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Promote a Culture of Learning with Faculty

January 8, 2011

The Center for Teaching, in collaboration with Westminster Schools and Drew Charter School, just completed a joint faculty in-service program focused on assessment and professional learning communities.  We believe that to become a 21st Century school we must help our faculty think deeply about effective assessment of student learning in a collaborative environment.  We brought in two consultants from Solution Tree, Chris Jakicic and Kim Bailey, to challenge our thinking about these topics in a keynote address followed by targeted workshops focused on these topics.  In addition, we had Westminster and Drew faculty who had an interest in these areas present workshops that were tied to their classroom instruction.

To set a context for the day, all faculty were asked to read a summary of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam’s work on assessment for learning, Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classrroom Assessment.  In addition, they read Parry Graham and Bill Ferriter’s article, One Step At a Time,  on professional learning communities that appeared in JSD, volume 29, number 3. 

Jakicic and Bailey conducted six breakout workshops that covered the following topics:

  • Using Assessment to Increase Student Learning
  • Writing Quality Formative Assessments
  • Finding the learning targets for Formative Assessments — Unwrapping the Standards
  • Developing High Performing Teams to Support the Work
  • Using Data to Make a Difference — Responding to Assessments
  • Engaging Students in the Assessment Process

 Some workshops that Westminster and Drew faculty conducted were:

  • Can we assess creativity?
  • Efficiently and Effectively Scoring Writing in the Content Areas.
  • Making Assessment Work for You (Based on Ahead of the Curve: The Power Of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning)

 

In the diagram above, we know that to promote student learning we must have a strong curriculum, effective instruction, and meaningful assessment.  These are the three legs of the stool that is learning.  When students learn, they change by either changing what they know, what they are able to do, or what they value.  Compelling curriculum taught by a teacher that uses effective instruction and successfully assesses learning can change the student in profound ways.   Teaching that promotes learning must be creative and intentional.  Teaching does not occur if learning does not happen within the student.

Quality assessment is the key to discovering whether learning or deep understanding has occurred (see CFT blog post, What is Understanding).   It is the evidence teachers use to find out the answer to the question, “have students learned what I have taught?”  When we talk about psychomotor activities, like riding a bicycle, the evidence that learning has occurred is obvious.  We can see when the child successfully masters riding the bike.  In the case of the academic learning in school, it is less obvious because much of the learning is in the cognitive domain.  However, we still need assessments to see if learning has occurred.

As Chris Jakicic pointed out, Black and Wiliam’s work demonstrated that there is a strong corollary between improved student achievement (learning) and formative assessment, assessment for learning.  If we improve formative assessment practices, Black and Wiliam have shown that student test scores on normal conventional tests will improve.   In their 2004 article in PDK, Working Inside the Black Box, they point out that school culture around assessment can change by:

  • Changing the classroom contract so that teachers and students collaborate for the improvement of everyone’s learning.
  • Empowering students to become active learners, taking responsibility for their own learning.
  • Incorporating changes in the teacher’s role one step at a time.
  • Sustaining attention to and reflection on ways in which assessment can support learning.

We learned that schools must be bold and intentional about changing the culture of assessment.  We must move from giving mostly summative assessments, assessments of learning, to formative assessments, assessment for learning.  In the case of summative assessments, it is too late for the teacher to change course, adjusting t heir teaching to promote learning that has not occurred.  If we are interested in students mastering our curriculum, leaving with a deep understanding of the things we value, then we must incorporate ongoing formative assessments into our work.  Results from formative assessments, assessments that occur while learning is happening, allow teachers to make mid-course adjustments to promote learning. 

This diagram illustrates the continuum of classroom assessment:Pre-assessments should be administered to see what students already know.  They can help a teacher fine-tune their instruction or focus on learning targets on which students need instruction.  Formative assessments should be occurring regularly throughout instruction.  They should be used to give information to the student as to their level of mastery of the learning targets, as well as instruct the teacher about the quality of their teaching.  Summative assessments should occur at the end of instruction.

The second theme of our in-service was working collaboratively in professional learning communities or teams.  At Westminster and Drew Charter School we are piloting professional learning communities in the following areas:

  1. Two assessment PLCs in Westminster’s elementary school
  2. An assessment study group in Westminster’s junior high school
  3. Content area PLCs (math, English, science, social studies, and Spanish) in Westminster’s junior high school
  4. SMART board PLCs at Drew Charter School
  5. Grade level teams at Drew Charter School using data to improve instruction and student learning by way of DATA WISE Improvement Process.

 One of the goals of PLCs or teams should be to build common assessments.  Doug Reeves, in his book, Standards, Assessment & Accountability, describes common assessments as:

Not standardized tests, but rather teacher-created, teacher-owned assessments that are collaboratively scored and that provide immediate feedback to students and teachers.

Reeves points out that through this formative process students become more engaged.  They are active participants in their own learning and challenge themselves for continuous improvement.

In their book, Learning by Doing, DuFour et.al. list the following reasons for teams working to build common assessments: 

  1. Common assessments are more efficient than assessments created by individual teachers.
  2. Common assessments are more equitable for students.  
  3. Common assessments represent the most effective strategy for determining whether the guaranteed curriculum is being taught and, more importantly, learned.
  4. Common assessments inform the practice of individual teachers.
  5. Common assessments build a team’s capacity to improve its program. 
  6. Common assessments facilitate a systematic, collective response to students who are experiencing difficulty. 

In their work on professional learning communities, DuFour et.al. advocate a model in which teachers collaborate on issues related to student learning.  This quote from a 2004 Educational Leadership article, What is a Professional Learning Community, sums up the work a PLC needs to do:

The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift—from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning—has profound implications for schools.

Effective assessment practices, which include building common formative assessments, are critical to knowing whether students have learned what we taught.  As educators we must be engaged in our own learning to positively impact student achievement.  It is not sufficient to do business as it has always been done.  Change involves learning and learning promotes change.  In John Hattie’s work, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, he states:

The biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching and when students become their own teachers.

We hope that our joint in-service at Westminster and Drew Charter School on January 3 is the springboard toward continued improvement on how to effectively assess student learning, as well as how to collaborate in teams as we do this work.

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