Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Essential Learning Standards -- The Gateway to Innovation

How do we move away from Carnegie Units or other methods of equating the quantity of time spent with learning content? Even the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching now asserts that
"at best, the Carnegie Unit is a crude proxy for student learning." 
State content standards are based on the Carnegie Unit, in that teachers are expected to teach (and students are expected to learn) "X" amount of content within "X" amount of time. Variables such as learning levels, class size, and resources are irrelevant. All standards are created equal.

Enter essential learning standards. These are the skills and knowledge that are essential for a student's progression to the next level of learning. They are derived from the state content standards and identified by teacher teams through a sustained collaborative effort. Instead of each standard receiving the same amount of time, teacher teams, using their professional expertise, determine which standards are essential. This then allows teachers to zoom in and ensure that every single student learns and is able to demonstrate proficiency in the essential standards, thus readying them for the next level of learning. It doesn't mean the other standards are ignored, but rather, actually sets students up for long-term success.

Identifying essential learning standards is not for the faint-hearted. It requires a team dedicated to success for each and every student, and a willingness to engage in uncomfortable or protracted discussion about differing views on the standards. What one teacher views as essential, another may not. It requires a deep, sustained dive into the standards, and probing meaning. It absolutely needs a principal dedicated to support, professional learning, and allocation of resources. Sometimes, it means a teacher has to compromise and relent on spending a week teaching his or her favorite topic, because the consensus is that it is not essential for the next level of learning. That is hard, because we are so invested in our content. It also means that when we leave the collaborative sessions, I carry out the work of the team with my students, and bring evidence of learning back to our next session. Even though it is hard, it is the right work. And in the end, when we see student success, it is satisfying work.

Once teacher teams have identified essential learning standards, and taken them for a test drive through the cycle of inquiry one or more times, the learning begins to become portable. We can begin to imagine a world where combining portions of the biology and history essential learning standards to create a real-world experience in disease migration is possible, and students still are meeting state graduation requirements. We can free up time during the tight master schedule to allow all students to discover and pursue their passions. Heck, we might even be able to lose the hourly bells that theoretically signal the beginning and end of learning! The possibilities are immense.

Join the conversation...
What are your experiences with the identification of essential learning standards? What possibilities for innovation do you see with them?

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