Retrieval practice, CBE, and what we value regarding student learning

Powerful TeachingA number of educators across the country are finding great value in ‘learning science’ books such as Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. In Powerful Teaching, the authors focus on the potential of:

  • Retrieval practice – “pulling information out of students’ heads (e.g., quizzes and flashcards), rather than cramming information into students’ heads (e.g., lectures)” (p. 4);
  • Spaced practice – “spreading lessons and retrieval opportunities out over time” (p. 4);
  • Interleaving – “mixing up closely-related topics and encouraging discrimination” (e.g., “when students practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems all mixed up, rather than one type of problem at a time;” p. 5); and
  • Feedback – “providing [students] the opportunity to know what they know, and know what they don’t know” (p. 5).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with retrieval practice, spaced practice, and interleaving. These educational practices can be powerful tools for information retrieval. But we also have to ask ourselves the tougher question of ‘Retrieval practice, spaced practice, and interleaving OF WHAT?’ Is the information worth knowing and spending time on in the first place? For instance, in the retrieval practice challenge grid below [intentionally anonymized], many of us could argue that most of the things being ‘retrieved’ to allegedly enhance student ‘learning’ aren’t really worth learning at all, much less remembering later.

Retrieval Practice Challenge Grid

On another educational front, many advocates of competency-based education (CBE) are working diligently to create ‘high reliability’ school structures. This work often involves extremely sophisticated proficiency scaling of desired learning outcomes, student leveling diagnostics, and individualized instruction and student interventions. Here is an example third grade mathematics proficiency scale [intentionally anonymized]:

3rd grade math proficiency scale

And, once again, we have to ask ourselves the tougher question of ‘Proficiency scaling and student leveling ON WHAT?

In Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, David Perkins noted that “the achievement gap is much more concerned with mastering content than with providing lifeworthy content. . . . The achievement gap is all about doing the same thing better… [In contrast,] the relevance gap asks us to reconsider deeply what schools teach in the first place” (pp. 30-31). Accordingly, a couple of questions that we might ask ourselves as educators include:

  • In our learning science and competency-based educational work, are the desired student outcomes that we’re emphasizing just low-level content or are they lifeworthy content? 
  • If we’re going to ask our students to ‘retrieve’ and ‘interleave’ their learning weeks and even months later, can it at least be knowledge and skills that are worth remembering?

There are at least two potential dangers as schools and educators move in these ‘high reliability’ directions:

  • Schools will continue to reinforce, strengthen, and reinscribe their typical emphases on standardized, low-level learning at the expense of more lifeworthy knowledge and skills, particularly for traditionally-marginalized students.
  • By doing so, schools will continue to reduce kids to proficiency scales, score reports, and individualized, dehumanized, numerical widgets in mechanistic, technocratic educational systems. Rather than being agents of their own learning and active, hands-on meaning-makers, students are passive recipients of processes and outcomes that are imposed on them in the name of ‘reliability.’

Both of these practices contribute to students’ learning apathy, boredom, disengagement, perceived lack of relevance in what they’re learning, and dropout rates (both physically and mentally).

Even Daniel Willingham, who, as a cognitive psychologist, is a tremendous advocate for brain-based learning and background factual knowledge, asked in Why Don’t Students Like School?, “When is it appropriate to ask students to memorize something before it has much meaning? Probably not often…” (p. 64). Willingham also reiterated that “We remember much better if something has meaning” (p. 33) and that “Repetition is good for learning but terrible for motivation” (p. 1). In other words, we have to focus on creating learning experiences that are meaningful to students, not just in a school-y ‘you need to know this for the test’ sense or in a ‘do this or you will be punished academically or behaviorally’ sense but rather in a ‘you need to know this for life’ sense. We know that most students – even successful ones – are really struggling to find meaning in most of the learning tasks that we put before them.

Willingham also stated:

Students can’t learn everything, so what should they know? Cognitive science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and again – the unifying ideas of each discipline [emphasis added]. Some educational thinkers have suggested that a limited number of ideas should be taught in great depth, beginning in the early grades and carrying through the curriculum for years as different topics are taken up and viewed through the lens of one or more of these ideas. From the cognitive perspective, that makes sense [emphasis added]. (p. 37)

Are our school systems focusing on big important concepts or just trivia and minutiae as they engage in learning science and competency-based educational practices?

