If I could do only one thing to improve student learning, it would be…

I often ask colleagues this question: If you could undertake just one improvement or innovation (and ONLY ONE), what would you do? The responses are as varied as the schools in which these colleagues work. More often than not, the latest and greatest innovative idea or practice is brought forward in those responses.

Those who know me know that I am a big, big fan of innovative ideas and practice, and I strongly support approaching teaching and learning from an angle of innovation. I am loving the emerging research and resources around PBL, design-thinking, tech integration, and STEM or STEAM approaches to teaching and learning. It’s exciting stuff and in many situations the application of these ideas/approaches undoubtedly leads to improved results for kids. And so it does not surprise me one bit when I hear these innovative practices or approaches suggested as a means by which we would improve learning for our students.

Ironically, however, while I am intrigued by and involved with innovative approaches and practices, my response to the question at hand would not involve any one of the innovative practices above. Yup, I’m 100% serious, it wouldn’t! So, then, you ask… what IS my response to this?  Well….

If I could do just one thing to improve student learning, it would be to systematically embed reflective assessment into the daily classroom practice of students and adults.

So. Before I dive into talking about this, I should probably share upfront that reflective assessment was the topic of my dissertation study. Which means I am rather interested and passionate about the topic of reflective assessment, and it also means that I could probably write a long, long time about it. Instead of bowling you over with a huge post now, I’ll introduce the idea and give you a solid home-run strategy to make use of the technique in classrooms today. Later on down the road I’ll return to this topic and I’ll return to it with more details, more strategies, and more information from time to time.

What is reflective assessment? In short, reflective assessment is the practice of having students reflect on their learning on a regular basis. It is considered to be an informal formative assessment practice. There is a pile of literature that supports the use of reflective practice in student learning, and that literature goes clear back to Socrates up through Renaissance philosophers, and into the 20th century educational thought leaders including Dewey, Habermas, Vygotsky, Piaget, Stiggins and Wiggins, among many others. Reflective assessment may be a rose that is called by many other names, but at the end of the day I am talking about a regular, ongoing practice of having students intentionally reflect on their learning (both product and process) and share those thoughts with their teacher. It can be large-scale in nature, being a lesson in and of itself. It can be as simple as an exit task wherein you ask students to share their take-aways from the day’s learning.

Why do I feel reflective assessment would powerfully improve learning? Research and theory both point to the fact that reflective people are both more self-regulatory (they organize tasks and plan) and they have greater self-efficacy (they have an internal belief that they can do the task at hand)… and that those students who cultivate strong self-regulatory behavior and who hold high self-efficacy do much better than their non-regulatory, non-self-efficacious peers. If someone told you that one simple action each day could give your student a statistically significant jump on their future success, wouldn’t you do it?

Other reasons I feel that reflective assessment is a powerful tool include: the body of quantitative research continues to point to a correlation between the practice of reflective assessment strategies and improved student learning. In my study, kids who were exposed to reflective assessment for four weeks not only outperformed peers on post-tests, they retained the information better for longer. Even more powerful, students who were involved in reflective assessment activities for periods of time reported out that they enjoyed the action of reflecting on their learning. Teachers report that they gain enormous insights about the learning style of their students, as well as attaining valuable information about whether or not students “got” the lesson or learning for the day. And finally, in exit interviews for both my personal research and from research done by others, students and teachers both report a stronger sense of team spirit and stronger emotional and personal investment in themselves and their peers in their classes after experiencing reflective assessment activities over the span of several class periods. These things, among many other reasons, are why I believe reflective assessment would lead to powerful results for our kids.

What’s a simple strategy to get started? Hopefully I’ve caught your attention and have your interest on the topic of reflective assessment. So how do you get started using it in your classroom? It’s easy. A great strategy is called the “I Learned Statement” and here’s how you do it:

1. With five minutes remaining in your time with students, ask them to complete the following prompt: “Today, I learned…..” This can be done in writing on a slip of paper or it can be digitally recorded and submitted. There is no right or wrong way to complete the prompt. The only rule is that the student must keep writing for the entire time. When class is over, the teacher should collect the responses.

