Sadly I missed NAIS President Pat Bassett’s Annual address at the NAIS Annual Conference, because I was presenting in the same time slot, but it was great to get to see it posted on the NAIS website, and I have taken the liberty of selecting out a few slides to share here.

After a review of the state of the industry, Pat argued that independent schools (and all schools, I’d add)  must strive to be informed about and attentive to developments happening broadly in our “industry,” to what is happening at the cutting edge, and be prepared to incorporate the best practices and respond accordingly to remain relevant and competitive.

In doing so, he called particular attention (as you can see in the slides atop) to three themes that are essential for any school to explore and examine in the quest to be relevant, compelling, and successful:

  • Formative Assessment,
  • Embedding Practical Skills for Greater  Problem-Solving Skills,
  • and the Value of PBL.

1. Formative Assessment: Testing is obviously a highly sensitive and politicized arena; it is nothing less than a tragedy the way that high stakes, summative, end-of-year standardized testing has demoralized and deprofessionalized the art and profession of teaching and driven teaching down to a lowest common denominator approach of drilling students to pass the tests.    That said, this is a case where we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, where we still have to strive for a middle ground whereby we can use tools that gauge student progress and give us as educators valuable information on how to support, how to challenge, how to advance, how to uplift our students.

Pat’s slides on this topic, slides 2 and 3 above, come from a report prepared for and published by NWEA, the masterminds of the MAP testing which St. Gregory administers to students in grades six through eight.   For more on using MAP as formative assessment, click here.

The NWEA report, entitled For Every Child, Multiple Measures: What Parents and Educators Want From K-12 Assessments,   proclaims the following findings and recommendations, which are further illuminated in the video immediately below and the informative infographic at the very bottom of this post.  I have highlighted in bold the findings and recommendations which I find especially interesting.

Key findings from the study include:

  1. Child-centered teaching and learning is a top priority for parents and educators.
  2. Parents, teachers and district administrators think it’s important to measure student performance in a full range of subjects—and in the “thinking” skills that will be critical in life.
  3. Parents, teachers and district administrators agree on local decision-making about teaching and learning.
  4. Formative and interim assessments are perceived as more valuable by parents and educators.
  5. Many parents, teachers and administrators question the money, time and stress spent on assessment.

Based on the findings, NWEA offers the following recommendations:

Recommendations for Assessment Developers and Policymakers

  1. Broaden the dialogue beyond summative assessments and high-stakes accountability.
  2. Focus on more than language arts and mathematics assessments.
  3. Develop innovative ways to measure learning, thinking and life skills.
  4. Encourage local decision-making on assessments that support learning.

Recommendations for State and District Leaders

  1. Share decision-making authority and responsibility for teaching and learning with teachers, principals and school leaders.
  2. Select assessments that provide timely and useful information.
  3. Establish professional learning communities and provide time and training for educators to better understand the different assessments and effective use of assessment data.
  4. Provide parents with comparative data on students at the district and national levels.

It is worth pointing out that some of these findings fall at one of two extremes: extremely obvious wishes and problematically distant resources.    Of course parents and teachers want things like child centered learning and that we measure skills beyond the narrow mathematical and reading fundamentals and that we better train educators on using these tools, and at the same time, we are too far off from having very many and very many useful innovative ways to measure learning, thinking, and life skills.

The second issue at hand is the question of “formative assessment.”  NWEA is, and I have been following them, planting a flag here, proclaiming a sharp divide between formative and summative assessment, the former good and the latter not-so-good, and then taking a side in this divide, arguing that their approach is mostly or especially formative.    It is easy to agree with NWEA and with Pat Bassett that formative assessment in its ideal form is a good thing, but I fear that it is awfully difficult in practice to maintain the sharp divide between the two approaches.    Formative can, awfully quickly,  become defined only in the eye of the beholder.  A test result which a teacher believes to be formative can, in the eyes of parents or principals, become viewed as summative judgment of whether a student is learning and whether a teacher is succeeding.   This is something I want to see happen, but we need to be wary about the possibilities.

