May 112018

“How do I engage students in an inclusive, constructive discussion about a controversial issue?”

Discursive strategies guide student interaction with one another as they engage in learning. While some students are more personally impacted by a controversial issues than others, it’s important that all students engage in critical conversations about them, as these problems tend to be systemic. In other words, the pain or injustice at hand / in question is not simply the result of the actions of a small number of unethical people; instead, pain and injustice are somehow built into the status quo of our institutions and dominant systems of thought. This means that all citizens are connected to the problem in some way; it also means that all citizens are empowered to do something about it within their own spheres of influence.

Just as teachers differentiate instructional strategies, they can differentiate discursive strategies to respect students’ needs and thresholds. There are many ways to provide students with options for how they process the issue, including the option of engaging in dialogue with an elder or a trusted peer and the option of journaling privately. These criteria can help to identify fitting strategies for collective inquiry:

All students . . .
1. have voice and express their thinking, ideally multiple times during the lesson.
2. are protected from unwanted exposure and personal attacks.
3. are exposed to, actively consider, and fairly represent multiple points of view.
4. participate in generating new questions which address newly discovered complexities.
5. reflect on the shifts in their thinking which occur as a result of new learning, and the implications of these shifts.

When students are engaging in learning about a controversial issue, the goal is not to solve the issue or reach consensus. Instead, the goal is for students to have the opportunity, through dialogue with others, to deepen their understanding and form their own opinions.

To set students up for success in this kind of learning, it’s important to provide and establish a shared base of knowledge that students can use as a reference point. It’s also important to take time to explain the process they will be using, including its purpose, norms, and expectations.

Discursive Strategy Process
Processes often start and end with individual reflection . The teacher provides or co-constructs with students a prompt, often an essential question, to invite engagement. Then, students move from individual reflection to small group sharing to large group synthesizing and back again to individual reflection. This progression ensures that all students participate in deepening both self-knowledge and shared understandings.

Students respond individually to prompt, recording thinking and experiences in a way that can be shared. (Sticky notes work well!)
Students have the opportunity to see and / or hear the thinking of their peers, identifying points of convergence and divergence –ideas which affirm and unsettle the student’s own thinking.
Students now move into small groups and, using a process, think and reflect on the ideas they chose in Step 2.
Move from small groups to large group, using process or question that invites small groups to share their thinking and questions, identify key issues, consider implications, generate new questions
Return to individual reflection, inviting students to respond to the initial question again in light of new understanding: “How has my thinking shifted? Why? What have I learned about myself, my classmates, this issue? What are the implications of this new learning for me a as a person and citizen?”

Here are links to some strategies that create the conditions described above and follow the process represented here:
Circle of Viewpoints and Step Inside
Wall Splash
Compass Points
Debate Team Carousel
Chalk Talk

The book and website, Making Thinking Visible, contains many processes that can be used in steps 2, 3, and 4.
One of the best ways to prepare students for learning about controversial issues is to embed discursive strategies in their learning every day. This allows them to develop confidence in their own self-expression, trust in their peers, strength in their critical thinking skills, and resilience in their response to complexity. Creating a classroom culture with these attributes brings everyone involved further along on the Cultural Competency Continuum.

If you would like collegial support to include a controversial issue in your instruction, feel free to ask for help, from within your staff or from myself and my colleagues at Central Office.

May 072018

A group of secondary teachers from across Saskatoon Public Schools has been learning about and applying literacy strategies to enhance subject-specific content learning. Teachers in History, Science, ELA, Math and Phys. Ed have been finding explicit ways to build students’ capacity the 6 skills of disciplinary literacy: accessing prior knowledge, understanding key vocabulary, summarizing main ideas, making inferences, forming connections, and applying metacognition. It’s been a journey of exploration and innovation and through reflection, here are some participant insights:

Are literacy skills key to student success? What works best to strengthen a literacy skill? What doesn’t work, what does?

