Category: Reflection

Ten Cornerstones of Cognitive Learning Sciences

January 18, 2018 by

I’ve read and read. Trying to understand the basics of the research from the sciences of learning. Trying to integrate the research from the cognitive with the emotional domains. Trying to understand the path from research on how children, teens, and adults learn to specific practices and strategies educators can use in school design, instruction, learning activities, and assessing student learning.

One of the best sources I’ve found for understanding the cognitive and motivational domains is the Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice published by OECD. In this article and the next, I’ll walk you through some of the highlights.

I’d probably skip the first chapter – you’ve heard it all before why change is needed. Chapter two offers a helpful review of the historical development of educational theory. For my own learning, the real value of the paper started in chapter three with these ten cornerstone findings of cognitive research:

1. Learning is an activity carried out by the learner. Teachers can’t just deliver curriculum and hope it sinks in. The trick is how to get learners to want to learn, to know how to learn, and to be mentally active. Then when teachers introduce new concepts and processes, the learners are ready to tackle it. Strategies to build make connections, student agency, motivation and engagement are all important.Teachers need to have content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge based on how students learn.

2. Optimal learning takes prior knowledge into account. Every educator knows this. However, it’s very hard to address if there is a push to cover the curriculum in preparation for tests. One big step of “meeting students where they are” is knowing where students are in terms of prior knowledge and helping them to move from there to the next step. Mistakes are important to help identify prior knowledge (and prior misconceptions). We have to ask ourselves, if we know this is important, why are we pushing so hard to cover the curriculum?

3. Learning requires the integration of knowledge structures. Children are getting information and ideas from all over the place, not just the classroom. They may be making sense of it in their own way, or it may just feel like a cluttered closet. One of the jobs of educators is to help them organize knowledge within domains and across domains. There are lots of implications for educational practice, but two jump out at me. First, competencies can be used to organize domain structures to have meaning. That’s what New Hampshire tried to do with their graduation competencies. Standards are just too small to be organizing structures. Second, interdisciplinary learning is important and schools need to be organized to support it. It’s likely that our domain silos, which often get more rigid in high school, are constraining learning.

4. Optimally, learning balances the acquisition of concepts, skills, and meta-cognitive competence. Next time someone argues that facts are all they care about and we shouldn’t be teaching concepts and meta-cognitive skills, it’s worth reminding them that if facts matter, we should turn to the facts of cognitive research. Understanding one of these without the others leaves students vulnerable when dealing with real problems in the real world. If you don’t have deep understanding of the concept, how do you know which process to use? If you can’t take a step back and see how you are dealing with a problem, how do you figure out what you need to change your behavior or build your knowledge to learn it? Being competent to take on the challenges of college and careers means having all three: concepts, skills, and meta-cognitive skills. (more…)

Moving Forward with the Science of Learning

January 11, 2018 by

Deadlines do matter. They get us to focus our attention to put in the time and effort to learn something. They help us learn time management because we uncover more about our own patterns of learning, both cognitive and social & emotional.

As you probably know, I’ve been puttering along in my learning about the science of learning (SoL). However, a national meeting on the topic has forced me to actually stop the review process and move into the mode of “What do I Think?” about the SoL and what it means for our schools, educators, and learners.

Here are a few high level thoughts about the SoL:

1. There is an extraordinary amount of agreement about the science of learning. Although I’m sure as you get down into the weeds there are plenty of healthy debates going on, educators should be confident going forward. This isn’t just the newest idea developed by a foundation that will get a lot of attention and then fade away. It is solid research, there is agreement in the field, and it has huge implications.

2. The field of SoL hasn’t fully integrated the research. The cognitive research is often described separately from the research on the motivational and social & emotional aspects of learning. This can give one cognitive overload trying to make sense of it all. There needs to be another round of work making the research more accessible.

3. There is a chance of focusing on one piece of the SoL without understanding the risk. When you read the SoL, it will often emphasize the limitations of the working memory. It’s a very narrow door from working memory into long-term memory, and we need to learn to manage it. However, if the cognitive research is all you focus on then you get very specific practices including chunking (they’ve made that a formal word in the world of cognitive sciences), spacing, practice until it becomes routine, and other strategies to move into long-term memory. Of course, you also can think about retrieval strategies to pull information out of long-term memory as well.

