Monday, June 22, 2009

Chapter 3: What Really Matters in Learning? (Content)

As a note, each chapter poses several questions. Please do not feel obligated to answer each question by number; rather, use them as a guide for you to respond to the reading and share your thinking about the ideas in the book.

1. To what degree do you feel most teachers in your school or district regularly reflect on what knowledge is truly essential and enduring in their content? What would most effectively guide teachers in finding answers to this question? What likely impedes teachers' movement in this direction?

2. The authors make a case that backward design helps teachers avoid the twin sins of activity-based planning and planning for coverage. In what ways does backward design help educators avoid those pitfalls? What benefits should students derive from backward design?

3. Where is backward design naturally in use in your school? What changes in planning practices (by individual teachers and teams) are suggested by backward design?

4. What is the role of content standards in UbD? In what ways does that role differ from the role of standards in classrooms that don't use a UbD-type approach to planning curriculum?

5. Can we teach to standards and still be responsive to learners (standards without standardization)? Why might teachers perceive a conflict between standards-based teaching and differentiation? Based on information in this chapter (capsuled in Figure 3.3), why are standards and differentiation compatible and not in conflict?


BigSal said...

More and more, teachers at Powell and throughout District 6 are fine-tuning old and new lessons to get at what is truly essential and enduring in their content areas. Departments are having more conversations both horizontally and vertically, district and state requirements continue to guide our thinking, and we are not such "slaves to the text" anymore. However, I would really like to see top-down communication or even non-chronological communication someday: top-down = workplace to colleges to high schools to middle schools to elementary schools to pre-schools; non-chronological = college to middle school, high school to elementary school, workplce to high school, etc. Some impediments to moving toward the essential and enduring could be too much "required" material/skill to cover, too many resources without a logical plan, or not enough time to plan, whether alone or with others.
As middle school teachers, we have been instructed/required to provide age-appropriate "activities" to engage students. Also ever-present have been the "absolutes" of the curriculum as mandated by the district. Therefore, those twin sins reside somewhere nearby in our minds even now as we sculpt our lessons. As long as the overarching goals of the unit or lesson are significant, "activities" as described in the chapter can be one of several appropriate ways to both instruct and assess. As for coverage, leaning on the text for all lessons is passe. Again, the text should be utilized as one of many resources for instruction and evaluation. It's a matter of shifting paradigms. The benefit of backward design is responsive teaching: Keeping the Big Goal in sight, teachers pay attention to individual needs in order to maximize learning. Students feel more comfortable, successful, and valued.
Backward design has already been in place in many areas that I've seen. Our librarian helps us pull research units together in advance. It is also happening in literature units and for advanced writing expectations (from all students). Further improvements can be made if teachers always keep an eye on standards, slow down, create essential questions, and review what's strong from previous years and current best practices.
Content standards provide the WHAT and WHEN, while UbD provides the HOW, WHO, and WHEN. Teachers who use content standards exclusively without regard to UbD probably offer generic instruction: 1-2 teaching styles that never stray out of the comfort zone.
We can teach to standards without standardization because of the 3-stage unit planning guide which allows for differentiation while adhering to content standards.
One conflict would be in the form of teachers who ignore the variables in a student's life that require differentiation.
After teachers have established Stage 1, which really should not allow for differentiation since the crucial content standards and essential questions are important for all kids, any perceived "conflict" drifts away: A teacher may frequently see that a variety of "performances of understanding" would be wise, fair, and fun in Stage 2. And Stage 3 represents the realization of DI.

Chelsea said...

It takes a considerable amount of time and communication to reflect on essential knowledge, skills, and understanding for our students. Fortunately, our district provides us with content it feels is essential for our students to know at each level. Many districts do not have this resource. However, part of the process is to become familiar with the materials we use to deliver the concepts and practice skills. As a community of teachers we also need to sift through the materials and decide which portions will meaningfully cover the essentials and how we will deliver those concepts that are not covered within the materials. Reflecting on what is essential and enduring should be done as a school and district community. I feel our school and district are moving closer to this type of model. The lack of time to discuss and plan with other teachers is what hinders teachers from being effective in the classroom. I believe a true PLC is a team of teachers working together to accomplish what Tomlinson and Mctighe show us in DI and UbD, not just to create common assessments.
When we create and plan activities that allow students to explore and experience the content we have delivered the content, but we must ensure students make meaningful and lasting connections. If the students do not connect the knowledge and expereince gained from the activity to what is meaningful and enduring in the curriculum, we must make sure to support those connections along the way, if not teaching them explicitly by a certain point in their educational process.
It is also easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of content needed to be "covered" in a year, as well as back fill skills and knowledge students haven't retained from the previous years. However, when we focus on the essentials the other concepts and skills will gradually fall into place.
When I take the time to reflect on upcoming assessments in a unit I am more focused in my instruction and questioning of the students' thinking. Backwards design fosters focused, goal-oriented, and meaningful instruction.
Content standards are the basis for choosing and deciphering what content students need. In teaching the content standards, teachers may interpret the vaguely stated ones in a variety of ways, and in turn, teach a variety of concepts and skill. This does not follow the premise of standards, where all student learn and understand the same content. When standards are stated too specifically they do not encourage us to draw connections between curricula; we end up compartmentalizing the content without seeing the big picture.
Teachers may become frustrated by the cognitive expectations of standards, especailly for reluctant learners or students with lower cognitive abilites. The main idea of standards can be perceived as something "all kids must know and be able to do." Wheras, differentiation is a practice with the premise that no two students learn the same way, and may have different interests. When differentiating, teachers can feel they are juggling too many students, keeping them all up in the air, as they try to raise them to a standard level of understanding. However, at different points in the planning, instructional, and assessment processes we are able to vary the expectations, delivery, activities, and forms of assessments to ensure all students attain at least the essentials if not higher.

