Tag Archives: Rigor

Performance Tasks and Projects in the Humanities

Many of us in the Humanities, at this point, have either planned and executed a full project or performance task, or we are planning to do so as part of our end of year summative and celebration of progress with students. Projects and performance tasks are great ways to push students to apply the content-based understandings that they have learned this past year and apply them to real-world, unpredictable situations.

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe from Understanding by Design (2005) define performance tasks as:

Complex challenges that mirror the issues and problems faced by adults. Ranging in length from short-term tasks to long-term, multi-staged projects, they yield one or more tangible products and performances. They (…) (1) Involve a real or simulated setting (…), (2) Typically require the student to address an identified audience (real or simulated), (3) Are based on a specific purpose that relates to the audience, (4) Allow students greater opportunity to personalize the task, (5) Are not secure: the task, evaluative criteria, and performance standards are known in advance and guide student work.

At a time when testing is overtaking our students’ skill-set as well as their understanding of what education is really about, performance tasks can be particularly powerful tools.

With conventional paper-and-pencil tests a common problem is “teaching toward the test” or worrying more about how students will score on a test than about how they actually learn (…) but the “paradox of performance assessment” (…) is that if the outcomes are worth spending time on, if the tasks really are demonstrations of understanding, and if the criteria are clearly explained, then that’s what we ought to be teaching to.

– McTighe in Cohen, Philip. “Designing Performance Assessment Tasks”, ASCD Education Update (1995)

Performance tasks and projects are thus in direct alignment to our number 1 priority for this quarter in the Humanities:

STUDENTS ARE engaged in the content because it is rigorous, compelling, aligned to a meaningful EOY assessment, and focused around essential questions that bring to light social justice issues. BECAUSE TEACHERS ARE planning units and lessons that have strong visions of mastery, are aligned to a meaningful EOY summative, and that are propelled by essential questions and meaningful texts.

In addition, they teach students the kind of Creative Communication that we want them to experience every day as they learn in rigorous but FUN environments in our Humanities classrooms.

Today’s blog post will share with you some of the principles of what makes a strong Performance Task and/or Project, share with you some examples, and then provide you with some resources for your own planning. It should be no secret that designing a strong Performance Task is genuinely challenging, but also that it is incredibly rewarding as it offers an awesome opportunity for students, and effective backwards planning for you as a teacher.

If, as a result of this blog post you want to collaborate with Jacob (and another teacher in your content?) to create a strong performance task, teach it, and gather student work and data from it, then let Jacob and your TLD Coach know and we can arrange for some potential Tailored PD Credit!

1. What Makes a Strong Performance Task?

This cute critter demonstrates what a performance task is NOT: it’s not something that measures just ONE of our students’ skills in a “either you can or you can’t dynamic” (like the ones we often encounter on multiple-choice tests).

One thing that needs to be clarified is that performance tasks and projects should not be considered just a whole bunch of fun work time. The best performance tasks ARE fun, and they are fun exactly because there are specific expectations and guidelines and timelines, but the way of reaching and meeting them is open to students’ own thinking, interpretation, and skill-sets.

Creating effective assessment tasks requires thinking through curriculum content to establish learning outcomes, then designing performance activities that will allow students to demonstrate their achievement of those outcomes, and specifying criteria by which they will be evaluated.

– Cohen, Philip. “Designing Performance Assessment Tasks”, ASCD Education Update (1995)

It’s also critical, as Cohen articulates above, that these performance tasks are in alignment with what needs to be learned in the content. Instead of thinking about “what is a good activity for students?”, performance tasks should be the product of thinking about “given what I want students to learn, what counts as evidence that they understood it?”

As such, the best performance tasks are made up of:

  • Aligned to Content Learning
  • Generated by Meaningful Context and Audience
  • Encouraging of the Thinking Process
  • Requiring Appropriate Product or Performance
  • Sharing of Strong Criteria

In this next section, we’ll start to unpack what that actually can look like, and some resources to help you plan.