It’s truly very important to help students develop routine expertise so they can use their working memory in other ways and don’t have to expend it on addition or sounding out a word. However, the research on social & emotional learning is equally as important to consider. School norms, creating a safe environment through culturally responsive strategies, helping students build social & emotional skills and meta-cognitive skills so they can manage their attention, and structuring schools around building incredibly warm, consistent relationships will all help with reducing the amount of noise in working memory. (more…)

Personalized Learning…Is It All a Matter of Time?

December 12, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on October 12, 2017.

Sometimes I worry that the call to personalize learning is actually code for asking leaders and teachers to do more than they’ve ever been asked to do—but without additional resources to do it.

And by resources, I mostly mean time.

This is especially true for traditional systems that may be aiming to adopt new approaches to teaching and learning but less willing to do away with legacy structures. Innovation theory shows us that in industry after industry, existing organizations often default to hybrid innovations that combine new technologies or approaches with old ways of doing business. Put differently, rather than actually making any real tradeoffs, organizations may start doing new things without stopping doing old things.

Noble as these efforts may be, school systems risk layering on more and more responsibilities and processes in the name of personalization, without new resources or more efficient processes to support those additional duties. And although dedicated teachers and staff may be able to carry that load part of the way, the “just do more” approach hardly bodes well for scaling such efforts in the future.

Although schools may manage to add more time on the margins, personalized learning at scale will likely require a massive rethinking of how schools use time, alongside pursuing new efficiencies that can save time. I was reminded of this while reading Silicon Schools’ recent reporton its past five years supporting new and redesigned schools in the California Bay Area. In it, the fund’s leaders share actionable insights about the promise and pitfalls of personalized approaches. Among these takeaways, the word “time” appears a total of 39 times in the report’s 27 pages.

Specifically, the report highlights a vital reality on the ground: how schools use time is a balancing act. The report enumerates tradeoffs schools personalizing learning have had to weigh: how much time students should spend working on their own versus in groups; how much time students should be in front of screens versus offline; how much time students should work on content that is at versus above their current instructional level.

Looking beyond just Silicon Schools’ portfolio, thinking through such tradeoffs extends to the structures of entire school systems aiming to personalize instruction. It’s in making—or failing to make—these tradeoffs, however, that efforts to build a coherent personalized system risk getting stuck.

How can systems tackle time tradeoffs? In some cases this means looking for new instructional approaches that slice and dice time differently; in others this means seeking out automation and efficiencies; and in other this means wholly rethinking the structure of the school day. Here’s three levers schools could leverage to fundamentally rethink time: (more…)

Steps Toward Maturity: Introducing the Concept of Student Autonomy (Part 2)

November 7, 2017 by

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

In the first part of this series, I call for us to be strategic in how we communicate the concepts related to student agency to the general public while also building a more precise understanding of what it means and how to help students develop the mindsets, maturity, and skills to be lifelong learners. In this article, the concept of student autonomy is defined as well as the implications for building a system of assessments.

In the previous article, I suggest that study groups on concepts related to student agency could help the field. I’d start with the newly released paper Principles for Assessment Design and Use to Support Student Autonomy, developed by the Hewlett Assessment for Learning Working Group and available at the CIE website. It is a must read. This paper introduces design principles to help build student agency through assessment for learning practice and is a launching pad for much deeper conversations in our field. Below are a few highlights to consider:

Student Autonomy

The paper uses the term autonomy to refer to two concepts: student agency and self-regulated learning (beware the confusion that could happen with SRL and SEL).

Student Agency: According to a recent report from Harvard University, agency is “the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency “do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives” (Ferguson, Phillips, Rowley & Friedlander 2015, p. 1). Indicators of student agency in school include a sense of efficacy, a growth mindset, a goal-orientation to learning, and higher future aspirations (Ferguson et al., 2015).

Self-Regulated Learning: Self-regulated learning (SRL) is one aspect of the broader skill of self-regulation (NRC, 2012). SRL involves employing strategies such as goal-setting, developing plans to achieve goals, monitoring progress toward goals, and upon reflection adapting learning approaches to move closer to desired goals (e.g., Boekaerts & Cascallar, 2006, Pintrich, 2000, 2004; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2011). SRL applies not only to cognition but also to motivation and overt behavior, for example, removing distractions from a learning situation, effective time-management, and the focused exertion of effort (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2007). (more…)

Steps Toward Maturity: Making Meaning of the Mindsets and Skills for Student Agency (Part 1)

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Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This is the beginning of a periodic series on what it means to help students build the mindsets and skills to be a lifelong learner.