NWEA is seeking with this new booklet publication both to demonstrate and develop public support for the development of more and better assessment tools which we can use effectively and formatively, and which we can use to measure key 21st century capacities and abilities, and for this we should be grateful and encouraging as well as attentive and prepared.

The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students' Hands 1

2. The Resurgence of the Importance of Practical Skills  In the previous era of information, when knowledge increased rapidly but access was sharply limited, it was important to spend years and years instructing students to master by memorization these domains of intellectual knowledge, at the expense of much else.  But now, it is not so much what we know as what we can do with the knowledge we can access, and confident, innovative problem-solving is what matters most.   What Pat Basset is calling for, drawing upon a fascinating recent essay in the The Chronicle Review, is to re-institute practical arts in our curriculum.

At our school we have been making some small but still significant progress in this direction, particularly in our middle school.  This is most well exemplified by our new Goat pen, which students have designed, built and maintained, and where they take care of the goats with great attention.

The Chronicle Review article is highly worthwhile: The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands.  Some excerpts:

 They have emphasized that they teach students how to think, how to be engaged, world citizens—not merely how to do a job.

I agree that a liberal-arts education provides those intangibles. But maybe it’s time that instruction—at least at some colleges—included more hands-on, traditional skills. Both the professional sphere and civic life are going to need people who have a sophisticated understanding of the world and its challenges, but also the practical, even old-fashioned know-how to come up with sustainable solutions.

“If you are going to understand the world you live in, you need to understand how it got that way in a very practical way—you need to solve the problems that humans have been trying to solve for 10,000 years,” Maughs-Pugh says. “The goal was to engage people with addressing the fundamental occupations of humanity—dealing with food, shelter, heat—and gain insight into how humans have solved these problems or addressed these problems, and what the limitations are.”

A key to innovation may be not just understanding some of these technologies but playing around with them as well. Stuart Brown, a renowned expert on play and education, has pointed out that companies have found that the most adept and innovative engineers are people who played with their hands when they were young, building and dismantling things.

3.  The Value of PBL Pat Bassett’s third point in his survey of the horizon is well taken: the facts are that charter schools such as High Tech High and New Tech Network Schools are surging ahead of most NAIS independent schools in their design and implementation of high quality Project Based Learning, and educators everywhere owe it to our students and owe it to the future of our schools to recognize and respond accordingly.   At St. Gregory we have been studying PBL in our summer reading and in our school visits in Texas and California, and it has been great to see great advances in PBL in many places at our school, though we certainly still have great opportunities ahead of us to advance further.

Pat’s reference in this section of the presentation is to a recent free and highly recommended publication by High Tech High educators: Work that Matters: The Teacher’s Guide to Project-based Learning.  

Project-based learning’ refers to students designing,  planning, and carrying out an extended project that  produces a publicly-exhibited output such as a product, publication, or presentation.

It is related to enquiry-based learning (also known as inquiry-based  learning), and problem-based learning. the distinctive feature of projectbased learning is the publicly-exhibited output. We have chosen to focus on  project-based learning because it incorporates enquiry, and because, in our  experience, public exhibition is a tremendously powerful motivator for both students and staff.

There have been two key shifts that have reignited teachers’ interest in project-based learning and helped it to shake off its stigma. firstly, and most obviously, digital technology makes it easier than ever before  for students to conduct serious research, produce high-quality work, keep a
record of the entire process, and share their creations with the world.

Secondly, we now know much more about how to do good, rigorous projectbased learning, and we can evaluate its effectiveness. this guide draws upon a substantial (and growing) body of knowledge, bringing together tried-andtested strategies and protocols that all teachers can use.

Pat Bassett is, of course, right: it is incumbent upon every school which genuinely seeks to be an exemplary “school of the future” and site of genuine 21st century learning to reflect upon, examine, and explore the options for enhancing student learning with formative assessment, integration of practical skills as part of a broader program of problem-solving and innovation learning, and employing high quality project-based learning as a key element of the curriculum and pedagogy.