Different or Just New? Communicating Student Learning

Recently, BICS Vice-Principal Laura Magrath and I hosted a Communicating Student Learning Information Evening. In response to major changes to BC’s curriculum, the way teachers communicate student learning has also been changing over the last two years.

We started the information session by soliciting parent’s recollections of their own report cards. These recollections ranged from dread to excitement and they highlighted a number of things we should avoid (letters csl-reflections-2016or numbers that make people feel labelled) and what we should strive for (“specific feedback, made me feel special”; “they were a good measure of where to improve”) in our newest iterations of written reports.

In my mind the new Communicating Student Learning written reports which will be sent home with students on December 16 are a vast improvement over our previous report cards. When reading and using the report card, I hope families notice acc-csl-2016nd find useful these five elements of the CSL documents.

 

First, the reports are very clear on the foundational skills. For primary reports (Kindergarten to Grade 3) and intermediate reports (Grades 4-7), students are given clear descriptors for a student’s abilities to read, write and use numbers to solve problems. In the primary report, the terms beginning, developing and acquired are used as descripcc_csl_2016_2tors referring to varying levels of support required for a student to demonstrate the skill assessed. The descriptors are based on the idea that all students can be successful; it is a matter of how much support they require to be successful with our goal of students becoming independent. At the intermediate level, the terms beginning, developing, acquired and exceeding are used. The terms are designed for parents to know precisely which areas of learning the student needs to focus on in the terms ahead.

Second, the reports focus to a greater level on what students can do. Many of the learning objectives identified in the primary report as Concepts and Content and in the intermediate report as Curricular Competencies refer to the skills needed for a specific subject; i.e. what skills does a scientist or a historian need? This focus on what the child can do aligns nicely with our feeder school Rockridge Secondary School which uses a report which places a strong focus on what students can do, with limited focus on what the student knows.

Third, the reports also give a clear picture of the big ideas and concepts students know about and understand. Transformational learning is learning that will affect how a student approaches, processes and understands future experiences. Transformational learning is often perspective shaping. When a student develops a deep understanding of big ideas, which are chosen because they are timeless and transferable, the learning can often be transformational. Therefore, while the most important and longest lasting takeaways from elementary school are skills (personal and social, reading, writing and using numbers to solve problems), understandings are still vitally important and readers of the report will see the topics and content of students’ inquiries clearly stated.

Fourth, the reports continue to include information on a child’s social and emotional development. In the opening comments, in Core Competencies (for intermediate reports), and in other fields, teachers share information on the child’s social and emotional development. Schools share the role with parents of supporting a child’s well-being and development of personal and social skills. In the opening comments, teachers also refer to an aspect of our school goal of students developing their learning character so parents will find comments related to a child’s development of Responsibility, Openness, Ambition and Resilience (ROAR).

Fifth, areas of growth for each student to help foster a child’s independence and confidence are very clearly identified. The Supporting Student Learning (primary) and Ways to Support (intermediate) sections of the report give a concise explanation of learning that the child needs to focus on as well as some strategies for school and home to support these needs.

In addition to the comments from teachers, the reports also include reflections from students. BICS teachers will be refining student reflections throughout the year so as to accurately and authentically capture student voice on the process of learning. Our hope is for students to thoughtfully reflect on the process of their learning: were they committed to the strategies identified to achieve their learning goals? Were they successful not just in achieving their goals but more importantly in having the responsibility and resilience to stick to a plan to achieve them?

Teachers, school administrators and school district staff have worked hard to develop written reports that add to the strategy of communicating student learning. We hope these documents, in addition to parent/teacher conferences, student-led conferences, and ongoing feedback in the form of assignments sent home, phone calls and emails, help families understand the progress of their children. This year, all of our K-7 reports are considered pilots so we will be seeking further feedback throughout the year to ensure we are providing the most useful tools to communicate student learning.

 

Click below to see the slide deck from Laura Magrath for our presentation to parents on November 30.

csl_2016

Anchoring

In his fascinating book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes of “anchoring.”

His and others’ research has shown that when people are given a starting number about a topic they know little about and then asked a question about the topic, they have a tendency not to drift too far from the given figure. The figure serves as an anchor.

