Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Transfer Goals and Framing Curriculum with a UBD mindset

Recently, I've attended a couple different conferences and I thought I would blog my thoughts on both. I'm also going to cross post this on my Breaking the Silos blog: that's the one where I ask teachers and administrators to blog about their professional learning experiences.  If find it interesting how sometimes the ideas that come from one conference can overlap and influence your thoughts about the other.

The first conference I attended was the SchoolCIO Leadership summit in Denver, Co. Tech & Learning magazine sponsors these a few times per year in different cities, and invites educational leaders who for one reason or another have some interest and experience with educational technology. It was a whirwind day and a half of networking with like-minded administrators and tech gurus. Good stuff, but I worry sometimes that we're speaking to each other in an echo chamber: how do we get UNLIKE minded people into the conversation? Oh, well. I guess that's our job coming out of these conferences: to go out and preach it.

Anyway, it gave me some ideas about getting some ignite sessions started in our district. (I have this twisted idea that I want to do guerilla-style ignite sessions in the faculty cafeteria: just run in, set up a computer and screen unannounced and launch into a 5 minute ignite session. After the 5 minutes is up, drop the mic, and walk out. Just keeping things interesting).

Anyway, I also had the opportunity to talk with one of the presenters: Lydia Dobins, President of the New Tech Network. The schools in this network are designed to be truly collaborative experiences for students, built from the ground up with problem based learning and technology as foundational principles. There's a whole lot more I could write about that, but what first caught my attention were the grading principles used by every teacher in the network. Rather than traditional categories such as: Test, Quiz, Homework, Projects, etc., the New Tech Network teachers use the following:
  • Knowledge and Thinking
  • Oral Communication
  • Written Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Agency (defined loosely as "grit" or "stick-to-it-iveness.")

So, think about the implications there. Every teacher in every subject would have to determine how to assess students in these areas. How would the inclusion of oral and written communication at every level change a math experience for a student? How would assessment of "grit" change the experience in an English classroom? How would this alter the focus in a PE classroom?

Imagine if you could tell employers and colleges and universities that your students were constantly assessed in these five areas. Worried about implementing the Common Core? These categories would rapidly push all teachers to embrace large chunks of the ELA anchor standards and the mathematical practice standards. The mind boggles.

And this brings me to the Jay McTighe conference I attended three days later. Dr. McTighe and his writing partner Grant Wiggins most famously wrote "Understanding by Design," and have offered many updates since. Their model can briefly be described as designing curriculum with the end in mind: working backwards from long term transfer goals and big picture understandings, designing the assessments that match these goals, and finally crafting the learning experiences that will allow students to meet these learning goals.

During Dr. McTighe's workshop, I was struck by the enormity of the task of designing curriculum in this way. How do you wrap your head around this model, and begin to revise courses that have been taught in largely the same way for years? Our group quickly turned to the idea of transfer goals- the performance based outcomes we would want from our students years after they graduate. when you break this down to the department level, you would effectively be writing mission statements for each discipline.

However, these should also be consistent with district-level transfer goals. what would we want to say that our students could do effectively, regardless of their courses of study, their GPA, or their chosen interests? Well, how about transfer goals consistent with the grading categories used by the New Tech Network:
  • Knowledge and Thinking: "Students will use knowledge of academic disciplines to better understand the present and prepare for the future."
  • Written Communication: "Students will effectively write for various audiences and purposes; e.g., to explain, entertain, persuade, help perform a task, and challenge or change things."
  • Oral Communication: "Students will effectively communicate with varied audiences and for varied purposes while displaying appropriate understanding of culture and context."
  • Collaboration: "Students will demonstrate ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams, exercise flexibility and willingness make necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal, and assume shared responsibility for collaborative work."
  • Agency: "Students will demonstrate perseverance to accomplish long-term or higher-order goals in the face of challenges and setbacks."
(Note: I stole adapted much of the verbage of these hypothetical transfer goals from here, here, and here)

These are just a quick stab at rewriting those grading categories as transfer goals, and definitely need some editing, but they point in a direction that it would be hard to argue against. If every department wrote discipline specific transfer goals consistent with those written above, and each course and lesson were overtly designed to improving students' performance in these areas, what kind of experience would we have for our students? I would argue that students would necessarily be using technology effectively to accomplish these goals, and implementing the Common Core and NGSS Standards would seem quite a bit more manageable. 

What if we could confidently say that every unit and every lesson experienced by our students was designed with these goals in mind, and students were consistently evaluated against criteria consistent with the quality of their Knowledge and Thinking, Oral and Written Communication, Collaboration, and Agency? What would employers say? How would tour students' performance in post-secondary education be affected? Would we be happy with the skill set of the future leaders of our country? Hmm....

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