The Problem with Abstract Skill Outcomes: A Course 2 Final Proposal

Are all skills created the same? Are all concepts equal? These were just a few of the questions I left asking myself after a grassroots COETAIL group met at our school last week. We had just discussed whether or not a digital learning scope and sequence was necessary, and to what degree it should only be focused on conceptual understandings and skill outcomes.

Photo Credit: gill_penney via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: gill_penney via Compfight cc

As a PYP teacher, I love the conceptual approach for the students, but have some hesitations about overly conceptualizing for teachers. At times, the vague and abstract nature of conceptual understandings and loosely worded skill outcomes can leave teacher interpretations at vastly different levels. Because of this, students can potentially leave year levels and finish their entire elementary experience with completely different skill sets and levels of conceptual understanding.

Let’s take a look at the following fictional scenario to exemplify this.

Three students, all in the final days of 5th grade, have come through the same elementary school in a 1:1 environment. Let’s assume that all three students had access to the same resources, had similar family backgrounds and are of similar capabilities. The only difference being that in each year throughout elementary, these students found themselves in different classrooms. They had the same access to education, but had different learning experiences over the last four years in a 1:1 environment.

From 3rd grade to 5th grade, their teachers used the following approaches to learning to guide instruction in communication skills.

Communication Skills:

Exchanging thoughts, messages and information effectively through interaction.

  • Give and receive meaningful feedback
  • Uses a variety of media to communicate with a range of audiences
  • Collaborate with peers and experts using a variety of digital environments and media
  • Shares ideas with multiple audiences using a variety of digital environments and media

By their last few days of elementary, here is what the students are capable of:

Photo Credit: elvis_payne via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: elvis_payne via Compfight cc

Student A can give feedback in a variety of ways. He can speak to a friend orally and he can write notes on post-its and stick them onto his classmate’s poster. He can add notations to his peers’ written pieces and has completed student rubrics by highlighting the skills on sheets he has been given. Student A also knows how to take photos and videos on his iPad. He can then show this media to his peers by holding the iPad and pressing play. Student A collaborates with peers by helping his classmates solve math facts on knowledge-based apps. They play fun games together to practice multiplication and division. He also uses his timer to keep track of how long his partner is taking to complete her Word Study task. Student A has learned how to communicate via email by writing questions and declarative statements in the body of the email. He can write mass emails to teachers with a one sentence body saying he wants to conduct a survey and he will stop by their classroom later this week. Student A knows how to make Explain Everything videos and iMovie trailers, but his videos are quite terse and visually uninspiring. He knows how to email those projects to his friends, but usually just saves his videos on his iPad and shows them to his peers that way. Student A is also proficient in using Notes to write down new things he has learned. This is what he typically uses to word process and document his learning.

Photo Credit: pgpdesign (paul) via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: pgpdesign (paul) via Compfight cc

Student B primarily gives feedback on her class blog. Her teachers have normally posted something of provocation on their shared blog space and then students comment on each other’s ideas. She also gives feedback to her friends when they peer conference side-by-side with their iPads in hand. They tend to write their final draft in Google Drive and they talk about how they can improve each other’s work. Student B also uses Explain Everything to create projects that show her understanding. She knows how to make basic iMovie projects from scratch and can insert photos and videos. She frequently uses her class YouTube account to post new projects to it. She can then share her learning on the class blog, where she receives feedback from her peers. Student B has become very adept at making PowerPoint presentations when she is orally presenting to her class. She and her peers are good at finding photos on Google and cutting them out to make collage posters. They share the photos by emailing them to each other and then decide which ones they want to use by replying all. She also knows how to make math videos that teach others how to strategize. She uses YouTube as a centralized place to store all of her media production. Student B has enjoyed using Voice Thread the previous two years to collaborate with her friends and share their projects at Student-Led Conferences. She knows how to store certain media in the cloud, but hasn’t learned how to share it with her peers yet. Student B uses mind-mapping apps to brainstorm for writing tasks and inquiry projects. She shares them by printing them out and putting them on her classroom wall.

