Yesterday was such a great day that I wanted to share. I helped to pilot a new fifth-grade performance task at one of the elementary schools I’m working with. This is one of those events that can go well…or not. While probably not the intent, recent trends in education have been pushing teachers away from student-centered instruction. If you haven’t bought into it, it can be challenging . There’s definitely more activity going on, and if you like a pristine, quiet classroom with kids in rows all doing the same thing, you can find the buzz of activity a little disconcerting. More importantly, if you’re not used to it, it can be challenging at a philosophical level.
The school and district administrators and I had talked about this last point. In previous visits, we observed what I see in a lot of classrooms—teachers so concerned about their students being successful that they don’t give them opportunities to struggle and even fail. There’s little challenge, as sometimes teachers do all the work and students spend their day copying. These teachers must be exhausted by the end of the day! But their students are just bored. I hope these performance tasks are a way to help teachers understand that student-centered instruction is possible, manageable, and a lot more fun—for students and teachers. I think we saw some of that yesterday.
The performance task was intended to target key skills and knowledge the fifth-grade teachers covered in core content areas during the first nine-weeks grading period. It’s not a multiple-choice test, though, because those overarching skills oven require students to analyze and evaluate information and then create something. That’s hard to do when you’re selecting which bubble to fill in.
I unpacked and reviewed all the standards from the first nine weeks and described characteristics of the task. I spoke with the school administrators to identify a relevant topic. They talked with the teachers and came up with the idea of comparing white and wheat bread, because the kids are not happy about the switch to wheat bread in school lunches this year (as part of the new USDA guidelines for school lunches). Because a simple comparison—of cost or health benefits—didn’t reach the rigor of the standards, I ended up expanding the topic and had the kids create the best sandwich possible.
Without going into detail (but I’ll post the task), the kids were introduced to the topic through the guidelines their own school cafeteria faces. They have to create lunches that meet certain nutritional guidelines but that also have cost limitations. We simplified a few things and rounded out some numbers, but the final goal was that students had to design a healthy sandwich choosing from a number of ingredients and then design a product to convince their teachers, the school principals, and the other fifth-graders that it was the best solution. The total lunch had to cost less than $1.75, be less than 650 calories, and no more than 1/10 of the calories could come from saturated fat. Look at all that math! The presentations just had to be awesome—and some truly were.
Teachers were prepared—both mentally, emotionally, and with resources—by the building leaders. They did a good job both logistically and professionally in setting up the day. The students had 2 hours to complete the task and had access to laptop carts, videocameras, posterboard, and other materials. Unfortunately, one of the teachers was absent, but it resulted in a fortuitous learning opportunity. The substitute teacher gallantly went on with the task. If designed correctly, the students should be able to complete the task on their own, so we (me and the building leaders) observed with interest to see how that class would work out.
The most striking observation was that the students in the class with the substitute immediately got down to work on the task and needed little guidance. The substitute introduced the task and let them at it! She gave little more direction than what was provided to the students in the task documents. The kids stayed on task pretty well throughout and we had a variety of PowerPoint presentations, some hand-drawn posters, and even a video-based commercial—all completed entirely by the students.
In comparison, in the other three classes, teachers were a little more reluctant to let go of control. Some of the teachers worked through the math components with the kids (so we don’t really know if the kids could create multi-step problems on their own, which is one of the standards). Some were prescriptive about what the students should create (limiting student input on creativity). Others controlled the pace of the class and wouldn’t let students begin until their work had been checked (preventing us from determining how well students could use their own problem-solving skills), with one teacher taking 50 minutes to review the task until gently prompted to let the kids get started. In one class, one young girl urgently repeated, “When can we get started?”
Ultimately, I think the teachers discovered that the students could work on their own on their projects. I certainly observed that. Some students, of course, needed support from teachers, but it appears to those of us observing that most kids were authentically engaged in the task and stayed on target throughout. After a quick review, the products from the class with the substitute weren’t substantially different from the other classes, but we decided we might find some middle ground in which the teachers provide some attention to the task requirements but without being so prescriptive. And the students in that class started finishing up after about 90 minutes, while some of the other classes took almost 3 hours. That’s a pretty telling piece of data on it’s own.
I’m waiting to debrief with the principals after they have a chance to chat with the fifth-grade teachers. Were all the student projects wonderful? No, not really. Some did the barest minimum and others were so caught up in finding images and playing with backgrounds and fonts that they missed some of the critical details they were supposed to provide. But that’s valuable information, too.
The students had little or no problem searching the Internet and putting together PowerPoint presentations. And there were a couple of videos that kids did on their own. Incorporating technology more strategically during instruction and using it as a resource for solving problems is a logical focus moving on. But no one could deny the kids had a blast! One young man couldn’t control his excitement about sharing his solution he presented on a poster that he made up a song for it. There were several ingenious solutions, and lots of variety.
I’m hoping the teachers felt good after it was all over. They handled it well. Like I said, it can be hard to let go of the reins, but as we build more of these opportunities into the curriculum I’m sure they’ll do fine. And by the end of the year, I’m hoping they (and other teachers in their school and across the district) begin building their own tasks. When done well, these tasks can help students see the connections of why they’re studying something. It’s no longer just something to do for the teacher or for a grade. This was relevant to the kids and they not only expressed their opinions, but backed them up.
We identified our favorite top 10 and the kids are going to vote on the best presentations. I’m hoping the cafeteria actually makes some of the winning sandwiches! Talk about real-world application. Now I’m off to make a sandwich of my own. That task made me hungry.