Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Transferrable Skills Conundrum

Growing up in Pennsylvania keystones were part of my life. In my home town there were several beautiful stone bridges crossing the Brandywine Creek. I learned that the keystone was the load bearing point of the bridge. The uniquely shaped stone is were the two halves came together.

In Proficiency Based Education you can think of the Transferrable Skills as the keystone that bears the weight of a student's academic life and their career life. These skills are not the content skills like being able to calculate the area of a circle or being able to apply a particular technique in drawing. They are a mixture of hard and soft skills that tend to make students and adults successful and productive.

That is the simple version. From here on out it gets confusing. Unfortunately in order for us to implement a Proficiency Based Education System we are going to have clear up that confusion, at least for ourselves. In a proficiency based system students would have to demonstrate that could do the content and the transferrable skill. It will no longer suffice to just know how to calculate the area of a circle, student will have to do more with skill. This is where it gets complicated.

Vermont has developed a set of transferrable skills to give us a starting point. These skills are derived from a skill set that has been around for some time, 21st Century Skills. The indicators below range from "Use evidence and reasoning to justify claims" (hard skill) to "Demonstrate ethical behavior and the moral courage to sustain it." soft skill.

This following synopsis from Ed Glossary sums the problem up fairly well.

While there is broad agreement that today’s students need different skills than were perhaps taught to previous generations, and that cross-disciplinary skills such as writing, critical thinking, self-initiative, group collaboration, and technological literacy are essential to success in higher education, modern workplaces, and adult life, there is still a great deal of debate about 21st century skills—from what skills are most important to how such skills should be taught to their appropriate role in public education. Given that there is no clear consensus on what skills specifically constitute “21st century skills,” the concept tends to be interpreted and applied in different ways from state to state or school to school, which can lead to ambiguity, confusion, and inconsistency. 

Vermont has tried to clear things up with their list and it does help. If you look at just the Framework for 21st Century Skills you can get quickly overwhelmed by the stuff of being a 21st century citizen. However in PBE we need to be able to separate out our more measurable skills from our habits of work. As a teacher it is easier for me design an assessment and measure a science student's proficiency in "Developing and using models to explain phenomena" than it is to measure "perseveres in challenging situations". I a may know it when I see it, but seeing it may take more of knowing the kid than knowing the content.

So this is the work we need to do. Both the transferrable skills and the habits of work need to remain the keystone between our students' academic lives and their career lives. Vermont's list of Transferrable Skills is going to need some delineation between what are skills we measure and what are habits we observe. We will still report out to families and students on both of these, but the skills we identify will be tied to content assessments.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A Phased Implementation for Proficiency Based Education

I have been thinking about approaches to phasing in Proficiency Based Education (PBE) in our SU. The picture above looks confusing, but actually it is fairly straight forward. However just because it is straight forward it is not going to be easy. In fact it is going to take considerable focus over the next years. Maintaining that focus is will be one of our biggest challenges.

Before I dig in with my explanation I want to stress that these phases are only to develop the framework for PBE the creativity and student engagement are still the work of the schools and teachers. This PBE framework will shift the focus of our planning, assessment and reporting but it will not supplant the creativity and autonomy of schools and teachers.

Before I go through my proposal for a phased implementation I want to be clear about the terms I am referring to. The chart above was produced by the good folks at the Agency of Education. It is one small section from their sample Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements. This particular image comes from the Science PBGR's.

If you look at the far left column "Graduation Proficiencies" you will see a numbered title in bold.  Under that title is a statement. That statement is the Graduation Proficiency. In science there are a total of eight proficiencies. On the far right hand column "Performance Indicators -- High School". That column contains a number of statements or Indicators. In science the state has suggested approximately nine indicators per proficiency. So for example would have to show through work on a performance task, project, work-study or internship that they could do each of the indicators. Meeting these indicators does not happen all at once nor does it happen in the same place. One indicator might be met in an internship and another through a class project. They would then collect all the evidence that they met these indicators to show that they met the Graduation Proficiency.