Although there is no guarantee for student success, disciplinary literacy skills are critical. They are the basic blocks onto which students build other learning, while giving them time to practice and refine their abilities. The focus that disciplinary literacy has on identifying gaps that students have, and addressing them repeatedly over time is important for their growth cycle. Since secondary literacy is as much about thinking in the discipline as reading, when students can collaborate or use a team approach, they have much more freedom to share their voice in smaller groups, to test drive their theories, before risking a large/whole class sharing.

What are teachers’ keys to success? What works best to strengthen a literacy skill?  What doesn’t work?

Keys to success

  • Identifying the needs for a diverse classroom
  • Clarity of focus or purpose
  • Know the end goal
  • Give students a lens/purpose when approaching a text
  • Do not assume that students have the necessary skills when entering our classes
  • Affirmation that what you are doing is helping someone
  • Identifying which literacy skills are strengths and which literacy skills have gaps
  • Being aware of literary strategies
  • Explicitly naming them and teaching them to students

What works best to strengthen a literary skill?

  • Practicing these skills regularly will strengthen their effectiveness
  • Have a plan
  • Know how the skill fits in the big plan
  • Know that you are the best resource in the room
  • Defining a clear role will help students attend more and notice other things on their learning journey

What doesn’t work?

  • Using the same strategy for all classes/courses may not be effective (even if it worked for other groups)
  • Assuming that learners know how to do each part of a learning task without explicit instruction

In addition to explicitly teaching and practicing literacy skills, what are KEY CHOICES that teachers can make to engage students in learning that improve their thinking and communicating

UNLOCK students’ potential: encourage sharing true thoughts, whether wrong or different, and taking risks.

KEY text/topic: according to interests, getting them engaged and interested

LOCK in the moment, the timing, the method, the way of communicating the ideas, the connections

OPEN THE DOOR with new strategies, activities, differentiated assessments, Adaptive Dimension, feedback

What a teacher needs to successfully address student literacy needs:

  • Time
    • Outside of class time to find resources, discuss with colleagues, plan lessons, assess student skills, etc.
    • Within the class and curriculum, to fit in a greater emphasis on literacy than previously
  • Resources
    • To complement classroom learning activities
    • That are connectable and relatable to your curriculum and units of study
    • Ready-to-go lesson plans, worksheets, handouts (in digital form so that they can be adapted)
  • Classroom/Students
    • A reasonable student to teacher ratio to enable individualized support
    • Knowledge of the students and their backgrounds, interests, other classes that they are taking to be able to bring that in to lessons and activities
  • Exemplars
    • Of other teachers’ work for their own practice
    • Of student work so show students
    • To be able to gauge where particular students are at compared not only to each other but also to curriculum standards
  • Colleagues
    • Subject area colleagues for area-specific support
    • School-based colleagues for knowledge of students and school climate
    • SLAM colleagues and coordinators/consultants for SLAM and literacy specific knowledge and support
    • As a source of ideas
    • To see it work in action
    • As a source of support

This blog has been co-authored by Secondary Literacy Assessment Matters participants: Katarina Braybrook, Jason Dubray, Doris Duke, Emily Kivol & Jenny Leake, and guided by facilitators Sherry Van Hesteren & Candace Elliott-Jensen.

Mar 262018

Outcomes-based assessment has changed how I record grades and assess tasks, and now I’d like to consider outcomes during planning.

As I create new learning activities and assessments, I’ve shifted my thinking from aligning a learning activity with outcomes, to starting with my outcomes and planning how to measure and scaffold instruction towards outcome attainment. Planning with the goal in mind is often referred to as Backward Planning. Authors Wiggins & McTighe detail their own version of Backwards Planning which is called Understanding by Design.

Here are some quick tips to help plan with outcomes in mind:

1. What is your Topic?

Depending on your curricula, you may have a topic, unit, module, theme, etc. Consider the topic as a starting place.

