Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Intended vs. Actual Learning

"Task predicts performance"

"You learn the work by doing the work"

Over the past few months, I have read these phrases dozens of times, used them in some form of sentence a few hundred more, and tried to 'live my educational life' by them (not always successfully) ever since I was exposed to them when I attended the Instructional Rounds session last April.  Yet the other day, while preparing a presentation on Rounds for our school district,  I stopped our group and proposed a scenario to them--I asked them what we would as Principals if a teacher came to us and said the following:

"Hey, I am all in.  I totally get it, I need to make sure that there is a tangible and direct 'through line' from the assignments I design to the tasks that students actually do to meet the specific learning outcome I am teaching....but HOW DO I DO IT?"

Well that's pretty easy, isn't it?  I mean, you just take that outcome and create a set of activities that get students to learn that outcome, right?

Hmmm.  Now let me think about that one for a minute or two.

As a former Biology and Science teacher, I might be confronted with an outcome such as the one from the BC Science 10 Curriculum below:

"Differentiate between atoms, ions and molecules using knowledge of their structure and components"

How might I have approached that one in the past?  Well, for better or for worse, I probably would have lit up the overhead projector and given students some notes to copy with a definition of atoms, ions and molecules for starters.  I would have used some different coloured pens (not the permanent ones, of course) to draw a couple of examples of each one.  I would likely have spun a couple of thought-provoking analogies and witty anecdotes to solidify their memory of the morning's lesson.  Perhaps I might have created a chart for students that compared and contrasted some of the characteristics of each, and invited students to help me fill in the blanks.  Wait time for sure, but not too long, because we have to keep moving through this stuff.  At that point, I might have found a short video clip from a dvd (YouTube now) that appealed to the 'visual learner', and even paused a couple of times to describe what was going on in the video.  If it was longer, I might have had some guided notes to ensure that the students were following along, and checked them afterwards.  And once that was over, I would have found a few questions from that section of the textbook and assigned them to the students to reinforce what we did in the class.  I would have used the "you have enough time to do this in class, otherwise, it is for homework" line for motivation.  Bell rings, and Bob's your uncle.

I am not here to judge my performance in this instance.  If you have done lessons/do lessons like this, this is not a condemnation.  Rather in the 'learning to see, and unlearning to judge' parlance of Instructional Rounds, I wonder how I might have responded if someone were to ask me to do the following:   

"Predict what you think the student would be able to do as a result of this lesson"

Well, clearly my students would have learned about atoms, ions and molecules...right?  

Not so fast.  Let's look at what actually happened in the class (in NON-judgmental, observational terms):
  • the teacher was at the front of the class, writing on the overhead projector and speaking about atoms, ions, and molecules
  • the students sat in their chairs in pairs and worked individually
  • 17 of the 22 students copied notes from the overhead--three students took a picture with their phone, and two sat in their chairs with their notebooks open
  • the students watched the teacher draw a chart that more than half of the class copied down
  • two students gave responses to the question "What words would we use to fill in the blank here?"
    • three other students had put their hands up to respond
  • when the teacher asked a question and received no response, he waited, and then filled in the response
  • a number of students filled in the blank chart with the answers they had heard from the teacher or the class
  • the students saw a video clip, and several filled in answers from the video on fill-in the blank-style guided notes
  • several students left their sheets blank
  • at the end of the video, the teacher went through the guided notes--he read the sentence and then paused
    • the first four questions were answered by the students
    • the next nine questions were answered by the teacher - most students copied the answer down
  • the teacher assigned seven questions to do in class or for homework
    • the first three were definitions of atom, ion and molecule
    • a student called out "what page are those definitions on?"
    • another student said "Page 93"
    • most students flipped to the page which had the definitions and copied the definitions on to a piece of paper
    • one of the questions asked the students to compare and contrast atoms, ions and molecules
      • several students copied the chart from the notes the teacher had given
  • three pairs of students sat quietly with their books open and talked about a game on Saturday
  • two pairs of students did all of the questions in class
No judgement--that's what happened in the class.  If you watched the class on video, I would guess that if you used non-judgmental language, you might have penned a similar description.

So bearing this observational data in mind, what would you predict that students would be able to do as a result of the lesson?