Student agency is a phrase that is nearly impossible to use in everyday language and is certainly not a phrase that parents use to describe their children. “Look at the agency my darling Marla has climbing that tree.” “My Martin is doing so well, he is demonstrating such agency these days.” Nope, nuh uh. That isn’t language that is going to be accessible to parents.

Student agency is also a concept that has yet to be fully developed or understood in our field. I’ve heard way too many people who specialize in blended and online learning interpret agency as choice. More choice, more agency. Wrong! I’ve heard people say that working through adaptive educational software is agency. Of course, there could be some elements of skill-building depending on what skills or dispositions a student is working on (with the coaching of the teacher leading to greater agency), but in general, programs are designed to guide students with discrete choices along the way. I’ve heard others describe it primarily as leadership, others as giving students opportunity to have voice. However, helping students become lifelong learners and have the ability to navigate new, and often challenging, environments is much more than choice, voice, or leadership opportunities.

There are other related concepts, such as executive functioning (the worst of all in terms of family-friendly language), self-regulation, social & emotional learning, habits of success, and of course the all-important growth mindset. In the next article, the concept of student autonomy will be introduced for us to consider.

It is helpful to have complementary sets of concepts so that experts within schools (i.e., teachers) and within the research community can develop and implement evidence-based strategies that help students learn and succeed. We need the technical language, and we all need to become adept at using the technical language, so we can communicate with preciseness and discern between different capacities and strategies. (more…)

Memorization is Still Important, Even in Deeper Learning

October 31, 2017 by

This is the 2nd article in a periodic series on aligning competency-based schools with the learning sciences.

In an earlier post, I described my effort to understand the cognitive learning sciences and begin to make connections with our work in competency-based education. This post, and part of what may become a series, is another effort to ground our work in the learning sciences. And like the earlier post, I will turn to the Deans for Impact Science of Learning. They’ve organized their summary into six questions:

  • How do students understand new ideas?
  • How do students learn and retain new information?
  • How do students solve problems?
  • How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  • What motivates students to learn?
  • What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

I realized that I have been making a bit of an error in how I talk about the efforts to engage students in the higher level skills, usually level 3 and higher in the different taxonomies such as Webb or Bloom. I’ve tended to judge those schools that have stayed focused on memorization and comprehension without creating opportunity for more analysis and evaluation or applied or deeper learning. I’ve tended to see them as underserving their students, out of touch with the demands of the skills young adults need in today’s world, and even holding low expectations for students. Perhaps they are all those things, but my mistake has been in undervaluing memorization.

Memorization must not, of course, be the end-all of the school experience. However, it must be appreciated and valued in the role it plays in learning and the application of learning. In fact, as we think about helping students develop the skills to be lifelong learners, perhaps we should lift the knowledge about how to memorize in the long-term into that set of skills every student should know. From Science of Learning:

Cognitive Principle: Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied. The size and content of this set varies by subject matter.

Practical Implications for the Classroom: Teachers will need to teach different sets of facts at different ages. For example, the most obvious (and most thoroughly studied) sets of facts are math facts and letter-sound pairings in early elementary grades. For math, memory is much more reliable than calculation. Math facts (e.g., 8 x 6 = ?) are embedded in other topics (e.g., long division). A child who stops to calculate may make an error or lose track of the larger problem. Additionally, the advantages of learning to read by phonics are well established. (more…)

Making Sense of the Learning Sciences

October 24, 2017 by

I’ve been spending a year reading about the cognitive learning sciences and also about John Hattie’s work to review the effect of different strategies. Even with Bror Saxberg’s coaching (for which I’m deeply grateful), it’s been slow going for me, as I started with a pretty blank slate. I was also simply stuck. I was learning and my familiarity with the high level findings was growing, but I couldn’t figure out how to apply it. I was simply having difficulty making meaning for my work at CompetencyWorks because so much of the power of the cognitive learning sciences impacts practices of the teacher at a much more granular level than I encounter on my three- to five-hour school visits.

I had two breakthroughs recently, and now connections are being easily made. First, when reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, I realized that his exploration of different systems of thinking, with System 1 operating automatically and involuntarily and System 2 operating with deliberation and reasoning, opens a door for us to challenge the bias that we bring into our work and our relationships. It opens the door for us to be more cognizant of the types of bias and how they impact the learning lives of children in our schools. Perhaps we can use the learning sciences to cleanse ourselves and our schools of bias.