An example he uses:

Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 1,200 feet?
What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood?

Even though 1,200 feet is a ridiculously large number for the height of a redwood, asking question 1 (Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 1,200 feet?) ahead of asking the latter question primes the respondent with some information about the topic and this has a major impact on what their best guess about the height of the tallest redwood will be.

The person being questioned may assume that the person asking the question has some knowledge of redwoods and therefore use 1,200 as their starting place. Knowing enough to assume the given number is too high, they would most likely drop below the initial figure, but not too far below. Rather than starting with their own guess, they use 1,200 as a starting place and as they drop below the starting place, they settle on a number before dipping too far into the uncertain zone. The number then ends up far closer to the starting place than were the person to have come up with a guess all on their own.

The implications of this for teaching are immense. We often ask students to share their thoughts on topics they are just forming opinions on. While exposure to others’ ideas is helpful, it is also helpful for teachers to be aware of the priming effect peers’ responses might have on students. The teacher may also wish to help students identify this effect.

Kahneman notes that even after identifying the effect of “anchors” they still have an impact. Choosing when to have group discussions and being mindful of giving students time to find their own starting place is essential.

I’m in the midst of Kahneman’s book and literally enjoying every page. As we strive to thinking-fsteach students to think critically and creatively, learning more about psychology and the way the brain work is important. There are many tools to assist students with evaluating the perspective and biases of others; what is more difficult is evaluating the way we process information and form conclusions.

 

So let’s be more realistic this time. Did the tallest redwood even exceed 200 feet? What’s your guess?

One Word Challenge

A year ago today I started in a new role as principal of Bowen Island Community School.

Time flies!

“Time flies” has almost become cliché. I use the phrase too often and while it usually seems true, when I think of all of the things that have happened in the past year I realize that time only flies when the in between of important events and milestones are not considered.

And there is a lot of time in between.

When I considered taking on the role of principal I thought that one of my greatest challenges would be time management. As a teacher and vice-principal, the hours in between the bells are spent with students and many hours outside of that time are spent assessing and planning. After ten years, I felt confident in my ability to prioritize time to ensure students were learning what they needed for their stage in development.

I wondered how as a principal, not in any one classroom for the day, I would spend my time and worried if I would  be so busy staying (or getting) “caught up” with pressing tasks that I would not spend enough time on the important but not urgent things.

In Stephen R. Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he notes that effective people prioritize their time well. He notes four types or zones of tasks:

  1. urgent and important2016-01-04_1209
  2. not urgent and important
  3. urgent and not important
  4. not urgent and not important

It’s easy to stay out of zone 4. The other zones are the challenges. Effective people make time for Zone 2, that which is not urgent but important. As an educator and learner, I see Zone 2 as the area where the biggest gains are made in improving as a professional, my classroom, and my school.

Recently, West Vancouver Schools Superintendent Chris Kennedy challenged educators to participate in the one word challenge, to find one word that best defines their hopes and goals for the coming year.

My one word, as you may have guessed, is time.

Time is not a hope or a goal, but prioritizing time on things that matter, that which is important but not necessarily urgent, is one of the biggest and most important challenges in life. I shared this idea with our departing Grade 7s at their promotional assembly  last year and also in a blog post called, “The Challenge of Opportunity.” The post challenges students to make the most of their time in secondary school and beyond by ensuring they are thoughtful of how and where they spend their time and asking this question frequently: Why do you do what you do?

It is my goal and my challenge, in my work and personal life, to continually define what is important and prioritize my time accordingly. I owe that to my family, the students of my school, my colleagues, and myself.

I’ve been using this tool (Weekly Schedule – Simple), based on Covey’s work, to help prioritize time. Feel free to use and modify it.

Significance

The following post was shared at BICS’ Remembrance Day Ceremony – November 10, 2015.

The brain is always trying to determine the significance of everything we sense.

Is what we see important enough to process, think about and respond to? Or is it unimportant and an unnecessary distraction?

In the mountains, we try to determine how big and far away the peaks are. Closer to home, people wonder, or immediately panic, when considering the significance of a spider lurking in the sink. Is it a threat? And if so, how big a threat?