2. How Do You Plan a Performance Task?

Most of what I am about to share comes from “Designing Authentic and Engaging Performance Tasks” by Jay McTighe (2010). Please use that document directly to gain access to some of these amazing worksheets and brainstorming supports.

First of all, start out by checking out the Performance Task Blueprint that McTighe provides for our planning.

Take a look at the tables below (generated by McTighe himself) which contain examples of different kinds of Performance Tasks for the different facets of understanding AND for many of our Humanities contents!

Some awesome examples of Performance Tasks in World Languages from McTighe:

Tour Director – (World Languages) You serve on a Welcome Committee to provide tours for new students. Plan a trip to three places (e.g., school, town, mall) in the new student’s target language. Incorporate the following vocabulary: directions (left, right, near, far, next to, etc.), places (e.g., classrooms, cafeteria, gym, library, labs, churches, police and fire stations, schools, restaurants, stores) and transportation (e.g., bus, bike, stairs, escalators, taxi, train, car, elevators). Remember to include a variety of locations, directions, and forms of transportation on your “trips.” Keep sentences simple and narrate in the target language.

He then also provides a worksheet that you can use to help you plan out a thoughtful initial Performance Task prompt. What is key here is that Stage 1 (before you even start thinking about the activity) demands that you consider (1) what it is that you want students to understand and what questions you want them to consider before (2) figuring out what evidence you need from students to show that they have understood these questions.

Finally, in order to present this effectively and with meaningful context for students, McTighe has created an acronym for what makes a strong Performance Task Scenario.

  • Goal
  • Role
  • Audience
  • Situation
  • Product/Performance and Purpose
  • Standards and Criteria for Success

With strong GRASPS, students have what they need to complete a Performance Task or Project.

Fortunately, many of the rubrics we provide can provide at least a foundation for your grading criteria, and you should share them in advance with your students!

3. What Do Some Completed Performance Tasks Look Like?

Click on the image above to check out how one teacher sets up and executes a Performance Task in his Wolrd History classroom.

Click on the image above to check out how one teacher sets up and executes a Performance Task in his World History classroom.

In addition, you can check out our collection of Performance Tasks in all Humanities Contents, as well as your own Resource Sharing Buckets (see below) for more!

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Driving for Daily Rigor in the Humanities

We’re back in the swing of blog posting now, and with our exciting new Q4 Humanities Priorities, I am feeling an increased urgency to drive towards rigorous outcomes for our students in the home stretch of the year.

In fact, our #1 Priority for this quarter is:

STUDENTS ARE engaged in the content because it is rigorous, compelling, aligned to a meaningful EOY assessment, and focused around essential questions that bring to light social justice issues BECAUSE TEACHERS ARE planning units and lessons that have strong visions of mastery, are aligned to a meaningful EOY summative, and that are propelled by essential questions and meaningful texts.

This is particularly critical at this juncture of the year, since we are seeing only minor shifts in our students’ Engagement with Rigorous Content since the beginning of the third quarter (want more info on how this is determined? Check out my State of the Humanities blog post):

ERC

In this blog post, you’ll find the following three “launching pads” for increasing rigor in your classroom. I want to stress that these are beginning points, as they may inspire more questions and may not present direct solutions, but hopefully will simultaneously move you to innovate and use new ideas!

  1. The Rigor/Relevance Framework
  2. Using Your Summative
  3. Professional Development Suggestions

Okay! Let’s have it.

1. The Rigor/Relevance Framework

As I was researching for my Q3 Session “What is Creativity?“, I came across this new frameworkk that the International Center for Leadership in Education rolled out in 2014. Check out the main graphic below:
Framework

What I love about this framework is it actually expands and refines our understanding of what rigor actually is. In some ways, it helps us grasp what Grant Wiggins (co-author of the ever-important Understanding by Design) means by his definition of rigor:

To me, rigor has (at least) 3 aspects … learners must face a novel(-seeming) question, do something with an atypically high degree of precision and skill, and both invent and double-check the approach and result … The novel (or novel-seeming) aspect to the challenge typically means that there is some new context, look and feel, changed constraint, or other superficial oddness than what happened in prior instruction.