Some may wonder if it is even possible to engage in learning science and competency-based educational practices for so-called ‘deeper learning.’ The authors of Powerful Teaching do say that “these strategies apply for … critical thinking” (p. 5). However, the vast majority of the examples that they use in the book pertain to students remembering something that they read earlier, answering exam questions, taking notes, engaging in mini-quizzes, regurgitating back what they heard from a teacher, and similar, extraordinarily traditional educational practices. Higher-level thinking examples and discussions of real world thinking, application, and problem-solving are scarce in the book (as they are in our larger, societal-level conversations about ‘learning loss’ during the pandemic). The language that the authors use in the book to introduce their key concepts also emphasizes lower-level learning (e.g., practicing math problems, quizzes, flashcards, teacher lectures, and so on).

Of course students need to have factual knowledge and procedural fluency. But those aren’t enough in today’s global, innovation society (and arguably never were). Some of our lower-level student learning outcomes are important and many are less so, particularly when viewed through the lens of ‘lifeworthy content.’ But how we get there is always up for negotiation. Learning modality matters A LOT. It would be really easy to shove kids in front of a bunch of worksheets or homework packets or transmission-regurgitation / individualized-progression / box-checking software systems and say that students are achieving ‘mastery’ of supposedly ‘important’ knowledge and skills. We can see the allure of that for a large number of school leaders or policymakers. Be cognizant of that seduction, because it’s a student soul-sucking idea that’s been floating around in education for many, many decades. And vendors will be quite happy to take your money and sell this to you.

As I said in a recent keynote, I absolutely adore the idea of ‘high-reliability schools.’ But we need to make sure that our definition of ‘high reliability’ includes deeper learning opportunities and outcomes, not just the low-level learning that we’ve traditionally spent most of our time on in P-12 schools. One last time: students aren’t going to recall and regurgitate their way into 21st century life success.

I know that deeper learning networks like Big Picture Learning, New Tech Network, and High Tech High are trying to figure out what ‘high reliability’ looks like in the deeper learning context, as are the schools featured in our recent book, Leadership for Deeper Learning. The work that these students and educators are doing is incredibly complex and even more inspiring. It’s relatively easy to come up with pedagogical and data systems that help students recall and regurgitate a little better. It’s much more difficult to create educational systems that develop successful, problem-solving humans. I would encourage all of us to think pretty deeply about this: not just about how to make existing technocratic systems even more technocratic, but about what it means to be educated and successful over the next few decades. 

Your thoughts? How are you reconciling learning science and competency-based educational principles with deeper learning?

Leadership for Deeper Learning: Excerpt 07

Leadership for Deeper Learning[To celebrate our upcoming book, Leadership for Deeper Learning, I am publishing an excerpt each day for a week before its release. We interviewed leaders at 30 different ‘deeper learning’ schools around the world in 2019 and 2020. We then followed up those interviews with site visits, observations, on-site photographs and videos, and additional conversations. Our goal was to try and parse out What do leaders at innovative schools do that is different from their counterparts in more traditional schools? As you might imagine, we saw some fantastic leading, teaching, and learning. We describe what we saw in detail in the new book and, in Chapter 7, articulate a Profile of a Deeper Learning Leader that’s based on empirical research, not just anecdotes. We think that this book makes a unique contribution to what we know about leadership in deeper learning schools. The book is written for a practitioner audience and is full of concrete, specific examples to get folks thinking about possibilities. Also, every main chapter concludes with Key Leadership Behaviors and Support Structures. If you order it, let me know what you think!]

Excerpt 07

Trusting Teachers as Creative Professionals

As might be guessed in schools that give students high levels of autonomy, throughout our visits we also witnessed leadership behaviors and school structures that treated teachers as creative professionals. The relationship between leaders and teachers in these deeper learning schools might be akin to how a managing partner treats architects in a design firm, for instance. Leaders set a high expectation of professionalism for teachers in the building but then provided the space and support for creativity. Few, if any, ideas were rejected outright. A culture of “Yes, try that!” permeated the buildings that we visited. There were high expectations of professional conduct and student learning outcomes, but those were embedded deeply within a culture of trust and respect.

This culture of trust then extended to the overall vision, direction, and governance of the school. We saw countless examples of teachers who were empowered to take additional – and authentic – leadership roles that went far beyond serving on a committee or helping with a school event. In our conversations, teachers could regularly explain and defend the choices that they made in their classrooms and could link those choices to the overall vision for the student learning experience. Beyond that, however, they also could describe, champion, and advocate for the choices made by the school as a unified team. The pronoun “we” was used consistently in these conversations.