Make no mistake, several of the students might have been able to define a couple of terms.  A few others might have done a couple of the questions 'without looking'.  But at the end of it all, I would be making a huge assumption that students in my class were actually learning much other than things such as

  • how to copy down text (if they didn't take a picture of the notes)
  • how to copy down answers by others, whether in the chart, the guided notes, or even the questions
  • if they wait long enough, someone will provide the answer
  • if they choose not to (and sit quietly and look as though they are paying attention), they really don't have to do any of these tasks.
Now some might argue that, for example, the very act of copying things down requires some level of processing by the learner. While not actually going into the neurology of the concept, I urge you to think back to your first year of post-secondary education, or just imagine mine:  I was quite capable of copying down copious amounts of notes in Calculus 102 without understanding a single word.  Moreover, if you pulled my notes away from me more than 5 seconds after I wrote them down, I likely would not have been able to remember a single thing I had written.  And I was a good student!

OK, so now I am that teacher I described above.  I have realized that I am not totally convinced that the intended learning I had hoped for my students was what they actually learned.  And now, I have come to the Principal's office and said "Hey, I am all in.  I totally get it, I need to make sure that there is a tangible and direct 'through line' from the assignments I design to the tasks that students actually do to meet the specific learning outcome I am teaching....but HOW DO I DO IT?"

In my previous post ("I'm Just Not That Interesting") I paraphrased Douglas Fisher, author of Productive Group Work--How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork and Promote Understanding and I think his thoughts (among others) also apply to how we can design lessons:  
  • From Doug Fisher - "we can maximize the interactions in the room.  We can maximize the interactions between the participants themselves, and maximize the interactions between the participants and the content and ideas that we are presenting."  Sitting in pairs or groups of three or four does not mean that students are working together, they are simply working near each other! We have to create activities that require co-creation, co-learning and interdependence for true group work to occur.
  • We can build in lateral accountability mechanisms for learners, where students have to report their learning out to their peers or to us as teachers (verbally, through demonstrations, through their own writing, through a blog post or shared editable document, etc.)
  • We can make our lessons product-driven--but an original product! Questions that can simply be copied from the textbook SHOULD be copied from the textbook. If someone gave you the option to do something faster and with less effort, it would take a dedicated learner to say "Nope, I have got to figure this out on my own"
  • We can help students to become teachers, to become experts on skills or pieces of content that they have to share with others so that they can be co-contributors and learn from others.
just to name a few. And I know that there are dozens and dozens of other ideas that perhaps I might not have myself, but other teachers will. Enter the collaborative mechanisms and web tools that are prevalent in so many of our schools today. What an engrossing collaborative topic, how will we design and implement tasks that ensure the learning of concept X or skill Y or content Z by our students?

In the final analysis, developing activities that require the creation of products through maximizing interactions and lateral accountability mechanisms is challenging. But what has been even more challenging to me as both a teacher and a Principal is trying to provide evidence that people have actually learned something from me without utilizing these types of activities in my classes or my faculty meetings.  I believe that by analyzing the non-judgmental observational data of the student learning that is the result of the tasks we assign, and by incorporating some of the strategies above (and please include more in the comments!), we can bridge the gap between the learning that we intend and the actual learning that occurs.

OK, the pressure is on -- I guess I better get to designing our next faculty meeting!


  1. Cale- Thanks for sharing such an open and honest reflection. I really enjoyed the post. It has helped me to push my own reflection and thinking throughout the course of this weekend.

  2. Hey Pal,

    This all makes perfect sense to me and I appreciate the pointer to Fisher's work. I hadn't read that book, but I'm planning to pick it up. Sounds like it's right up my alley.

    But here's some push back for both you and the principals that read your blog: Don't you think it's easier to imagine lessons like this -- and to describe them to other people -- than it is to pull them off on a day-to-day basis?

    If one of your teachers walked into your office and you gave them the response that you give here, wouldn't they go, "Yup. That's great in theory, but come in and try to make that happen in my classroom with my planning time."?

    I guess what I'm saying is that don't principals struggle to change practice when they've often got no real experience with the new practices that they are suggesting teachers embrace? And if so, how do principals gain instructional credibility with teachers? What steps should all y'all be taking in order to prove to teachers that the strategies that you are suggesting are actually doable?

    I've been a critic of the term "instructional leader" for a long while because for many weak principals, it becomes a tool of authority and power. "You need to do this because I say to do this and I AM the instructional leader," kind of stuff. For me as a teacher, instructional leadership must start and end by demonstrating one's ability to instruct TODAY's kids in TODAY's classrooms with TODAY's opportunities and barriers in the way.

    It sounds like you're doing that with your faculty meetings -- but are most of your peers reimagining faculty meetings?

    And wouldn't it be valuable if principals actually taught a class every single day -- were the teacher of record for some kids somewhere in their school -- so they could actually continue to refine and polish the ideas that they are hoping will spread through their buildings?

    Happy thinking!

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