In essence, we reach higher levels of rigor not JUST by asking for more content knowledge, but by asking for the content skills and understandings to be applied in unfamiliar contexts and situations. Consequently, we can reach high levels of application (and engagement!) even on the first day of a unit when we drive for students to apply their thinking in real-world or unexpected situations, rather than just expecting them to engage in the content in isolated ways. The following flowchart may help explain this better:

Picture2

Want some examples of lesson plans and videos that drive towards these higher levels? Check ’em out below!

 2. Using Your Summative

Now that over 80% of us in the Humanities have at least a draft summative (check them out here!), we can really start using these meaningful End of Year measures of student academic progress to:

  1. Invest students in the idea that they will have an opportunity to show their growth on an End of Year assessment.
  2. Assessing the degree to which your students are prepared to meet this rigorous bar.
  3. Using those assessments and the Summative itself to plan rigorous, focused, and exciting lessons!

While more details on this are going to come with our “Working Towards an End” session (March 19th or March 31st), you can start thinking NOW about how exactly you can leverage the fact that you have a strong Summative to help your planning. Consider taking the following actions:

  • Start telling your students about what the Summative will cover, and why this will be an exciting testament to the progress they have made this year.
  • Start telling your students about how you planned your Sumnmative – what resources did you use? how does it align with your classroom vision?
  • Start breaking down the Summative: what knowledge, skills, and understandings about your content should your students have? Which of these do you feel you still need to teach? Which do you need to remediate? What do your students need to practice in order to be confident with the Summative?
  • Use your bell ringers and exit slips to familiarize your students with the structure and format and rigor of your Summative. Don’t feed them the questions directly off the Summative, but consider adapting the questions so they are relevant to the lessons you are teaching on the daily-level. Then, you can use the data you get from the exit slips (and weekly quizzes, if you like!) to consider further how you can support your students!
  • Start planning projects and performance tasks that help your students build confidence in thinking about the content in new contexts and with unpredictable outcomes. Doing so will help them feel like anything on the Summative – even if they haven’t seen it before – is approachable!

There is a LOT more you can do to support your students in this… Reach out to Jacob and/or your Content Leaders to start planning for higher rigor using your Summatives.

3. Professional Development Suggestions

Don’t be like the teacher above! Get your professional development around real priorities and by working with one another (albeit mostly by WebEx)… here are the PD offerings this quarter specifically aligned to our Priority 1 for Rigor.

Interested in one of these? Sign up here.

  • SOCIAL STUDIES: Writing Techniques for Students (03/17)
    • If you teach Social Studies, this session is EXCELLENT for collecting methods for keeping writing engaging and scaffolded for every student in your classroom.
  • Working Towards an End: Using Your Summative to Plan (03/19, 03/31)
    • This session, for all Humanities contents, is going to help you in using your Summative to create daily, rigorous plans starting the next day.
  • Culture and the Humanities: Planning for Rigor and Joy (03/23)
    • This session, planned in collaboration with our Culture of Achievement Specialist, will be an opportunity to consider how increasing rigor and culture in the classroom go hand-in-hand.

Have questions or comments? Contact Jacob or fire off in the comments section below!

Summative Drafts Thus Far!

Hello again folks! Well, we have been back for a couple of weeks now, and hard at work bringing our students to not only depth but also breadth of content, pushed forward by a real investment and love for the Humanities.

In the background of all this, many of you have done incredible work to start thinking about the end of the year, and how you will measure your students’ progress in a capstone, celebratory, and rigorous final assessment!

As you all know, I have already written one blog post about Summatives, and connecting you with various resources! So I thought for this one, I would share how far we’ve come!

Thus far, 75% of our Humanities classrooms have at least a draft summative they are working towards!!!