2. The teacher needs to review the student responses and provide feedback prior to the next class session. This can be very quick and easy by writing a plus (+) saying “super, thanks” or a question mark (?) saying “I don’t understand your reflection” or if time permits, put a supporting comment or ask a question in return to the student.

3. At the start of the next class session, spend 3 minutes sharing one or two examples that hit the mark in terms of what the teacher hopes to see.

4. Repeat as often as possible. Be patient. Initial reflections might be pedantic or off-base. With feedback and sharing, you will quickly see the quality of responses and depth of insight will get deeper and deeper.

This strategy is effective in elementary grades all the way through college. Really!

Reflective assessment rocks and it leads to improved learning outcomes for kids. Give it a try.

Closing note: In addition to having my dissertation research focus on the topic of reflective assessment, I have written several published articles on the topic over the past several years. An undoubted master of the impact and strategies for using reflective assessment is Art Ellis, professor at Seattle Pacific University. If you’d like more information about reflective assessment and/or how to make it a living practice in your classroom or school, contact me! laurynnevans@yahoo.com

How do you measure “effective teaching”? (part 1 of many to come)

Last year, I was charged with a large project for my current school comprised of 4000 students and 400 faculty: take a deep dive into the research and then craft a new evaluation system to evaluate all of our faculty. Our school was facing the same challenge as a number of schools out there: we were using a poor instrument and an even worse process that provided little substantive  feedback and which did not provide a genuine evaluation of what was going on in the classroom. Unlike many schools, however, our problem was slightly magnified because we were using a “home brew” evaluation that had gotten its start over eight years ago and which had been adjusted and tweaked and adjusted heavily along the way… and those adjustments were made with the objective of making it more efficient rather than making it more aligned to research or increase its effectiveness. There were widely varied interpretations of how the system worked and how teachers should be handled in the evaluative process. The majority of teachers were only truly evaluated once every three years. It was, to put it simply, a mess. The project I was tasked with was desperately needed (and since the project is still in process, it is still desperately needed). But when I sat down to begin thinking about how to eat this very complicated elephant, it felt like the elephant kept growing and growing in complexity rather than having that first bite becoming clearer and clearer as I mulled it over.

Over the past two years I’ve engaged in an enormous amount of professional reading, discourse with colleagues around the world, conversations with those who are “experts” in the field, and I’ve also spent hours upon hours examining what’s currently being done in a variety of schools both in the US and internationally. After all of this, I am sorry to report that in fact there is no silver bullet when it comes to teacher evaluation. There isn’t even a true definitive list of criteria of what should be examined, how evaluation should be undertaken, and how we even define “quality teaching” much less measure it. In the end, with the help of a brilliant and thoughtful colleague, I crafted a set of considerations. Because I think they could be helpful for others, I’ll share them here:

1. Evaluation goals should align to the direction of the school. Grant Wiggins recently wrote about the fact that effective evaluation systems align to what the system is focusing on in its larger work. While we all educate kids, we all go about it in very different ways. Schools should have an unapologetic culture and vision/mission about the way in which they do their work. They way in which the school evaluates its teachers really needs to line up with that vision. Most vision/mission statements have some supporting documents or strategic plan that demonstrate the “how” or “what” behind the vision. The evaluation of teachers should line up with that “how” or “what”.

2. Teacher evaluation needs to use a standards based approach. If it works for students (and it does), then it is a great way by which to measure the performance of teachers. Not only do teachers understand standards-based assessment, it is a fair and humane way by which to measure performance. Why? Because like with students, we provide the criteria and examples of successful attainment upfront. There is no guessing about what is being used as evidence, or about what constitutes good performance.

