Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Big Idea of big ideas

Part II:

We've had key ideas of classes re-packaged and re-sold to us in so many ways, it's tough to know where to begin, or what action to take.  Here, to help the confused and unwary, a brief overview of everything.

(Caveat lector:  If you thought the last one was bad, go no further.  The concepts are murkier, the definitions are longer, and the jokes are worse.  There's even a bibliography.)
(Special note to education students: After reading this, you're likely to be more confused about one of the most important concepts in education than you were before.  That's okay: you'll be in the same position as everybody.) 

 Key vocabulary:

Standards--At its finest, a standard is an indivisible unit of knowledge or skill that a student must have in order to be considered knowledgeable about a topic.  In reality, they are impossibly long lists of random tidbits, vocabulary, skills, history of the topic, professional-level mastery of obscure topics, and attitudes towards the subject.  Michigan's were originally drafted to provide guidance to teachers about what to teach, and to provide consistency to a piecemeal statewide curriculum.  Really, though, it added an unachievable burden to teachers and a world of confusion to students and their parents.

Power Standards--These came about as a reaction to the overwhelming curriculum mandates of the state standards.  "Sure," some clever assistant curriculum director said, "our students have to know all of these standards.  But which ones do they REALLY have to know?"  And from the big list, they made a smaller list.  Purportedly, these are really the things without which a given field of study is actually some other field of study.  Or, put another way, these are the requisite prior knowledge that a student needs for success in the class.  But since everyone's power standards are different, nobody can be sure of exactly what they’re getting.  We're pretty sure students should be able to read and count by the time they're in the 7th grade, but beyond that, it's all a little vague.

Star Standards--Another word for power standards for people who liked astronomy class more than physics class.

Content expectations--This is what we in the state of Michigan are supposed to call standards now.   Apparently "standards" became a swear word.  Ours are broken up into two kinds: Grade-level content areas(GLCEs, prononuced "glicks" or "glickees"), for pre-K through 8th grade, and High School Content Expectations (HSCEs, pronounced "huskies," after their inventor, Imelda Husky.)  None of this matters now, though, because we use Common Core State Standards (CCSS, pronounced "Common Core State Standards").

Key Learning Goals--In any given division of instruction--course, semester, marking period, unit, class period--the Key Learning Goals are the things that students must know and be able to do, to a pre-defined level of mastery, in order to have "learned" that lesson.  How is this different from standards and content expectations?  The key learning goal here is “pre-defined level of mastery.”  For each concept (or learning topic: see below), you identify some complex idea the students should be able to get, and you teach to that goal.  When the students reach that, they have an "A" for the unit.  You also identify some requisite background knowledge, and that becomes a "B" or a "C+" grade, depending.

Por ejemplo:  “Students will be able to use a variety of pre-writing strategies” is a perfectly acceptable content expectation for ELA, applicable equally to 4th grade English and 12th grade Honors English.  And therein lies the problem--if I show my teacher an outline, a mind map, and a pile of bibliography cards, do I fulfill the standard?  What if I turn in a paper and say my pre-writing strategy is to think about what I’m going to write, and then write?  What if my strategy is to NOT think about what I’m going to write, and let the words flow out of me like water from a struck stone in the desert?  Hey, it worked for Salinger.  So for each grade level, you change the level of mastery.  As people get better at a given task, you make the task harder.  Not so hard they can't do it, just...harder.  This level of difficulty is defined in the "key learning goal." 

Big Ideas--A term so vague and overused as to be meaningless.  I’ve seen it used in place of “standard,” “power standard,” “key learning goal,” “learning topic” (which we haven’t even gotten to yet), and even the philosophical rationale for teaching a unit at all.  The thing that differentiates a “big idea” from all of the other ideas it proxies for is the notion of student accessibility.   A “big idea” is a power standard (or whatever) in kid-friendly language.  So instead of saying, “Students will use adjectives effectively and appropriately to support a theme or enhance a mood in their fiction writing,” a big idea says, “Use sparkly description words” or “You write good now.   NOW!”