Phase one will involve bringing primarily high school teachers together to review, identify, revise or write the Graduation Proficiencies for each content area. Vermont has recommended we develop proficiencies in Global Citizenship, Math, ELA, Science, Performing and Visual Arts, Health and Physical Education and the mystery category of Transferrable Skills (I will write more on this in a later post).  Since Vermont has given us a clear set of sample Proficiencies the work will start with these and use an assessment tool to anchor our process.

Phase Two will look very much like the first phase. We will use a similar assessment tool, which I am still developing, to begin the work. The difference here is that there are many more Indicators and since these are directly related to what teachers teach I suspect there will be more discussion about which indicators stay and which go or how they will be written if they stay.

These first two phases will be exhausting and tedious. They are however, absolutely essential for our success in this transition. The good news is once they are done we will only return to them as reference materials.
The next three phases are tightly linked hence the messy picture here. However they are distinct phases of work each with their individual tasks and products. In Phase Three we will begin breaking the Indicators into smaller parts or specific skills. If you think about in Indicators as a project or exhibition the student completes to show they have proficiency, then the skills are the small parts of that project. For example if need to meet the indicator in science, 
Use the periodic table as a model to predict the relative properties of elements based on the patterns of electrons in the outermost energy level of atoms.
then on skill students might work on is reading the Periodic Table. Developing these skill sets is a multi-year and evolving process. This work in this initial phase is just to begin building a common set of skills. Ideally over time we add to this and use it on a regular basis for module and lesson design.

Phase Four is the heart of our work. This is where teachers begin thinking about how they translate these proficiencies into actual lessons. I wrote an earlier post on how the LDC Module Framework works so I will not go into those details here, but if you read that post it becomes clear that teachers will need considerable instruction, time, space and feedback on this redesign.  I have also been talking with special educators on the need to consider incorporating Universal Design for Learning into this process. Bringing these two programs together in our curriculum redesign is a monumental task, and an imperative one. This work will take up the lion's share of any professional time we have. It is far beyond the scope of staff meeting or inservice time.

Phase Five is the work around establishing common scoring elements. This work will, like the work in phases three and four needs to develop over time.

Phase Six is  a big part of Proficiency Based Grading and will likely involve quite a bit of discussion. In the education system most of grew up in grades were a mishmash of elements, how you did on a test, or a paper, how many homeworks you turned and how well you participated. In PBE showing that you can meet an Indicator is scored and reported separately from things like "participation" or turning in homework or attendance. The work here will be on which work habits schools will report on and how each school will deal with students not demonstrating those work habits. This video on habits of work will explain it better than I can.
Phase Seven is actually addressing work we began in two years ago during inservice. Much of the PBE will happen at the school and classroom level. However we need to build a common assessment system as a quality control check. Many of our grade level and content area teams have designed a common assessment that they like and are using, other teams are still coming to some core agreements about what to assess and how to score the work. This work will need to continue during inservice. For some teams it will be a time to look at student work. For other teams inservice time will give them the time to continue to develop their common assessments.
I intentionally left grading, transcripts and reporting to the end of early implementation. Redesigning our grading and reporting system is going to take careful thought and planning. This is the point were PBE intersects with parents and community experience. Most of us understand education through the grading system we grew up with. Having an "A student" has a certain meaning, so does "graduating with a 4.0".  These labels are easy short hand for understanding where kids stand. This will likely change under a PBE system. Deciding how reporting changes and how we communicate that change to parents and community will take dedicated work time. I placed this at the end of early implementation because I believe we will need time to understand how our changes in curriculum and assessment will work before we can change our grading system. This short video gives you some sense of the how that change may look.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The LDC Module as A Vehicle For Implementation

The Literacy Design Collaborative has developed a process for unit planning that I think is the method we should use in the classroom level of PBGR implementation. Their process is well thought out and constantly being field tested by educators around the country. The process is based on the principles of Backwards Design with some added benefits. The developers at LDC have created a set of templates that help teachers structure their summative, and to a certain extent their formative, assessments. 

Here are some examples of the kinds of templates LDC has produced. These happen to be for grades 6-12 in the area of "argumentation".  There are also templates for grades 2-6 and in science and math now. If you look at the structure of these "task templates" you can see the consistency in language without dictating content or teaching methods.

