Standards, learning targets, and scales

I’ve been reading through Jason Buell’s posts on how he actually implements sbg and Frank Noschese’s post (and helpful docs!) along with all the goodness on the sbg-gala. They are very helpful! Here is what I’ve been doing this week:

task thoughts on the task
Match my state standards to my curriculum (modeling physics). This helped me see the bigger picture (and made sure I could justify my approach to anyone who wondered  what, exactly, I am doing)
Create learning targets for each unit. These sort of line up with the old “students will know” and “students will be able to”. In my case, I asked a more experienced modeling/sbg-ing colleague for his learning targets. This is a big step for me. I tend to be a reinvent-the-wheel type; I need to break this habit to be a sustainable and effective teacher.
Organize the learning targets into the learning sequence (basics like vocabulary or simple calculations, then more complex calculations and inferences/applications, then pulling-it-all-together). This step took me a while to understand. I was getting confused about where the scaling score gets applied–I was thinking students get a score of 1-4 (or whatever I choose) on each learning target, but then I realized that looking at which learning targets have been met are what allow me to give the student a score for the unit. I think. This is what I’m understanding from Noschese’s yes/no system.
Finalize my scaling score. I plan to use a 1-4 system. I can already feel the urge to add more levels, but the more I add the more confusing I find it to apply to actual student work. It’s like assigning quarter points on the old grading scheme–there’s just no way that’s going to end well once I go down that road. I am still deciding on some of the details (0-based?).
Write my assessments. In this case, this means tweaking the modeling assessments to make sure they align with my standards (and that I can communicate that alignment).

I am just working on the first two units right now. I can see this is going to be a “just in time” year of teaching. I’m sure that’s always true for a first year teacher, which is part of why I am jumping into this right now. This year is going to be crazy and bumpy and filled with “learning opportunities” (mistakes) no matter what approach I choose, so I might as well pick something I agree with philosophically and which I can defend. I also find that when I think about sbg, I get really excited and motivated to work, whereas when I was trying to come up with a “grading point system” earlier this summer, I could feel my energy draining away from me. No sense swimming upstream by doing something that my inner compass hates. And there’s also no sense using a system I know I’m going to discard soon–why create bad habits I’ll only need to break later?

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Why I am doing standards based grading

Why am I leaping into the deep end? Because I cannot resist. My student teaching experience was very enlightening. There were some good things (my awesome students) and some tiresome things (class sizes ranging from 39 to 46 in a room built for 25, no lab benches, 07:30 school starting time). For a variety of reasons, I felt compelled to stick to the same instructional and grading approach used by my coop, partly because they were pretty much exactly what I’d experienced throughout my own education. “Teaching” physics meant a lot of lecture, some gee-whiz demos, and some cookbook labs. Assessment meant homework, pop quizzes (which I think I hated more than my students did), lab worksheets, and unit tests.

And it all felt like a giant farce. The emperor’s new clothes. We all knew there wasn’t much learning going on, but nobody seemed to know an easy way to fix it, so we all just pretended we were doing the best we could. I felt dirty about it, but I didn’t know what to do. I was trapped under a mountain of grading (I had 205 students total), the textbook came with these handy powerpoint files, and it was just so easy to keep doing it the old way.

In a lot of ways, it was an excellent learning experience for me as a novice teacher. I yammered at my students, who sat there quiet as lambs, actually taking notes (for the most part). They did the homework (more or less), they bumbled their way through the labs, and then a disturbing percentage of them failed the unit test. Obviously I’m generalizing, and I certainly had students who cut class and talked during class and didn’t take notes, and I had others who got 110% on each test. But it was pretty clear to me that they were doing about the most I could expect from them in the situation, and it still wasn’t working. It wasn’t even close to working.

Luckily, I am a Knowles Science Teaching Fellow. This means I get to be a part of a community of outstanding new teachers who are really committed to improving and transforming the profession of teaching. Over this summer, I started talking to other fellows about how to teach, and how to assess, and I got exposed to some new ideas and excited about ideas I’d already heard about. I started reading a bunch of blogs about standards based grading, especially Jason Buell, Matt Townsley, Frank Noschese, and Shawn Cornally. I attended a 3 week workshop on the modeling approach to teaching physics where I got to rub elbows with some inspiring physics teachers, some of whom were using sbg. And I kept talking to other Knowles Fellows.


I want a grading system that helps students learn to help themselves. I am a big fan of learning to help ourselves and learning to set and achieve goals. These are self-awareness skills that people need to be taught. Some lucky folks learn these by osmosis, at home growing up, but in my experience most of us need to be explicitly taught, at some point, how to become aware of our own progress, and how to articulate a goal and then break that goal down into manageable steps. I learned this twice; once while writing my master’s thesis and again while doing my doctorate. Now I’m really, really good at staring down huge beastly tasks, then taking them apart brick by brick.

By explicitly articulating what I want students to learn (my learning targets), and then assessing them against those, I am scaffolding their ability to set and achieve their own goals in life. As a bonus, by explicitly articulating my learning targets, I’m also improving my own instruction. Everybody knows what we’re doing, and I get to have some checks and balances to ensure that the activities I’m choosing for the class actually help us achieve the learning goals. It’s awfully easy to just fill the time with stuff (I do love the sound of my own voice…) and lose track of why I’m doing it. The entire point of teaching a class is so that my students learn something, so by making the metric of their learning (the standards) the centerpiece or anchor of the class, it makes it a lot easier to keep my eyes on the prize (student learning) rather than the medium (“my” teaching).

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The Whole Animal

During my winter at the south pole, some friends of mine were working on a multi-layered research project using a number of related instruments. In order to make the most of their time there, and the considerable expense and logistical hassle of getting and being down there to collect this data, they were milking every drop of knowledge from their dataset. They liked to compare it to using the whole animal, not just eating the choice meat and discarding the rest. Even that scrap of sinew can be used for something.

This is how I feel about teaching. I want to grapple with the whole animal, and I want to learn from everything I do. I want to keep seeing my mistakes as learning opportunities, and keep remembering that this whole endeavor is for the students. My rudder is my students’ learning, and I want everything I do to be focused on that anchor.

I am ambitious: I am starting my first teaching job in a week, but that’s no reason to shy away from doing (attempting to do) the right thing. For me, right now, that right thing has three main components:

  1. using a student centered teaching approach (modeling approach in physics, project-based learning in environmental science),
  2. using standards based grading, and
  3. establishing a climate of trust and relationship in my classroom.

I plan to use this blog to ruminate on some of these, mostly the grading and the modeling, both of which are new to me (both as a teacher and as a student), so they feel a bit strange in my mouth still. Yes, I drank the kool-aid somewhere between earning my teaching license and getting my first job. I’m going to go bite off more than I can chew, and try to digest it here.

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