This past summer, a group of science teachers from northern Illinois spent six weeks poring over student work from Japan, Germany, the Czech Republic, and six other countries. As part of an EDC online workshop, the Illinois teachers logged on to a website to review student work and accompanying commentary from teachers. The Illinois teachers met online with fellow teachers from the United States and Germany to share their thoughts on the quality of the students’ work, the assignment, and the teaching methods. Here, for example, is one teacher’s reflections on student work from France, the United States, and Japan:
I also looked at Japan’s fourth grade work. This was very interesting because … they were truly looking for the student’s ability to observe the world, ask questions about it, collect data, and draw conclusions. The work was very collaborative … However, I was surprised at the simplicity of the work presented. When I reflected upon it, I recognized that in both the U.S. and French work, we were crediting students for their ability to use terminology. In the Japanese work, [students] were being credited with their ability to ask and solve questions. How refreshing. I had designated the Japanese work as simple because there was no terminology/scientific vocabulary used. This comparison was fascinating. Thank you for helping me see this difference between assessing thinking and assessing remembering.
This online workshop is part of Schools Around the World (SAW), a professional development program designed by the Council for Basic Education (CBE) in collaboration with EDC’s Center for Children and Technology (CCT) in New York. One of the project’s primary goals is to find out what “world class standards” mean in the real world-in actual classrooms in Australia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The project aims to paint a fuller picture of global education than the heavily publicized numerical rankings of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). “CBE used TIMSS as a starting point,” says Robert Spielvogel, director of EDC’s work on the SAW project. “They began by asking, what do these test results really mean for teachers in those countries? And how do you get teachers to reexamine their own professional habits and expectations?”
According to Carol Stoel, vice president of CBE and director of SAW, SAW began as a research study to inform policymakers and education leaders of the approaches different countries use to cover key concepts in the TIMSS tests. But as they began to build the database of student work and related commentary from around the world, CCT and CBE realized the potential value the material held for classroom teachers.
“The idea is that we now have standards, assessment, and accountability. But none of them are enough unless you can actually change teaching in the classroom,” explains Spielvogel. “Looking at student work is one of several techniques that we know engage teachers at a very deep level. It can lead to an examination of everything from curriculum to assessment to their own pedagogical methods. And the ability to discuss student work across boundaries, with very diverse people, adds a whole level of motivation.”
The SAW process begins with teachers from participating countries, who contribute student cases that consist of the following:
- A description of their classrooms, their students, and their curriculum
- An explanation of the assignment—its goals and its place in the curriculum
- The rubric they use to assess student work, outlining the characteristics that (a) meet expectations, (b) are below expectations, or (c) exceed expectations
- Three pieces of student work—one meeting expectations, one below expectations, and one exceeding expectations
- Their own comments on each piece of work
The SAW team helps organize the cases into a consistent format, scanning all student work into the database and translating all material into English. Once entered into the database, the materials can be posted to a website or downloaded to a CD-ROM, where educators and policymakers can search for material by topic, country, or grade level, or make comparisons among countries. The teaching cases are supplemented by explanations of the educational structure in each of the nine participating countries.
Spielvogel and his colleagues have found that the process of submitting a case to the SAW database is, in itself, a very effective vehicle for professional development. They encourage teams of teachers within a school to work together to select the student work and develop the rubrics and commentaries. “Part of the point of SAW is to get teachers to form a local community for comparing student work,” comments Lois Kohn-Claar, who helps design SAW’s online workshops. “Schools don’t have a lot of tools to tie teachers together in this way.”
The SAW staff designed the online workshops to serve as a gateway into the database. “We realized that rather than just having teachers submit student work in a vacuum, it would be more effective to build a framework through an online course where they could talk about issues of assessment, content, and pedagogy,” says Kohn-Claar. “It takes a big commitment to collect the student work, get the permissions, comment on the work, and get it up on the site. We wanted to provide teachers with a whole environment to do that.
“We’re finding that as a direct result of the course, teachers get very interested in submitting student work and reviewing student work from teachers in many other countries,” Kohn-Claar adds. For example, here is one teacher’s comment on a fourth grader’s science work:
The student that “goes beyond expectations” not only showed a high knowledge of the unit, her writing and communication skills exceeded most of the 8th graders I teach! In fact I have one learning-disabled student that has very limited language skills and would never be able to write as well as this fourth grader. But he can orally express his ideas and knowledge of science concepts better than most of my “higher level” students. He challenges me with his questions and ideas. Unfortunately, the rubric developed for this unit would not reflect this student’s true knowledge of the scientific process or the concept of insulators and conductors.
I believe two separate rubrics, or grading tools, are needed. At my school the science and language arts teachers work together on many of the units we assess. Science develops a rubric for science concepts and if there is a written portion, language arts develops one for grammar, spelling, and writing skills. We grade separately the same assessment—and it works great!
Each SAW workshop features two facilitators—one focused on the content of the discussion and one on the process, making sure participants are engaged and posting regularly. In addition to the student work and teacher commentaries, the workshops include provocative readings on pedagogy and content, and background essays on the educational systems in the countries from which the student work was drawn.
This summer’s pilot workshop consisted of 26 teachers and 2 facilitators from the United States. The fall workshop featured a more international team, with guest facilitators from France, Hong Kong, and Australia joining their American peers. Future workshops will include teams from several different countries. Kohn-Claar reports that teachers in the summer pilot workshop had little difficulty in making the links between the student work and larger educational issues: “You can’t separate the student work from the lesson and the way the lesson was taught. They go hand in hand. We didn’t necessarily think that pedagogy would become such a focus, but we were pleased to see participants offering their opinions on the quality of the assignments.” An American teacher offers this comment on a seventh grade lesson from the Czech Republic:
The essential skills for this project were research, plant collection, drying and pressing, and making an herbal book. Basically, each student did in fact collect a plant, dried it, and pressed it … I was interested in the lesson because I am interested in gardening. But I couldn’t help thinking, “What’s the point for the students? Was it simple research? Regurgitation of information? What are the goals and objectives? What am I missing?” I really have no idea as to what they actually learned in completing this project.
Spielvogel, Kohn-Claar, and their partners at CBE have ambitious plans for the SAW online environment and accompanying CD-ROMs. They hope to fill the database with thousands of pieces of student work, teacher commentaries, and lesson plans from participating countries. They also plan to add online courses on such topics as assessment, curriculum, and pedagogy.
But while the potential topics and materials will expand outward, the central focus of the SAW environment will remain on the basic interaction between student and teacher-the work the students do in the classroom. As SAW’s designers and participants continually stress, those artifacts of education can reveal much more than a set of scores on standardized tests.
One teacher offers these concluding thoughts on the SAW course:
Student work is a mirror. It reflects not only what the student knows but, in some measure, how well a teacher has done her/his job. If students have not done well on a test, for example, I feel that I have fallen short, too. I ask myself a lot of questions, and try to tinker with what I have taught/assigned. This course gave me some more tools for analyzing work more critically. I need to look more carefully at a more systematic approach to ongoing assessment, as opposed to grading (although that’s necessary, too). Have I been able to give enough constructive feedback to students? Have my assignments reflected my objectives? I’m thinking about this. Thanks for the opportunity to participate.
Originally published on June 1, 2000