Our first unit of study in all of my classes is the topic of learning and intelligence. Studies show that students’ misconceptions about these topics can create significant obstacles to their learning. We will attack these misconceptions head on, explore in detail what intelligence is, and investigate how a growth mindset is the key to being a relaxed, mature, and accomplished learner. My goal here is to explain to you that students must understand my assessment philosophy in light of our understanding of the critical topics of learning and intelligence.
In our introduction to learning and intelligence, we will explore the concept of the learning curve to give students a larger perspective and a realistic understanding on how progress is made when trying to master complex tasks. My goal is help students to be more relaxed about their learning and to understand that making progress on challenging skills, which is the heart of my program, is a slow process where continual practice is required and small steps forward are the norm. This introduction to learning and the learning curve helps students to better understand my assessment philosophy and methods.
I use grades to help the students understand their level of achievement on their work, to allow them to track their progress on the learning curve, and to inspire them to reach higher and achieve greater levels of accomplishment.
I set a very high standard for student work so that they are motivated to reach higher. If everything a student does is deemed wonderful by their teachers, there appears to be no room for growth or any suggestion on what specific refinements can be made to advance. So, like a demanding athletic coach, I will point out areas for improvement scrupulously so that my young athletes understand the specific moves they need to make to refine their work and advance further. The more rigorously I critique their performances, the higher I set the bar, the more they will grow, and the higher they ultimately will climb.
My assessment methods also help students to develop stick-to-itiveness and recognize that mature learners understand and appreciate the power of revision and the process of continual improvement.
Students will be asked frequently to share their work in the classroom and will benefit from getting the feedback of their peers on certain undertakings. We will establish a classroom environment where we are all learning together and learning from each other.
We will have classroom critiques where the whole class will read and critique one person’s work at a time. While some students feel intimidated by this idea at first, most end up enjoying the process of having everyone focus on their work and provide them with a wealth of feedback. They also come to see how this is a very powerful way to make progress. It allows me to explain in great detail my response to student work and for us to compare and contrast different student examples to see approaches that were more or less effective. It gives students new ideas about how to do things and enables them to learn from others, helping to create a classroom of shared learning and discovery and to bind them more tightly together with their peers. The experience that they are not the only person grappling with learning challenging skills, such as essay writing, also tends to put them more at ease about their learning and helps them to surrender to the idea that learning takes place one small step at a time.
In addition, classroom critiques help to develop the students’ ability to see the differences between works, notice finer distinctions, and make more precise evaluations. They learn to base judgments on specific and concrete evidence that must be supported by logic and solid explanation, rather than seeing evaluations as emotion-based or random or unknowable pronouncements from on high that must just be accepted. These classroom critiques help them to see better what we are aiming for and what makes work excellent. It helps to develop the sense of craftsmanship that we cultivate in my classroom as an important metaphor for how the process of learning is done by skillful students. Classroom critique is a very powerful method for learning in our toolkit.
Consequently, a good deal of time will be spent in class critiquing student work, much more so than in the traditional classroom. When students complete a major undertaking, we may spend days critiquing each others’ work together.
Understanding the Learning Cycle; Developing a Mature Understanding of Learning
Classroom critique also trains students that absorbing feedback is a critical part of the learning cycle, another key metaphor used to facilitate growth in my program of study. Students learn the cyclical, recursive nature of how work is perfected. We construct a draft, get feedback, reflect on and understand the feedback, and then apply it to reformulate our work into another draft. We will seek feedback on our second draft and move around the learning cycle a second time, and then a third or more. I tell my students that Dr. Richard Paul, one of the most brilliant minds I have known, would typically write 11 drafts before he felt like a book was ready to be shared with the public.
My program of study places great emphasis on the phase of reflecting on feedback and absorbing its meaning, a phase that is typically not focused on in traditional education. By making this phase an important part of our class work together, we further develop student understanding of how effective learning is done and instill in them the value of reflection, taking feedback seriously, and seeing it as a doorway to further growth. Too often when students get back a project, they will simply look at their grade and maybe not even look at the comments that were made, if there were any. My classroom works in a completely different manner and helps to develop openness to critique and a mature understanding of the process of learning.