Within these contexts of teacher autonomy and empowerment, teacher professional learning does not fit traditional patterns. Teacher professional development isn’t typically decided by administrators. Teacher professional development isn’t a ‘one off’ or ‘toe dip’ into whatever faddish topic du jour that school leaders think is necessary. At the schools we visited, there were high levels of intentionality, investment, and sustainability around teachers’ professional learning. Those experiences were networked. They were frequently teacher-led. And, most importantly, they were personalized to what individuals and teams of teachers needed, all within the larger context of the vision and goals of the school. In the same way that these deeper learning leaders expected their teachers to meet a high bar of creative professionalism, in turn these teachers expected their leaders to meet that same high bar when it came to fostering adult learning and professional growth within the building.

Leadership for Deeper Learning, Chapter 7

 

Leadership for Deeper Learning: Excerpt 06

Leadership for Deeper Learning[To celebrate our upcoming book, Leadership for Deeper Learning, I am publishing an excerpt each day for a week before its release. We interviewed leaders at 30 different ‘deeper learning’ schools around the world in 2019 and 2020. We then followed up those interviews with site visits, observations, on-site photographs and videos, and additional conversations. Our goal was to try and parse out What do leaders at innovative schools do that is different from their counterparts in more traditional schools? As you might imagine, we saw some fantastic leading, teaching, and learning. We describe what we saw in detail in the new book and, in Chapter 7, articulate a Profile of a Deeper Learning Leader that’s based on empirical research, not just anecdotes. We think that this book makes a unique contribution to what we know about leadership in deeper learning schools. The book is written for a practitioner audience and is full of concrete, specific examples to get folks thinking about possibilities. Also, every main chapter concludes with Key Leadership Behaviors and Support Structures. If you order it, let me know what you think!]

Excerpt 06

As we have learned in previous chapters, principal Michelle Schmitz brought a new vision of elementary education to the plains of Western Missouri. The entire vision for EPiC Elementary was created by tapping into the wisdom of others. The school was founded by leaders asking the community, “If you could have the chance to do education differently, what would it be?” Michelle reflected on the inception of the EPiC Elementary model:

We invited all of our stakeholders in the community, including council people, business people, students, and staff . . . every faction of a stakeholder that you could think of. We walked in there and we asked the question and it changed our lives. They started saying stuff like, “We want our kids to collaborate. We want our kids out in the community. We want our kids to do education differently.” From that point on in our community, we knew that we had the backing to really just blow up education and what it looked like.

Michelle went on to say:

We started to think about what school could look like. We focused on three timeless pillars. [Our first pillar was] empowering creativity, because creativity can take you for a lifetime. That’s a skill that you’re going to need well beyond high school and college. We also talked about equipping learners, meeting students where they are. So every single child in our school, no matter what their level, they’ll move forward. We also talked about engaging communities. What that means is going out in the communities, talking with experts, being different, having our doors open so the community can come in.

Looking at that, that’s our innovative start. Kids here get to create. We continue to learn – and continue to try to be like our environment around us – so that when kids come to school, they do not downshift. They actually upshift. We really embrace our environment, and want it to be the same inside the school as outside.

Leadership for Deeper Learning, Chapter 6

 

Leadership for Deeper Learning: Excerpt 05

Leadership for Deeper Learning[To celebrate our upcoming book, Leadership for Deeper Learning, I am publishing an excerpt each day for a week before its release. We interviewed leaders at 30 different ‘deeper learning’ schools around the world in 2019 and 2020. We then followed up those interviews with site visits, observations, on-site photographs and videos, and additional conversations. Our goal was to try and parse out What do leaders at innovative schools do that is different from their counterparts in more traditional schools? As you might imagine, we saw some fantastic leading, teaching, and learning. We describe what we saw in detail in the new book and, in Chapter 7, articulate a Profile of a Deeper Learning Leader that’s based on empirical research, not just anecdotes. We think that this book makes a unique contribution to what we know about leadership in deeper learning schools. The book is written for a practitioner audience and is full of concrete, specific examples to get folks thinking about possibilities. Also, every main chapter concludes with Key Leadership Behaviors and Support Structures. If you order it, let me know what you think!]

Excerpt 05

One of the most important resources that schools have is time. Most traditional schools are locked into static time blocks, whether they have a traditional 7- or 8-period daily schedule or an alternating-day block schedule with longer class times. At Legacy High School, Tom Schmidt and Ben Johnson, the secondary assistant superintendent, talked to us about how they divided the day into 22 modules, or ‘mods,’ which has allowed for tremendous flexibility. While students in most schools spend equal amounts of time in each subject every week, students at Legacy High School have the ability to determine much of their schedules. For instance, a student who is strong in math might spend less time in math class, while a student who is strong in science might spend less time in science class. Teachers also vary their own time, depending on their own preferences and what they think their students’ learning needs are. Instead of teaching five 50-minute classes each week, a Social Studies teacher might offer three 60-minute classes and a 40-minute review class one week, while a Biology teacher down the hall might offer two 80-minute lab sections, a 60-minute direct instruction section, and a 40-minute group work section during the same week. Students with non-allocated mods can utilize them for homework, study groups, outside internships and job shadowing, community-based service learning, passion projects, and school clubs, or simply to take a break during an otherwise busy day.