2. Identify Essential Questions

What are the engaging questions which will drive the learning and connect to the Broad Areas of Learning and Cross-curricular Competencies? These should create engagement and curiosity about the learning.

*Follow this link for more information about Essential Questions by experts Wiggins & McTighe

3. Choose 2-3 Outcomes

Look for outcomes which have similarities or that you think will group nicely under one umbrella of learning. Having a manageable number of outcomes ensures that you’re better able to provide targeted instruction, practice, feedback and respond to specific needs. If too many outcomes are identified, there’s a risk of broad practice and feedback which may cause an imprecise understanding of specific outcome performance.

4. Articulate Quality

Go back to the verb in the outcome and to the indicators to establish the level of thinking and/or performance required for each outcome. Now that you understand the requirements of the outcomes, consider and articulate the levels of proficiency for demonstration of learning. This can be done in a variety of ways such as creating or co-creating a rubric, providing examples at various levels or deconstructing an exemplar.

*To learn more about Rubrics and/or articulating proficiency according to Sue Brookhart click here.

5. Select Differentiated Tasks

Choice for students allows them to demonstrate knowledge in the manner they feel most comfortable; this enhances engagement and the likelihood for achievement. Remember that differentiation isn’t about changing a standard and that differentiated tasks should consider similar rigor and levels of thinking.

*See what differentiation expert Carol Ann Tomlinson says about differentiated instruction here.

6. Scaffold for Instruction

What skills do students need to demonstrate outcome attainment and which instructional strategies will be the most effective learning tools? Consider learning materials, feedback cycles along with opportunities to respond by re-teaching or additional practice.

And there you have it — a plan which starts with outcomes in mind and works backward to ensure the learning and measurement targets outcomes.

This is a condensed guide which identifies a few considerations for backwards outcomes-based planning. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the following resources

Understanding By Design by McTighe & Wiggins

Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding by McTighe & Wiggins

How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading by Brookhart

Saskatchewan Curricula 

The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners by Carol Ann Tomlinson

Feb 072018

For educators, sometimes controversial issues seem like danger zones. We know they’re important, in our lives and curricula, but aren’t sure if, when, and how to address them with our students. What do we need to know and do to turn potential danger zones into ethical spaces, for ourselves and our students?

What are the main sources of controversial issues?
Social justice issues exist because power and privilege are not yet equitably distributed among people(s) in our communities, province, country, and world; facets of individual and group identity like race, sex, religion, gender identity, and place of origin continue to privilege some and marginalize others.

There are a few sources of controversial issues for teachers and students. The first is the curriculum itself. Many curricula contain outcomes which connect to controversial issues and the skills required to navigate them. The second is the world around us. Current events are full of them, and some hit very close to home. The third is the life of the community in our classroom and school: incidents occur and trends develop which students need to make sense of and engage with as citizens in their own right.

What is the connection between “Controversial Issues” and “Courageous Conversations”?
Controversial issues involve multiple and diverse worldviews. Treating controversial issues as subjects of inquiry demands courage, the courage to:
1. Make one’s own assumptions and thinking visible and vulnerable to scrutiny, by ourselves and others.
2. Expose oneself to ideas we may find objectionable and/or threatening.
3. Shift one’s thinking in response to new knowledge and principles.
4. Form commitments to act, commitments which require personal change
Often, we can feel the current of energy pass through every body in the room when someone in it makes a claim that endorses or challenges an inequity. How can we, as educators, respond, both in the moment and in premeditated ways, to optimize student learning and growth while minimizing harms when controversial issues are at hand?

What are the main stances toward controversial issues in the classroom?
There tend to be four educator stances toward Courageous Conversations:
Stance 1: Avoidant; reactive, unprepared
“I hope nothing triggers one and, if one arises, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Stance 2: Avoidant, reactive, survival strategy
“I hope nothing triggers one, but I have a way of acknowledging and responding to it if it does.”
Stance 3: Open, reactive, unstructured response
“I welcome these triggers, and have a couple of ways of responding if they do.”
Stance 4: Open, proactive, intentional strategies
“These conversations are necessary; I plan for them and use strategies that strengthen students’ citizenship competencies.”