Second, as we think about the competency-based cultures, structures, and pedagogical philosophy (one of which is that teaching should be grounded in the learning sciences), it’s important for us to test out how districts and schools are supporting teachers to use the cognitive learning sciences as well as those that influence engagement and motivation. In other words, what are the structures and reinforcements that make it easy for teachers to use the learning sciences, and are there ways in which districts and schools are creating obstacles that we should address?

To get started, I’ll turn to the Deans for Impact Science of Learning, by far the easiest summary out there. Let’s look at one of the three principles under How Do Students Understand New Ideas?

Cognitive Principle: Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts.

Practical Implications for the Classroom: Content should not be kept from students because it is “developmentally inappropriate.” The term implies there is a biologically inevitable course of development, and that this course is predictable by age. To answer the question “is the student ready?” it’s best to consider “has the student mastered the prerequisites?” (more…)

Strategic Reflection on the Field of Competency Education: Lessons Learned

August 25, 2017 by

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

In this third post on our annual strategic reflection, the focus will be on how our understanding of competency education is deepening (i.e., lessons learned). Click here for the discussion on our progress and the growing number of organizations and literature in the field. You can hear the entire webinar on this topic here.

When it comes to competency education, everyone is learning. Below are just a few of the areas around which our learning has been deepening over the past year. We are very interested in what you are learning. Please leave comments or consider writing an article on three things you learned about competency education this year. 

1. Developing diverse leadership requires intentionality and changes in practice and processes. As a field, we got off to a bad start in terms of diversity with way too many meetings and panels that were filled with white people relatively comfortable with the fact that we were missing critical expertise and perspectives. At CompetencyWorks, we’ve been working hard to correct that situation, including ensuring that the Summit reflected the beautiful diversity of America. We surpassed our goals and learned a lot along the way. To sum it up – we had to change our processes and had to keep the commitment to diversity front and center in our decision-making. I’ll write more about this later.

2. Invest in building the culture as much as the structure. Agency and empowerment matter. We’ve known the culture of competency education is important. I used to call it the spirit of CBE. At the Summit, there was consensus in the group working on the issues related to quality that we can build a perfect technical CBE structure, but if it is rooted in the traditional culture, there is no reason to believe that there will be changes. Thus, CBE is both a cultural and structural transformation (and still requires effective instruction, by the way!). We will now start thinking and learning about what really goes into this culture and how schools are making the cultural shift. One thing we know is that it requires a commitment to equity and inclusivity.

3. We need to be able to directly confront the institutional practices and bias that leads to inequity. During the Summit process, we did a lot of research on equity, and the participatory Technical Advisory Group process introduced us to even more. We realized that you can design for a more fair system but it requires more than that. First, we have to make sure we are drawing from all the research on how to best serve students who have been historically underserved into the core instructional practices, not as add-ons. Second, it’s not just about doing the right thing. We also have to dig out the problematic practices in the institutions and be upfront that we all have biases that shape our behaviors and decisions. By committing to air out biases, we can engage in conversations that don’t have to be colored by shame, but by the shared exhilaration of working together against racism and other isms.

4. Pedagogy first – if there is a shared understanding of the principles of learning and teaching based on the learning sciences, every part of implementation will go easier. As I wrote in the paper Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems, schools that convert to competency education begin to focus on aligning and improving instruction, learning experiences (curriculum), and assessment soon after they build a shared and transparent continuum of learning. However, we have discovered that some schools clarify their pedagogy – creating a shared understanding of the principles of teaching and learning based on learning sciences (including engagement and motivation) – before they convert to competency education. They begin the commitment to doing what is best for kids by leading with instruction and assessment – the core function of schools. It’s much easier to understand and value CBE when the district or school shares the commitment to doing what is best for kids in the classroom. (more…)

Reflecting on The Field of Competency Education: Where We Started and Where We Are Now

August 22, 2017 by

Every summer, the CompetencyWorks team and our advisors reflect on the progress that is being made and the emerging issues that we see developing. This helps us know where to focus our attention in our daily work, and it is a leadership opportunity for all of us to hear from others from around the country and different perspectives about how competency education is advancing.

This article highlights some of the areas of our reflection and will accompany today’s webinar Competency Education: A Reflection on the Field and Future Directions. For those of you completely new to competency education, you might want to glance at What is Competency Education? as a starting point.

