Piecing it Together

January 16, 2014 by

piecing it together photoLately, I have been reflecting on my past experiences. Not because of illness or a milestone, but because I read something in a Tweet. Seems as though some people are concerned about proficiency-based learning. The worry is that it can lead to the creation of “microstandards” which kill deep learning and replace it with simplistic, discrete tasks that students master and check off before moving on to the next. While I have seen schools take standards and create worksheet factories so students can demonstrate mastery of the standards by simply completing the packet, I do not blame the breaking down of the standards. I believe it is good practice to identify the foundational knowledge a learner needs to apply to demonstrate understanding of a learning target. Instead, I believe the issue lies in educators not putting the pieces back together.

This revelation is what has caused the flashbacks to my previous work experiences. I did not start out as an educator. Before finding my way to the principal’s office, I worked as an engineer, a research scientist, and an animal trainer for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Regardless of the special skills required for each job, I approached issues and challenges the same. I needed to know my intended outcome, identify from where I was starting, break down the gap to script the critical moves to get me there, execute the script, and then put the pieces back together. Karen Pryor, a recognized expert in animal training circles and author of “Don’t Shoot the Dog”, was instrumental in understanding how to reward an animal as they approximated the behavior and then providing further feedback to shape the behavior you want. As an animal trainer you would not simply say, “sit” and hope the animal sat. You build an image of what sit looks like, think about the steps that need to happen to get the dog into that position, teach each step, and then put it all together until you have the full behavior. For instance, when my dog would bend his back knees, I showered him with praise. When he got his rump close to the ground, another shower. This continued until he knew that when he sat, he got rewarded. Work in the cue word “sit”, put all the steps together, and you have the desired behavior. The trick was to put it all together so the animal knew once you said sit, he was to sit.

The same scenario took place when I worked as an engineer for Quaker Oats. When we built factories we began with the end product in mind. Then we designed the factory piece by piece on separate blueprints. When done, we would be able to produce the desired cereal. The trick was to take all of the pieces and put them back together. Without well-executed, small steps, we would not have reached our desired outcome. We may have built a factory that made Puffed Rice when what we wanted was Life Cereal. Mikey would not have liked that.

Why should education be any different? Learning and doing comes from knowing where you want to go, identifying what needs to be learned along the way, and then putting all the discrete bits of knowledge together to create something new. This vision for what education should be was central to the Learning and The Brain conference held November 15-17 in Boston. Over the course of the weekend, neuroscientists and education experts discussed how we can best encourage learning. The theme was using specific learning targets aligned in a continuum and providing students with feedback on how they are doing to meet those targets as they work to answer driving questions and create authentic products.

At Mt. Ararat Middle School, we use a Marzano style scoring scale to help teachers, students, and parents see what is foundational knowledge and what accounts for hitting the learning target. We also set the reasoning level for each target using Marzano’s Taxnonmy. That way we ensure the rigor of thinking for all students. We make it all about the learning. If students can pass a quiz or test that requires retrieval, then they are at a foundational level. It is not until they have taken those discrete bits of knowledge, put them together to reason at the chosen level, and created something new that they have actually demonstrated proficiency. Teachers also combine targets to create project-based learning units using our Project Unit Planner.

I do not think it is the identifying and explicit teaching of the foundational skills necessary to meet the outcomes expressed in the Common Core that is causing the loss of deep thinking. The problem is when we stop there. If we really want to have students demonstrate proficiency, we need to allow them to put the pieces back together, apply the knowledge, and demonstrate true understanding of the concepts and skills desired in the standards. Without breaking the standards and reassembling them, our students could be like the factory that has beautiful machines but no functional floor plan, or they could be like a dog that squats for his whole life. I prefer my students to sit.

About the Author

Bill Zima began his career as a zoo educator. Seeking something that was a bit more dynamic, he became a 7th grade science teacher. He is currently the superintendent at RSU2 in Maine. He is an original member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, an organization of educators dedicated to the promotion of performance-based education systems in Maine. He is the author of "Learners Rule: Giving them a voice improves the culture of their classroom." You can follow him on Twitter (@zimaw) or reach him at zimaw (at) yahoo (dot) com.

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