What does the most helpful stance look like?
Engaging in complex issues constructively requires deliberate strategies to ensure student voice, emotional safety, and fairmindedness. So, Stance 4 is optimal! What does it look like in practice? Let’s take the attributes of a destructive conversation about a controversial issue and then reverse them, and see what happens:

1. Only a few people speak.
2. Speakers and their ideas polarize quickly, sharply.
3. Listeners feel anxious.
4. Relationships are at risk.
5. When it’s done, it’s unlikely that anyone’s thinking has shifted significantly.

Okay, in reverse:

1. Everyone has a voice.
2. The range of ideas and perspectives is broad and deep.
3. Participants feel safe.
4. Relationships strengthen.
5. When it’s done, it’s likely that many people’s thinking has shifted significantly.

When addressing a controversial issue with students, it’s important to plan how you will talk about and explore it. Simply “having a discussion” is problematic. In the classroom, when a controversial issue is at hand, giving free reign to unexamined habits of thought and interaction tends to reinforce existing thinking and power dynamics in a group, not alter them. Interrupting these habits with discursive strategies that meet the criteria in the second list is the key. They create an opportunity for teachers and students to develop their cross-cultural competencies, as “a variety of perspectives and worldviews are presented and equally valued” and the teacher and students together “explore issues of equity and social injustices within a spirit of inquiry” (SPS Cross-Cultural Competence Continuum)

What are the benefits of intentionally including controversial issues in teaching and learning?
There is remarkable diversity in every classroom. Each student’s identity lives at the intersection of various phenomenon: age, language, race, nationality, gender, physical ability, social class — to name a few. As controversial issues are invariably about identity, in some way or another, they reflect and affect students directly. When we make room for these issues in our pedagogy, courses, and classroom culture, we affirm students’ identities and honor their need for voice, connection, and agency – both individually and collectively. Ironically, turning toward issues which may seem dangerous can, in fact, increase students’ perception and experience of cultural safety in our classrooms and schools. This, is turn, can result in a cascade of benefits.

See related blogs on Discursive Strategies and Essential Citizenship Competencies to learn more.

Feb 072018

As teachers, there are three key times in the sequence of a lesson when we have the opportunity to support a student who may be struggling with what we are teaching:

  1. While we are instructing (last post)
  2. While students are practicing (this post)
  3. After practice, to ensure students are making sense of the learning for themselves, so they’ll remember it (post 3 of 3)

When students practice something, they are more likely to understand it and retrieve it later, but only if that practice is effective.   As teachers we need to provide the right amount of practice, with support, focused on the most important skills and understandings so the learning can transfer to new situations.  For students who are struggling to learn something, each of elements of effective practice can be treacherous, so teachers need to think about them carefully.

What Who will this help the most? Why it helps
Reduce number of repetitions and/or questions or give more time


Students who take a long time to complete something they are visibly working to complete. When students think more slowly (processing speed) or have reduced thinking capacity (cognitive ability), doing many examples does not help with understanding, because it is not in the zone of proximal development. Fewer examples or questions makes the task possible.
Work together with peers to think aloud through problems Students who are disengaged or confused. Practicing problems together meets adolescent needs for belonging and helps them see the thinking of others.  Students also hear additional explanations and thinking to sharpen their own
Ask questions that require judgement and creation, not just recall Students who are disengaged, or who think the learning is stupid or pointless.

Students who can’t remember what they learned before.

Over 80% of recall learning from a class is immediately forgotten within three months. Higher level thinking cements concepts in the brain that make it much easier to retrieve factual information needed for the judgement or creation.  Also, students are much more likely to rate task with higher level learning as relevant, and studies show they pay much closer attention to it.