Where We Started and Where We Are Now

There are different starting points for how we tell the story of where we started. Several valuable reports provide slightly different starting points and critical stepping stones, although almost everyone will recognize Benjamin Bloom’s contribution. It would actually be an interesting project to talk to leading innovators and find out the key advances in education they are building upon. For those of you interested, I suggest the following reports to learn more about the foundation for competency-based education:

At CompetencyWorks, our understanding of competency education is that it is a transformation of culture and structure. It is best approached as a district reform to enable students to have the fullest support no matter where they are on the learning continuum, from kindergarten on up to college level. The commitment to all students successfully learning the skills they will need for college, career, and life also requires a strong commitment from leadership – both school board and district level. However, there are many examples of schools within traditional districts being able to implement in a way that is highly meaningful even though there may be some limitations and work-arounds.

Thus, our starting point of competency education often begins in the mid-1990s, where, on one coast, innovators in Chugach School District were transforming their schools in response to Native Alaskan communities demanding that their children be educated. On the other side of the country, innovators were developing Diploma Plus and Boston Day and Evening Academy to re-engage students by focusing on learning and skill-building, not simply accruing credits.

Since then, there have been stages of development – of practice and of policy. The most important thing to remember is that, as a movement, competency education has been educator-developed and educator-driven. For example, the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, a collaboration of districts, helped to catalyze change in Maine. Lindsay Unified, one of our lighthouse districts that continues to develop and refine their model, launched their transformation in a state that has made no effort to create innovation space. In the past five years, investments have often been directed toward creating new models, including Next Generation Learning Challenges, Opportunity by Design, and XQ schools. Some of the grantees have been intentionally competency-based, while we are seeing some schools inch their way in that direction.

(more…)

Competency Education and the Complicated Task of Communicating

August 17, 2017 by

Did you see that competency education (the same as mastery-based education) was mentioned in the New York Times? In some ways it is a very helpful article to introduce people to the idea of competency education, highlighting students taking ownership, students engaging more, the opportunity for students to really learn or master the skills and content before moving on, and the focus on growth.

Yet the article also includes examples of the difficulty we are facing in communicating what competency education is about, what it means to have a high quality competency-based school, and the noise from some of the critics. Below is a sample of the conversation I had with the author (in my mind, of course) while reading the article.

Instruction

One of the issues we are facing is that although competency education is primarily a cultural and structural shift, it also has implications for instruction. We know that instruction matters – it matters a lot. You can have strong instructional practices or weak instructional practices in a school. You can have some teachers with strong professional knowledge or some with weak professional knowledge in a school.

What competency education does is creates a structure by which teachers are talking with each other about what it means to have a student become proficient, aligning their assessments and instructional strategies, and exploring what is working and what isn’t working to help each and every student reach proficiency. Competency education, when well implemented, should be igniting the professional learning of the educators.

Competency education does introduce a few important implications for instruction and assessment:

  • Students need to be active learners with opportunity to apply their learning to new contexts (this is what makes it about competencies and not just standards). This means there also need to be assessment strategies that assess students at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (i.e., performance-based assessment).
  • Instructional strategies need to meet students where they are. Yes, we want to think about grade level standards AND we want to think about where students’ performance levels are and where they have gaps. Then using their professional knowledge and taking into consideration the needs of other students and resources, educators work with students to develop strategies that will help them progress.
  • To the degree possible, summative assessments should be aligned with the depth of knowledge and the learning goals of the students. This may mean organizing assessments to be “just-in-time” with students bringing forward evidence of their learning. A student who has completed a unit at the beginning of the week and believes they have fully learned the material shouldn’t have to wait until the end of the month to move on to higher level work. In other learning experiences, there is going to be value in students working on a large project all with the same due date. But when the curriculum can be organized into more modular units, it opens the door to more flexibility for students.

When I see something like “students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers” I get worried that either the school isn’t offering enough applied learning opportunities or we aren’t communicating what is happening instructionally in the classroom. First of all, students should know where they are on their own learning paths. Second, teachers are offering instruction through several methods, including individual and small groups, online videos they have made, or perhaps online instruction. In most, most but not all, of the classrooms I have visited, students talk about the use of online adaptive programs as how they practice. Most will say they prefer to learn about new material from their teacher or from a video their teacher made. Third, there will often be choices about how students practice and then demonstrate their learning. Worksheets might be one of them, and I’ve seen students playing games to practice and build math and vocabulary fluency, working on projects, writing essays, and engaging in large, inquiry-based projects that will wrap-up with a presentation. (more…)

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