting order clouded the willingness to step back and see the bigger picture…
…that with the redesigned curriculum comes a redesign of thinking around instruction, assessment, and ultimately, what counts.
As Ewan McIntosh states, “there is a [gap] between what schools say counts – increasing children’s creativity, responsible citizenship, confident learners, workers and entrepreneurs-to-be (and for us in BC specifically – communication, thinking, personal and social competencies) – and what appears to count in the end: passing the test and meeting the demands of today [rather than meeting the needs of tomorrow and the future]. My experience as a secondary student in the 21st century, in British Columbia, revealed to me what counted – the best test marks, the best homework and assignments, the best products – best work. This became my habitus and part of my identity, as it is for most of us, the culmination of 13 years of compulsory schooling. But as we realize that the only constant is change, and our strong experiences and messages from the field shape our understandings of what should be done for student success, we start to wonder…
…how do we “remove the pressure to descend to the lowest common denominator [and move forward]?”
As my colleagues and I consider the restructuring of the curriculum – the connections among knowing (content), doing (curricular competencies), and understanding (big ideas), we have started to see the need for not only a redesigned toolset, as I’ll describe with our shift towards and within digital portfolios, but also a redesigned mindset…
…where connectivity, innovation, and learning is perceived as much more than a one-time event; rather, we consider learning over time, a series of experiences that elicit meaningful conversations, observations, and products. With the foundation of assessment-for-learning as an ongoing practice, I’m working with teachers to start thinking about what tools and skills they are interested in exploring (and requiring) to honour and track learning as a journey rather a series of evaluations to grade, marks to average, and report.
In framing the shift from reporting to communicating student learning, we consider the ministry guidelines around the interconnectedness of curriculum and assessment and the role of assessment to bring ongoing and genuine coherence to learning experiences.
During my Communicating Student Learning sessions, I ask teachers to approach the shift towards communicating student learning by first looking beyond the summative report, considering spontaneous and valuable conversations, observations, and products as being evidence of learning rather than relying solely on planned evaluations to enter into a gradebook, weight, average, and report. From this conversation we start to explore how capturing meaningful pieces of evidence at key moments of students’ learning journeys, tied to clear learning standards, can create meaningful portfolios for conferencing towards a summative report or grade. We scrutinize the impact an open-door policy (be it physical or digital) for families can have on a students’ learning.
One of the tools that secondary teachers are using to explore communicating student learning is the web-based tool FreshGrade, with which the district has a working partnership and managed accounts (meaning we have input into the development process and MyEdBC class data is synchronized with classes on FreshGrade).
To align the redesigned curriculum framework with technology tools such as FreshGrade we are taking advantage of the portfolio tool on the platform to track students’ learning journeys. This shift towards focusing on Freshgrade’s portfolio tool has been a multi-year process.
For me and many of my colleagues, it started from using FreshGrade as a digital substitution for a gradebook, essentially an Integrade Pro Scrapbook. For example, this leg of my journey using FreshGrade was heavily focused on the gradebook tool to collect assignments and grade events with little focus on a students’ progress of learning standards over time.
As we approached the redesigned curriculum, one initial shift was organizing portfolios to track big ideas and content-based curricular competencies. However, this decision turned out to be fairly impractical, as the segregation of the three components didn’t reflect classroom instruction, which connected the curriculum model components into highly integrated learning experiences. What we really wanted to focus on was the connections among big ideas, curricular competencies, and content.
My current work with teachers has been to explore Freshgrade as a portfolio tool to connect the three components of the curriculum model together using themes or essential questions. Each theme or essential question represents groupings of learning standards and big ideas explored. As teachers design tasks and experiences for students using big ideas, curricular competencies and embedding content, they reveal this learning standard planning process to their students, asking their students to comment and upload pieces of evidence, reflecting on relevant competencies and setting goals for tracking and improvement for the future.
Likewise, as students journey through the carefully crafted learning experiences, meaningful activities, and relevant field studies, they are given the authority to own their learning, with deep conversations with teachers around what meaningful artefacts and reflections look like, co-curating a clear progression of learning on their portfolios.
The journey for our school communities towards communicating student learning is fluid, self-motivated, and gradual. As many of our schools dive into the concept of communicating student learning as being much more than posting marks on a regular basis and rather a shift of mindset, we move forward when supporting teachers and schools where they want to be with designs and practices.
This brings me to a question that I have received on multiple occasions, and a question that keeps coming back into my consciousness whether I like it or not:
Hey Joe, what’s your mandate?
In accordance with the methodologies of the redesigned curriculum, let’s investigate the intentions of this question:
A question of order, a question of authority, a question of direction. As a junior teacher stepping into a helping teacher role, I was honestly stumped by the metamessages behind the question but also how to approach it – how would we sum up our work, and the collective work over years and decades, in one sentence or even a paragraph? How would any of us sum up our work in this way and fully communicate everything from our visions, beliefs, to strategies?
To me, thinking about my journey building human capacity through the context of communicating student learning to meet the needs of our learners as a mandate, an official order, or a policy, is impossible and impractical when honouring the learning process for our adult learners and my colleagues. To consider myself an all-knowing authority for the redesigned curriculum, communicating student learning, or change for that matter, is not my intention nor would it be my direction.
In my sessions so far, a teachers’ experiences are considered the origin of future interactions – where are we now? What multitude of experiences, habits, and emotions come into play when navigating the structural shifts of the redesigned curriculum and assessment? Where do we want to be? Similarly, teachers access the redesigned curriculum and assessment from many different entry points, with many different questions and needs for success, and with many different possibilities and visions – so does it makes sense to have a one-size fits all approach for their learning? One event to learn it all? One mandate to rule them all? In order to move forward, what do we need to let go of?
I would like us all to think about some of the similarities between the professional learning that is happening with the redesigned curriculum and redesigned assessment, and the process of learning for our students. Is making the shift from reporting to communicating student learning as simple as ticking off check boxes to say we’ve been trained and we’re doing it? Or is it working with colleagues, growing together as learners, and personally owning our learning for the future while giving others the opportunities to do the same? Essentially, how can we support each other with the redesigned curriculum and assessment, but also allow each other the privilege of celebrating our own realizations?