What does learning look like? Part 1/3

This post is #1, #2 is here, and # 3 is over here.

This is one of those posts that happened by accident…started as a random thought, and then shifted gears several times.  It takes on something I have been thinking about as my kids were working on a unit last week.  I am going to post their work later this week…and in assembling it I keep simply asking myself…Is this what learning looks like?  When other people view these will they “see” learning?  Can learning be measured in the final products?  Should it be?

So I apologize for the somewhat randomness of the post, but since it is 12:43am I am going to hit the publish button instead of adding polish to it 🙂

What does learning look like?

We are obviously in an era with a focus on measuring learning.  We have to measure it, because we don’t know what learning looks like.  We have to measure and acquire data to see if kids are growing.  We have to reduce learning to numbers on a spreadsheet.

I raise chickens.  I process them when they all average 6 pounds live weight.  It has been years since I have weighed one before processing.  I just know.  I know based on watching them walk, how much food they have consumed, the temperature it was during their life, whether they are male or female, and a variety of other factors.  I don’t need a scale.  I also have raise chickens for eggs.  I have to feed them 12 pounds of feed each day.  I do not weigh the feed.  I just know how much 12 pounds is.  I could use a scoop, a can, or my hands, and at each feeding I bet I am within a half-pound of 12 pounds.

I have never understood giving tests at the end of a unit.  Do teachers give tests because they are unsure if their kids have learned?  It the kids learned the objectives during the unit then it seems silly to test them and make them re-prove what the teacher knows.  If a teacher is giving a test at the end of a unit because the kids did not learn and need to study, then why give the test?  Isn’t it silly to give a test to a kid when you know they don;t know the information, and if they can study it in one night then why did they spend two weeks on the unit? Seems as though the only reason to give a test is to see what a kid knows because a teacher doesn’t know if they have learned after having spent everyday with the kid working on the objectives of the unit.  I also don’t understand why kids need to study for tests.  I once raised a batch of chickens that, well, I kind of ignored.  I really, really needed them to meet their weight by a certain weekend and so  I shoved a ton of food into them over the last week.  That kind of seems like studying to me.  The more I feed the chickens, the more they pooped out.  Kind of like cramming the night before a test.  The more a kid crams in studying, the more the lose from their brain over the next few days.  Seems like if you are telling kids to study, you are admitting that they did not learn what they were supposed to during the unit…if they didn’t learn it…then why give the test?  (disclaimer…I know not all tests are created equal)

So is the key to eliminating tests knowing what learning looks like so you can recognize when a kid “gets it?”

(Another disclaimer…if you have been following the cool kids, project based learning is no longer cool, you have to call it problem based or inquiry based.  For this post I will call it project based but know that we deal with problems and sometimes Inquiry Projects!  We are very cool.)

In a project based class I have struggled mightily with this question.  What does learning look like?  How do I know they have learned?  How do I assess?

I have also moved throughout the years to believing that assessments (code in this post for the last thing we do in a unit, or the one thing we work on everyday that “is” the unit) (just in case you forgot what I was writing before that sentence in parentheses I will start again) I have also moved throughout the years to believing that assessments should not measure learning, but promote new learning.  If they don’t learn more from the unit assessment (remember my code) then from our unit, then our unit and our assessment has failed.

I know often times that the final products they create that have produced the most learning, seem to an outsider to have produced the least.  Here is a video on the Articles of Confederation.  They spent a week researching the Articles and figured out the the US could not go on without a replacement.  These kids could tell you what the weaknesses were, and why a replacement was necessary.  I listened to them each day discuss it, process their reading, took questions from them, and watched them struggle over how to summarize it into a product that anyone could understand.  In the end their final product had errors, lots of incomplete statements, kids not fully explaining what I heard them discussing throughout the week.  Is this what learning looks like?


Other final products the kids produce sometimes just look like a list of facts.  It is not clear that the kid made any connections to previous events, or can connect the event to today.  They sometimes seem so simple that they can’t possibly be learning anything of value that will stick beyond some simple facts.  Is this what learning looks like?


Sometimes a student comes up with an idea that I cannot even begin to understand.  Their final assessment is so far beyond any rubric or standardized product that there is only one single thing I can do while watching…cry.  Is this what learning looks like?

Sometimes my kids produce a product that could appear to be something that any kid could pull off.  Something they can simply cut and paste from a website.  But do you know the background of the kids?  Do you know the process they went through?  Do you know what stage in the learning process their product represents?  Is this what learning looks like?



Sometimes they use materials that seem so kindergarten.  Can a 14 year old really get something out of an assessment in which they spent more time drawing, coloring, and cutting than reading,writing, and researching?  Is this what learning looks like?


Sometimes they choose to focus on pieces of a bigger picture so small that they seem inconsequential.  After studying the American Revolution, students should have picked up on huge sweeping concepts that envelops what it means to be an American.  Is this what learning should look like?


