“It’s a sit on your desk sort of day, Ms. Dedini!” Jana said it as a command, not a request. My class of 16 Honors Chemistry students knew what she meant. We all settled in (teacher taking seat on desk, as instructed) for what needed to be talked out before we could return to acid and base equilibrium.
Adolescence is a constant search for equilibrium, and chemistry -- or any subject for that matter -- is just another vehicle to explore, expand, discover limits, and find ways to return to center. The problem is that in most schools, the curriculum isn’t “independent” enough from its content anchors to be seen this expansively. If January 6, 2021, wasn’t a day to halt instruction in every chemistry class across the country and use human behavior as a metaphor for activation energy or precipitation or redox or neutralization (metaphors aren’t that hard to find in chemistry), then how did chemistry teachers diffuse all the chemicals that flooded the adolescent brains so they could keep teaching chemistry? And, perhaps more importantly, why did those chemistry teachers think that it was more important to teach chemistry than to teach children that day?
Classroom teachers want to grow strong, analytical minds, but they are held captive by their content-driven syllabi. The solution is independent curriculum, wherein teachers never have to sacrifice teachable moments for the day’s agenda. In the simple scenario above, that Honors Chemistry class was designed backwards from competencies -- the outcomes and aptitudes of a chemist and a citizen scientist. If a student could explain acid-base chemistry via the data they generated in the titration lab, that’s an A. But if a student could explain neutralization using a metaphor from the quelling of social discord with some qualitative analysis on paper, then that’s a valid path to mastery of the topic too.
Independent curriculum let me do that. Make no mistake: both kinds of kids are ready for college chemistry. But the teacher didn’t abdicate their responsibility to respond to the teachable moment because the content gods said “stick to the schedule,” the neurotransmitters flooding the adolescents’ brains weren’t ignored, and the students basically stayed on the path to learning chemistry. Independent curriculum lets teachers and students be present every single day because of, not in spite of, what’s happening outside the classroom.
Educators in this winter of pandemic confusion and social turmoil have had a lot to worry about. Newspapers, their predilections toward empathy overridden by their need to keep circulation up to sell ad space, have lately discovered, aided by some actual data, “learning loss.” No longer the subject of occasional summer musings while kids cavort at beachside or actually work at jobs or are busy learning new things at camp or summer school, Learning Loss, in headlines with capital Ls, is now an outcome much to be feared from the COVID-19 crisis.
Educators share this concern, of course, but we have an opportunity here to break apart some of what “learning” is to try to focus on what’s really being “lost” and what we might do, even in truncated terms, shattered schedules, and multimodal classrooms, to focus on what matters.
A key word in the conversation about how to minimize learning loss in this tumultuous time has been “content,” accent on the first syllable, as supplying the accented-second-syllable kind in quantity is out of most educators’ hands right now. The learning loss narrative tends to focus on content, used as a synonym for “how much stuff from a textbook kids memorize.”
First, it’s sad that most adults look back on their classroom learning in elementary and high schools as an aggregation of discrete factoids, formulas, and truisms; we’ve got to do better. But it’s also sad that as educators we haven’t done such a great job ourselves of clarifying the bigger aspects of learning that we actually value most: skills, understandings, and habits of mind. (And if you don’t hear those words uttered in the voice of the late Grant Wiggins, I am sorry that you missed that.)
The things we intend to teach, broadly, are, yes, content. But when we allow this to be defined exclusively by the kinds of low-Bloom-level facts and formulas that need to be memorized, we miss the boat we actually believe we are sailing.
What matters to most teachers is that students know how to take that low-level-Bloom stuff and relate it to and integrate it with other concepts. We want students to be able to analyze and apply, to think critically (if you will accept that as a real thing; some educators have a hard time with that for reasons that escape me), to use what they know as a starting point and as a set of cognitive processes and mental and emotional dispositions that will make the learning that matters not be those low-Bloom-level things but in fact the ability and the inclination to observe the world, to note things that are significant or important, and to think about these things in a way that leads to something that matters or helps in the learner’s life—whether on the final unit assessment or in later life.
