As part of a recent graduate course in mass customized learning, I was asked to apply Marzano’s Art & Science of Teaching instructional framework to one of my pre-existing units of study and note the frameworks impact upon my practice. While I’ve long been familiar Marzano’s work and have applied techniques and strategies introduced in his other texts, this marked the first time I ever worked discretely with his “confluence” of instruction, management and curriculum design. What follows is a brief case study of my AP English Literature &Composition Watchmen unit to illustrate where I’ve been with my pedagogy, where I am at presently, and where I am headed as the Art & Science of Teaching framework shapes my practice into the future. I’ve discovered reasons to pat myself on the back, as well as reasons to examine my craft with a somewhat jaundiced eye. While I may excel in the art of teaching, the science of teaching continues to confound me somewhat.
Watchmen Design Thinking Challenge
Each year, I teach my AP English Literature & Composition classes the sheer genius that is Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel, Watchmen. Last year’s class created an ambitious, but fragmented art installation that related the literal understandings of the novel. While it was clear the students understood the text, the installation was essentially a cool multimedia illustration. While students certainly analyzed the text, their products really inhabited the world of comprehension and retrieval in terms of complex reasoning.
This year, I was determined to amplify the reasoning processes on display by applying the design thinking methodologies I’ve been integrating into my teaching all year-long.
Design thinking demands those higher order reasoning processes of decision-making and experimenting, invention and systems analysis. And thus, I asked my students: How might we create an art installation that both demonstrates our understanding of Watchmen and engages the students of Mt. Blue in a meaningful way?
What followed was a six-week investigation of the graphic novel and a messy, fruitful development of an art installation that filled half the main artery of the school, two floors tall and a lobby-to-the-food court wide. And a much stronger understanding of my pedagogical past, present and future.
Where I’ve Been: Understanding by Design
Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design (1998) has been central to my pedagogy for most of my sixteen years in the classroom. The curricular design’s focus on outcomes and essential, enduring understandings provides instructional flexibility, gateways for relevance, and a clear emphasis on curricular goals.
While UBD puts standards and learning goals at the front of the process, it is the essential questions where I almost always start because those ignite the passion points for me as an educator. I’ve also such a familiarity with our curriculum at this point, I have a fairly strong internal compass. If I can help students uncover the big questions that will catapult their inquiry, I know aligning that investigation to standards and performance indicators will be the easy part.
With Watchmen, this has been the case. Over twelve years of teaching the unit, the essential questions explored have ranged from “When do the needs of the greater good outweigh our personal morality?” to “How does the presence of heroic figures impact our own senses of self?” to “To what extent does the world need superheroes?”
No matter our questions, I know the unit meets two key standards for our twelfth-grade ELA curriculum: demonstrate depth of understanding of a text of appropriate grade span complexity and demonstrate understanding of communication through various forms and methods for a variety of purposes and goals. And I’ve a thick binder of formative and summative assessments designed to help students develop the declarative knowledge of Watchmen, graphic novels, motif and symbolism, allusion and metaphor, necessary to answering and showcasing any question we might investigate.
This year, that question became a “How might we. . . ?”
Where I Am: Design Thinking
Since August, I’ve been applying the empathy-fueled, human-centered problem solving principles of design thinking to my instructional practice. In particular, Mary Cantwell’s DEEP DT process of discovery, empathy, experimentation and production, has given me something of a two-fold consciousness going into unit of study. While asking students to consider their end users in their problem solving, I am pushed to consider my students as my users — to consider their experiences as learners as I craft and shape lessons and assessments.
As my students produced answers to the aforementioned question of, “How might we create an art installation that both demonstrates our understanding of Watchmen and engages the students of Mt. Blue in a meaningful way?” I was asking myself, “How might I measure my students demonstrate their understanding of Watchmen in a meaningful way during the last six weeks of their senior year?”
And truly, it was that latter part to which I was most attuned: “How might a group of talented, yet burned out seniors stay motivated through the end of the year?”
So as I considered means of tracking student achievement and collecting evidence, I was particularly aware that anything perceived as busy work could derail the process — no matter how noble in intent or admirable the reason.
Thus, most of my tools for uncovering content knowledge lay dormant in the binder and the Google Drive. Graphic organizers and activities that have proven successful in unlocking the mysteries of Watchmen suddenly seemed to be more likely burdens and detrimental to the greater goal. Certainly I could reach back to the toolkit if students seemed to be lacking the understandings necessary to creating a successful installation, but the likelihood of a semantic map being seen as “Ugh — seriously — a worksheet?” was increased thirty-fold just by virtue (or vice) of the unit’s existence in May.
I’m glad those tools stayed right where they were because the students, driven by a desire to do something ambitious and meaningful, that showcased the scope of their artistic talents, much less their analytical ones, propelled the project forward. (The additional pressure of having a documentary filmmaker en route to capture the project probably had some effect on student motivation, as well, though it didn’t influence my methodology.)