3. Multiple measures that form an evidence-based approach. Complementary to #2 above, in order to determine performance on the standards, multiple sources of evidence need to be considered, and evidence needs to be accumulated over time to cultivate a solid basis from which to form a summative determination of performance. I know the debate is raging around what multiple measures should be used. Much like the core of the system, I would contend that evidence and the weight put into certain pieces of evidence should align to the work of the school and it should make sense to stakeholders. Something else that should be considered is balancing the “burden of proof” for this evidence between the evaluator and the person being evaluated. What I mean by this is that both parties have to come to the table to produce evidence so that honest discourse on the standards can then be had prior to a summative determination.

4. Having a well crafted, standards based tool and process is important, but inter-rater reliability is EVERYTHING. Without proper training of evaluators (and providing comprehensive communication and training for those being evaluated), any evaluation system is doomed to failure. One thing we know is: teachers talk. And if there is a quantifiable or qualitative difference in the way in which teachers are treated in the evaluation process, then faith in the evaluators plunges. Prior to piloting or beginning a new process or system, evaluators need training and they need to develop a baseline of consistency in terms of scoring, procedures, process, and language. In many cases, evaluators also need training about the art and mechanics of effective conferencing and discourse on teaching and learning.

5. Transparency. This can be difficult because transparency also means total and complete honesty. And when you have an underperforming staff member, it is very, very difficult to have the crucial conversation about lapses or gaps in performance. But those conversations must be held. And teachers must be treated respectfully and with integrity in those situations. Conversely, those teachers doing well also need to be provided with quality feedback that rewards their efforts but also inspire them to push the envelope and go to the next level. Transparency also looks like being honest about the motives behind evaluation. It also involves a solid feedback loop that provides a circle of communication about evaluation, performance, and the process between evaluator and those being evaluated. This will allow the evaluation model to meet the needs of those being evaluated as well as meet the needs of the system as a whole.

6. Focus on teacher growth and development. A system that provides a strong avenue for conversations around growth and development is vital to the health of a school, and it’s vital to drive performance of teachers within the system. If the culture around evaluation is that the process or instrument is crafted to “get rid of teachers” or as a “gotcha”, the system is doomed to fail. So honestly crafting a system that is focused on continuous improvement as well as growing teachers is vital. Communicating that purpose honestly is also vital. And executing the system and process in such a way is also vital. I have found that when teachers are engaged in critical analysis of their craft, they are usually very spot-on in evaluating their performance. Focusing on continuous improvement allows those conversations to emerge. It also will help teachers self-identify when they are not a good fit for a system or when they are not meeting the expectations of the school community. A final part of this is to embed professional learning within the system as part of the evaluative process. As areas of growth surface, professional learning opportunities should be focused on those areas to push the continuous improvement loop further.

7. Attend to the “human side” of evaluation. This takes on a variety of roles, including communication of the system to teachers, ensuring the evaluators are trained in the art of difficult conversations, ensuring evaluators are objectively critical when examining evidence, ensuring teachers know the outcomes of the evaluation system, and continuous education about the purpose and intent of evaluation in the system. At the end of the day, teaching and learning is an inherently human endeavor. As such, we would be remiss to look at it as a purely technical exercise. We must take care to ensure that the people involved are informed, feel secure, and feel valued.

8. Ensure the evaluation system is actually “do-able” and employ effective technology in that pursuit. If all we had to do was craft a system that was theoretically sound, evaluation would be a piece of cake! But the reality is that the caseload of evaluators is often wieldy and enormously time-consuming. As such, using technology platforms and being creative about what kinds of evidence and how evidence is discovered are essential components to include in an evaluation system. Honest conversations with those doing the evaluating need to be held. But the focus cannot be on efficiency; it has to involve a sincere conversation about desired outcomes, intent of the system, and THEN talk about how to manage the logistical challenges. By staying rooted in theory but pragmatic in approach, an evaluation system has the chance to accomplish its ends. There are a number of incredible technology tools that help make that a reality.

