The Starting Point

“I saw student choice. The kids were writing their own songs. It was definitely DOK-4.” We were debriefing an instructional rounds experience after observing a fourth grade music class. The teacher-observer was pretty insistent that this was engaged, student-directed learning that required students to employ extended thinking skills to create something new.

“The students were all doing the same thing. The teacher walked them through the steps of creating their ‘songs’. They followed the teacher’s directions in lock step to create work that was essentially identical. I don’t see anything beyond DOK-1 here.” Another teacher in the group was certain that this was a very traditional learning activity that just employed the sparkle of a flashy app to make it look more innovative.

There were six of us at the table, including two administrators, two teachers from the same intermediate school that we were visiting, and two teachers from the primary school that feeds it. It was clear that we didn’t have a common understanding of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. That wasn’t entirely surprising. These teachers have been through a lot over the last few years.

In addition to conversations about cognitive rigor, our teachers have focused a lot on the Apple Elements of Learning over the last few years. They’ve embraced STEM and maker initiatives. They’ve worked on project based learning. They’ve enthusiastically adopted a 1:1 program, and are learning to use the SAMR model to gauge their use of technology in instruction. And they opened a new school building six months before the start of the pandemic. This year, they participated in the portrait of a graduate work that defined the characteristics we want our students to have when they leave us, and that work informed the development of a district strategic plan with new goals and initiatives for the district.

When we introduced a tool in the spring to help measure student perception of hope, belonging, engagement, and 21st century learning, we started to get some pushback. How many new initiatives can we have at a time? What do all of these things have to do with helping kids learn to read?

I know that these are all just different lenses. They’re different ways of looking at the learning experiences that we aspire to provide for every student. The frameworks align and overlap and layer with one another. But it’s hard to switch among these different lenses and keep all of the “best practices” in mind.

At one point, I made up a set of cards. I put all of the characteristics and levels and initiatives and buzzwords on them. I left some blank cards for the things I forgot. Then, I printed them and cut them out. In meetings with instructional coaches and principals and teachers and district administrators, I kept pulling them out. How are these things related to each other? We’d spread them across the table and arrange them. Where do we start? How do we tie them together? Which elements are related to each other? Which things are prerequisites to the others?

It quickly became apparent that we needed common definitions. One of the the things I noticed in moving to the new school last year was that the definitions of educational buzzwords are inconsistent. What do you mean by rigor? How do we define PLC? When we talk about rubrics, are we speaking the same language? I reformatted the cards to add a basic explanation to each term.

I went through this exercise at least half a dozen times with different groups of people. We were looking for two things. First, we wanted to build an understanding of how these frameworks fit together and complement each other. Then, we wanted to find a starting point. When working with teachers, where should we begin our focus? How do we sequence these ideas in a way that makes logical sense? How do we capitalize on previous work to get to some of the more complex strategies and concepts?

Invariably, we landed on student engagement and learner’s mindset. When we debated the starting point for leading teachers through the alphabet soup of buzzwords and strategies and initiatives, we always ended up with one of those two.

If we start with the idea that we’re all learners, and we foster a passion for learning among students and teachers in our schools, we have a foundation upon which we can build everything else. Project based learning doesn’t work without student engagement. Student choice doesn’t make much sense if the students are apathetic about what they’re learning. If we want learners to collaborate and create and think critically, they have to engage with their learning from a position that fosters productive struggle and resilience, and strives for great accomplishment. The teacher, too, has to embrace the idea that we’re all continually learning and growing. Teachers can’t teach the way they were taught anymore. School is very different from the way it was when we occupied the student desks. And that requires everyone in the school to be a learner.

Engagement and mindset won’t define everything schools need to be. But without them, we will keep the schools we’ve always had.