In applying design thinking strategies such as insight mapping and I noticed/I wish/I wonder, I was able to assess student understanding of the text at a basic level of retrieval and comprehension. As those thoughts were inventoried, they became the data sets to inform the empathy, experimentation and production phases of the process. That work pushed students into the upper echelons of critical reasoning. Determining what would appeal to users and engage them required perspective analysis as well as inductive reasoning. Invention and experimentation unlocked possibilities and revealed solutions all the way up to the final moments of the installation’s creation. And observations and interviews conducted during the installation’s existence prompted deep reckoning and systems analysis — recognizing ways to adjust variables for better outcomes in future challenges such as this one.
In production phase, as students painted metaphorical silhouettes, composed sound collages, maintained terrariums, cast masks, constructed and deconstructed figurative timepieces, and erected six-foot tall Roman numerals in two concentric clock faces, the qualities of reflective, self-directed, and collaborative workers were on full display. For the space of forty-eight hours, if not the duration of the project, the AP Lit students demonstrated the habits of mind in a palpable way.
Challenging, however, was consistent, communicable documentation of the above. I relied heavily on student blogging and my own pocket-photographer skills to provide concrete evidence of the above. Certainly, the collective was successful in getting there as the installation happened in large part according to plan and student and staff feedback suggested the AP Lit students achieved their intentions.
But to apply that to a grade book, to a rubric, to be able to identify each student’s individualized achievement and understanding in regards to this particular work . . . that . . . that is where my art supersedes my science and is where I move forward from here.
Where I Am Going: The Art & Science of Teaching
Our district has adopted Marzano’s evaluative model as our official measure of teacher effectiveness moving forward. (While we wait for final approval from the state DOE, we march on.) Thus, it only makes sense that I would want my practice to become more and more closely aligned with the Art & Science framework.
This will be a challenge for me and not because it requires the abandonment of my long standing practices or the curbing of my new found passion for design thinking. Quite the contrary, I see a triangulation of the three frameworks that allows for mutually beneficial co-existence.
At the risk of oversimplifying three complex systems, I suggest that really each can be articulated as a question.
Understanding by Design: What do we want to know/understanding?
Design Thinking: How might that knowledge/understanding help us solve a problem?
The Art & Science of Teaching: How will prove the degree of our knowledge/understanding?
I see each maintaining a different point in a triangular pedagogy that I can both defend and perpetuate.
And where do I struggle most? Accountability.
Now this does not mean I do not require students show their work or demonstrate to me the strength of their understanding. This does not mean I shrug it off and say, “Well, yeah, sure, I guess you probably know stuff.” No, I hold my students to high standards; I push them to make sure what they create actually demonstrates the concepts and understandings called upon in the standards. I drive them into revision and the reiteration process. My students fail up and sometimes they fail because they have not yet shown evidence of their understanding in a way that I can see.
Where I fall apart, however, are the routines that enable the degrees of achievement and understanding to be easily communicated and analyzed for future growth. I am a concrete random individual who needs tangible examples to understand what is to be done, who needs assurances and signposts, yet the flexibility to go about getting there by whatever means happen to be most available at the moment and little worry about whether it is how we did it last time. It’s the curse of an improvisational mind.
As I read through Marzano’s framework, my anxieties shudder. Not because I disagree or take exception, but because I am more and more tuned to the value of recording and transmitting student achievement data. I see the importance of being able to identify more discrete learning targets, to scaffold them to the greater learning goal, and to know just where the gaps are.
Moving forward with the unit next year, I will likely break out more readily measurable learning goals. As evidenced in Marzano’s Art & Science, thebetter defined and more succinctly stated the goals, the more effective efforts to track student progress become — including the student’s own reflective practice. As I move toward and more and more customized learning model, having these parsed out learning targets should make it easier to identify individual student progress and help students to determine actions to maintain that growth.
I’m also realizing that design thinking produces data. Copious amounts of ethnographic data. Inventories, surveys, empathy maps, trends, interviews and observations. So how might I leverage my passion for DT data into a collection system of data about my student’s achievements?
Perhaps this will help me traverse the chasm that exists for me between my art, where I thrive, and the science, where I struggle.
I conduct inquiry-based project-based problem solving based on the work of Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe, the structures of Buck Institute for Education, and the design thinking process models of David Kelley and Mary Cantwell. I run a standards-based assessment model based around the work of Rick Wormeli and Ken O’Connor. And now I need a framework that holds it all together and holds me accountable for managing it all as I move toward the customized learning championed by Bea McGarvey and Chuck Schwann.
The shift toward Art & Science isn’t a tremendous leap for me in theory. And it isn’t a hard sell.
It just requires me to be vulnerable and be certain that my fail up experiences are just that: mistakes that lead me and my students to routine successes.