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From a Factory model to a Concept-Based Inquiry Model


Imagine the following situation:

“Welcome to today’s parent-teacher conference. Please, sit down. John got an A in Reading, an A in Math and a C in Dramatic Arts. He did well on the STAR9879-8K7 standard test series. You should be very happy; John is on grade level when we compare him against the other students in his class and country,” Mr. Green, the Fourth Grade teacher, explained in a monotone voice.  John’s parents both nod in agreement, say “Thank you” and walk out the door.

If you are a parent in North America and have ever been to your child’s parent-teacher night you are probably very familiar with this story. Most western schools base their grades in their report cards on results taken from a standardized testing system. These standardized tests assume that all students are the same and, therefore, try to use the same measuring tool to ascertain how much each student knows. This is similar to trying to measure how much water is in a cup using a meter stick. It may work sometimes, but a ruler was not made to measure volume. It begs the question then, when and how did we start assuming all students were the same and thus can, and should, be measured by the same ruler?  Let us first start with the definition of a standardized test, as it is the tool that most schools are presently using to assess their students and, from there, let us look at the history of standardized education.

A standardized test is any form of test that (1) requires all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from a common bank of questions, in the same way, and that (2) is scored in a “standard” or consistent manner, which makes it possible to compare the relative performance of individual students or groups of students (Concepts, 2013, para. 1).

Why do we need standardized testing? With the dawn of the industrial revolution, many children were no longer needed to work on the farms and more of them started to enroll in school. This would start the shift from one-room schoolhouses with mixed aged classes, to a factory model where students would be sorted according to age groups in bigger buildings. With this shift, came the idea to standardize the education that each child was receiving (Jacobs & Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2010, p. 1). This standardization meant that schools needed to develop systems that could produce quick and tangible results to assess the student’s knowledge through a factory method, so that the teachers and the school boards could report to parents and governing bodies. Hence the dawn of the standardized lesson, where every student learns the same thing and is assessed in the same way (West, 2012).

Now imagine this alternative sequence of events.

“Welcome to tonight’s student-led conferences. Today your fourth grade son John will sit down with you and talk about the Units of Inquiry, the skills and the concepts we have covered this term,” Mr. Green explains with excitement. John’s parents turn and look at each other with blank stares of bewilderment as they have no idea what the teacher is talking about. Both of John’s parents were very confused by this event as it is not something they were familiar with from their past school experiences as children. 

With the onset of the information and technology age, the amount of information available in the world has grown at an astounding rate, and with it has also come the need to change the way we educate our children. The concept that students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge and then measured is gradually becoming obsolete. The factory-model classroom concept of education is rapidly disappearing (Culbertson & Jalongo, 1999). Many progressive, private elementary schools are no longer focusing on the delivery of a knowledge-based curriculum. They are now trying to be places where the teacher acts as a facilitator and the programs are becoming more interactive and student-driven, with a teaching and learning focus on the lenses of collaboration, concepts, and skills (Hancock, 1997).   

Assessing Teacher Quality: Teacher Evaluation for International Schools

My school has been looking at various ways to evaluate and measure our ability to provide a quality education for our students. James Stronge had a lot of insight into how we can use some softer, less high-stakes approaches that better complement an international school’s culture. He believes the best way to do this is by measuring the teachers and students against various criteria. It is vital that we assess our students and teachers so that we can help them grow as life-long learners. By softer, I mean we will be looking at ways to assess teachers to provide them with professional development opportunities tailored to their specific needs, not as a tool for salary or dismissal negations. To start, we should be testing our students to get a baseline of their ability to measure their growth on a continuum over time. It is imperative that we do not measure them strictly against grade level expectations, the reason being that not all students come into a classroom with the same educational background or English ability. Most International Schools have a large number of ELL or special needs students. Therefore, we need to measure individual growth, so that these students are given opportunities to succeed. Measuring them strictly against grade level standard is unfair and sets many of them up to fail before they even start.

