Things have shifted faster in the last two weeks, arguably, than any other time in education and schools have stepped up to the challenge. I first want to recognize and applaud the nimbleness and fortitude demonstrated by our teachers, support staff, site leaders, and district leaders.
The ways schools have responded to the parameters of remote learning have reminded me of an experience my daughter had years ago, when she participated in a contest that her middle school was conducting. The “Carbon Footprint Reduction Challenge” prompted students to shift their daily behaviors to be more environmentally-friendly while tabulating their “carbon footprint” in a log for three weeks. Claire was determined to do well. She decided to forgo showering and chose to only sponge bathe. She wore the same clothes multiple days in a row. She collected her limited trash in a zip lock bag to take into school for inspection each morning. And she became a strict vegan. She smelled less-than-wonderful but finished in second place in the school-wide competition. After the contest she relaxed most of her “winning” behaviors over the following weeks, other than veganism. She is still a vegan today, eight years later.
Here is where the remote formative assessment analogy comes in. During he first couple of months of Claire’s veganism, she added many new grocery items to the list. Most were a plant-based version of the animal-based foods she had always eaten: vegan pepperoni, vegan cheese, vegan “eggs,” etc. Periodically, I would ask Claire how it was going as the lone-vegan in the household, and over the several months following the contest her response became less and less enthusiastic. She missed the animal-based counterparts to the food she was eating every day, and over time it was wearing down her resolve to remain committed to the personal vegan pledge she had made.
Then, the shift: she bought a vegan cookbook and saw beautiful photos of vegetable and grain-based recipes, things she had never eaten before and in some cases had not even heard of. There was not one mention of a vegetable-based meat imposter.
That was a turning point for her. She “leaned in” to the new opportunities veganism would provide and she removed the one foot she still had in the food-that-mimics-meat world and placed both feet in the vegetable world. And although the current school closures have caused a number of unexpected challenges for students, parents, and educators, we find ourselves in a similar opportunity today.
“Leaning in” to a remote classroom
Because the shift that has taken place in our schools has been so rapid, it has left districts to try to retrofit everyday school practices into this new remote learning world. It’s a completely natural response to try to take what we know well from our years of work in schools and adapt it to this new situation. In some ways it is probably a necessary part of a scaffolded process toward “leaning in” to remote learning and capitalizing on new ways of doing things we hadn’t had to think about before—or in some cases, didn’t even know existed.
Over the last 15 to 20 years, formative assessment practices have been noted to have one of the greatest impact of all classroom strategies in terms of improving student achievement. With that knowledge, schools all over America have created collaborative team structures and dedicated hours of professional development to formative assessment and responding to data, in order to leverage the formative power of that data. Educators have shifted from a focus on evaluation to a focus on constructive feedback and opportunities for metacognition for students. Many of the forms those practices have taken are predicated on students and teachers being in a physical classroom space together. So, how do we now “lean in?” Rather than try to continue with the practices teachers have become accustomed to, how do we leverage the conditions we now find ourselves in?
The massive pivot of the last few weeks have left school districts, in many cases, mandating that teachers move away from grading and evaluating students. This shift provides an opportunity to those that recognize it. It allows the focus to be placed on learning and not on evaluation. With the pressure that has been a part of schools for decades now lessening, there is more room to prioritize high-leverage formative practices. Teachers now have the permission to allow students to talk about their thinking, form hypotheses, justify their thinking, compare their thinking to the thinking of another, justify an opinion other than their own, identify misconceptions, and judge the degree of validity of different partially-correct answers.
One multiple choice question a day to transform learning
It’s time to think about low-input, high-output formative strategies, and this is one of the best I’ve seen in my nearly 25 years in education. The premise and set up is extremely simple but teachers that have implemented this formative strategy have, in many cases, seen double-digit gains in state assessment scores, closing of the achievement gap, better engagement and learning enthusiasm—and simply put—higher levels of learning. And, the recipe is both simple and grade-level, content-area, student-demographic agnostic. Here are the key components along with some helpful resources that you can use to implement tomorrow!
- You will need to set up a “remote classroom.” Any online learning platform can work (such as Zoom or Google Hangout). You will need at least 4-5 students to join virtually (or, ideally, an entire class).
- The teacher reads and/or displays one multiple choice question as an “entrance ticket” to start the activity. This activity will take the place of instruction. (This will not work as an “exit ticket,” as students leave the remote learning environment.)
- Think of one well-written multiple choice question like this example. The question should be based on the standard you are teaching and should either contain several partially-correct answer choices or have strong distractors tied to common student misconceptions. Here are some examples of questions with several partially-correct answers to start your thinking. Remember, you only need one question.
- If you are also using an online formative assessment platform, have students respond to the answer. If you do not have an online platform, you can ask students to write their answers down on a piece of paper.
- NOTE: The teacher should ideally have a way to gather the response frequency data from students’ responses (e.g., how many students chose A, B, C, etc.), however this activity can work without this data if you don’t have a method to collect it.
- The teacher should facilitate a conversation using prompts, but must never give the answer or directly instruct during this activity. Using any one of the sample prompts, allow time for discussion amongst your students.
- Remember, this activity (like all truly formative assessments) is not for a grade. Use the multiple choice question simply to initiate discussion, get students to think about their thinking, engage students in their learning, and address misconceptions. The response frequency data can help you guide the conversation toward the misconceptions most common in the group.
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