Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Students Going Further: Teaching and Learning Refined by Evidence

| Post by Susan Perkins Weston |

 Kentucky students can go much further, and the right kinds of responsive support can put that excellence in reach. Gene Wilhoit has called for “a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning.” That feedback uses students' own work, compared to pertinent standards, as key evidence of what needs to come next in the learning process.

When evidence is gathered and used that way, over and over, important things happen. A big set of studies show that the process raises achievement for students of all backgrounds and especially raises achievement for students who have long been underserved.

Here’s a tricky part of that research: it often calls the evidence work “assessment.” Phrases like “assessment for learning” and “formative assessment” try to keep the emphasis on how the evidence is used quickly to improve (form) teaching and learning. But those words also allow us to imagine many little tests, often multiple choice, almost always separate from the learning itself, provided by an outside testing company or developed in close imitation of what those companies sell.

The research actually supports something different.

Its main point is about teachers finding evidence in work students produce through their regular learning. Backing that up, there’s thought on designing the assignments to be sure that evidence will be available. For example, in Literacy Design Collaborative modules, the building blocks are mini-tasks where students develop skills by creating products and the products can be checked against quick scoring guides to tell if learning is on track or if further instructional support should be added. The evidence comes from the learning work, not from a pause to take a test.

On the surface, this approach can sound familiar and simple, but it actually calls for a huge shift in the culture of American schooling. Our ingrained tradition is offering everyone similar teaching and then counting the very different results for different learners. What the research describes is a process of varied teaching, with rapid adjustments, aimed at getting higher and much more similar results for the learners.

That shift is key.  Those who use, study, and support this alternate process do not deny that students who fall short had may have learning disabilities or face cultural and economic challenges or bring the wrong work ethic to class. Instead, they call for for steady cycles of analysis and innovation to defeat whatever has been limiting the learning. And it offers a big stack of research evidence that teaching effort structured that way results in students going further, revealing their potential, and doing work at levels that we haven’t expected to see using other approaches.

Actually, even that summary isn’t good enough, because it’s much too centered on teachers. At its most powerful, students themselves use the feedback, engage the standards they’re aiming for and participate in identifying the next steps that will let them climb to full success. That “sunlit vision” of learning has been a pillar of my understanding since I first read Rick Stiggins “Assessment Manifesto,” and it’s built into the Wilhoit definition at the start of this post.

Understanding how big a shift we need in the design of teaching and learning offers a second part of the explanation of how Kentucky students can have the potential to go much further, and yet we can see that example regularly going unfulfilled.

Source Notes: Before the 2008 Stiggins manifesto, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam offered a big 1998 research synthesis on this type of assessment/evidence use, writing for researchers in Assessment in Education and for educators in the KappanMargaret Heritage’ 2010 report for the state Chiefs summarizes follow-on research in some depth –and the Wilhoit quote above appeared in her forward. Roger Marcum gets personal credit for pulling me into the Stiggins report and Ann Shannon gets a hat tip for showing me Wiliam's argument.

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