2265479534_80a63f6627For Student C, feedback and online interaction are synonymous. Student C has her own blog where she shares her thinking with the world. There are two sections to her blog: one for school-based reflections directed by the teacher and one that is her own free space to share her thinking with the world. She often receives feedback not only from her classmates, but also from family and friends on the other side of the world. When she goes home, she often will read what her classmates have written on their personal blogs and respond to them. She uses her class YouTube channel to upload videos she has made at school, and then posts them in various locations on her blog. She has mastered basic iMovie projects, can import different audio tracks into the background, narrate over her projects to communicate her intention more clearly, edit and trim clips and evaluate themes she feels best allow effective transitions and subtitles. Her most recent project was creating a stop-motion film for a literacy engagement. She is beginning to move onto more technical movie production apps using actual video recording equipment.

Student C prefers to use Explain Everything, Book Creator, Haiku Deck and other creation apps to show her understanding in visually stunning ways. She shares them with the world on her personal website, which she has built from scratch in class. The website is used like an online portfolio to showcase her proudest achievements. Before posting them on her website, she usually shares the files with her peers on Google Drive, where they can open and watch them in specific apps, before they orally record their feedback for her. She also uses Google Drive to share, comment and collaborate on documents, sheets and forms with her classmates. They tend to collect data using Google Forms and invite their classmates to respond with an online survey. They use the comment option on Google Drive to help each other become more accountable for peer feedback, instead of forgetting their oral conversations. Using the cloud and file sharing has become a natural part of her writing process and collaborative learning.

Student C had become greatly interested in a remix project she was doing with a partner in class. They were asked to find Creative Commons video clips that they could mash together to communicate their understanding of environmental damage caused by pesticides. She even used a clip from a project she made last month while writing code for her PYP Exhibition. Student C feels completely comfortable reaching out to other students around the world, as she has participated in several global collaborative projects over the years. She uses Skype, Instagram, YouTube and Vimeo to continue collaboration with friends who have left the school and now reside in other countries. Currently, she is using her personal accounts on Blendspace, Padlet and Today’s Meet to centralize brainstorms about the mod her group is building in Minecraft. Their goal is to build a world that shows how natural resources affect settlement patterns and local economies. Nearly everything she does in school is accessible from home because she uses the cloud and websites as a storage platform for her learning.

Photo Credit: spacepleb via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: spacepleb via Compfight cc

Student A, Student B and Student C all have met the criteria for communication skills in the latter years of elementary. According to these learning outcomes, all teachers have been successful in meeting the required skills that students are expected to learn.

Is this okay? Is this acceptable? If you were a student, would this be fair to you? As a parent, would you be satisfied? I suppose the answers to those questions would depend on what perspective you are responding from.

The fictional snapshot example mentioned above only takes into consideration a few communication skills in the approaches to learning. It does not begin to consider the research skills, self-management skills, thinking skills or social skills that would also be affected by differing degrees of digital literacy education. One could write a 25-page thesis comparing the experiences and skill sets different students could potentially receive from teachers who, in all good faith, are instructing the concepts and skills based on these words alone. Across year levels and throughout the elementary school, there remains the potential to inadvertently create enormous gaps in what students can and can not do through digital learning.

It is for this reason that I am in the process of promoting and prosing a digital learning scope and sequence at my school. The scope and sequence would be created just as much for the students as it would be for the teachers. Students will only be instructed to the skill proficiency and comfort level of those who teach it. The goal of a scope and sequence is not for all students to receive the exact same education. Rather, the goal would be to close the potential gap in the degree of digital literacy instruction students could receive from overly generalized skill outcomes and conceptual abstractness.

Photo Credit: SimonQ錫濛譙 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: SimonQ錫濛譙 via Compfight cc

If there is a base-level skill set that students receive at each year level, teachers will be able to build off the capacities students have learned from the previous year in a much more efficient way. After finishing elementary, all students would have an intentional digital learning education, rather than a random one based on what teachers they had. The scope and sequence would clearly articulate what concepts and skills teachers at each grade were responsible for instructing, thereby reducing the gap in student proficiency. There will always be differences in degrees of digital learning based on teachers’ instructional styles, but a scope and sequence could alleviate large discrepancies and bring all students into a more level digital playing field by the time we send them to secondary.