This is very exciting, as it shows direct progress towards our Priority #1 this quarter:

Students are engaged in the content because it is rigorous, compelling, and focused around essential questions that bring to light social justice issues because teachers are planning units and lessons that have strong visions of mastery, and that are propelled by essential questions and meaningful texts.

As such, I thought it would be a helpful for all of us to learn a little from one another as we push towards this effort. I have thus collected all of the most complete drafts we have created thus far in one folder! This should be an opportunity for you to explore and learn from what others are doing in their classrooms, connect with each other to find out more, and save precious time and energy rather than inventing the wheel from scratch!

Thus, I present to you, the 2014-2015 Summative Drafts Folder!

Here is a list of the awesome people whose work it contains:

  • Art: Cat Johnston
  • Music: Amelia Kundel, Tina Goodwillie, James Mitaritonna, Alice Hasen, Gabriella Sharpe, Heather Todd
  • Social Studies: Connor Bergen, Ali Hager, Chelsea Lewis, Stephen Fritz, Patrick Newton

World Languages – you guys have it easy! Just make sure you send me the date you plan on administering the 2009 Regents, and I will make sure to send it your way!

Keep up the awesome work guys! Let’s strive for 100% complete drafts by the end of the quarter!

Great Unit Plans

It’s the first blog post of 2015! Time for some pump-up jams (OH NO! HAHAHA!!!), and to really dig in to the content with our students (seriously though, good message to that song). Did you know that it’s common teacher knowledge that the 3rd Quarter is the time when students experience the most academic growth all year? #un-researchedtruths #timetodropsomeknowledge

So, for our inaugural blast this year, I thought I would simply share some AWESOME Unit Plans that I have seen come out of each content over the past couple of years. Ultimately, Unit Planning is directly aligned with Priority 1 for this Quarter:

  • Students are… engaged in the content because it is rigorous, compelling, and focused around essential questions that bring to light social justice issues.

  • Because teachers are… Planning units and lessons that have strong visions of mastery, and that are propelled by essential questions and meaningful texts.

Indeed, this MUST be Priority 1 for us this quarter, since at the moment this is where our students stand in terms of Engagement with Rigorous Content:

Table

We simply must ensure that our students start pushing towards higher levels of Analysis and Application, and the best way to do so is to plan for it. More on this in the post below!

Here is what this post contains:

1. Why Unit Plans Rock

2. What Makes a Great Unit Plan

3. Examples of Great Unit Plans

And here we go!

  1. Why Unit Plans Rock

  • For Students: 
    • Keeping them engaged: Unit Plans are great for students because they will ensure that students are engaged, and know what is expected of them for the next 2-6 weeks! How will we be assessed? What projects will we do? What big questions are we exploring? All these questions are answered the moment you step into the classroom with a great UP.
    • Meeting their needs: Unit Plans not only allow you to plan for remediation and differentiation, they also allow you to plan for more engaging projects that will meet different learning styles, AND it will allow you to adapt to your students’ interests, transforming your Unit About Hammurabi’s Code to one about what the basic rules of a society should or shouldn’t be!
    • Making it relevant: A Unit Plan also gives you the space to make connections between what you are learning, and what is happening in the world today. With the emphasis on theme and deeper understanding, you have more opportunity to add depth to learning, while still ensuring you get to all the content students need to know!
    • Researched Results: Studies show that backwards planning (which results in a Unit Plan), has direct achievement results for students. In particular, this is because they allow the time and planning of “assignments requiring more challenging intellectual work”… For more, here is a quote from Newmann, Bryk, & Nagaoka (2001):

Students who received assignments requiring more challenging intellectual work also achieved greater than average gains on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in reading and mathematics, and demonstrated higher performance in reading, mathematics, and writing on the Illinois Goals Assessment Program. Contrary to some expectations, we found high-quality assignments in some very disadvantaged Chicago classrooms and [found] that all students in these classes benefited from exposure to such instruction. We
conclude, therefore, [that] assignments calling for more authentic intellectual work actually improve student scores on conventional tests (p.29).