More about making practice effective for students:

Feb 052018

Two-Eyed Seeing is a Mi’kmaw concept brought forward by Elder Albert MarshallEtuaptmumk, as it is understood in Mi’kmaw,

“refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing … and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all”.

This approach to the world is not entirely new, or limited to Indigenous culture, but it is timely and relevant.  Integrative, transdisciplinary, or culturally collaborative work has been going on for years and we are fortunate to be living in a society that is beginning to see the value.  In particular, the concept of Two-Eyed-Seeing has been adopted in Education, Health and private industry and gains momentum every day, not as a fad, but as a legitimate basis for human enterprise.

A lifetime ago, before beginning my own journey within education, I read “Wisdom of the Elders”.  Written by Peter Knudson and David Suzuki, this book approaches Indigenous knowledge and Western Scientific Knowledge as equally valid interpretations of the natural world.  This was the first time I saw Indigenous knowledge treated as valid and valuable and I immediately understood the implication for society.

The perspectives are vastly different, highly necessary, and only those that are comfortable with both can move us forward.

Etuaptmumk is not totally unfamiliar to educators, we are consistently required to view our work from the perspectives of parents, students, and society.  Communicating about curriculum and pedagogy with parents can be effortless when it is done with the motivations and strengths of the family in mind.  In the same way, a substantial relationship with students allows us to more easily guide the learning.  Finally, understanding the way in which school culture impacts and is impacted by the larger society allows us to make learning relevant for students.

Indigenous students are also very familiar with the concept.  Often described as walking in two worlds or on two paths they learn to balance extremely different ideologies and value systems while finding a space to create a self that can flourish in both.  By recognizing the value of this skill, we can support them in developing it further and ultimately support the creation of powerful members of society.

Métis throughout history have helped to bridge understanding between Indigenous and Western European approaches to our world, and perhaps this is why I feel compelled to continue the work.  But the bottom line is that Etuapmumk is the path forward.  As with eyes, we each have a dominant side, a default position.  But also as with eyes, the creator designed us in most cases to have two, so that our view can be broader, more inclusive and more importantly, a truer representation of the world around us.  As educators in Saskatchewan it is our responsibility to strengthen our understanding of the Indigenous cultures with whom we share this space.  As we learn and grow our two-eyed seeing will develop and provide us with a more developed and accurate way to describe and interpret the world around us.

How will you develop your ability to see with two eyes?

Feb 012018

As teachers, there are three key times in the sequence of a lesson when we have the opportunity to support a student who may be struggling with what we are teaching:

  1. While we are instructing (this post)
  2. While students are practicing (post 2 of 3)
  3. After practice, to ensure students are making sense of the learning for themselves, so they’ll remember it (post 3 of 3)

This post focused on some simple things you can do during the time when you are introducing a new idea. The next two posts in the sequence focus on things you can do when students practice, and the top two strategies to help with sense-making.

What Who will this help the most? Why it helps
Have students describe what they are trying to learn and what they need to do each lesson


Learn more

Students in who are less successful in the subject learn more when a teacher always checks to see if each person knows the learning outcome.

If you ask your class to “write the thing you are trying to learn” in their own words and hold it up, those who are vague or don’t know are unlikely to be successful that day.

For many students, lack of ability to hit the target starts with being confused about what it is.
Use graphic organizers


Learn more

Students who get easily overwhelmed, or who only get parts of an idea you have just taught.

The best graphic organizers are focused exactly on the concepts or processes you need students to understand, and simplify complex concepts.

Graphic organizers help students breakdown ideas or process and see the connections between them.  They reduce cognitive load and scaffold higher level thinking.
Chunk a process into small parts


Learn more

Students who are overwhelmed/anxious can’t tell what to do next or confused.