Wallis said...

My first thought was: who the heck uses a word like “ameliorating”? I mean, I like big words as much as anyone. Heck, I will go out of my way to drop some phatty words in contentious interactions with parents; they can give you power as the other then needs to pause and think what the heck I just said. Yet, I have never seen, nor heard of “ameliorate”. Guess I’ll be dropping that one on my first upset 7th grade parent, though it will likely not ameliorate my image in their mind. 
The lead statistic about Marzano and Kendall’s study isn’t surprising to me. Nine more years of schooling to cover all the vital standards and benchmarks, huh? This really speaks volumes to the need for a fresh look at what we are expecting EVERY student to learn. “When content is reduced to a series of “factlets” and assessments are built upon decontextualized items, teachers are faced with laundry lists to cover without a sense of priority.” Consider the 8th grade science CSAP and the fact that it covers 3 YEARS worth of abstract, difficult, often unrelated science content information “factlets”.
Kathy Dinmore, my esteemed colleague this past year, really made me pause and consider this idea with respect to science. She advocated worrying less about facts and more about process of helping the kids learn to think scientifically, logically, and critically. They will be far better prepared to conceptualize the specific facts once they have a schema for how and why things are they way they are. This merely requires us to re-examine the standards and “unpack” them as the authors say.
So, do we do enough work on what exactly is essential? Well, work yes. I feel we’ve all worked tirelessly with this as part of our PLC’s. However, I feel the process was hijacked the last two years by school-wide goals that didn’t respect or really factor the differences in our subject matter. Meaning that even though writing is an essential skill, science writing is less of a priority than developing the thinking that would produce such writings to begin with. What’s more, the time involved in designing, administering, and assessing these assessments severely detracted from the time I had to create and implement lessons to foster and build thinking skills. Plus, I feel like I had no time to use or analyze the data before I had to work on collecting the next set of data again. Whoops, I am venting now. Anyway, we could improve by allowing each department to consider their own main goal based on their own tests results, not arbitrarily cram us all into one CSAP writing focus.

Wallis said...
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Wallis said...

I love the idea of backwards design! Really this is Ed. 101, but I certainly have gotten away from it. Not that I have silly activities just to have the kids do a lab or follow a textbook religiously. Rather, I seem to fall into a pattern of planning only a week (or even a day) in advance. I tell myself this is due to all the crazy, random things that interfere with our 45 minute time periods. Really, it is just easier and allows me flexibility to run with teachable moments. I love to get distracted with cool ideas that are related to our topic, but not really our topic. I likely waste lots of time with nice to know information and overly dramatic, humorous metaphors and connections to explain concepts. Instead, I could spend this time with inquiry based activities to have the kids discover the ideas on their own. I could also greatly improve the efficiency of my time management and help kids achieve far deeper understanding of my content material.
So, how does UbD fit in with our standards? After I read this last chapter, I feel I need to go back and review them all with a fresh eye. Yesterday, I think I would have been able to give a solid answer. Yet, today after more critical thinking, I realize that I haven’t really thought about this in too long! This leads naturally to the last question Charlie and Amy posed for us. I do not think that differentiation has to conflict with standards. We do want to set up clear expectations of what every child leaving a particular grade should have with respect to knowledge and skills. However, the reality is that some will always be ahead or behind. That doesn’t make having a list of standards wrong, we just need to realize some students will be ready for extension on these where as others will still be working on the base from which to grow to them. What will we do when kids are above or behind grade level expectations is a great and vital question. I see no conflict if we still have a great and clear sense of where we are trying to get the students at. It is merely the charge of our job as professional educators to bridge the gap for some and raise the bar for others. In either case, we still must know where they are going. I, for one, am really going to focus less on them memorizing facts, and more on building opportunities for them to realize the concepts themselves and create their own learning. I can then just clean up misconceptions where needed.
Buzz words make it all sound so easy! Yeah, buzz words! Boo, actual implementation! Boo, reality of fire drills, music performances, assemblies, every other week standardized tests, student apathy, my sanity and family/personal life, 35 emails per day, and 45 minute time periods! 

K Blake said...

In reading the responses from the other members of this blog, I was particularly struck by two statements. I appreciated Chelsea’s statement that a true PLC works towards more than simply common assessments. I further connected with Wally’s praise of Kathy Dinmore and her drive toward quality, meaningful, essential learning. I feel that over the past 5 years, I was a part of a PLC that Chelsea described and I would like to expand the praise that Wally gave to Kathy to include my colleagues in the 6th grade science department, Stacy Miller and Allison Brenzikofer. While I believe that the science department as a whole is at a distinct disadvantage because the district (or a curriculum development team) has not given us a district wide set of ELOs, I also believe that Powell’s science department has worked truly effectively in a drive toward creating our own set of ELOs and the department had numerous discussions about how these ELOs translate across the grade levels.

As a 6th grade science team, we met twice a week. Each time we met, we planned our lessons for the coming week. Allison, Stacy, and I are very different people with different teaching styles. However, we became a truly effective PLC by continuously going back to the question of what was the essential and how were we going to give the students the opportunity to show us that they actually learned (not just regurgitate) each essential. I know we used the ideas of backward design fluidly, and while we were not perfect, it did help us avoid the “twin sins”. Our lessons became much less fluff and more application of the knowledge. I consider myself lucky to have been part of such a team.