All-in: school-wide planning + assessing for conceptual understanding (a coach's view)
At the start of this school year, in line with our new division-wide focus, I was asked by our principal to work with grade level and specialist teams on our pedagogy through the lens of assessment practices. I was really excited - this was a big opportunity to work alongside teachers and develop our identity as assessors, something that teachers often shy away from, yet assessment is the bedrock of all our decisions for teaching and learning. It was also an opportunity to put our money where our PYP mouth is: the PYP is concept-driven, so how can we ensure that students are actually making meaning of a Central Idea? If our intention is that students will develop conceptual understandings through the learning, we need to be explicitly scaffolding their progress towards that understanding, so all students will experience success. We need to be evidencing that understanding as it grows in response to new knowledge and skills, and planning opportunities to transfer that understanding to new situations and contexts. And so we set down a path to become a more intentional, and more accountable, concept-driven school.
The power of starting with models
At the outset, I never promised to have a perfect framework to fit where we were. I did, however, have a great model from which we might start. In our first planning meeting I shared an example rubric from Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding as a provocation (Stern, Ferraro, and Mohnkern: 2017). Whilst the example was from the Secondary version of the text, it placed key components of developing conceptual understanding in plain sight. From here our planner seemed to move organically to a process of check-ins and the rubric became more of a learning progression to guide planning for learning engagements and assessment of conceptual understanding. The process looked like this: first, teachers drew the concepts from the Central Idea, and refined them, setting them within a context or content. Once plugged in to the progression, then teachers began to break-down what students would have to know and do to understand these concepts using the IB command terms.
In the first session it became clear we needed more than just the progression to visualise the learning journey, so I included a slightly modified version of the Acquire-Connect-Transfer model to our planner for future sessions. This brought into focus the steps we could take to scaffold learning for conceptual understanding and the check-ins we would plan for as teaching teams.
Teacher clarity - not as clear as you might think
Over the first few weeks, it became clear that this process was drawing out much more than a plan for assessment; talking about what we wanted to evidence was clarifying our collective understanding of what we intended to teach. Some of these earlier meetings felt difficult, as we often circled back to decisions teams thought they had made but were realising they weren’t sure about. Things were taking longer and the satisfaction (and security) of a sure-direction was sometimes hard to come by. This was not easy work.
Finding our groove
As we planned the second UOI, teams still grappled with the mechanics of planning and assessing for conceptual understanding, but some familiarity with the process meant they were more able to think through the lens of student learning. This led to significantly more constructive outcomes:
Teachers took ownership of the questions they would ask to prompt conceptual understanding and broke them down so that they were a match for their students. For example, when discussing an exit ticket for an early check-in for a Grade 2 PE unit with the Central Idea: Our performance is impacted by our attitude and our development of technique, a prompt that started out as How does your attitude impact your technique in athletics? became How did you feel in today’s lesson? Did feeling like that make things easier or harder in long jump, and why?
Teachers refined their plans for instruction in response to the students’ wonderings and knowledge shown during early provocations and class discussions. They engaged in deeper conversations around attributes of concepts, and brought student questions and examples to the table: Is a TV a system? Are the fans that keep us cool in the canteen a system? Hearing - and recognising - that our students have thoughts and ideas beyond our expectations, that test our own understanding, made instructional decisions - the ‘what next’ - very clear.
Sometimes those early noticings would redefine the Central Idea itself. In a subsequent conversation to the PE planning meeting, teachers realised as they unpacked the concept of attitude with students that it presented challenges: attitude was defined by behaviours that were significantly more complex to unpack than the 2 x 40 minute PE lesson per week allowed. A more relevant concept (perhaps evident now I look back on their break-down of the question) was emotions - the students had loads of background knowledge from the school-wide learning of the Zones of Regulation that could be leveraged for the PE context.
Teachers began thinking more concretely about our documentation of learning and developing tools and tasks that would result in more comparable evidence of student learning. They also began to see how design and alignment was important. An example would be focusing on the command term selected: If we have asked students to recognise similarities and differences between a concept and a [perceived] concept ‘synonym’ (where we pick up the nuances of a concept - like comparing culture and nationality), how does this impact our plans for instruction? Which skills are necessary for students to experience success, and do we need to teach into them? Teachers were starting to predict what might be barriers to expressing conceptual understanding, and planning accordingly.
And in teams where there was willingness and the mental space to dive in, teachers were changing the shape of unit planning and instruction in profound ways to reflect a learning journey with the goal of conceptual understanding and transfer. A very visible effect was lots of signposting of the steps to developing conceptual understanding for the students and plenty of practice of thinking conceptually. Teachers recognised that students would need to develop familiarity and comfort with the types of questions that drive at making connections, and the language we might use to convey those connections. For example, in Studio 5 teachers were finding that they had to (sometimes heavily) scaffold the process of thinking conceptually for students - but this allowed them to access students’ thinking without being distracted by areas of struggle such as writing conventions or organisation, which weren’t the intended learning. What remained was evidence of breadth and depth of conceptual understanding - grounded in content that reflects both class and individual inquiries - varied and valid.
As a coach on this journey, I’ve been growing and refining my skills and understanding, too. I have realised:
I have to keep myself in-check, as it is easy to forget that I am reliving - and refining - the process and its outcomes almost daily; teachers have, on average, only been through this process twice. I have to be mindful of where each team is as they gain confidence in teaching and assessing for conceptual understanding, and recognise how far to reach with each meeting we have.
I feel a major responsibility as a coach to recognise and leverage opportunities to build collective efficacy, and that this process presents an opportunity to do this, despite all faculty not being in the same room. One way I’ve started to take action is to integrate a vertical ‘view’ into the planning process so teachers can connect with how other teams are approaching the same UOI. At this stage I have tried using the ‘filled’ progression for conceptual understanding of the grade below or above (or with specialists, another specialist team) as the starting point for the assessment planning process with a few teams. The feedback has been positive as teachers make connections with the learning in other grade levels, and the approaches teachers have towards teaching for conceptual understanding.
More consistent practice = stronger collective identity
Whilst we are only one term into this new phase of teaching and learning, and teachers are at different places, a few key things are consistent. At our school:
We design learning so that all students move from understanding concepts in isolation, to understanding them in a relationship.
We provide opportunities for students to transfer these understandings and perhaps change them, as they gain experience and knowledge.
We design clear, intentional, common check-ins for conceptual understanding which assess progress, facilitate moderation and inform subsequent learning and teaching
We document students’ progress and growing understanding of the Central Idea.
Knowing this, there has been loads of ‘trying-out’, reflection and tweaking. There have been big steps and small steps forward. There have been some frustrations and cognitive conflict. But it is all good stuff. We are all part of the same process with the same purpose. We are learning to teach and assess for conceptual understanding and apply it - in real-time - together, and find ways to grow this into something that is our own.
Bring on term 2.
A big shout-out to @JulieHStern for the teaching and inspiration over the last 6 years from near and far (how our kids have grown, hey!) and the teachers at ISHCMC Primary whose curiosity pushes me to learn more every day. I'm proud I work with you.