Here is how this plays out when teachers fill these out. Notice that while each is very different notice that each maintains a consistant format and a clear statement of outcomes. Think about how we could not only have productive conversations between teachers but also communicate expectations to students and families in a clear and consistent way. These are examples from teacher work at Green Mountain:

[What are the best possible outcomes of the attached scenarios? After learning and applying the rules, skills, and strategies of the games describe either through paragraph form or drawing what movements and strategies will lead to the best possible outcome.]
What would you like to save up for?  What makes the most difference in how soon you reach your goal?  After deciding what you are saving for and researching current interest rates, write a proposal for how best to reach your goal in which you argue how different initial investment amounts, interest rates and frequency of compounding will impact the length of time it takes to reach your goal.  Support your proposal with mathematical reasoning and representations.
After learning/reading about the characteristics and vocabulary connected with
macro photography and Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, you will use your iPad or a
phone or camera to capture an up close/macro photo of something around you that
appeals to you. You will then use your favorite photo and paint it in the style of Georgia

How diverse was the migration experience? After researching the 1880 census for Windsor write an essay in which you analyze how the 1880 census contributes to our understanding of migration to America. Support your response with evidence from your research.
These template tasks fit within a larger template system/format. That involves identifying key skills and texts. Then developing an "instructional ladder" that spells out what instruction will happen and what formative assessment will happen. I have adapted an overall template  from the LDC Template.  The template follow 6 basic steps: developing a summative task, identifying keys skills that are part of that task, identifying appropriate texts, developing a sequence of "Mini tasks" that teach or allow students to practice the key skills, identification of formative assessments that fit with those mini tasks and finally a rubric for the summative task. Imagine building a living curriculum based on these tasks.

The summative task is written out as the prompt that students will see. Often times that prompt has a larger question it addresses but not always. The same is true with the background statement. I submit that if we take this common format and approach we will have a much clearer picture of what teachers are asking of their students.

This next section looks fairly straight forward, but we are going to need to invest some serious infrastructure work to make it useable and consistent. In the template I have developed I have stressed including content skills. The folks at LDC have developed common skills lists to use with reading and writing tasks. They are a good start but I want to refine them an target them to the PBGR's we select.You can see an example of theirs in "Skills Cluster 1" In the following skills cluster I departed from the LDC list and pulled the three skills from a concept organizer created by some folks in Delaware. Building the skills list is tedious and will look dangerously like other shelf documents we have produced so we have to ensure that anything we produce gets used. Power of a common skills list is again in its consistency and sharability. If two teachers are identifying the same skills then we have much more focused discussions about the instruction and assessment of those skills instead of trying to suss out skills might be embedded in any lesson.

For me the real power of this planning template lies in the "What Instruction" section. Essentially this is an instructional ladder that targets the skills listed in the "What Skills" section. First of all it is brief. It is more-or-less a statement of the prompt or perhaps a short description of a learning task. The table also lists the formative assessment product the teacher plans to use. My experience in creating this ladder has been that it forced me to focus on the essential instruction and not on activities that I liked or thought I should use. Think about this also as a communication tool. If students and families, communities or even other teachers could find this posted in a common place (school or SU website) they would have a much clearer picture of what the teacher was focusing on. Each one of these mini tasks and it associated formative assessment would also provide us with the opportunity to look at student work.

 The final part I want to touch on is the "Single Point Rubric". This is a big departure from the LDC format but I think it is an improvement. This rubric only targets "proficiency" and then provides room for teachers to provide feedback.

Here is an example of one developed for a for a Task on polynomials:

So you can see the teacher has specifically targeted what she wants to see as proficient. She does not have to worry about constructing something with multiple variations and then trying to plug her student responses into the right box.

Here is an example of how one might be used:
Here you can see that no matter where a student may fall the teacher can give some targeted feedback. If used well we can use these templates to improve the way we give feedback and also give us artifacts of our own practice to examine.

I have gathered a few of the LDC's reading materials and other supporting materials here. The bottom line is if we are going to take this route it is going to require time, deliberate practice and plenty of feedback along the way. Yet another reason for half days.