Here’s an overly simple analogy that might help. Years ago I used to enjoy watching my mother-in-law make soup. There were a basic set of processes and a few basic and kind of standard ingredients. But she never made the same soup twice. The soup du jour depended on what ingredients were lying around and either fresh or just kind of needing to be used. It depended on the weather and time of year. It depended on when the soup might be served and what with.
If you will, the “content” that mattered as I learned from Sally how to make soup, was the steps in the process. I also learned about flavors and combinations and timing. The content of soupmaking is not the onions and peas and broth and herbs; the content is the integration of little physical pieces with heat in a particular order for particular lengths of time. The content is knowing how long to proceed with one step until moving on to the next. The content is knowing when the soup tastes right.
If educators are to make the most of the disrupted months ahead, they’ll need to focus not on the onions and peas of their subject areas but on how to prepare them in ways that matter. It’s not whether students can define the Wilmot Proviso but whether they understand how historical American slavery led both to the Civil War and to a society rife with racism and inequity. It’s not that they must be able to name the steps of the Krebs Cycle but that they understand how the causal relationships among those steps mirror the whole process of life itself, the interrelationship of organisms and their environment. Knowing a bunch of vocabulary words in Spanish is critically important and useful, but knowing how we assemble nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs to yield human communication is the real aim.
Normally we start with the small (“content”) and move to the big (“concepts,” or “skills, understandings or habits of mind”). Perhaps this is the time to think about starting with the big and using the small as a model—watching Sally make one kind of soup as I internalized the process of soup-making, in general and as a life skill.
Here’s a hint for all of us. We often start our “backwards” unit and course designs with essential questions. These are BIG, and some teachers really enjoy coming up with them as helping to clarify learning goals (speaking for myself, anyhow). But how frequently, after introducing the unit, do we bring these questions forward in the day-to-day learning experiences of students? How about if we did this all the time—to keep the BIG learnings right up front for our students and ourselves. Wilmot and Krebs have their place and significance, but if one of these or something like it—or even a few of them—must be sacrificed in the interest of time in this COVID-19 year, must the necessary big conceptual learning be lost?
We say, No. If we lead with and assess on concepts and ideas and dispositions and not factoids and formulas, kids will not lose essential learnings this year. The news writers will have to find something else to worry us about.
I love the look of dismay when I tell people that I’ve never met most of our teachers in person, which is something that I usually reveal after just having told them that our faculty is outstanding. How do we hire highly competent, values-aligned professionals when we can’t interview in-person? Here’s the secret sauce:
Be unapologetic about who you are and what you need teachers to be able to do. You need to hire teachers who align with your values and, perhaps more importantly, want to grow in the areas where you want to grow. For example, in our job posting we link to our pedagogy whitepaper, say explicitly that the student-teacher relationship is the cornerstone of learning at One Schoolhouse, and describe how we work on tight deadlines. We go on to say, “If time management or building relationships are not your strengths, then this is not the job for you.” Candidates self-select into our pool who can meet our expectations because we don’t conceal anything about the logistics, values, or requirements of the job.
Create opportunities for candidates to display the skills and behaviors you are looking for. We don’t select our interviewees based solely on their resume, cover letter, and recruiter printout. We ask candidates to perform tasks that demonstrate the essential competencies of One Schoolhouse employees. To continue the simple example above, as an online school we need our employees to read and respond promptly to what is asked of them in email. So, part of our application requires that they send specific documents to our Director of Studies as the final step in completing the application, and part of the interview requires that they meet live on video chat under specific conditions -- strong internet connection, professional demeanor and background, etc.... Candidates who don’t follow the instructions don’t continue to the next step in the process. We don’t take for granted how important responsiveness is for online teachers, so we test it in various ways as explicit aspects of the interview. Philosophical alignment isn’t enough to do the job.
Design an interview process online. Our candidates participate in three “rounds” of an interview in our LMS over the course of three weeks. This is our opportunity to clarify our school’s values and practices, show people who we are through intentionally designed modules, and to give candidates the chance to interact with us (and with each other, which produces compelling results!). In a face-to-face school, this is the equivalent of the day where the prospective teacher walks the halls, evaluates the climate of the community, and gives a sample lesson. All these things can happen online through a finely tuned experience in the LMS.