Chunking works best when complex assignments or concepts are broken into small steps, and students know what each step looks like (examples). Add progressive deadlines and checking in to chunking to make it most effective.

Breaking something into smaller steps helps make complex tasks easier to process.  Because the bits are smaller, students can do part at a time, making it easier to understand and less daunting.  When teachers give feedback between elements and then give enough time to improve, chunking is most effective.
Use Gradual Release of Responsibility

Learn more

Students who forget steps or struggle to do apply new concepts. The sequence of “I do, You do”, with supports, “You Do” is the direct instruction method most associated with successful learning.  It combines modeling, peer grouping, and guided practice so that students understand processes and concepts much more deeply.  It also reduces misconceptions.
Use error analysis together

Learn more

Students who misunderstand an idea or are easily frustrated and give up (low grit).

Rather than having students practice alone or in small groups after you teach, do some examples of common errors together.  Ask students to find the errors and explain what misunderstandings you would have if you made them.  Leave the examples visible during practice times.

When students know the errors before they start, they don’t rehearse mistakes and cement misconceptions in their brain. Comparing their work to the errors helps them learn what to avoid.

Related posts:


Jan 232018

I was in a fiddle lesson yesterday with Patti Kusturok, a legendary fiddler – the first woman to ever win the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddle Championship. I was the last one to arrive at the lesson, and had to sit in the only remaining chair, right next to Patti. She had us playing a tune well-beyond me, and the last bar, to me, was nothing short of a mystery. So, when we got to it, I faked it, barely touching my bow to the strings. And while I faked it, I watched her fingers, my face close to her left hand. I saw her perform a sequence of moves I could see, well enough to describe. The mystery lifted and I started moving my fingers in imitation.

It will take me a while to get it, but I know how to get there now.

She does these things so effortlessly, making a million technically precise moves and choices as she executes a tune. And then there’s me, sitting next to her, hoping to catch on while avoiding detection. I wonder if this is what classes feel like for a struggling learner – one who watches while others glide through the reading, thinking, and communicating required in different subject areas. It makes me wonder, “If the struggling learner could get right up close to the million technically precise moves and choices ‘successful’ students make while executing a task, what would they see?”

I think that they would see six things happening:

1. Accessing, applying, and critiquing prior knowledge
2. Making accurate sense of the words themselves, particularly the key concepts
3. Summarizing, connecting the dots between key concepts and components of a text
4. Inferencing, reading between the lines accurately, even insightfully
5. Connecting the text to: themselves, other texts, and the world
6. Metacognition: perceiving, describing, evaluating, and adjusting their own meaning-making moves

At any given point in a lesson in any subject, students are building new knowledge, skills, and dispositions by doing these things, in various sequences, combinations, and permutations.

So if these are the things students do as they learn, often unconsciously — sometimes well, sometimes badly — how can we help all students to see what they’re doing? And if we sort out how to do this, could this also help us, as teachers, to better see and hear our students’ thinking – readily available for formative assessment and responsive instruction?

Maybe? Perhaps you’d like to see, to join SLAM teachers in a grand experiment: if we incorporate questions related to these skills into our planning, teaching, and assessment, how many students on the edge of learning will come in from the cold?

Here are questions for each SLAM literacy skill that students and teachers can integrate into assignments, discussions, and assessments on any day in any subject. Notice how different questions invite students to read “on the line”, “between the lines”, and “beyond the lines” of any text they encounter.

• Have you encountered this (type of) topic, problem, issue, or text before?
• What do you know about it? How do you know this / these things?
• Are some of your sources of prior knowledge more reliable than others?
• What can/do you conclude with confidence, based on prior knowledge?
• What questions do you have, based on prior knowledge?
• How do you feel about this (type of) topic, problem, issue, or text? Why?
• How does this connect to / build upon what you’ve / we’ve learned so far?