One of the strengths of Legacy High School’s approach is that many teachers are coordinating together on instruction and scheduling. The four Algebra teachers, for example, might keep their classes roughly on pace with each other. If a student has to miss her Algebra teacher’s introduction of a new concept because of a conflict with an outside internship or a hockey competition, she can just attend another teacher’s session instead. Teachers and peer tutors also collaborate to provide context-specific help sessions, called Saber Centers, throughout the week. The Biology teacher might give an assessment after 20 minutes of her 60-minute class, dismiss the twenty students that have the concept down, and work with the other ten students for the remaining time. Students who still need more support can attend one of the Saber Center mods and get individualized tutoring from one of the other Biology teachers or a fellow student. Outside of the main classrooms are numerous flexible spaces that allow for individual work and small group collaboration. As Tom noted, it’s like “a college schedule in a high school environment. You have some heavy days, you have some light days. We have students who take up to eight classes but on any given day they only have five per day.”

Ben told us that the flex mod schedule has really opened up possibilities for students to engage in deeply-personalized projects, community internships with outside partners, and capstone experiences that they can leverage for college admissions. Tom added that their alumi return and affirm their college preparedness: “They know how to function in a large group, they can manage their schedule… if they’ve got class on Tuesday and Friday, they know how to prioritize their work in between.” Students also have exercised their collective voice and requested additional learning opportunities such as outdoor recreation, environmental science, and culinary arts to fill their open mods. Legacy High does everything it can to fulfill these requests. It all seems to work. Tom told us, “If I went to our staff right now and tried to take away the flex mod scheduling [and return to a traditional schedule], I’d have torches and pitchforks at my door.”

Leadership for Deeper Learning, Chapter 5

 

Leadership for Deeper Learning: Excerpt 04

Leadership for Deeper Learning[To celebrate our upcoming book, Leadership for Deeper Learning, I am publishing an excerpt each day for a week before its release. We interviewed leaders at 30 different ‘deeper learning’ schools around the world in 2019 and 2020. We then followed up those interviews with site visits, observations, on-site photographs and videos, and additional conversations. Our goal was to try and parse out What do leaders at innovative schools do that is different from their counterparts in more traditional schools? As you might imagine, we saw some fantastic leading, teaching, and learning. We describe what we saw in detail in the new book and, in Chapter 7, articulate a Profile of a Deeper Learning Leader that’s based on empirical research, not just anecdotes. We think that this book makes a unique contribution to what we know about leadership in deeper learning schools. The book is written for a practitioner audience and is full of concrete, specific examples to get folks thinking about possibilities. Also, every main chapter concludes with Key Leadership Behaviors and Support Structures. If you order it, let me know what you think!]

Excerpt 04

At Envision Academy, the goal is to “force epiphanies for kids.” Envision’s approach of relying heavily on performance assessments and formalized defenses in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades is designed to help deliver that result. Laura, the principal, told us: “Watching kids, young people, stand up in front of a group of their teachers and peers and families to defend their work is just such a powerful thing.” To get to this powerful point for students, though, requires a lot of previous powerful work on the part of teachers.

At the heart of Envision Academy’s approach is its problem-based learning orientation that focuses on teaching students to think. As many teachers can tell you, this type of teaching for student ownership and empowerment is difficult and requires a different set of instructional skills. It also requires a mindset shift away from the teacher as the classroom manager and deliverer of content. Laura shared:

We want teachers to move away from this idea that ‘you’re a curriculum writer’ to ‘you’re an instructional designer.’ You design the instructional experience. You have a million choices to make on a daily basis about what you do and when and how and why. Then use the data that you collect about student thinking to inform your instructional decisions moving forward.

When we asked Michelle and Susan, the principal and instructional coach at EPiC, what a more traditional elementary school can do to start work like theirs, they discussed how professional learning starts with the vision: “It does not matter what the building looks like but, if a leader has built a collective vision, it will work. It cannot be a single person. Any school can do this work as long as they have this driving force and this collective effort.”

Leadership for Deeper Learning, Chapter 4