Monday, March 31, 2014

Renewed Learning, Book One

Ron Berger, Leah Rugen, and Libby Woodfin, Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment

Early in this book, the authors say “Teachers frequently fall into the trap of simply saying, “try harder” without giving students specific targets, feedback, time to revise, and a purpose for doing quality work.” I know, back during my teaching days, I often fell into that trap. Since I intend to resume classroom duties someday, I find this book bracing, with its new, startlingly active approach to continuous engaged assessment.

Our authors cut their teeth at Expeditionary Learning, a charter school network stressing cumulative learning, interdisciplinary evaluation, and portfolios. Expeditionary Learning schools have refined their techniques for over twenty years, building modular course approaches designed to put principal learning burdens on students while increasing their ownership of their own learning. One part of this is assessment. Their most important lesson: assessment isn’t just for culminations and report cards anymore.

Having decided to make their discoveries available to teachers and administrators outside their network, Expeditionary Learning anchors their first book to their assessment process. And what an exciting topic they make of a frequently dull activity. If your classroom experience was anything like mine, you got assessed at the end of some arbitrary interval (semester, quarter, etc.), and the letter grade felt vague and abstract. Assessment was discouraging, not supportive.

EL assessment involves approaches that, on first blush, appear consonant with existing techniques. The elucidation of clear goals and “learning targets,” for instance, superficially resembles common lesson planning. But the authors emphasize these components emerge from different roots, and pursue distinct goals. By emphasizing students rather than classrooms, this approach takes what’s traditionally the teacher’s sole responsibility, and makes everyone, students included, equally liable for outcomes.
Other components involve students understanding beforehand what teachers expect. Our authors spend an entire chapter on “Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback” (clearly, EL stresses writing as evaluative learning). Looking back, my teachers expected me to produce critical writing, and critique others’ papers, as early as seventh grade, but I never saw what critical writing should look like until graduate school. I wish I’d had this approach in my youth.

Beyond classroom organization, our authors describe techniques to engage parent and community engagement. Since many teachers report their number one problem is parental apathy, with students getting reinforcement at home that school doesn’t much matter, my many teacher friends will surely appreciate this inclusion. Though parental engagement will require time to overcome encultured apathy, EL’s time-tested techniques will provide educators with valuable shortcuts.

Our authors also spend copious time explaining how to reconcile their innovative evaluation techniques with Common Core standards, which often impede individualization. The standards, as written, are frequently opaque, and even trained teachers have difficulty making sense of them. With their specific, plain-English learning targets, EL schools can potentially address multiple Common Core targets simultaneously. This transforms Common Core’s top-down hierarchical approach into real, measurable learning outcomes for diverse communities.

Besides simply telling teachers how they ought to assess students, this book includes a DVD of EL techniques in practice. Fairly short videos, cued according to chapters in the book, provide object lessons in how EL approaches work in real classroom environments. Thus the authors don’t just lecture at their audience, as my pedagogy teacher did. We get to see how innovative, groundbreaking techniques actually work.

Though our authors aver that their approach applies at any learning level, they clearly focus on the K-12 school environment, particularly its long rolling approach to college and career preparedness. That’s not to say that creative, diligent instructors couldn’t adapt this approach to post-secondary education, skills training, or remedial and GED schooling. By applying these techniques, ideally school-wide, inventive teachers could construct an educational environment conducive to multiple learning styles.

I confess one trepidation. EL asks teachers to dedicate generous one-on-one time to students, helping them customize learning goals and evaluation. That sounds good in charter schools, which are publicly funded but nominally private. What happens, though, when these techniques hit perennially understaffed, cash-strapped public schools? (Cf. Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.) Schools will need time to experiment with workarounds for schools that have less money and time to spend.

EL has evolved over two decades of in-the-trenches use, so presumably it’ll absorb public school challenges gracefully. Though it would be a mistake to regard this book as finished and done, it offers intriguing, ambitious guidelines for creating school-wide learning cultures where students own their process and teachers serve to guide. In a school environment favoring “reform” over practice, this provides a compelling outline of truly renewed learning.

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