  • For You: 
  • Unit plans help you make the tough decisions about what to teach, and when to teach it! Diversions will be less attractive when you have clear goals in mind. This not only avoids going off-topic, it also will help you in recognizing that students need one piece of understanding before another – rather than running into that problem when it’s too late!
  • Unit Plans keep you on-pace. With a full calendar and a clear objective, it’s easier to adjust and be flexible, ensuring that the most important aspects of your unit get across, and your outcomes are always met!
  • Unit Plans increase your cognitive capacity.  Studies show that teachers are less effective when they don’t plan ahead because they are focused on both planning AND execution. That’s no good! We want to make sure you have energy as well as time to relax. The initial effort of a UP means you have more cognitive space and time to step back moving forward!

Pretty cool, huh? I bet you are feeling just as bewildered as this guy about how awesome UPs are!

2. What Makes a Great Unit Plan

There are a lot of things that make a great Unit Plan, but here are a few that I always look for, just to give you some headlines…

  • Engaging Essential Questions. You’ve probably heard enough of this by now, but I will say it again: Essential Questions can be genuinely engaging for students if introduced correctly in the classroom. For a great Unit Plan to be implemented in the classroom, you’ll want a variety of overarching and topical questions. In other words, you want to be asking both:
    • Overarching: What rules need to be in place for large groups of people to live in a society together?
    • Topical: What kind of society did the laws outlined in Hammurabi’s code generate? What were their implications?

The former captivates and engages students, while the latter focuses them in on the topic for the day or week! The interplay between “big picture” and “pieces of the puzzle” is what makes instruction effective!

  • Alignment to National and State Standards. Again, I imagine there are no surprises here, but we should always make sure that our students are getting what they SHOULD be getting. The best and only way to do that is to research what students are learning across our nation, as well as what they are required to learn in our state.
  • A Variety of Assessments. I think we often misunderstand assessments (and I will be writing a blog about them shortly) as exclusively pen-and-ink multiple choice or written assignments. That’s simply not the case! Assessments are happening ALL THE TIME in class – they are verbal, visual, and active. Indeed, the best units PLAN for these different kinds of assessments, including things like performance assessments (a speech or debate, a presentation, or a performance that shows understanding of the content).
  • A Daily Breakdown. Ultimately, all the teacher-facing benefits of a Unit Plan are for naught if they don’t help you breakdown your calendar and know what you are teaching, when.

Hopefully, you are still with me, and realizing – HEY! UPs are actually pretty decent!

3. Examples of Great Unit Plans

Simply put, the following are some GREAT Unit Plans I have happened upon or helped create in these past couple years. Check them out! Use them, modify them, or make them your inspiration!

If you have a great UP you want to share, please email it to Jacob or upload it to the Document Bucket for your content!

Summatives in the Humanities

Capture

Click on the image above to hear Claire Wandro’s students talk about why the Regents Summative Assessment mattered to them!

Check out the quick video above of some of Claire Wandro’s students reflecting on why the Regents final assessment matters to them.

As the frost starts to harden over our Mississippi fields, and plans start to emerge for the winter break, it’s yet again time to start thinking WAY ahead so that it doesn’t rush up on us: it’s time to start thinking about Summatives in the Humanities!

All DRAFTS of Humanities Summatives (unless they are directly the SATP2 or the Regents) need to be submitted to Jacob and your TLD Coach by January 2nd!

To help you with this, this blog post contains:

  1. Why summatives? Why now?
  2. Requirements for your Summatives (with links and resources!)
  3. Links to Teacher-Made Summatives
  4. FAQ and Other Guidelines
  5. Need Additional Support?

Why Summatives? Why Now?

