Mini-exhibitions – a first step on the journey

When you’re planning backwards, you start with a vision of what you want students to know and be able to do. Teachers and students should have a common view of where you’d like to be at the end.

Now that we have a destination in mind, we have to think about the journey. And as the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

The early weeks of a curriculum usually start with the preliminaries; reviews of what happened in past years, and laying out the fundamentals of the current course. The theory is that focusing on the fundamentals will establish the building blocks for the rest of the year.

What can be just as helpful in these early weeks is to think about the question from last time — what should a student be able to do in May or June that the student can’t do in August or Septemberi? —  and to start to envision what parts the students can do now.

If you want students to be able to have an exhibition, or a performance at the end, what about asking students to do a version of that exhibition now? Can students create a mini-version of their final exhibition in these early weeks of the year?

Many courses build towards independent projects at the end of the term. In many cases, students can have difficulty with the “independent” part — coming up with their own experiment or idea to pursue. At this stage, it can be helpful to ask students to come up with a small-scale version of the final project. The students may not have yet mastered the material that you expect them to demosntrate at the end – but they can start to get a feel for the type of brainstorming and idea generation that will be needed then.

A mini-version of the exhibition has many of the same trappings as the final exhibition. If you want students to be able to defend a point of view at the end, ask them to pair off and have a mini-debate now. If you want students to be able to transfer their math skills to other settings, ask them to start looking for situations where those skills will be useful.

Sports teams typically have pre-season scrimmages; actors will have “workshop” performances before going to fully-staged productions. The rules may not be fully enforced – actors in the workshop may still be reading from a script, but there should be enough engagement to start to feel like the real thing. Both the performers and the coaches / directors can see things in a walk-through that can be developed over time. An “early-season” exhibition can help your students and you better understand your vision of where you want to be at the end.

Starting at the End

It’s the beginning of the school year – and so it’s the best time to think about the end.

As you get to know the new faces in your classrooms, consider this essential question – what should a student be able to do in May or June that the student can’t do in August or September?

what do you want them to be able to do by the time the course is over? The idea of “planning backwards” has been around for quite a while and can be stated simply – we figure out where we want to be at the end, and then design the classroom experience to work towards that end.

Often, curricular goals are still listed as a set of topics to cover. Instead, by thinking about what a student should be able to do by the time the course is over, you can recast the course as a journey towards some ending achievement. The portfolio can represent the steps that students are taking towards that end.

For courses that already focus on performances, such as music or programming or physical education, it’s easy to envision an endpoint: students will perform in the concert or complete the code for the robot or improve their exercise routine. In other courses where content coverage has long ruled, the performances can still be found: maybe you can picture your students having a conversation in Spanish, making connections among historical eras, or completing an investigation.

Before we get too caught up in quarterly and yearly grade averages, it can help your students if you can share that vision of what you believe they can do. This helps students to think about the course as more than a set of grades.

In this age of personalization, it’s important to include your student’s voices in that planning. As you describe your vision of what you believe they can do, the students can also start to picture themselves doing it as well. Undoubtedly, some students will start to generate their own ideas, and with guidance, as you get to know your students, you can help them associate their own goals with this larger exhibition.

So as you start your work on digital badges and portfolios for the year, look to where you want to be at the end – and share what you’re thinking with your class.


Portfolios and Badges – A Guide Throughout the Year

Happy new school year! We’ll be adding notes to this blog throughout this year, highlighting what schools do as they work on their digital portfolios and badges.

We’ll be looking at issues of personalization, assessment, and curriculum. What we know is that every school is different – so we want to focus on the essential questions that you can think about and discuss with your colleagues.

If you have a story or a suggestion, please reach out!

A Guide for Transformation — “Bold Moves” by Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Alcock

There are lots of books on education out there. The good ones are helpful and tell you some ideas. The great ones give you some ideas – and help you generate even more.

Heidi and Marie’s new book — Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments (available from ASCD) — talks about curriculum and assessment and pedagogy and leadership. But more importantly, it talks about all of these things as interrelated. All too often, schools and districts put together initiatives that focus on one area of change. That’s understandable; we don’t want people to feel overwhelmed. The problem is that changes in one part of the system inevitably rub against other elements. When adding advisories, or a different schedule, or introducing a new technology, there are inevitably side effects. The reason many initiatives disappear is because the school hasn’t connected those initiatives to a larger vision of what we want school to look like.

One particularly nice description in Heidi and Marie’s book is in thinking about a school’s current practices. Are they contemporary? Or classical? Or antiquated? This framework provides a new, and useful, way of distinguishing among the activities at the school.

I’m pleased that they discuss our work on digital portfolios in the chapter on “Contemporary Assessment Systems.” Richer Picture, when used well, can support innovative approaches to assessment – and because things are interrelated, will naturallly support your innovations in curriculum, personalization and school transformation.