Common Language

We want our students to be problem solvers. We want them to use their critical thinking and innovation skills to combine knowledge across disparate domains to find creative solutions to complex problems. We want them to be collaborative and articulate in varied environments, both online and offline. They have to understand society’s evolving relationship with information, and learn to successfully navigate an information-abundant world. And we want our students to have a sense of civic responsibility, understanding that as a part of the community, they are inexorably responsible for the civility of the world in which they live.

Most of that isn’t in the content standards. It’s not in the course descriptions. It’s not on the ACT. Our success in reaching those goals is not reflected on the school district report card, or in college admissions, or scholarships earned or trophies accumulated. These are difficult goals. They’re hard to define. They’re hard to implement. And they’re hard to measure.

Photo Credit: Jasmine T. on Flickr.

We don’t treat these things as content. “This week, we’re going to focus on metaphors, two-digit multiplication, the water cycle, and collaboration.” “After we finish this unit on gerunds, we’re moving on to empathy.” It doesn’t quite work that way. These goals aren’t part of a checklist of things that students need to know. They’re more of a mindset shift. They’re a move away from disseminating information to learners toward active learning techniques through which students built their own understanding of the world and how to thrive in it. Along the way, they still learn the information, but more importantly, they learn how to learn when they need to. We know we can’t possibly give them all of the knowledge they’re going to need. So the best thing we can do is equip them to become their own teachers.

To do this, we have to be intentional about it. It’s much more difficult than just explaining simple machines or the battle of Yorktown, and asking the students to give that information back to use to prove they remember it. We use a number of frameworks to sharpen our focus. The Apple Elements of Learning (EoL) book describes the characteristics of critical thinking, teamwork, communication & collaboration, personalization of learning, and real-world engagement. It gives teachers concrete examples of how those characteristics can be incorporated to various degrees in elementary, middle school, and high school classes, and it helps teachers structure their own lessons to reflect those qualities in the work their own students complete.

We’ve also embraced Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) as a structure to rate the cognitive demand required to complete a learning task. We generally over-simplify the model by dividing it into four levels and mapping verbs to each level. DOK level one focuses on information recall. Level two includes skills and concepts. Strategic thinking is the focus of level three. And at level four, extended thinking is evident. Different learning objectives require different levels of cognitive demand, but hopefully all students have opportunities to engage in learning activities that address levels three and four.

And that brings us to technology, which has its own structure. The SAMR model describes the degree to which technology transforms instruction, from Substitution (reading a digital book or taking notes on an iPad) through Augmentation and Modification (the technology affords some advantages that are impractical without it) to Redefinition, in which the technology can be used to redefine the work. I tend to think of the SAMR model as a way to ask the question, “what makes all this technology worth the effort?” Flash cards and notebooks are cheap and reliable. Why do we need Chromebooks and iPads? If we’re truly leveraging the advantages of technology, we’ll see it in the modification and redefinition stages of the SAMR model.

As I’ve watched teachers and engaged in conversations about learning this year, though, two big hurdles with these frameworks have become evident.

The first problem is that they’re all leveled, and there is judgment built into those levels. To what degree is “teamwork” evident in this lesson? The Elements of Learning rubric helps us assess that. This lesson has a low degree of teamwork. That lesson has a high level of teamwork. The same is true for critical thinking and real-world engagement and the other elements. By rating lessons as “low,” “medium”, or “high” in each of those categories, we’re judging the lessons, whether we want to or not. Sometimes, teamwork is important. But other times, we need to work independently.

The same is true for Depth of Knowledge. If a lesson rates at a DOK-1 level, does that mean it’s 25% as good as a lesson at DOK-4? Not necessarily. And if the SAMR scale rates at the substitution level rather than modification or redefinition, does that mean it’s a waste of time? Not at all. Does that mean the teacher is ineffective? Definitely not.

But giving them numbers sets up an inherent judgment. We want to be on the right side of the table. We want higher engagement, bigger numbers, better stuff. Every teacher should want that, right? Every student should experience that. Why do we have these goals and structures after all, right? If we wanted a low degree of EoL at DOK-1 with substitution level tech integration, we wouldn’t still be talking about this. Schools have been doing that for generations.

But every lesson in every class can’t be at the other end of the spectrum either. That’s exhausting and impractical. The frameworks are intended to help us keep a finger on the pulse of where we are, so we can recognize and seize opportunities to push the boundaries when it makes sense to do so. I almost feel like it would be better to get away from numbers and levels and use something like colors or flavors instead. Today’s lesson uses a strawberry level of academic rigor. Tomorrow, we’re going to work on a project that employs grape.

The other problem with these structures is one of calibration. Earlier this week, I was engaged in a somewhat heated debate with five other teachers about a class that we observed. Some of us felt that the lesson was best categorized as DOK-1, while others insisted that it was DOK-4. We cited things that we saw in the classroom and pointed to verbs on the chart. But it was clear we weren’t on the same page. That same group spent quite a bit of time discussing what we mean by “critical thinking”. If a student is composing a piece of music or writing an essay, does that mean they’re engaged in critical thinking? Maybe. It depends on what you mean.

One of the easiest ways to derail a conversation is to start asking for definitions. Ask a group of teachers, “What do you mean by learning, exactly?” An hour later, you’ll agree to disagree. But these are our goals. We want learners who create solutions, demonstrate a learner’s mindset, and embody confidence and empathy. We want our graduates to persevere, adapt, and engage with purpose. We want our students to communicate truth. To do these things, we have to have some consensus on what we’re talking about. We need a common language and common understanding. We need frameworks and structures that allow us to talk about these things and make sure they’re evident in our classrooms. It’s not about judging or grading or rating our teachers. It’s about assessing where we are, defining where we want to go, and mapping out a path to get there.