  • Students deserve to reliably know where they stand at the end of the year: After a year of work and growth in your classroom, students deserve to know where they stand compared to their peers across the nation. Summatives are the most reliable way of comparing how our students are doing in relation to other students within TFA, or against a national bar for rigor. Communicating this progress to our students helps them celebrate, reflect on their work this year, and grow as life-long learners.
  • Summatives help YOU plan: Having a summative at this point in the year helps you get concrete on what your students still need to learn, believe, and be able to do between now and the day you administer it. You shouldn’t be teaching to the test: instead, you should be teaching beyond it. A summative will help you clarify the basics of what your students need, and help you develop plans to teach beyond those basics.
  • Summatives are different from normal tests and quizzes: Unlike tests and quizzes, summatives often contain information that students may not have seen before (think about how the AP or the ACT or the SAT work… they test you on a national bar for how you use skills and solve problems rather than for what you already know). This is a chance for students to show their resilience and confidence in potentially unknown territory. And that’s EXCITING, not defeating.
  • Summatives help us advocate for the Humanities: Once we have the data and we can compare it to national standards, often we can apply for grants, advocate for more funding and attention in our schools, etc. Being able to have reliable proof of our students’ progress is the best way to do this.
  • Sometimes we need to give summatives early: due to testing, test-prep, etc. we often don’t have the opportunity to prepare our students for summatives and administer them part-way through the second semester. Having them handy gives us the chance to be flexible with this schedule, and still guarantee our students the right to know where they stand.
  • Summatives take time, feedback, and sharing: Besides all of the above, your summatives need to be vetted by me and your TLD Coach before they are valid, and the whole process is more enjoyable if we have an environment of sharing and collaboration! If we get that going, it will just be simpler in future years when people can pull summatives straight from a resource bank!

Requirements for your Summatives.

  • What should a summative look like?
    • For the most part, a summative assessment should look like a “traditional” assessment, plus any performance tasks or additional projects that would better help you measure your students’ progress towards your holistic vision.
    • It should be a final assessment, so it should be cumulative and cover the information, skills, and progress towards vision you should have mastered this year.
    • It should usually be given in the final weeks of school. However, you should check with your administrator, since often this is not the best time for Humanities classes that become test-prep part way through the second semester.
    • It should be subdivided by standard and/or skill, should be easily trackable by those skills, and should have rubrics or student responses for any open-response questions.
  • What is my summative assessment?
    • This differs a little, depending on your specific content. Any additional performance tasks are welcome, but optional. In the table below, you will see the basic requirements.
    • PLEASE NOTE: None of what is contained in the grid below is optional! In order to have valid measurements of how your students progressed (and to be in good standing with TFA), you MUST execute these full criteria.
    • Click on the links in this table to get access to the rubrics and assessments you need!
Content Level Assessment Type Additional Academic Prompt
Art Lower Elementary A Regents-aligned  assessment pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD Artwork assessed according to the ECE Rubric
Upper Elementary A Regents-aligned  assessment pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD Artwork assessed according to the Mississippi Art Creation Rubric
Secondary A Regents-aligned  assessment (or the Regents itself!) pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD Artwork assessed according to the Mississippi Art Creation Rubric
Music & Dance Elementary A Regents-aligned assessment (Dance, Music) pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD Performance assessed according to the Dance or Music Performance Rubrics
Secondary A Regents-aligned assessment (Dance, Music) (or the Regents itself!) pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD Performance assessed according to the Dance or Music Performance Rubrics
World Languages Elementary A Regents-aligned  (Spanish, French) assessment that covers:

–          Reading

–          Writing

–          Speaking

–          Listening

–          Culture

This should be age-appropriate and pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD.

N/A
Level 1 The Regents Second Language Proficiency Exam (Spanish, French) N/A
Level 2 EITHER:

–          The Regents 1.5 that we designed for you (Spanish, French)

OR:

–          A blind assessment on the Regents Second Language Proficiency (PLEASE EMAIL JACOB IMMEDIATELY IF THIS IS YOUR PREFERENCE!!!)

