More than ever, American students see a disconnect between what they learn in school and what they encounter outside of school. In a 2011 national poll of over 7300 middle and high school students, an overwhelming 75.2% disagree with the statement that teachers make school work relevant and interesting to them. A straight ‘A’ student complained school “feels like going to a [restaurant] and only having one menu item and you have to eat it in a certain way or you fail (Wiggins, 2014)." Similarly, the 2010 High School Survey of Student Engagement found that 49% of high school students are bored every day, and 17% of students are bored every class (“Charting the path,” 2010). High levels of disengagement have had deleterious effects on student performance, causing one student to drop out of school every 43 seconds (NASBE, 2015).
“All of our mission statements talk about students engaging in authentic, real-world work. But how many students are actually doing it? It becomes an important question to raise: what do we say we do, and what do we actually do? Leah helped us see the ALTmodel as a simple tool that helps not only identify the misalignment, but change it. This is not an addition to the work, this is the work.”
Lori Cummings, Principal of PS 107 in Queens
"Lectures can be wonderfully efficient modes of transmitting new information for learning. Hands-on experiments can be a powerful way to ground emergent knowledge. There is no universal best teaching practice. If, instead, the point of departure is a core set of learning principles, then the selection of teaching strategies can be purposeful." How People Learn, 2018
In a world full of education complexity, we believe in simplicity. When things are simple people can understand, remember, and enact change with fidelity. This simplicity allows us to focus on strategic leverage points, whereby a shift in one component has a system-wide impact. In schools, we believe that strategic leverage point is learning. Learning is the linchpin, the most vital element within any school organization.
“School practices that emphasize lecture and rote memorization are part of the ‘pedagogy of poverty.’ Students are good at acquiring knowledge, but struggle to apply that knowledge and new and innovative ways.
If we label kids as disadvantaged and do not teach them the higher order critical thinking skills they need we are setting them up for failure and maintaining the achievement gap, not closing it.”
Zaretta Hammond, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain
Engagement concerns the extent to which individuals invest their energy to develop and refine complex ideas and skills. This includes students’ thoughtful, purposeful use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies, often referred to as self-regulated learning strategies, to further their own learning. Students who are cognitively engaged plan and assess their work, use learning strategies to process and remember information, and maintain focus while minimizing distractions. Students who are highly cognitively engaged demonstrate these behaviors to gain true mastery of the information, rather than simply completing their work. Students on the lower level of the engagement scale may demonstrate specific behaviors such as completing work and participating in class, but they may complete these acts simply to meet the minimum requirement of their school work. Students on the higher level of the effort scale may show similar behaviors, but their motivation is focused not on completing the work, but gaining a true mastery of the information. Schools need to qualitatively distinguish between behavioral and cognitive engagement because their indicators could appear similar; this includes qualitative feedback from the students with respect to their strategies for problem solving, independent work styles, and ability to navigate failure and constructive feedback.
Cognitive complexity manifests itself in the classroom through student tasks, questions, conversations, and assessments. Students in performance-based learning environments solve authentic problems in a non-linear, self-directed, and collaborative approach instead of focusing solely on rote acquisition of facts and skills. Teachers used a performance assessment model to encourage authentic student self-assessment, shift cognitive responsibility to the students, and provide students with the autonomy to engage in problem-based learning experiences.
Authenticity describes appropriate, purposeful, and responsible connections to life. Authentic tasks require students to construct their own process for learning, use disciplined inquiry, and ultimately create products that are valued outside the school. They must organize, interpret, and synthesize information, mimic professional content used in the field, and communicate effectively. This concept parallels higher levels of cognitive complexity and cognitive engagement by providing students with complex challenges they will likely encounter in a post-academic environment.
"If you do not give me a lens to look through I will bring my own, or I will make one up."
Charles Faulkner, Neurolinguistic Pathways Specialist
Schools and districts often have a common framework for teaching, technology, and even STEM or literacy. But very few have a common, cohesive, language to talk about learning. By offering a simple, straightforward lens for learning we help educators understand how to drive deeper learning within student experiences. This unites teachers across content areas and grade levels but providing a consistent, common language for the most fundamental component for our schools.