• To understand this text, topic, or issue, what are the power words or key concepts we need to pay attention to? How do we know?
• Is this a word that is common to most subjects or specific to this one?
• Which other key words do I need to know / can I use to understand this one?
• How can I figure out what a word means? Does the root word give me a clue? How about the meaning of the word in context, that is, in relation to the words which surround it?
• Can I state what each one means? Elaborate? Provide an example? Explain why it matters? (SEEI: State, Elaborate, Exemplify, Implicate)

• What are the major parts or steps of this text, discussion, class?
• What is/are the key idea(s) for each part or step?
• How do these key ideas relate / connect to one another?
• How can I articulate this sequence of ideas so that my audience has a clear understanding of the structure and key contents of this text, discussion, or class?

• What conclusion(s) does the information in the text support?
• What does the author imply or suggest is true, without directly saying it?
• Is this author biased? How do I know? What is the author’s point of view? Assumptions?
• What is the purpose of this text? How do I know?
• Who is the text’s intended audience? How do I know?

To Me:
Does this text broaden or deepen my own knowledge and understanding? If so, how, exactly?
What are my 3 As for this text:
• What do I AGREE with?
• What would I ARGUE against?
• What was an AHA! Moment for me as I read/viewed/listened – a neat new idea?

To other Texts:
• How does this text connect to other texts or concepts in this unit?
• Where else have I encountered these ideas? (people, books, movies . . . . ) Are there interesting comparisons and contrasts between this text and those ones?

To the World:
• Are the ideas in the text significant — to individuals, organizations, cultures, creatures, environments? Why? How do I/we know?
• If everybody took the ideas in this text seriously, what difference(s) would it make?
• If nobody took the ideas in this text seriously, what difference(s) would it make?
• Should my community, culture, society, species do something about this? If so, what? Why?

• When my reading and thinking feel strong, what specific skills am I using well?
• When my reading and thinking feel weak, what skills can I draw on to empower me?
• What is getting stronger in my reading, thinking, and communicating?
• What do I want to strengthen next? How will I do it? Who can help me?

The last 3 are less common in teaching and learning than the first 3. They go to the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Here’s what I wonder: can they deepen student understanding and engagement? Are the very things we tend to leave out the means by which students will acquire what we deem essential?

Jan 222018

I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with a good friend of mine, Lisa Aune, who’s currently teaching at Bedford Road Collegiate. She and I have had excellent conversations around: What Really is Best Assessment Practice? Although we teach in vastly different areas, she in music and I in languages, we both agree on the following points when it comes to assessment:

  • Clear learning targets, practice, and quality feedback are fundamental to student success
  • Not all attempts at learning need to be assessed for the grade
  • Students should be contributors, if not owners of their learning

She challenges me to think differently about my assessment practices and agreed to sharing her ideas in video format for others in order to expand the conversation. It it our hope that others will engage in this conversation until everyone truly feels that they are providing the best possible assessment of learning, knowledge and skills for the students they serve.

Here are the questions I posed to Lisa and a quick overview of her responses:

  1. Tell me a bit about your current assessment practices.
    • Converted rubric from assignments to curricular outcomes
    • Rather than assigning grades, she has a conversation about achievement according to the outcome requirements
  2. How do students know what success looks like for each curricular outcome?
    • Review the outcomes including technical language for understanding
    • Demonstrate a variety of levels of achievement
  3. How do students know whether they’re meeting the outcomes or what their grade is?
    • Clear assessment goals prior to starting the demonstration of learning
    • Students self-assess (with teacher guidance as needed)
    • Cooperative assessment: agreement on achievement based on evidence of learning
    • Provide feedback for improvement and opportunity to re-demonstrate growth
  4. Do you assess skills more than once?
    • Absolutely!
    • As the course progresses, expectations of learning grow
      • See what Rick Wormeli says about re-demonstration of learning

Practice should always be based in current research. To further explore these ideas, consider the following works:

On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting by Thomas Guskey

Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam

How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading by Susan Brookhart






Jan 192018

In my first year of teaching, I was replacing a beloved teacher who was on leave fighting cancer.  Even though the length of the leave was unclear (it started as a four month contract but I eventually taught her grade sevens all year), she sat down with me talked me through all her materials. I faithfully followed those binders, and sometimes looked at the curriculum for reference. Mostly, I was concerned with what activities I needed to do next and how to get out from under all the marking I assigned. I tried to faithfully cover the content and assignments she planned and was grateful for all the help in my first year.

