How do you approach dilemmas in your class/school?

Last year, I spent much time figuring out the intricacies of applying project based learning in my grade 12 biology class.  I shifted to teaching grade 11 biology this year and quickly realized upon reflecting from my experience last year, that I needed to iron out my approach to feedback and assessment in order to deepen student learning while also having them practice the skills they need for 21st-century life in education.  At my school, I have found that there seems to be a significant gap in the conversation surrounding assessment. I began to approach a few people that I knew could help, both with my classroom dilemma and with a desire to start conversations around assessment in the wider community.

Joe McCrae, who recently moved to our community and join the LCS faculty, had spent quite some time working with protocols designed by The National School Reform Faculty who’s mission is to “empower educators to create meaningful learning experiences for all, by collaborating effectively in reflective democratic communities that foster educational equity and social justice.”  He suggested that we offer up an opportunity to present my dilemmas surrounding assessment to the greater faculty. @ddoucet, Joe, and I sent out an invite and were pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming response by people who wanted to talk more about assessment (approximately 40% of our faculty responded and wanted to be involved), and I was happy to see that people were interested in working as a team to approach the dilemma I was having in my grade 11 biology class; perhaps a dilemma they were also having.

The NSRF is a not-for-profit organization and offers several free protocols that allow for collaborative approaches to a variety of situations in your school and class. (Protocols from A-Z). There are many so depending on what your goal is for the collaborative time with staff or students, will depend on which protocol fits.  As I was looking for consultation and feedback from my colleagues, we decided the Consultancy Protocol would offer the best structure for me to get as much feedback on my Cohort 21 action plan and assessment dilemmas as possible.

How does this look?

First of all, I presented a PBL activity that I had given to my students and explained the process of daily goal setting and reflective practice (using docAppender). I also presented my self-assessment piece that the students had to complete and the rubric that I used to evaluate.

Afterward, I presented my dilemmas:

  • Dilemma #1 – How can I use assessment in my Biology course to deepen student understanding and improve the quality of student work.  
  • Dilemma #2 – How can I clearly communicate my expectations of student work.

Once I completed this presentation (to approximately 8 other colleagues), it was time for them to start asking questions – Joe led the group through the protocol which includes a set of timed activities:

  1. clarifying questions to set the context
  2. probing questions to dig deeper
  3. a group discussion where I metaphorically stepped out of the conversation and they discussed my dilemmas and presentation, allowing me to listen and take notes, thereby receiving the feedback that I needed.
  4. Reflection time allowing me to reflect and respond to the discussion

Having colleagues from a diverse set of backgrounds in the room, allowed for some very provoking questions, some of which I had already thought about and others which I had not:

Clarifying questions: 

What was the reflection – Did they every get feedback on what they actually wrote?

How you’ve practiced integrating vocabulary before the project?

When you are marking, how do you anchor levels from the rubric.  How do you maintain consistency between students or marking times?

How many nailed it out of the park?

Plagiarism and references?  How did you handle this?  

Probing questions:

I am often the person that says this is my fault if this tanked.  Have you thought of other reasons, beyond the scope of your project?  Have you considered other factors?

If more teachers did PBL, would kids have an easier time with this type of work?

How much do you think their abilities in reading and writing affected their results?

How were you evaluating their ability to take what they know and apply it to the new topic. 

Why do you think they were misjudging their work, and how could you change this?

Discussion: My notes while they discussed my dilemma

  • Project is clearly laid out – almost like a checklist but with questions (some kids will always miss the expectations)
  • Rubric seems clear 
  • Do it more – a project base course – they will learn how to approach big questions and projects over the time spent in the course
  • Use daily reflections and include a paragraph to practice scientific writing
  • Cross-curricular. Many opportunities to approach other teacher and collaborate.
  • Involve students with exemplars and breaking down the rubric. Feedback at the start –  what does excellent work look like?
  • Less emphasis on the goal and what they accomplished – explicit feedback so they can work to overall expectations.
  • Research versus PBL – what is the difference really?
  • Struggles with time – Project Based Learning
  • Be more intentional about metacognitive factor  – have the reflections change (provide a paragraph of your writing today – reflections with practice)
  • Are my expectations too high or not well enough explained
  • create intention and be explicit

What has this done for me and my colleagues?