Use a hiring rubric. As independent schools work to increase diversity amongst their faculty, a hiring rubric is essential to reducing bias. The hiring committee at One Schoolhouse is engaging in a candidate norming exercise this week, where we vet sample candidates against our rubric, then compare our results. For years I hired for “fit” but as our values have expanded into the realm of inclusive innovation, the methods to living those values demand far more intentional practices.
Without campus visits, this is the year to assess your hiring practices and take advantage of resources such as our Hiring During a Pandemic online course, hiring-specific Academic Leaders Webinars and blogs. This may just be your best hiring year yet.
Intentionality. That’s the key to good learning online. Planning, deliberate practice, iteration and consistent communication (and forms of communication) are all key to success. Guess what? Those are key to on-campus learning too.
The work of being more intentional starts with clarity about teaching and learning at your school -- there can’t be intentionality and common purpose without it. But, that’s not where schools start. At best, some schools use words like: progressive, traditional, discussion-based, etc.. But, we all know that if you ask one teacher to define those terms, the definitions will be different (I’ve been to many a “progressive” school where some faculty define “progressive” by politics, not Dewey).
How do you ensure intentional practices for teaching and learning?
Start by deciding what good teaching and learning looks like at your school and define terms clearly. But, don’t leave this up to a faculty committee -- that’s a recipe for in-fighting and hurt feelings. Instead, consider hiring an outside researcher to study the practices being used at your school, review current literature on best practices, and create a starting place for discussions. Slowly engage more administrators at your school in crafting and editing of the statement and ensure that the statement feels authentic to the lived practice at your school.
We went this route when we founded One Schoolhouse back in 2009. Back then, online learning was new and there was incredible skepticism of its effectiveness and efficacy. So we commissioned a literature review from our friend Lisa Damour (back before she was a best selling author). The literature review formed the basis for our first school-wide pedagogy whitepaper.
Today, we are releasing our latest version of our pedagogy whitepaper, the fourth version of this work. In between versions, we keep a list of new literature that emerges and engage our faculty in discussions about their emerging practice in their online classrooms. This keeps our thinking fresh and evolving -- very few of the citations from version one of our whitepaper appear in this version.
Oh yeah, the follow-through is important too.
A clear, coherent vision is important. As important are tools that allow the vision to be put into practice. This is where standards come into play. Standards help bring the pedagogical vision to life by defining terms more deeply and aligning terms to the lived experience in the classroom. Here again, we know that without clear definitions and terms, practices can be misaligned throughout a school.
The example I give in this regard that seems to most resonate with administrators and teachers is from the Hybrid Learning Standards that we released last spring. One of our teaching standards relates to the student-teacher relationship: “Teacher builds an authentic relationship with each student as a cornerstone of the learning experience.” I can’t imagine many independent school teachers disagreeing with this standard. But, without definitions, this standard could have different meanings to different faculty members. So, as academic leaders, we have to go further than just the standard to define the practice. In this case, we do so as: “Teacher builds learning partnership with students based on mutual respect and trust, knows student’s goals and learner profile, and actively works to support growth through regular contact with and feedback to student.” This ensures that the standard is not misinterpreted (as would otherwise be the case) by some faculty members as “the kids like me.”
We use standards like this one with our faculty at One Schoolhouse, and even go an extra step by defining not just what sufficient practice is to meet the standard, but also what exemplary practice is, in order to help faculty stretch and set goals (we don’t expect faculty to meet “exemplary practice” in more than a few areas; if they do, we start to “move the goalposts”). Annually, we update the standards and practices to align to current research and emerging practices.
In a few weeks, we’ll be sharing more on how schools might use standards to align practice to their vision and their school’s unique mission.
One Schoolhouse is intentional in creating learning environments that are learner-driven and personalized. Our pedagogy is explained in full in this document, and includes specific sections on competency-based learning and inclusive innovation. Fill out the quick form below and you will be redirected to download your copy today!
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)