ZIS COETAIL Course 4 Project – Vertical Collaboration on Media Rubrics…And Beyond!

Crossposted from ZIS COETAIL cohort blog.

Shea and I worked on revising media rubrics for our Course 4 project. In my two years at ZIS, we haven’t done much cross-divisional work between English curriculum areas (CA), probably because we are busy, busy, busy people. As such, this has been a very illuminating peek inside the villa, checking out how the English CA is using rubrics to assess and instruct student writing and media creation.

My original media rubrics assessed the media product. For performance assessments, the performance itself often makes up the assessable product, so this made sense. These rubrics were based on the Upper School English CA’s Writing Rubric, which they developed themselves before my arrival. However, later media rubrics focused more on the genre of writing or media that students were asked to create. Interestingly, feedback on the earlier rubrics from students was that they weren’t terribly helpful for reflection or identifying areas for improvement. Because we were learning media creation from consuming and analyzing media models, such as Radiolab for podcasts, I asked students to write our News Writing rubric based on the models they listened to and read, but in a different form than earlier. My Masters action research was on student created rubrics from models and I am a big fan because students determine, and therefore internalize, the expectations for outcomes.

I chose to use a blank 6 Traits rubric because I have used the 6 Traits for years and find the breakdown apt for decoding and planning good writing. Students filled in the blanks based on what they saw as good, bad or mediocre. When we reached the conventions band, we realized together than, as some groups were writing and others were podcasting, we needed dual conventions bands for each media type. This really proved powerful. Recently, I have begun working on a video rubric, as the kids are doing investigative reporting and creating a video report. Through revising my existing rubrics to jive with Shea’s, I had an epiphany that drew also on the earlier experience of student created rubrics: Media is determined by conventions. I never needed that podcast rubric, but rather needed kids to know the conventions of the form. In addition to adherence to conventions, content, style, creativity, and format determine quality. Rubrics should reflect degrees of quality.

As I began to work with Shea, sharing feedback and making revisions, what became obvious is that our 5 column rubrics clashed with the middle school’s four column rubrics. A four column rubric is best because it eliminates the lure of the middle ground and forces a decision on the part of the assessor. I often borrow bits from grade bands as I assess a piece, which is as much a part of how I write rubrics as how I see student work. However,the new four column rubrics wound up stronger, I believe, than their predecessors. You may also note the blank band for video conventions. My students are viewing more media examples this weekend in order to fill in the blanks on Monday. Next, they will create a rubric for investigation and we will simply copy and paste the genre conventions below, merging the elements of quality into one rubric.

As I review these rubrics today, I see room for further improvement: “Sentence Fluency” could be better described (students wrote that, though, so it is meaningful to them). Also, what Sentence Fluency means for video may be so abstract as to demand a new band title. We’ll see. However, this process has led me to understand instruction and assessment of media creation in a new, more purposeful way. We can’t divorce content from form, period, and so our assessment tools should reflect that.

Further, by collaborating with Shea, I have seen in her revision an excellent clarification of media conventions wedded to content – media literacy demands are now embedded directly into her “Sell It” rubric. Also, I really appreciated her addition of an “Overall/Voice” band, which ties together the norms of an advertisement with the voice behind it. I’m not sure how to incorporate this into my current rubrics, but I will be considering a way to do so because it succinctly and explicitly illustrates the purpose for and function of the project’s outcome. Cool!

Working with Shea was great because it made creating better rubrics easier. Working together made my process much quicker and my final products stronger, less cluttered, and based on increased expectations for success. I look forward to more vertical teaming with Shea and my middle school colleagues in the future, not only because it is an enjoyable learning experience, but because it improves my teaching practice and, by extension, student learning.

The NETS and Good Teaching

Cross-posted from the ZIS “COETAIL” group blog.

When I read this question seeking a gauge of how important the NETS are to good teaching, I experienced a massive wave of cynicism that was broken by returning to the standards. Promoting creativity, designing progressive curriculum and assessment, modeling skills, engaging with ethics, and continually learning are lofty and important goals. Are these essential for good teaching? Yes.

I heard the term “common formative assessment” this weekend from a fine educator in the States, which seems like Orwellian English for standardized test. In too many US schools, students are treated as interchangeable parts, completing identical tasks or tests for data. Data makes great spreadsheets, but I’m not at all sure how that is formative. For the love of all that is sacred, can we not cultivate creative acts? How much more interesting for everybody – pity these poor teachers delivering the assessments, too – if kids spend common time in school or between schools working on a self-directed or cooperative creative, authentic activity. The data could be gathered in a celebration of creativity, an exhibition, and/or a website, if not shared in a more organic, authentic manner. Just NET Standard 1 is a powerful reminder that school can be real, based on actual problem solving driven by students. If all teachers and administrators stopped at #1, school would be a more dynamic place, full of uncommon formative assessments.

NET Standard #2 is fine. It’s probably the least important of the bunch for me. I do this, but most schools don’t rain iPads and software, so I’m going to give everyone else on Earth a pass on this one, in terms of being a good educator.