This process made me think, question, and evaluate my teaching and assessment.  The ideas, discussion and feedback will help me approach my dilemma and contextualize the problem as seen through the eyes of others. This process was collaborative and improved communication across departments, it allowed for a respectful and organized approach to collaboration where everyone felt valued. Based on feedback, my colleagues enjoyed the process and they remarked on how it made them also think about their own assessment practice; a powerful result from a 50-minute process. I am grateful for this experience with my colleagues and for the feedback that they could offer.  One of the best comments from a colleague as we rushed off to class, “Can we do this every week!?”

Participant Feedback:  

Warm / Cool Feedback about the structure of this conversation.

  • Kept it focused and within the timeframe available
  • I liked the structure of clarifying questions, probing, and then discussion. I think it encouraged us to refrain from jumping to conclusions or making assumptions. We had to really listen and think deeply.

Do you feel like you were able to take something away from this conversation for your own practice?

  • Yes – a more critical eye to rubrics and framing/preparing students for an assignment – lots of transferrable issues
  • Yes- I’d like to use the protocol itself somehow in the classroom.  I also was encouraged to hear teachers wrestling with the same challenges I face.
  • Yes – I was interested to learn about the parallels of skill between the sciences and humanities (ie, my assumption was that science was less skill-based and more content based); going through this process highlighted the importance of focusing on student skill, rather than product
  • Yes – I liked how the protocols demanded engagement. For 50 minutes, we needed to be there and nowhere else but I got more from that 50 minutes than I have from all other meetings combined this year. Makes me realise that i shouldn’t be giving my students the option of disengaging.
  • Made me excited about PBL – something I think I often take for granted – and reflective about my own assessment practices.

Imagine the power of integrating these protocols with the Design Thinking process.  The results would be powerful for approaching dilemmas, both in the class and in the school.

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12 Responses to How do you approach dilemmas in your class/school?

  1. Joe McRae says:

    Hey Tim…

    Thanks for blogging about yesterday! I thought it was a great start to a larger conversation about assessment and learning. This was the second time I have facilitated a protocol with an uninitiated group, and I was a little nervous. Once we got going though, you could tell our colleagues were engaged – they asked great questions and had meaningful discussions about your work.

    The crazy thing is, even though the focus was on your work – it seemed that everyone left inspired. I’m sure for some this was because they had a new idea for their classroom, while others it might have simply come from having a great discussion about teaching. , and I’m sure others left inspired for different reasons.

    If anyone is reading this and wants to give a protocol a shot, Tim’s referenced many great resources to get started. I’d also strongly encourage you to think about NSRF training – it is some of the best PD I’ve had. I do think lots of subtle things that led to a great conversation yesterday were the result of great training and some previous practice.

    • Absolutely, the approach to the protocol and the training that is involved in properly implementing them is crucial. Thank you for your part in that and for opening my eyes to constructive, critical, and reflective collaboration. This will be the key to success when attempting to solve a problem as a staff or in the class with students. I look forward to modifying and using these protocols with a group of students.

  2. Dave Krocker says:

    I love the use of protocols. I am so pleased you led this yesterday and witnessed the power of this collaborative process. You have initiated a terrific energy that will lead to improved student learning as teachers build together.

    • Thank you, Dave! I have noticed a few articles that discuss the issues with over-collaboration (a recent article in the Economist), but strongly believe that an intentional, well-structured space can be so powerful! I have always loved working together with people for a greater common goal.

  3. Jen says:

    This sounds so interesting, Tim! I think that this structure could be so useful for anyone trying to evaluate anything they’re doing, and I’m particularly interested in the PBL structure. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you for your comments, Jen! Check out the other structures that the organization also offers. We can chat about PBL any time. Joe McCrae and I are heading to the states this summer for PBL in math – a new avenue for us at LCS. Love to chat further.