9. Feedback loops and  re-examining the system. Finally, it is of paramount importance that the process be re-exmained and evaluated itself. Is the process giving the desired outcomes? Do teachers feel that they are getting valuable feedback that is growing them? Are teachers who are not a good fit figuring that out and moving on? Are professional learning opportunities correlating to the needs of teachers and aligning to areas that need improvement (both at the teacher and system levels)?  If the system is not meeting the needs of teachers and the school, then a re-assessment of criteria, evidence, and process needs to be undertaken. There is no shame in redrafting on the fly. In fact, it is vitally important so that the work of the school moves forward in a positive direction.

While I know this post did not solve the world’s problems around teacher evaluation, I hope that it gives you some good “think abouts” as you consider how to best approach teacher evaluation in your school. In the future I will share more of our current work about how we came up with the standards for assessment and evidence, and if you need or want more information, feel free to contact me.

 

Begin at the Beginning

“Begin at the beginning!” was the counsel I received when thinking about how to approach cultivating a blog to share my thoughts and reflections about learning and leading, as well as sharing my professional and personal journey of living and working in schools. The enthusiastic advice I received got me thinking… just what would count as my “beginning” when it comes to education?

I became a school administrator at the age of 29. That was definitely a new beginning and boy, did I learn a lot as a high school assistant principal… if you think the job is difficult, you should try doing it as a blond 29 year old single female. It adds a certain… twist… to the work, that’s for sure! But that job was really just continuing a journey I’d started when I became a teacher several years earlier.

I suppose I could drift back to my first day as a classroom teacher. With my heart racing and my stomach churning, standing in brand new clothes that I used my very last saved-up dollars to buy, I stood up in front of six classes of ninth graders and somehow managed to get them to believe that I was, in fact, their teacher for the year. I have some distinct memories of that day, including having a student throw up during second period, me managing to mangle at least 1/3 of my new students’ names on roll-call, and not being able to eat my lunch due to my unsettled nerves.

I could hearken back to my first day of student teaching even, when I was but 21 years old standing up in front of a room full of high school seniors who were just barely younger than I was at that point in time. My first day of “teaching” (and I use quotation marks here liberally given the circumstances and what actually transpired in the classroom that day) came at the 11th hour when my cooperating teacher let me know at 4am on my third day at the school that he was called away due to a family medical emergency… and that I’d be taking on all of the classes that day. I can’t say that quality teaching and learning happened on that day in the classroom, but I can say that I survived, and my students managed to emerge without harm.

I could go back to my countless beginnings as a student… college, high school, middle school, and the six different elementary schools I attended as a young child; I was perennially the “new kid” as my family moved each and every year of my childhood. Each beginning held its own challenges and triumphs, but none of them is where I began learning.

But for me, thinking about “begin at the beginning” in my life in education, I think that I would really have to go even further back that my first day of kindergarten, all the way back to early, early childhood. If you’ve ever taken an early childhood development class, you quickly realize that some of the most profound learning comes in the early years of life. The curve is steep and the outcomes incredible, and all of this happens with no formalized educational context around the child. It’s pretty amazing to think about, really. I imagine that those formative years were my true “beginning”.

And so when I think about and share thoughts about learning and leading, I will of course generally do this within the context of formalized education. But I will also look to discuss larger educational questions and pursuits in posts and discussions. Why? Because not all learning happens in the school house. In fact, the majority of “real life learning” happens out there, in the “real world” that is away form the school house. Plus, if you believe what research is pointing to recently, it becomes clear that realistic, meaningful, experiential learning is what leads to long lasting impact and retention for students. Given that context, and the probability that blending formal and informal venues of learning will be where education moves in the coming years, I will do my best to smudge the line between those two venues and provide thoughts and considerations accordingly.

If you’re here reading this, and you have thoughts to share, please do so. I look forward to engaging in conversation with you. Who knows… along the way we might just stumble on to some things that could change learning for kids and adults for the better.

Finally, before I forget: Photo credit and genuine heartfelt thanks for the  banner photo gracing this page goes to Adrian Collier photography ©2012. Adrian is a very talented photographer in the Seattle area and I will happily provide you with his contact information if you’re interested in his work!