N/A
Social Studies 5th Grade Social Studies EITHER:

–          A self-created Regents-aligned assessment pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD/

 

OR:

–          The 5th Grade Regents assessment

A DBQ pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD (preferably directly from the aligned Regents exam)
8th Grade Social Studies EITHER:

–          A self-created Regents-aligned assessment pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD.

 

OR:

–          The 8th Grade Regents assessment

A DBQ pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD (preferably directly from the aligned Regents exam)
US History The MS State Assessment

 

(OPTIONAL ADDITION: The Regents US History assessment)

A DBQ pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD (preferably directly from the aligned Regents exam)
All other Social Studies A self-created Regents-aligned assessment pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD. A DBQ pre-approved by Jacob and your MTLD (aligned to the Regents assessment that closest fits your grade-level)

 

Links to Teacher Made Summatives

Check out some of the summatives that teachers have administered in the past!

Featured at the above link are:

  • MUSIC: Alice Hasen’s General Music Summative and Project
  • DANCE: Kasey Wooten’s Dance Summative and Project
  • SOCIAL STUDIES: Patrick Newton’s Summatives, as well as many others!
  • WORLD LANGUAGES:

FAQ and Other Guidelines

Check out this Humanities Summative FAQs for further guidelines, answers, and resources!

Need Additional Support?

  1. Sign up for “Knowing Where You Are Going: Summatives in the Humanities” now!
    1. Wednesday, December 3rd in Greenwood (RSVP here)
    2. Tuesday, December 9th on WebEx (RSVP here)
    3. Wednesday, December 10th in Jackson (RSVP here)
  2. Talk to Jacob, your TLD Coach, and/or your Humanities Content Leaders!
  3. Reach out to your peers!

Tasks and Questions Worth Collaborating On

Last week, I posted some ideas and guidelines about setting up some collaborative learning routines for students, and mentioned that there are two parts to ensuring that student-student collaboration is effective:

There are two parts to setting up strong collaborative learning: (1) Students need to have clear structures and ways of engaging with each other and with the content, and (2) Students need to be engaging with strong, meaningful content (more on this in a post to follow).

Well, here is that “post to follow”… What makes “strong, meaningful content” for our students to engage with in collaborative routines? How do we know when we are generating that content for them?

Again, this aligns precisely to Priority 2 for this quarter, which is:

Students are “On the hook” for their learning because they are hungry to discuss and engage with rigorous, compelling, and student-focused content.  This is because Teachers are ensuring students continue to collaborate daily, while also providing the rigorous content for students to collaborate around.

Step 1: First of all, we need to define what “strong, meaningful content” really is.

According to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (authors of the ever-important Understanding by Design) have this to say:

The best questions are not merely emblematic of their fields, but really alive. People ask and argue about them outside of school! The most vital discipline-bound questions open up thinking and possibilities for everyone – novices and experts alike. They signal that inquiry and open-mindedness are central to expertise, that we must always be learners. In the more practical sense, a question is alive in a subject if students really engage with it, if it seems genuine and relevant to them, and if it helps them gain a more systematic and deep understanding of what they are learning.

– Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design, page 108

However, one thing we need to clarify right off the bat is this: big, broad, open-response questions are NOT, on their own, rigorous. Take this for example:

Why do we still experience segregation in our society today?

On its own, this question could either spur a student to write a single sentence, or an entire dissertation. We need to be careful in assuming that stand-alone questions are the most rigorous form of posing an academic challenge to our students. Let’s take a look at this same question, but in a way that demands rigorous engagement:Why do we still experience segregation in our society today?

Why do we still experience segregation in our society today?

Write a 3-paragraph answer that includes (1) a strong claim to this question, (2) an example from the  Reconstruction to support your claim, and (3) an example from current events that supports your claim.

Your short essay will be evaluated using the Mississippi DBQ Rubric.

With these expectations set, a student knows what is being expected, and can rise to the occasion of this challenge.