NETS numero tres is fantastic. What I love about this statement is that it begins with demonstrating fluency and then moves into collaboration, communication, and critical research skills. By demonstrating fluency, I imagine this standard to mean that we don’t write a blog post and then behave like we’ve pulled a rabbit out of a hat, but rather use a blog platform to do what blogs do – communicate information. We make a video to share information that benefits from a visual platform. We snap photos with our cell phone when we need a photo. So we model fluency because we are fluent; the environments that we use this fluency, at whatever level of proficiency we have, to build are what matter most. If I ask students to write a descriptive essay about Genghis Khan or a pterodactyl using the five senses, I wonder if I am fluent in using my senses or in writing (have you tasted a pterodactyl? To be fair, it’s probably a lot like chicken). If I ask students to burp into a Voicethread and call it a project, I wonder if I am fluent in project management or design (the Voicethread bit is easy enough to learn). Anyway, that’s why this standard is essential, because it transcends the digital.

NETS number four, ethics. Essential. We should treat ethics as a vast field for exploration and reflection, not as a whipping post for the unwashed, of course. There are no children who I have met without a finely honed sense of justice, and if you doubt the accuracy of that statement, hand out brownies of different sizes tomorrow in class. However, students are rarely encouraged to explore the foundations of their belief and value structures, much less to use these as a means for engaging with the world beyond their heads. Making real-world issues available for exploration in the classroom lights students on fire and teaches important skills like reading, writing, arguing, and critical analysis. While it’s hard for me not to jump up on the soapbox when class discussions range into ethics, for example, or responsible, active citizenship, I also make a point of exposing my own biases and their ethical foundations, as well as how these ideas create a lens through which I encounter information online or elsewhere. Sometimes I appear as a real person to kids, I think, which is powerful. I also like the focus in this standard on using technology appropriately to reach out to peers and communicate openly. All around, #4 is good stuff for good educators.

And finally, #5. If you ain’t learning, you’re dead. And dead educators are often less effective than live ones, but not always. Zing!


Thoughts on The Future of Schooling

At Zurich International School, we’ve got a weekend “InnovateZIS” think tank approaching in which the topic is “Schools Out: Learning 2030. Will schools as we know them be needed in 2030?” A series of essential questions have been posited, including:

  • What is the role of creativity in school?
  • What core elements should the curriculum of the future contain?
  • How will Learning 2030 affect social relationships in schools?
  • Should schools prepare students for the world of work?

Two other questions deal with learning spaces, which is an important and fascinating topic that I have been thinking about regularly since a recent visit to Microsoft Switzerland’s headquarters. But beyond physical environments, what is the future of curriculum, creativity, and relationships in school, particularly in terms of what students should know after they leave school?

Thinking about the future of school is tricky. As Dr. Seymour Papert pointed out, “It is impossible to predict what the school of the future will be. History always outsmarts the futurists.” A large disconnect already exists between what the world of today is and how schools operate. Schools are inherently conservative institutions, where change comes slowly. As such, we continue to sort by age ( rather than interest area or fluency level, for example. As such, kids are robbed of a diverse community of learners, one more socially traditional than the hierarchical age model. Learning 2030 should be about social relationships predicated on a shared journey of discovery across age groups, including a student-teacher relationship of cooperative learning. As a teacher, I’d rather be a learner than an authority – a guide with experience in my areas of interest who creates opportunities for students to learn and build meaning individually and socially. As Papert goes on to say, “But it is easy to predict what it will NOT look like. I am sure that the practice of segregating children by age into “grades” will be seen as an old-fashioned, and inhumane, method of the “assembly line” epoch. I am sure that the content of what they learn will have very little in common with the present day curriculum.”

I hope Dr. Papert is right. A responsive curriculum is no curriculum at all. Curriculum tends to focus on facts that need to be learned or a banal, arbitrary “spiral” of skills; learn persuasion in 10th grade English as you read Julius Caesar, learn comparison in 11th grade English as you read Othello. Dr. Papert also described an “intellectual diet” of content for children and a broader curriculum predicated on fluencies in various skills like accessing information with “knowledge technologies.”  Teachers engaged in a mutually engaging, constructivist process of learning with students can craft this diet to help kids explore their passions by doing things. Doing is creating, permanently, temporarily, or ephemerally. The role of creativity in school is central, or should be. Standards and curriculum can’t really address that without being extremely broad.

At the end of the day, I don’t know any happy people who make a living doing something they hate. As such, preparing students for the world of work means helping them build positive working relationships, understand their areas of interest, build fluencies in skills essential for life in the 21st century (most of which were essential in the 19th century), and create habits of mind and habits of work for success, happiness, and ethical engagement in society.

Bloom’s Taxonomy & Learning in a Digital Age (Long!)

