Summer Professional Development at The White Mountain School, and Building a System for Teaching and Learning

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What happens when you encourage faculty to explore what they hope students learn and how they hope to teach and assess? What happens when teachers are encouraged to imagine different ways of engaging students in thinking and learning — when those teachers are invited to design a teaching, learning and assessment (and oh yeah, grading) system that meets the needs of each learner. Well, when a group of The White Mountain School faculty opted in to spend an intensive week doing just that, the results were nothing short of extraordinary.

I knew the week had been a success when, in our closing circle, each of the faculty — in taking turns to share appreciation for one another — showed so clearly that they knew one another. This resonated strongly because we began the week with the central guiding question: “How can you be sure that you know your students?” This was our guiding question because regardless of what a teacher does, if they are to be truly successful in reaching their students, they must know them. In the appreciation circle, people spoke of the need for optimism, of acknowledging unearned privileges, of interrogating everything for implicit bias; people laughed and people wept. Why? We teach because we believe in capacity of young people, and when this group of faculty began to imagine the possibilities that exist in a competency-based learning environment — where constraints are loosened and teachers have permission to bring in more relevant and meaningful curricula — they saw the potential for truly transformative teaching and learning.  

Let me explain the tactical outcome of the week. Teachers, working off leading research — including but not limited to reDesign, CompetencyWorks and Marzano Research — built a clear tool for turning competency assessment into grades. Why does that matter? While the radical in me would love to stop giving grades altogether, I know that in order for there to be large-scale transition from traditional grading (where kids receive 0–100 scores that average away any details that would provide the “what next?” in their learning) to competency learning, we must keep grades simply because they will provide security for those who might be a bit more trepidatious. Consider keeping grades a concession, a concession for being able to teach and assess in a new system that truly allows us to be mission-driven. In other words, if keeping grades will allow students, families and colleges to allow us to teach in a competency environment, then so be it.

“I know grades matter, but I hope that in basing your grade more heavily on where you end up, you will be able to focus on what you need to do to get better at the target skills rather than the points you earn for each assignment. I hope you will feel freer to experiment and explore, to get things “wrong” and to discover how you learn, how you get better at something over time.”

So how does it work? Unlike traditional grading — averaging the averages of tests, quizzes, projects, etc to generate a percentage that we then convert into a letter grade — in this model, teachers identify 4–8 school-wide Essential Skills (transferrable and trans-disciplinary skills, such as communication and critical thinking) along with 3–5 disciplinary skills (such a “Tinker, Play and Investigate” for math or “Text selection and usage” for English). Note: while content remains incredibly important, it is a means and not an end; content is the medium through which students develop confidence and competence in the skills. We prioritize skills because they are transferrable and will be relevant to the student regardless of what they do for the rest of their life.

“Our goal is not to produce students who have memorized material but students who are curious and have the academic skills and habits that will allow them to pursue work they genuinely care about.”

Once the skills are identified, teachers create learning experiences in which students must use the skills. In an assessment, a number of the skills are assessed. Instead of averaging them all together, our grading system tracks how the student does in each separate skill separately. At the end of the semester, for example, a teacher will know how well a student does in each of the skills evaluated. Using Blackbaud’s new competency grade book (and we are proud to pilot their beta as early adopters), teachers and students will be able to click on each skill and see their score on that skill and all of the assignments that led to that score. Only at the end of the grading period will all of the scores from the competencies be averaged together.

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How are the scores for each competency generated? In full disclosure, we spent hours talking about this together, and likely scores of hours individually thinking and wrestling with which model would be more mission-aligned. Despite there being no perfect model — should we us the overall average, n times, decaying average, recent score? — we opted to use the decaying average, which means that the most recent score accounts for 65% of the score for the competency and 35% comes from the previous score. While holes can be poked in this method (as they can be for each method), we opted for the decaying method because it articulates our belief that students will grow and improve over time, and thus how they are doing at the end of semester should be more heavily weighted.

While building the tool gave us tactical confidence in how we would convert our knowledge of the student into a letter grade, we each recognized that the tactical solution was likely the least important aspect of our work. More important, we — anyone involved in piloting this new grading system — each needed to be able to tell the story of why this matters. Any change requires a compelling reason to move from the safety of a conventional and known system to something new and different. We opted to, as suggested by Eric Hudson from Global Online Academy, have our change-leaders write a public narrative. Why? Writing a public narrative makes the change-process personal. Through the process of writing, one becomes empowered to become the agent of change. Furthermore, through writing, the author develops a deeper understanding of the process and product. Stay tuned for future sharing of the public narratives our faculty wrote. They are profound and compelling. 

Needless to say, I am feeling particularly thrilled to be part of The White Mountain School faculty. What a brave and caring group of educators!

Warmly,

Mike Peller

Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning

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