 So how do we evaluate our students? 

As we know, testing is an important tool to measure student performance, but it can be very time-consuming and expensive. At my school, we are currently looking at trying to find an automated online platform that provides us with growth data, is easy to use and cost-effective. At present, we have been beta-testing a program called Iready. The program is easy to use and provides the teacher with a baseline assessment, growth indicators and extra information on the strategies that the student needs work on. This program still needs some more testing, but it looks like a cost-effective tool for us to measure English reading and listening literacy.

What makes a good teacher?

With a student assessment program in place, we now need to think about how we evaluate our teachers. According to James Stronge, teachers can be evaluated by the following criteria:

• professional knowledge • instructional planning • instructional delivery • use of assessment • learning environment • professionalism • student progress

To collect data on instructional planning and professionalism, an administration can setup up a system like Google docs that will allow for collaborative planning online in the cloud. This lets the administration browse planners, documents and leave formative at any time without making extra work for the teacher. For assessing instructional delivery, learning environment and professionalism, a schedule of planned and unplanned teacher observations should be developed. In this case, it is important to try and make the observations as long as possible. This is due to the fact that short observations don’t produce enough data. Teachers must also be provided with a rubric that that will be used to assess them.

To assess student performance, a testing system must be adopted that measures student growth. The second part of measuring student performance will include a system of anonymous student surveys given by the subject teacher. These surveys will be used by the teacher as a means of personal formative feedback.

My Action Plan for Implementation

 • At present, we have been trialing various online testing systems that will help measure our students’ performance. The online solution seems to be the most effect means of testing. The first baseline test usually takes about 30 to 40 minutes, but after that it only takes about 15 minutes for bi-monthly growth tracking tests. The current system we have provides teacher-friendly reports that can be used to measure student growth. However, internet connectivity and the amount of devices needed can be an issue for some schools. 

 • Being an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme school, we use the IB planners online with Google docs, giving us easy access to our teachers planning tools and documentation folders. 

• From September, we will try and implement a program of frequent teacher observations. As part of this plan, I will make sure to drop into each classroom daily for a short period on non-observation days. This way, the students will begin to get used to my presence in the classroom. If the observer’s presence disturbs the class the data collected is compromised. We will also try to keep an open classroom policy where teachers are welcome to drop into another teacher’s classes. The rationale behind this is that teachers will have a better idea of good practice in that specific school’s teaching culture. Off-the-record positive peer feedback helps all teachers grow and builds the collaborative culture of the school. 

• Finally, we will try having the teachers implement a student survey after each unit of inquiry to help the teacher assess how things went. These surveys should be anonymous so that the students can give their honest opinion. They should be used by the teacher as personal tool for growth in a non-official way.

I believe the following program will help my school evaluate the teachers and help them grow.