Let’s return to the writing of Wiggins for a little more support on this:

Huh? How can the verb, itself, determine the rigor? Couldn’t the rigor of so-called high-level verbs be compromised by a simplistic task and scoring system? Vice versa: can’t we imagine some of the low-level verbs occurring in highly-challenging and rigorous assessments? (e.g. Who, what, when, and why in a complex journalism case would be rigorous work.)

Take “predict” for example. It is viewed as relatively low-level – Level 2. But what if I ask you to predict the effects on plants of using special soil, food, and artificial lights, and I score you against industry-level standards? Vice versa: suppose I ask you to critique a drawing against the criterion “pretty”. Pretty low level stuff.

– Wiggins, “Assessment, Grading, and Rigor”

With this definition in mind, we can start to distinguish between the different kinds of questions with which we ask our students to engage in a collaborative setting.

BUT WAIT JACOB: Does this really mean we don’t ask students to answer basic comprehension, fact-based questions? Absolutely not! But it means we need to locate and contextualize those “convergent” questions (which point to just one answer) within larger, “divergent” questions (which point to many possible answers and approaches).

Step 2: Let’s start planning the kinds of questions, problems, and tasks that benefit from collaborative learning… What does that “strong, meaningful content” really look like?

what-if-i-never-find-out-whos-a-good-boy-pug

Rigorous questions are ALIVE and can torment us and be a cause for discussion even outside of class!

Convergent (Closed) Questions…

  • have very narrowly defined correct answers
  • have answers that usually require little reflection
  • Have answers that usually require the student recalls from memory factual information and applies it.
  • require little/ no original thought.

Divergent (Open) Questions…

  • can have multiple correct answers
  • have answers where the student must be able to recall some information from memory, but then must apply that knowledge to explain or further analyze a topic or problem.
  • always require original thought
  • lead to debates/ disagreement/ discourse among students

Step 3: Let’s dig into some strategies for making sure our questions are “divergent” instead of “convergent.”

  1. Consider what basic knowledge students will need so they can have a conversation about a more divergent question, and vise versa!  Why would a student even need to know that basic information?  What divergent question might it help them consider?  What divergent question might help make definitions/ factual knowledge more meaningful?
  2. Flip or reverse a closed question:  “Here’s the output, how do you think it happened?  How could we have gotten there?”
  3. Take out some of the givens:  In a lesson where you want Ss to be able to answer, “What are the causes of the civil war?”  ask first, “What are the causes of war?”.
  4. Ask for personal opinion/ judgment:  When you want to build the skill of students determining the probability of a gene/ genetic mutation being passed on to offspring, also ask, “Should these two people even have a child?  Is it worth the risk?”
  5. After the fact, re-engage: Open up convergent questions on the back end by asking students to give each other feedback or figure out why they got some answers wrong.

Step 4: Let’s make sure students are invested in the reason why they are engaging with the content in this particular way. Let’s get clear on the purpose of collaborative learning FOR STUDENTS… why should they want to partner up?

We should only be asking students to work together if the purpose is to be…

  • …discussing something worth hearing someone else’s opinion about so they can have multiple perspectives on one issue.
  • …ensuring that we are gaining depth of answers, and that everyone has a chance to share their thinking.
  • …combining knowledge from various sources (partner reads one document, I read another)
  • …providing feedback for one another so they can improve their work
  • …collaborating on completing a project that requires different skills, teamwork, and lots of time!

Step 5: Check out some resources that may inspire you to think more broadly or simply give you some examples of what rigorous questions can look like!

Writing in Social Studies

EdWeek Student Writing Exemplars – Check out these exemplars of students writing towards the Common Core!

Writing Across the Curriculum – A variety of strategies for getting students to write, compiled by Michigan State!

Writing Across the Discipline – A compendium of strategies for planning, grading, and setting standards for student writing in Social Studies (specifically 8th grade)

200 Prompts for Argumentative Writing – A collection of great prompts that can get your kids thinking and making opinions!

Document Based Questions (DBQ) Resources