Sunday, February 25, 2018

Empowering Learners to Think with Performance Tasks

Pedagogy has been at the forefront of my thinking and work as of late.  Decades of solid research have laid the foundation for current studies that bring to light how we can improve teaching, learning, and leadership.  As Tom Murray and I highlighted in Learning Transformed, this research has been taken to heart by schools across the world as they have transformed learning while improving results in the process. It is important not to lose sight of what has been found to work.  With all of the great ideas that educators are exposed to thanks to social media and live events, it is essential that we pause to reflect on what it takes to move from what sounds good in theory to successful implementation into practice.  Ideas shouldn't just seem right. They must lead push learners to think while providing validation of improvement through evidence. 

During my work as a principal, I wanted to transform the learning culture of my school.  For so long my students, like many others across the world, just did school. Learning, or at least what we referred to it as was more or less a monotonous task consisting of the same types of activities and assessments that occurred over and over again.  We weren't consistently getting our students to think deeply or authentically apply what they had learned.  Getting in classrooms more, taking a critical lens to our work, and working towards a Return on Instruction (ROI) helped us take the needed steps to raise the learning bar while expecting more from our students. We began by improving the level of questioning across the board.  From there, our focus was on the development of performance tasks that took into account objectives, learning targets, and curriculum alignment.  

Performance tasks afford students an opportunity to actively apply what they have learned and create a product to demonstrate conceptual mastery aligned to standards. Jay McTighe describes performance tasks as follows:
A performance task is any learning activity or assessment that asks students to perform to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding, and proficiency. Performance tasks yield a tangible product or performance that serve as evidence of learning. Unlike a selected-response item (e.g., multiple-choice or matching) that asks students to select from given alternatives, a performance task presents a situation that calls for learners to apply their learning in context.
Learning in highly successful schools enables students to know what to do when they don't know what to do. This is also referred to as cognitive flexibility, the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts and to think about multiple ideas simultaneously. To gain that competence, students need to acquire depth of knowledge and a rich set of skills and then be taught how to apply their skills/knowledge to unpredictable situations in the world beyond school.  This is critical if we are to prepare students for the new world of work adequately.  

By using the Rigor Relevance Framework as a guide, educators can begin to develop performance tasks that push learners to show that they understand while applying what has been learned in relevant contexts. McTighe identifies seven characteristics to consider during development:

  1. Performance tasks call for the application of knowledge and skills, not just recall or recognition.
  2. Performance tasks are open-ended and typically do not yield a single, correct answer.
  3. Performance tasks establish novel and authentic contexts for performance.
  4. Performance tasks provide evidence of understanding via transfer.
  5. Performance tasks are multi-faceted.
  6. Performance tasks can integrate two or more subjects as well as 21st-century skills.
  7. Performances on open-ended tasks are evaluated with established criteria and rubrics.

The GRASPS model (Wiggins & McTighe, 2004) can greatly assist educators in the construction of quality performance tasks. The GRASP acronym stands for the following: Goals, Role, Audience, Situation, Products or Performances, and Standards.

It is important to remember that the two critical elements in any quality performance task is evidence of learning and relevant application.  As we began progressing through our digital transformation at New Milford High School, technology became a vital component of performance tasks.  To see some examples, take a look at this post.  

The Independent OpenCourseWare Study (IOCS) that we created is another excellent example. It allowed students to fully utilize OCW to pursue learning that focused on their passions, interests, and career aspirations.  They could select offerings from such schools as the MIT Harvard, Yale, University of California at Berkeley, and Stanford, applying their learning to earn high school credit. Students combined their creativity with their newfound knowledge to synthesize a unique product that demonstrated and implemented the new knowledge and skills they gained from the OCW. The aim was for students to produce an actual product, whether it was the demonstration of a new skill, the creation of a physical model, the designing and conducting of an experiment, the formulation of a theory, or some other creative way to show what they've learned. 

If it's easy, then it probably isn't learning.  Performance tasks push students to think more deeply about their learning while developing a greater sense of relevance beyond the classroom.  

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2004).  Understanding by Design Professional Development  Workbook. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.


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  2. Your post got me thinking about pioneering efforts that used performance tasks for both instruction and assessment. It may seem counterintuitive, but the most scaled-up evidence of constructivist, projected-based teaching and learning I have observed was supported by standardized performance task assessments and scores. It happened with the MD School Performance Program. Many of the strategies in your post have their roots in this effort. Here is how it worked:

    - First, a state vision of rigorous problem solving for all students was developed and adopted by the State Board of Education as the driving force for statewide school reform.
    - This led to the development of high-level state learning standards in reading, language usage, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies for all students. 

    - Next, state standardized and authentic performance task assessments -- in which students had to produce, construct, or perform something expected in the standards -- were developed to reflect the vision and standards. 

    - Then, local districts developed performance instruction tasks that were aligned with the vision and standards and included formative assessments similar to the state assessments.

    This approach meant teachers taught to a vision of student learning and standards in a constructivist context -- not to a multiple choice test. Moreover, writing was integrated into each performance task to bolster critical thinking, analysis, and reflection. Many of the state assessment performance tasks were multi-content so more than one subject was assessed and scored in one performance task. 

    These factors really made local instruction engaging and worthwhile for all students -- in urban, suburban, and rural parts of the state. The following link describes the programmatic components, psychometrics, policies, and state and local collaboration required for a reliable and valid comprehensive approach. It serves as a benchmark of quality for determining our progress as a profession with performance tasks.  

    Charge on with authentic constructivist learning, assessment, and improvement -- they work for all students.

    1. This is fantastic information Nick and really illustrates through example how schools and districts can make this work at scale. Thanks for taking the time to share!