The re-conceptualizing of Bloom’s Taxonomy a decade ago led to the dismissal of synthesis, the devaluation of evaluation, and the promotion of creation. Underlying these trends is a classic Anglo-Saxon belief in the primacy of individual autonomy and ownership of production (within a limited set – not too much Marxist influence in American culture today, for example). If that seems like overstatement, then suffice it to state that synthesis is the process that undergirds all creative processes, and so demands its rightful place on the taxonomy of higher order thinking. Nothing that is created by humans today exists in a vacuum, but is instead the result of an ecosystem of influences and relies upon those influences for its very existence. Evaluation is correctly placed on the original, as well, because it covers the reflective faculties so essential to creativity and innovation. If we’re not evaluating our products by a critical, detached thinking process simultaneously linked to a concrete, perhaps internalized set of values, then a richness and a higher potential quality is lost, which is why I believe the original taxonomy is superior to the revised version.

I’m not the only one who believes in the power of synthesis. Ultimately, we come to new understandings and we create new things or ideas through connection with other ideas or people. George Siemens refers to this as the power of “weak ties:”

Weak ties are links or bridges that allow short connections between information. This principle has great merit in the notion of serendipity, innovation, and creativity. Connections between disparate ideas and fields can create new innovations. (¶20)

This process, as Steven Johnson points out, takes time. In fact, when I teach a creative unit, I borrow heavily from Geoff Petty’s “Creative Process” because it provides a concrete framework that mirrors what successful people do, like SQ3R provides for readers, in which students can explore an essentially abstract process. This is the job of the teacher – provide a framework that makes reading, viewing, exploring, writing, speaking, discussing, analyzing, synthesizing or creating, and evaluating explicit for students. Once they work through an explicit framework a number of times with increasing autonomy, those sorts of frameworks become internalized, habitual, part of the toolbox. While I believe in constructing knowledge, I also believe that most students can access the higher order thinking skills in the taxonomy if they add skills like these that make regular, daily processes easy, which leads me to my questions about how much we lean on technology to provide access to higher order thinking skills in articles like the one linked for this week’s reading, recent blog posts I’ve found via my PLN, and ideas uncovered via my Twitter feed.

First, beyond the problem with order and the replacement of synthesis with creativity that ignores the nature of creativity and the ultimate importance of reflective evaluation above all, a closer look at evaluation in the digital realm exposes shortcuts to what that thinking skill could be. Evaluation is related to the following verbs:

Key Terms – Evaluating:

Checking, hypothesising, critiquing, experimenting, judging, testing, detecting, monitoring, (Blog/vlog) commenting, reviewing, posting, moderating, collaborating, networking, reflecting, (Alpha & beta) testing. (Churches ¶10)

Hypothesizing is not evaluation until after a cycle of experimentation has finished and a new, altered cycle is to begin; in this first case, it is analysis. Commenting, via blog or vlog, may be evaluation, or it may bypass the higher order thinking skills altogether in a reactive, emotional outburst. I was going to link Chris Crocker’s famous “Leave Britney Alone” vlog to underline this point, but thought better of it out of compassion for his youthful exuberance. The point can be made easily with Jim Cramer or Glenn Beck.

Technological tools do not force higher order thinking skills. While I agree that “constructive criticism and reflective practice” can be “facilitated” by online interacting or blogging, I disagree that “Students commenting and replying to postings have to evaluate the material in context and reply” (Churches ¶10). I have seen an awful lot of “ticking the box” when students in graduate-level courses respond to each other, completing the assignment and moving on by parroting a little or cheerleading. I think Andrew Churches would likely agree with these statements and point out that it is how an exercise or online space is structured that determines the depth and quality of higher order thinking that takes place and that student-centered environments encourage greater engagement with ideas and discussion, leading to greater analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

However, it seems like a thread of belief exists within the educational technology community that certain devices, software, or apps lend themselves clearly to accessing certain levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and this is where the whole thought experiment breaks down for me. For example, classifying iPad apps by corresponding or related level Bloom’s Taxonomy has become popular, here done by the excellent Langwitches blog. Note the verbs by level – I like Churches’ verbs more as I find them more apropos, but not perfect. I can’t get on board with verbs like “rate” or “recommend” for evaluation because of the social nature of the technology; when we “like” something on Facebook, is that a rating or a recommendation? I’d say it’s somewhere in there and I’d go further to say that the act has less to do with evaluation than with liking the implications by association and clicking the thumb’s up button. But I digress. While I find the iPad app by Bloom’s Taxonomy chart idea interesting, I think it places undue faith in these apps. I like Flipboard and can’t live without Skype, but I don’t see either tool as more inherently geared towards evaluation than Diigo or Posterous (with their fun new social structure, which may or may not stay fun), or even the Globe app for that matter. Heck, evaluation of source material is an essential skill, and what is the globe if not a source document?

At the end of the day, if we, as teachers and students, create environments in which risk taking is valued and design opportunities for exploring the world, drawing connections, creating something new as a result, and reflecting on the entire process, integrating learned skills and information, and considering revised approaches for greater efficacy or success next time, then technological tools will be applied in ways that regularly span the breadth of the taxonomy. Pencils and paper would be applied the same way, given the same environment. It’s not what tools we use, but how we use tools that lead us up the taxonomy to higher order thinking skills.