In phase 5 of the Imagine IT project, I presented my dilemma of trying to design rigorous, relevant learning experiences for complex learning environments to two focus groups. These learning environments may include mandates to teach to grade level standards even though students in the class may not have the prerequisite knowledge and skills to readily engage with grade level content as defined by state and national standards. Alternatively, the overwhelming focus on performance on standardized tests may lead to school wide expectations of test-prep driven instruction, which may not allow for rich, engaging learning experiences that lead to conceptual understanding. I held three focus groups to discuss this dilemma and to seek input about ways to make instruction more relevant and engaging, while also challenging the students.
The first focus group was comprised of educators. The teacher team was a combination of middle school and high school science and math teachers as well as one high school ELA teacher. Many teachers said it was challenging to try to teach grade level content because many students struggled with prerequisite knowledge. The majority of teachers suggested that grade level content cannot be taught until the students have received remediation on their below grade level skills. A small, but vocal group disagreed, stating that if learning experiences are properly designed, students can receive instruction on grade level skills, while integrating supports and mini-remediation experiences as needed. They suggested that in order to create challenging, relevant instruction, experiences must be student centered, open-ended, and allow for access and easy modification in process or product. They also suggested that using a variety of technology (both electronic and traditional) as well as a variety of pedagogical strategies on a regular basis helps to make the content more accessible and understandable to the students, even if they are not at grade level. Overall, the consensus about how to move students forward even if they are “behind” by traditional metrics were:
- Use a wide variety of instructional strategies and technology.
- Create open-ended student centered learning experiences.
- Let students struggle and work together to problem solve, but also anticipate misconceptions and questioning strategies to help a student get unstuck before instruction.
- Group students strategically.
- Set aside a day a week to group students by proficiency and work mostly with those students who are still struggling in a small group. This can be used for general content instruction or for test prep if that is a conflicting mandate.
There was also discussion about making concepts relevant. Many teachers said they can make some authentic connections to applications of the content outside of academics, but that many of the applications they see seem inauthentic and forced. One teacher shared that she had been trying to use the GRASPS (Goal, Role, Audience, Standards, Product) method to plan summative assessments and work backwards, but she continually found that the assessments she created did not assess the math standards she was hoping to teach in her units of study. One suggestion that surfaced was that teachers could have more than one summative assessment for a unit. One that assessed more traditionally, like a test, and one that applied the knowledge, like a project.
The main concern from the student panel was access. Students all agreed they liked understanding connections between the content being taught and other concepts, especially real-life applications. Students also felt that test prep was important, but did not like or learn enough from classes where the main focus was test prep. The students felt they never quite understand concepts when focusing just on standardized test style problems. The majority of the discussion focused on what typed of supports teachers put in place when students were struggling or lacked pre-requisite skills. Many of the students admitted to having been placed in a class, particularly science or math, where there was a gap between what they knew and what they needed to know. All of the students stated that they didn’t actually think that the lack of prerequisite knowledge should have prohibited them from grade-level concepts, but that teachers needed to stop assuming that students know or remember everything that is required and need to use strategies to help fill the gaps even as they move forward with challenging, grade-level material. Some suggestions from students were to use flipped classrooms, so that there can be more time in class for intervention. They also stated that if a teacher is not going to use flipped classrooms, they should be able to direct students to videos that might help them review prerequisite knowledge that are posted by other teachers on You Tube. Students agreed that open-ended tasks are worthwhile, but that teachers should check in more regularly to ensure everyone understands and to intervene if students are struggling too much. Many students stated that some teachers do not provide enough direct instruction and that often makes it impossible (in their eyes) to complete the grade-level tasks. Finally, students stated that teachers do not use enough technology, either to review or explore concepts.