Over time, I learned there were patterns in how teachers planned.  Many teachers thought of some content from the curriculum, decided activities, then made tests, essays, or projects as or after they taught something.  In my second year, in a full year contract, I did basically did that, until I attended a planning workshop by the SPDU. They led us through a process where we looked closely at objectives (this was before outcomes, and no, it was not the dark ages) and thought about how we’d assess them. Then we talked about what we’d teach and how we’d teach in order to help students be likely to demonstrate the objective.

Later, I found out this was a part of process designed to make student understanding more likely.  The research (now with 25 plus years of research behind it) found that if a teacher is more explicit planning for deep understanding of an objective, students are much more likely to demonstrate it.  Seems obvious, right? Teachers Wiggins and McTighe have made a living helping other teachers with the concept, Understanding by Design (UBD), for years.  Read a summary of UBD here. I found that if I changed my planning sequence to go from objective, to assessments, to instructional plan, students learned more and understood more deeply.

What is deep understanding?

Deep understanding is knowing something so well that you can do more than just follow a process or say the teacher’s words back. If a student has deep understanding, she can even use that learning in a new situation or context. You get to the heart of the thinking in a discipline when you teach for understanding. Before I might have asked my students to tell me about the causes of the French Revolution. Now I might ask them to use (deep understanding) the causes of the French Revolution to make the case for a place where a contemporary revolution is likely.  I learned that I can’t just tell my students “deep understanding.”  Read Wiggins describing planning and teaching for understanding. I also learned that the planning sequence in UBD makes it more likely my students will achieve the outcomes.

What is the sequence you use to plan from outcomes?

Traditional planning

  1. Determine content (sometimes from the curriculum)
  2. Decide what I will do to explain content to students or what activities they will do
  3. Give tests, essays, or projects

In planning for deep understanding of outcomes, the sequence is

  1. Determine what the outcomes asks student to know, understand, and be able to do
  2. Decide what you’ll accept as evidence that students know, understand, and can do what the outcome asks
  3. Plan a performance task (read McTighe explaining a performance task)
  4. Plan instruction that prepares students for the knowledge, skills, and understanding in performance task

Rather the relating current assignments to outcomes after the fact, the UBD sequence ensures you are thinking about the best evidence for an outcome and the most effective way to get students to demonstrate it. It takes more more time initially to re-plan, but saves you marking time and improves student learning each time you teach a class that is planned and assessed that way.

Why would a teacher bother to plan base on outcomes?

The provincial curriculum and division policies require assessment based on outcomes so it just makes sense to plan that way.  However, there important reasons beyond it being required. Researchers have found the following:

  • Teachers are more focused in their instruction and find it easier to “get through curriculum”
  • Students are more likely to be successful in K-12 courses  or subjects when they learn this way, because they understand more deeply for themselves and retain more. They also have a better foundation for post-secondary work
  • Students are more likely to see their learning as relevant and engaging
  • Teachers spend less time marking little assignments

UBD and outcomes are common enough now that both local universities require this method of planning units from students. However, the process is often complicated. Practicing teachers who learned other methods, like I did, need to remember a couple simple changes:

  1. Read the outcome to determine what you want students to know, understand, and do
  2. Decide what is the best evidence that a student knows, understands, and can do that it actually is. That’s your summative assessment at the end of the unit.
  3. Plan your instruction so students acquire the building blogs to do well on the summative assessment you designed as evidence of the outcome.