To what degree my proposal of an articulated scope and sequence for digital learning will be considered or adopted is out of my hands. Regardless if it is successful or rejected, what I hope to accomplish is to get the ball rolling and plant seeds of consideration for a more purposeful approach to digital literacy at our school. Part of the reason we have Students A, B and C going through many schools nowadays is that teachers don’t know what is expected of them. They don’t know where their students are coming from and they don’t know where they are going. They don’t know what they are responsible for teaching. A clearly articulated scope and sequence document may benefit the coaching and up-skilling of teachers just as much as it would the students. If teachers know what is expected of them, they will learn it and they will teach it. If they don’t know what is expected of them, how can they teach it?

3238236041_790496f3c7In high-paced learning environments, teachers struggle to keep up with the evolving digital tools for instructing the conceptual understandings and skill outcomes to the highest level possible. This is why I am proposing that a dynamic scope and sequence document be written and stored in the cloud so that we can frequently update the tools and potential implementation methods over time. This will help teachers put the concepts and skills in context so they can readily understand how they might look. The concrete tools and suggestions might help teachers speak the same language, rather than inferring meaning from multifarious speculations.

Teachers don’t need over-abstraction and subjective generalizations. They also don’t need over-specification and mandates. They need a balance of abstract concepts, practical skills and specific tool options. A clearly articulated scope and sequence for digital learning will ensure that we are all operating on the same page in instructing an exponentially important subject discipline life skill. If teachers are speaking different languages and graduating students with significant gaps in digital learning, or setting the bar too low because there is no scope in place, we are doing 21st century learners a disservice by not adequately preparing them for the world they will inherit.

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My action during Course 2 was to request that a digital literacy committee be formed in elementary to get teachers working together on this aspect of education. Since then, a working group has been formed to review the role of digital learning and to design a media-rich library in our school. We are having amazing conversations about what we value in education, our vision for learning in the school and most importantly, how to ensure that teachers are all under the same expectations for their roles in digital learning. If teachers don’t know what digital learning entails, students won’t either.

 

2 Replies to “The Problem with Abstract Skill Outcomes: A Course 2 Final Proposal”

  1. The key I think is that it has to be dynamic. We did this at ISBangkok and built the whole thing in a Google Spreadsheet with different tabs for different grade levels. It allowed us to quickly see the scope and sequence and at the same time, as you point out, update it as things continue to change. We even when so far as to put questions to help teachers understand the types of questions they should be asking students at different levels. It worked well and at the same time allowed us to quickly update and make changes as needed.

    I do think it’s something that we need to some how get down on paper. I think education right now is in a really weird place where we want “standard students” with “standard teaching” however we know that what this world really needs is individuals who can think on their own. It’s hard to standardize personalization. 🙂

    1. Hey Jeff,

      Thanks for the feedback. I know this proposal goes against the grain and will receive resistance, but I wanted to highlight the pitfalls with being too far off on the “thats-the-beauty-of-teaching-concepts-and-skills…it-applies-to-almost-everything” pendulum swing. I think it could be a temporary stepping stone solution, but I don’t propose it be a 10-year plan. I don’t see it as standardization because I really don’t see the skills at each year level taking more than a few months to teach (and this can be done mainly through other subject engagements). Instead, it’s a tool to get all students moving forward with a balanced base level of skills, concepts and awareness in DL. There will be some teachers who are going to be happy just to get their students to work on their year level skills. They will end up working through those digital skills and concepts all year long. Other teachers are going to meet those skills by November and introduce new ones to the students the rest of the year. They’ll keep giving them more opportunities to become more like student C, which give teachers and students more individualistic and creative flexibility. Although gaps will inevitably persist, the bar has been raised across the whole school (which is a good thing).

      Eventually, the role of the potential tools and implementation methods will fade out because all staff will be caught up with the digital learning wave and we will have a common understanding. By then, as Oscar Sala mentioned to me a few days ago, it won’t be digital learning anymore, it will just be learning.

      But right now, if you ask 100 teachers what digital literacy means, you are going to get 100 different answers (and some won’t even be close).

      This is why, in my opinion, a S&S document is necessary. It’s a doorway for which both teachers and students can think on their own.

      Thanks for the provocation.

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