Benchmarks--indicate where a student should be in their development at a point in time, as a way of gauging progress over time.  Students should be learning writing in all grade levels, and they should be demonstrably better by the end of fifth grade than by the end of fourth grade.  A benchmark is useful in telling the intrepid instructor how much better it can be.  These were developed looking at developmental psychology and research into effective education practices and the net results they can be expected to achieve over time.  Or possibly made up 12 hours before they were supposed to be submitted to the Senate Special Subcommittee on Curriculum and Instruction.  Which is what I would have done.  Benchmarks are most noticeable when they’re first set, when they’re universally criticized for being unattainable, and then when they’re not attained, as everybody attacks the person who failed to meet the goal.  This is as true in PK-12 education as it is in experiments in military nation-building projects.

Learning topics--Closely related to “key learning goals,” learning topics are all of the standards and expectations and the like, grouped into logical chunks.  In social studies, these can be discrete units, like “World War I.”  In math, they probably are, as well:  “Linear equations.”  In ELA, they seem to be groups of skills: “Reading non-fiction.”  “Writing a position paper.”  A teacher could then build their key learning goals off of these topics:  “Students will analyze the causes and outcomes of the US’s involvement in WWI and compare them to the causes and outcomes of the American Civil War.”  “Students will use new information from others’ position papers to enhance their own positions.” 

Objectives--If you’ve taken an education class, you know about TLW statements: The learner will... .  It was how a generation of us were taught to write our lesson plans.  I don’t know if they still teach it this way or not.  The TLW statement is the objective of a lesson or a unit:  a (hopefully short) list of skills and knowledge you expect students to take away from a lesson.  My toughest problem with objectives lay in the fourth dimension: I lacked the requisite knowledge that a lesson is NOT the same thing as a class period.  That’s still a tough one for me.

Goals-- “Okay, Cosby,” I can hear the reader say, patience strained beyond reason.  “Now you’re just throwing out synonyms.  You’re making stuff up.”  No, gentle reader, seriously.  Goals are different from objectives, key learning goals, standards, learning topics, knowledge, skills, and all that has come before.  This is arguably the most important one: this is the one the student creates for him/herself.  That means it’s also the hardest for a teacher to get right, because the teacher has almost nothing to do with it.  What you want is a meaningful statement of learning that runs parallel to the course of the goal, something about the topic that students want to know, which allows the student to personalize the learning.  “What role do ninjas play in WWII?  How do I create an atmosphere of mystery in my stories?  How can I use triangles to build a house?”  What you usually get is, “To survive.  To get a good grade.  To learn everything I’m supposed to.”

Unpacking-- This is the process of taking either the long long list of standards and benchmarks (Spanish I and II have 76 standards--sorry, content expectations) or the extremely efficiently written Common Core State Standards (ELA has 10), studying them to the point of sublime understanding, and turning them into useful groupings of skills and knowledge (see learning topics).  There’s a reason that the people who come up with these standards and so on don’t simply unpack them for you, the over-worked, under-appreciated teacher: that would be mandating curriculum.

So, there you go.  Everything you need to know about everything you need to know.

These people would be horrified to know I read their stuff:

Marzano, R.  (2007).  The art and science of teaching.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R. (2010).  Formative assessment & standards-based grading.  Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

Common Core State Standards Initiative (2010).  English Language Arts Standards.

Pickering, D. (2011 Aug 11 - 12).  Formative assessment & standards-based grading.  (Presentation).  Centreville, MI: St. Joseph County ISD.  Deb Pickering works with Dr. Marzano and gave us a 2-day presentation over the book.  She will also conduct follow-up courses 4 or 5 times throughout the coming year, to help teachers implement the idea of “learning topics” in particular.

Michigan Department of Education (2006 Apr).  High School Content Expectations: English Language Arts.  Lansing.

MDE (2007).  High School Content Expectations: World Languages.  Lansing.


Ray said...

After you have accomplished an understanding of big ideas, standards, benchmarks, etc.. you must get to the next step, gradning and reporting. Homework doesn't count, a summative can turn into a formative depending on how you use it. Effort doesn't count and I can do well if I don't try.

Your humor is better than mine. I enjoyed your two articles. Well said. Have a great year and don't be afraid to take a risk and don't be afraid to fail because you took a risk. It is truly the way we all beocme better.

JohnCosby said...

Ray: Maybe my humor is better (I'd say different...I think you're hilarious!), but your comments always serve to move the conversation forward and increase my understanding. My posts just serve to inflict my confusion on the rest of the world.

Annette S. came to our school today and showed the ELA teachers how to unpack the new Common Core standards. Many things about my job are now much clearer and much better! Also, I have to completely rewrite this post, because now I understand everything in it better. Hooray! Learning has occutred!