Going Deeper into Writer’s Workshop One Layer at a Time

Workshop presenter – Matthew Glover: Literacy
Designing Responsive Units of Study in Writing Workshop – Skillful teachers design sequences of instruction based on the needs of their students.
Having worked with the writer’s workshop framework for about 8 years, I am always looking for opportunities to advance my skill set and knowledge base in this area. Mathew Glover is a leader in his field and I found his presentations to be very insightful and they provided me with some strategies to instantly better myself as a writing coach. In this paper, I will outline the key process of running a good writer’s workshop.
A writing workshop is split into three important stages. They are the projecting (planning) and the carrying out of the mini-lesson with conferring. The term projecting refers to flexible planning. All good teachers must be flexible and responsive to their students’ needs. In simple terms, it sometimes means that we need to be able to change on the fly – such as when they already know the chosen teaching point or if it is not appropriate for them at that time. This is crucial as every moment we spend with the child is a learning moment. Our inability to be flexible makes us an ineffective teacher. On this note – administrators, please remember that setting up a good writing program takes time, and you must give your teachers the time to do it well.
Stage One: Projecting Units
The first stage of projecting is planning out units or writing projects that align with your curriculum. Being at an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program School, it is vital our writing units align with our units of inquiry to fit the PYP transdisciplinary approach. When planning out units, we need to take care that our writing types are authentic and apply to the real world. A good litmus test for this is to see if you can find published mentor texts to go along with your writing piece. For example, how many published book reports can you find? Probably none – so why not have your students write a book review? It is very easy to find stacks of reviews to use as mentor texts for your students. At this point, it is best to look at past units and brainstorm new ones if they don’t fit this model. Once our units have been chosen, we need to find stacks of mentor texts that go along with them. This can be easily done with a web search and brainstorming session (e.g. for a book review mentor text use movie reviews from kids magazines or newspapers). After our mentor texts have been chosen, we need to sit down and look at the standards that we will be using for the unit and think about how we can display them in our own writing.
At this point, we produce a piece of our own writing that displays the main 6 plus one writing traits that align with our curricular outcomes. This will help us produce a list to focus our mini-lessons. This is the second piece of your conferring kit. A good conferring kit is made up of three kinds of mentor texts. They are published examples, teacher’s examples and students’ examples. For this first run through, you will need to start collecting student’s examples. Our last two components to collect for our conferring kit will be a writer’s notebook and a way to collect our conferring notes. All teachers have their own way of taking notes, but it is important to have them record the following points of their conferring meetings with each child: what was your praise (what can they do), your teaching point and what the student needs to work on next.
Stage Two: Immersion
During this stage, a teacher needs to become very familiar with their mentor text stack. If they are not familiar with their stacks, they will take too long to find an example when conferring with a student. So, as a rule of thumb, it is better to have fewer mentor texts, but know them well. During our immersion stage, we introduce our stack of mentor-published texts to our students. We explore them through inquiry or teaching them explicitly. During the immersion process, we want to take two or three days to walk them through the mentor text with read-alouds and self-exploration, pointing out specific characteristics of your chosen text type.
Stage Three: Projecting the Mini-Lesson and Conference

In stage three, we need to decide what our mini-lesson should focus on. This can be done in two ways, the first being to take a look at your curriculum scope and sequence and chose your next teaching goal. This approach is good to start off the unit, but should be changed once you have a better idea of your students’ needs. The second is to look at a large sample of your students’ writing and then look at your scope to find out which aligns with your outcomes and the needs of the students. Remember review lessons are important, but teaching points are more important when doing one-to-one conferring. The full penetration rate of a mini-lesson objective for a small class is only about 40-50%, as all students are working at different levels. Your most effective teaching will be done during the conferring where you will meet the students at the level of instruction they need. After you have given your mini-lesson it is time to start conferring. It is usually a good idea to pick the people you plan to confer with during your planning process. As teachers, we tend to spend more time with the strugglers. A good set of records reminds us that all students need our help. At present, I use a system using Google forms and spreadsheets that allows me to take notes quickly and plan who I need to see next. It is always a good idea to do a bit of pre-conference research. Before the lesson, quickly browse through the chosen student’s writing to get an idea of what you can praise them on and what they need to learn next to advance their writing. Always remember that we want to teach them a new point to help nudge their writing ahead. Sometimes as teachers we get caught on reminders and forget to teach a new point. A reminder does not help nudge them forward and correcting them has zero impact! During a conferring session, lead with telling the student about their strengths, do your research to find your new teaching point and always teach them something new. It is best to go straight to the student’s working area and speak in a normal voice. If another student is eavesdropping you are in luck, you are getting a two-for-one deal as they will also clue into your conferring point. In your notes, make sure to record what they did well, what the teaching point was and what they need to learn next. It is best to try and keep your conferring meetings at 6 to 8 minutes. Remember you want to give them a small nudge, not overwhelm them. If you follow these steps, you should help nudge your students along to being better writers.Some mentor text resource sites

Writing source

Writing traits

Mentor Text Bibliography 

Mentor text Lessons (see side bar)