I’m excited most by being around learning. This lifelong love first awakened in me through music, transporting me to non-physical worlds, and transforming my connections with everyday life upon my return. When the opportunity to learn an instrument opened at the age of 9, I jumped at it, starting with drums.
By the next year, this extended to teaching, as Margot Ely, my fifth-grade teacher, allowed me to form a band, where I taught the parts to my classmates in our classroom before school. Margot said, “this isn’t my classroom: it’s our classroom.” We learned the music we heard around us, but which wasn’t being taught in regular band (Maria, from West Side Story, had just come out) and gave classroom performances. The musical immersion methods I discovered then planted seeds which guide my approach to teaching and learning to this day. When Margot and I reconnected 50 years later, she told me she’s not surprised by what I’m doing now, she saw who I could become way back then, and gave me the chance to “grow-for-it”.
All of this learning was ungraded. By that, I mean two things: first, the birth-year of the learner has minimal relevance, mastery doesn’t care how old you are, it’s about the performance; second, the value of the performance is often greater than its “letter-grade” given by the teacher. No grades have ever been awarded for the most powerful learning I’ve seen my students achieve. Lives changed, despite the absence of ways to document the power of this learning. But the absence of a common language and framework to share and deepen the practices of inquiry-driven competency-based learning has limited the evidence that could help more educators adopt them.
My goal in this present work is to provide learners, and the coaches who support them, with information they can act upon, to guide them in making improvements they’ve identified as crucial to meeting their current goals, and strategizing their actions to help them “become the best possible version of themselves.” This means being able to prove (first to themselves, and then to others) that they are ready for what’s next. Today’s learning environments require that we re-examine what readiness means, which includes facing new challenges we’re just finding out about. This is why learning how to learn is essential, and baked into the DNA of our the processes we support.
Teaching, Learning, Life and Art
“Unless we go to extremes, we won’t get anywhere” – John Cage
The disconnect between classroom and “real-life” can be traced back to efforts to objectify learning through assessment and represent it within the narrow confines of numerical scores or letter grades. Standardized tests (aka cognitive assessments) have their place, but this place is not universal and creates damage when applied beyond what they’re designed to do. (It’s important to remember that non-cognitive factors are “non-cognitive” only insofar as they are not measured directly by cognitive tests. In order to affect learning and academic performance, however, non-cognitive factors must engage a learner’s cognitive processes.)
Information to guide improvement is categorically different, and vital to coaching. I’ve been criticized recently for wanting to “heal” this disconnect, sarcastically being labeled the “John Cage of education assessment” and I’ve decided to wear this badge with honor. I want to share with you what I’ve learned about some new methods for approaching this challenge.
In the 20th century, John Cage struggled with a similar disconnect. A revolution was going on within the art world which had become so tradition-bound that established forms and norms made it difficult to use old creative languages to express new emerging realities. As a modern composer, John Cage was one of the first to explore the wisdom of Asia, very soon after Buddhism was brought to the west by D.T. Suzuki. The crux of his argument is that the separation of life and art is artificial and often harmful. His body of work was dedicated to opening our minds and hearts to experiencing what’s going on around us at all times. Similarly, not all learning is (or should be) the result of teaching.
Beyond Music (and Learning) Theory
Duke Ellington famously said, “there are only two kinds of music: good music, and bad music.” Whether you are a musician or not, as you listen you can tell whether it is in time, in tune and in key. Different styles of music sound the way they do because of cultural agreements about how to use rhythm, melody and harmony. When a performance goes outside the bounds of a style or genre, we notice it. Suddenly something doesn’t feel right. When the drummer loses the beat, everyone stops dancing.
Every sound has a frequency, and the start and stop of every sound is located in points of time. The notes that happen at the same time create harmony. The sequence of notes over time creates melody. The relationships of notes to the underlying pulse creates rhythm. It is the relationship between rhythm, melody and harmony that create the experience we know as music. The music is not the score, it is the performance.
The Spiral Learning model also combines three elements to create a living map of learning journeys. Where you are in space is defined by three dimensions (X, Y and Z). In our case, these dimensions are Experience, Task Use and Performance Quality. At any moment, a snapshot reveals the current state, but the most powerful context is to use the information to improve performance over time.
Essentials of the model: Providing a model that helps learners use evidence to chart their path, and benefit from coaching requires that it must be:
• Easily understandable
The Spiral Learning model integrates practices from cognitive science, going back thousands of years, and is inspired by growth processes observed in nature.
It allows learners to chart their growth across three dimensions, tracking gains in Experience, Task Use and Performance Quality. Let’s examine how our three requirements measure up for each of these elements.
[He] has the mind of an expert. With that kind of mind, you can only deal with the past. You can’t be an expert in the unknown. – John Cage
Experience has four levels, which are inspired by the Buddha’s observation that a person can only be in four states (and is always in one of them): sitting, standing, walking or lying down (running is considered fast walking). Similarly, as a learner you are at one of four levels:
1. New to me - I can’t define or identify this skill, but I know that learning it will remove a barrier for me.
2. Awareness – I know all about this skill, but have no examples of having done it in real life.
3. Examples – I have personal examples of using this skill in real life.
4. Coaching – I have mastered this skill and have coached others in using it successfully.
Gains in Experience Level (Clockwise)
These criteria make it easy to understand which level you’re presently working at, and what the milestone is that represents your entry to the next level.
It also removes any stigma around not knowing. Anyone seeking to grow and improve inevitably bumps up against something they don’t already know. These days, what you need to know may have just been invented. The trick is not to know everything, it is to learn how to learn so that as quickly as possible you can move up the levels, moving from proficiency to mastery.
This is why we place such an emphasis on peer-coaching, within a community of practice. My personal experience of this, naturally, comes from music. My mentor was Dizzy Gillespie, who allowed me to take his big band charts into high schools and rehearse with the students for several months, until they were ready. Then, he’d come into the community where I was working and perform a concert, with the students playing his music. These concerts, held in the early 1980s continue to be cited by people (now adults) who say they changed their lives. I know they changed mine! Preparing to perform at mastery levels raises everyone’s game.
Coaching for Experience Level:
These lessons are applied today to instructional design for blended (face-to-face and online) learning, as learners build a body of evidence, proving to themselves (and others) that they’re ready for what’s next (including internships, apprenticeships and entry-level positions). They rely upon peer-coaching, supported by coaching from professionals working in the field the learner seeks to enter. Our tools and activities rapidly accelerate the path to mastery, using performance tasks designed to meet people “where they are” in their current state of skillset development.
Task Use: It’s how you use a competency that matters
Task Use has four levels, which are inspired by Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. When you make a claim for using a competency or skillset, your claim is based on the depth of its use. The verbs you use in tasks you complete to create your product help determine at which level you’re operating. These levels are:
1. Recall – tasks require students to recall or reproduce knowledge and/or skills.
2. Skills & Concepts - tasks include the engagement of some mental processing beyond recalling or reproducing a response.
3. Strategic Thinking - tasks demand a short-term use of higher order thinking processes, such as analysis and evaluation, to solve real-world problems with predictable outcomes.
4. Extended Thinking - tasks demand extended use of higher order thinking processes such as synthesis, reflection, assessment and adjustment of plans over time.
Experience Level 3 - Task Use
Coaching for Task Use
Encouraging learners to ascend the task use levels is centered on the activities they perform in completing their products. The charts below compare applications at Levels 2 and 3.
It’s important to note that almost all traditional school assignments happen at Levels 1 and 2. These levels are subject to instruction. The higher levels are only reached through application (using what one has learned).
When I’m coaching someone on creating a survey to determine how teachers are able to apply Universal Design for Learning, to make sure their assignments are engaging all three brain networks and removing obstacles that may limit access opportunities for some learners, we begin at Level 2. It’s essential to ensure that the learner is working from a complete and accurate basis of understanding. These activities happen within a domain, over a relatively short period of time. The verbs that could be used to show this understanding are included below:
Once these understandings have been demonstrated (through a presentation, paper, video or other means selected by the learner, my task shifts to helping the learner apply these understandings in a “real-world” situation. We reach the next level by connecting across domains over a sustained period of time.