  4. Derek Doucet says:

    What a great post! You certainly have clearly laid out all the steps and have given a great look at the protocol! @ckirsch will be leading an action plan tuning protocol this weekend that will get at the same ideas with someone else’s action plan.

    I’d love to sit down and talk about this more. Erica Chellew and i spoke about the session and she really liked it. To Joe’s point everyone always comes away with a great idea or feeling inspired to try something new!

    You’re doing some great stuff and I can’t wait to get in on more protocols!
    Have you seen what @reicholtz is doing with math? You should check out her blog! Also @lesmcbeth !

  5. Hey Tim,
    So glad to see that you had a good experience with the NSRF protocols! Did you “tune in” to @ckirsch’s Tuning Protocol yesterday? It is also an NSRF protocol that we learned about at the Klingenstein Institute. We are using it at Greenwood in our PLC groups this year to look at a number of different themes (assessment is one of them) and both presenters and participants have found it useful. Did you schedule this during PD time or was it on your own time?

    As for your actual project based learning activities, one piece of feedback that I would have is to maybe start with a real world problem, rather than starting with the curriculum expectations. I find that having them start with identifying a problem in the real world will help with that initial “I don’t know what to do?” feeling from the students. The Design Thinking framework can be helpful here too! This might also address that question of Research vs. PBL – what’s the difference? (here’s a great article:

    For the feedback piece, based on your action plan last year, it seems like the face-to-face feedback was most effective for you, so why not build on that? You can document your conversations with notes using docAppender (I have a general feedback form that I use for students, when I meet with them I just take notes as we are talking and then it docAppender pushes it out to their docs so they can refer to it later). Here’s another example of a form that I use for giving feedback when I’m reviewing their work in a non-face-to-face context.
    I have found that I’m often giving students the same comments, so I take my general comments and make a form with check boxes. Then, as I am reviewing student work, I can just click the appropriate boxes and it appears as a single written comment in their doc (via the magic of docAppender). There is also an “other” box where I can type a specific comment if I have something else to say. This form was used for an assignment where students created four drafts of their project before submitting their final draft. After the first draft, we met face to face to discuss (I took notes as described above) the content of their work. Then, for the second draft they did a peer critique focused on their thinking process. They handed in the third draft and I used this form to give them feedback based on their application of skills. Because all of these drafts are Assessment for Learning, I don’t feel so bad about using the “boiler plate” comments as the goal of the feedback/assessment is just to help them move forward with their final draft.

    This is a really long comment…Maybe I should write a blog post on this!?

    Anywho, if you want to discuss, I’d be more than happy to chat and I would love to hear more about what you’re implementing this year and your plans for assessment!


    • Wow. Thank you for your comments and for guest blogging on my site! I think you make some excellent points and I really appreciate your feedback here. I think you are right, if I find face to face feedback the best, I just need to put it somewhere. DocAppender seems like an obvious method (since I already use it and have those docs set up) of tracking my conversations with students. I will take a look at your feedback survey and modify it to fit my class. I have sat with @ddoucet and seen some of his Google Forms that he developed after speaking with you as well. Unfortunately, I missed @ckirsch’s tuning protocol but I am going to be leading another consultancy protocol in the coming weeks with my colleagues on differentiated assessment (Guest blog by Adam Ross soon to be published),which I look forward to. Thank you so much for the resources and I look forward to chatting more Les!

  6. Tim, I won’t reiterate everything that people have written above – because I agree. From what I am reading above, I see a shift in your conversation with your students around reflection and assessment AS learning. So how can you effectively communicate your expectations of your students’ work? I am reading “The Art of Possibilty” by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, and they have this concept of “Giving Everyone an A”. They do this because, for a number of reasons, it levels the playing field within the classroom where you become a co-learner, truly. There is no more hierarchy, rather there is cooperation. We all know the research that suggests that, as soon as you apply a grade, the anecdotal feedback (which is usually anything BUT anecdotal) is ignored. When we assign expectations, we send a message: “Not only des this message tend to squelch innovation and creativity, but is also trains students to focus solely on what they need to do to please their teachers and on how much they can get away with…” (Zander)

    Something to consider…

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