In World War One, 1914-1918, many historians suggest that Canadians who were thinking of joining the war effort in Europe underestimated the significance of this war. They knew it was important but didn’t know how long the fighting would last, or how vicious the fighting would be: increasingly vicious on land in the form of trenches, tanks and machine guns; on sea in the form of well-armed ships; and for the first time in history, the sky with airplanes and poisonous gases.

After the experience of World War One, people had a greater understanding of the significance of the terrifying and vicious forms of fighting. But soldiers still volunteered to join the effort of World War II, fighting in many regions of the world, risking injury, death and the fear of being treated most cruelly if captured.

And today, more than 100 years since the start of World War One, all of us in this ceremony try to understand the significance of these events. All across our country, Canadians take time and make the effort to remember those from the World Wars, and wars and conflicts since, who have joined the Canadian Military and risked their lives to defend the rights and freedoms which Canada considers fundamental to all human beings: freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.

I feel it is the duty of all Canadians to learn about and try to understand the sacrifices and efforts of Canadian soldiers. If they lived it, surely the least the rest of us can do is to learn about their efforts, to try to understand the significance of what people went through to defend freedom.

This is no easy task. It is challenging to comprehend the significance of the wars; the enormity of it all is truly hard to grasp.

Historians estimate that over sixty million people were killed in World War Two. Sixty million people. That was 3% of the world’s population at that time, meaning three out of every one hundred people died.

While our brains can do the math, I’m not sure our hearts have the capacity to truly understand that number. When you read of stories, and the Diary of Anne Frank is one many students will read in high school, and learn about an individual, their hopes and dreams, who they loved and who loved them, it is obvious the loss of one person is immense. It is truly staggering then to think of the 60 million people as individuals; individuals who had brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and children who loved them.

The two world wars are of course sinking deeper into history. There are fewer storytellers to keep the history alive, but there is an incredible amount of literature on the world wars that has been written and continues to be written as well as some very powerful films. So while there may be fewer storytellers, there need not be fewer readers, listeners and viewers.

So let our ceremony of remembrance, and day of remembrance tomorrow, be purposeful in remembering the sacrifices of those who have served in Canada’s military and also a celebration of our country. Canada, like all countries, is not without faults, but we are incredibly privileged to live in a country where our freedoms are recognized and protected. They are valued so dearly that many Canadians have the courage and commitment needed to risk and sacrifice all to defend these values for their fellow Canadians and others around the world.

Take some time to remember and think of the significance of what was fought for that we now as Canadians benefit from: Freedoms of conscience and of religion, and that all Canadians are equal before and under the law, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age or mental or physical disability. We must not underestimate the significance of these freedoms and rights and the immense sacrifices that have secured them.

Reminders, Reflections, Purpose

Several years ago, I was inspired by a talk by Jennifer James who implored each audience member to remind themselves of their purpose often (I wrote a reflection on Dr. James’ talk here).  Even the most goal-driven and passionate people need to do this because goal-driven and passionate people are usually busy and busyness can sometimes obscure purpose.

Over the years, I have been accumulating questions to ask myself (and other learners); questions that I think remind me of my purpose as an educator and learner.

  • What do you know now that you didn’t at the start of the day? Why does it matter?
  • What can you do better now than at the start of the day? How is this helpful?
  • What do you want to do with your learning?
  • (How) Did you connect with the natural world today?  How does this affect how you understand the world?

The questions go on, and after reading the results of the the Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI) from the Human Early Learning Partnership at UBC (the MDI being a survey of grade four students across BC that assesses “critical components to development”), I have come across another question that reminds me of purpose.

In a recent post on the MDI, I suggested there is as much to learn from the statements in the survey that students are to respond to as there is from the responses students give.  Below, I share some of the statements from the MDI that act as a reminder of the role of educators and community  members that promote well-being and set students up for success as adults and a question for which I will need to remind myself.

From the MDI:

• At my school there is an adult who really cares about me.
• At my school there is an adult who believes I will be a success.
• At my school there is an adult who listens to me when I have something to say.

So, a new question to ask at the end of the day:  What am I doing to be that adult?