This often includes asking the teachers to review materials from CAST that compare traditional and UDL driven classroom practice, citing evidence and developing logical arguments on the benefits of making any required shifts.
To summarize: we are working toward proficiency when we are providing examples of work at Levels 1 & 2; we are demonstrating mastery when we provide strong examples of work at Levels 3 & 4.
Performance Quality has four levels, inspired by Dr. Robert Marzano. These are:
1. Redo – three or more significant problems in the product. It’s better to start over.
2. Revise – one or two problems, which when fixed would result in a strong example.
3. Strong Example – factually accurate, clear, and convincing.
4. Best Ever – top 5% of all strong examples, as determined by field professional review. – one or two problems, which when fixed would result in a strong example.
Gains in Performance Quality (Outward)
Please note that Levels 1 & 2 (Redo & Revise) represent working towards proficiency, while Levels 3 & 4 (Strategic and Extended Thinking) represent using these proficiencies to work toward mastery. Just like the other dimensions, it is easy to understand where you are with respect to Performance Quality, and what to do about it.
Evidence = Artifact + Reflection + Validation. The artifact, or performance we’re looking at, is used to support a claim of mastery for a particular competency. Combinations of competencies form the skillsets required to succeed at a particular job or task. The story we tell about how the claim is supported by the artifact is the reflection. Validation comes in the form or peer review, and ultimately review by field professionals who decide which examples represent the “Best Ever” (top 5% of all strong examples in their professional domain).
The information coming back from peer review gives the coach evidence to guide the learner in deciding what’s most important to focus on next. We can support learners in developing proficiency through instruction (levels 1 & 2), which certainly is a pre-requisite for mastery. But mastery demands performances at levels 3 & 4, on all three dimensions. Does the focus need to be on increasing the depth of task use? Traditional school assignments align teaching and testing to the Recall and Skills/Operations levels. Coaching can help learners shift to the higher levels of complexity, by asking how the competencies being used relate within a skillset related to a particular job, or task required for success on the present project.
The model must be flexible enough to address any observable performance, especially in the case of non-cognitive competencies (aka “soft-skills”). In our experience, we’ve been able to use short (2-3 minute videos) presentations of learning to identify up to six competencies in a single performance. The six competencies typically are comprised of Career (employability and specific pathway), Academic (linguistic and non-linguistic) and Digital (ISTE standards). The wide variety of settings where these are applied have ranged from Information Technology projects , public health, digital media, economic development, instructional design.
As the intended audience is employers who are deciding whether the candidate is ready for an internship, apprenticeship or entry-level hire, the primary claim is centered on Career (employability skills and competencies within a related pathway). Each Career claim is supported by evidence of use of related Academic and Digital competencies. So far, if the performance is observable, it can be used in coaching within the Spiral Learning Model.
Who is the assessment for?
What matters most is the learner’s ability to apply what they know in “real-world” settings, and it is in this area that graduates (of both secondary and post-secondary education) fall short in the eyes of many employers. This is completely understandable, as the information provided by assessments can serve one of two masters: accountability or improvement. Design matters: traditional assessments measure the effectiveness of instruction; our model provides information learners and coaches need to guide improvements, within a community of practice.
Currently, assessments are gatekeepers that determine which paths open to the learner, course by course, pre-requisite by pre-requisite until graduation. Perhaps if accountability boiled down to a single question (are your students ready for what’s next?) our present concerns about students being ready for life would be less universal. But teachers and school leaders are judged based on how well students have performed on tests that may or may not measure how well the curriculum was “delivered.” The learner is on their own, unless they have a coach.
In the context where we use the Spiral Learning model, everyone is a coach and everyone has a coach. We use peer review to apply the model, helping each other decide what to do differently next time as we go through as many iterations as we need to reach mastery.
Please visit our blog to share your views on these ideas: https://actionresearchteaching.home.blog/
Contact Ferdi Serim