Students are supposed to display what they learned on assessments.  Many of my kids don’t end up displaying everything they learned.  They could spend days reading and researching, but none of that information makes it to their final assessment to provide evidence of the learning. In the words of one group of kids, “For this project we had to apply for a position on a reality show that was going to reproduce the expedition of Lewis and Clark.  We first talked about the characters, and then about what we hoped to learn and some of our skills that we would bring to the show that would help us succeed.”  Applying for a reality show as a member of the Lewis Clark Expedition…seriously?  Is this what learning looks like?

One of the biggest problems is when kids have an idea and they just don’t have enough time to make it come to fruition.  In school we have to move it move it move it!  Is turning in a final assessment that is sloppy and not as planned ok?  Is this what learning looks like?


There is another type of assessment kids love to do…”The Talk Show.”  I always try to discourage this product.  Putting a wig on and reading off a paper is not exactly something that screams “21st Century Learning.” Is this what learning looks like?

One thing that kids will often do is to pick a topic that they are interested in rather than the 23 options that I have given that are connected to the curriculum.  We are about big events, important people, and overarching concepts that are at the center of what makes a United States citizen.  Is researching fashion, food, or dance really important?  Is this what learning looks like?

A lot of kids ask if they can make songs.  I like music…a lot of people do.  But a song can’t really replace a test!  The problem with songs is that if a kid makes the song full of the facts to prove they know all about the topic, the song is so boring.  If they make it symbolic the audience doesn’t really know that they know anything about the topic.  A couple girls decided to research what was the greatest problem facing people in urban areas in the 19th Century…and make a song.  You can’t really know that they spent a couple weeks researching.  And of course when you hear kids singing you assume that it comes easy for them.  You would never know that one of these girls confided in me in September that she did not know if she could ever talk in front of a class.  Six months later she performed this song live.  Is this what learning looks like?

Sometimes…kids give a final product that is so small when compared to others.  Sometimes they might have to read every word off a piece of paper.  If the final product alone was the measurement by which learning was weighed, well then, some students just would never have a chance.  You will never know how much this kid learned, how much she grew, and why every time I watch this video I still get a tear in my eye just by viewing 51 seconds of her taking her assessment on our Lewis and Clark unit.  Is this what learning looks like?


What does learning look like?  I don’t know.  I really did pick the  examples above to show examples that many people could say show no learning.  I do know that when I think it is happening, it is not always obvious to someone who does not know my kids.  Student products that are produced organically by them, tend to grow a bit wild and and sometimes unwieldy.  In a school in which tine to explore is limited, sometimes the final product is rushed, and there is only time for one take…mistakes are made and we still call it our final draft.  Yes, I could make it so that their final products are more impressive.  They would appear to look like more was learned.  I could control the process, the inputs, how the final product is constructed and produced.  But I don’t, they do…so our final products often look a but ragged.

I know that my heroes… people who have done great deeds, and people who have provided great comfort for people quietly did not do it because they succeeded in coloring in the correct bubble on a scantron sheet, or where able to follow directions and complete the correct sequential steps in order for their essay get a high score from a computer program or a faceless person scoring their writing 1000s of miles away.  I know that almost all of the people that I respect most in this world are not those that follow conventional rules.  My days of having the kids produce what you have seen in the videos are numbered.  Starting next year assessments for each unit will be standardized for every student in the town.  They will all produce the same product, graded with the same rubric.  I will be told what learning looks like, I will no longer have to wonder.

Booooo…depressing ending!  Let’s try again…take 2…

Starting next year assessments for each unit will be standardized for every student in the town.  They will all produce the same product, graded with the same rubric.  I will be told what learning looks like, I will be told what each kid should produce and know.  I am approaching Common Corpse State Standards units the same way a computer hacker approaches trying to hack a program.  I will be getting a very specific program given to me, one that could actually reduce my workload because it will tell me when and what to teach.  But that is the fun of it…because there are very precise rules maybe it makes it easier to hack.  Rules can be interpreted and manipulated.

In many of the projects above there were many tears shed in the struggle to complete them.  I have shed many “tears” over these new standards coming my way.  They first appeared as a wall to my growth, I could see no way over.  I have realized that there are many ways to get to the other side of a wall.  I can look for cracks, I can go under, but simply banging my head against it will not work.  I am looking forward to the challenge of  seeing what learning looks like next year…if I am successful in hacking the system, I suspect it will look a lot like what you have seen in his post.

The best things are simple, but finding these simple things is not simple.

I will still introduce my class to kids and parents next year with the same video I used this year.  There will be a way in which we can succeed in satisfying the standards, but not producing kids who are mindless copies of one another.  There must still be a way that we can produce kids who will “put a dent in the world.”

Is this what learning looks like? part II

 Is this what learning looks like? part III

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *