By Jeff Heyck-Williams, the director of curriculum and instruction for Two Rivers Public Charter School

Two Rivers Public Charter School recently wrapped up our first Deeper Learning Cohort, a year-long program focused on helping teachers define, teach, and assess critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Funded by the Assessment for Learning Project, the cohort brought together teachers from both DC Public Schools and the DC charter sector to grow our collective professional practice around the cognitive skills we all agree our students need. The cohort met for a three-day launch in the summer, hosted several shorter convenings during the school year, and culminated at Two Rivers’ sixth annual Evening of Learning Seminars on March 14 where members of the cohort shared their learning with the broader education community in Washington, DC.

Goals of the Cohort

Through the course of the cohort the members focused on four broadly defined goals:

1. Choosing and utilizing rubrics

2. Creating and implementing performance assessments

3. Analyzing data

4. Aligning instruction

Inspired by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ work in Understanding by Design, our approach to this work was situated with backwards design in mind. Building on previous work at Two Rivers, members of the cohort defined the constructs of critical thinking and problem-solving through rubrics, then developed performance assessments that could be used to determine student mastery of the skills, and only after that designed the instruction that will drive students toward these outcomes.

Defining, Teaching, and Assessing Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills

The rubric design was informed by a wide range of resources including the 4C’s rubrics from PBLworks (formerly Buck Institute for Education), the Catalina Foothills School District’s rubrics for deep learning proficiencies, and the 4C’s rubrics from EdLeader21, a network of Battelle for Kids. In each case, the Two Rivers staff and cohort members were looking for language to describe the skills that we set out to teach. This functioned not just as an opportunity to evaluate where kids were in their development, but also provided guidance to teachers in defining the types of feedback that they can give to improve students’ cognitive processes.

Utilizing these rubrics, teams of cohort members developed short performance tasks that students could complete in a class period to give us a sense of where they were in developing their skills. These tasks were enhanced through a collaboration with Envision Learning Partners who provided feedback to cohort members about their assessment task design.

With each rubric and performance task, we aligned the work with a specific thinking routine. Some of the routines came straight from the work of Project Zero’s Visible Thinking project,  and others we developed at Two Rivers to address reasoning, decision making, and problem-solving specifically.

Our assumption going into the cohort was that by helping teachers define, assess, and teach toward clear definitions of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, we could deepen students’ learning.

Student Experience Is Key

What we learned through the Deeper Learning Cohort and involving more educators outside of our school was somewhat surprising. However in hindsight, it now seems obvious. If we want to change the outcomes for students, we have to put students’ experiences front and center. We discovered that the goal around aligning instruction was more important  to deepen student learning than any of the other goals for the cohort. The process of defining constructs with rubrics and designing performance tasks  helped cohort members name the targets which our students are aiming toward. However, rubrics and performance assessments become meaningless exercises—like so much other work in the assessment space—if they don’t result in positive changes to the day-to-day experiences students have in class.

Specifically, a number of cohort members focused on problem-solving routines in their classes. Drawing on a rubric for problem-solving that Two Rivers had produced, the teachers created performance tasks to assess students’ development of problem-solving skills. As educators, we can get pretty excited about our planning work, but the real test is when we put it in front of students. What the cohort members found was that their students underwhelmed them with their initial problem-solving work. The teachers realized they needed to teach the problem-solving skills more explicitly and embed them in their regular routines of the class.

Janna Huynh, a math teacher at Center City Public Charter School, articulated this explicitly when she identified that the problem-solving routine only became a routine when students started using it beyond the context of math and applied the same routines to solving social problems the class faced. Problems like how to make math groups more productive. Using the routine, students identified that everyone needed to be on-task for about 95 percent of the time and came up with strategies for solving this real problem around collaborative work.

These day-to-day applications of the cognitive skills that we were targeting make all the difference in the lives of the students that we teach.

A New Cohort

Armed with this new knowledge, Two Rivers is set to launch a second cohort of deeper learning for educators in the DC area this summer. Working with teachers across the DC education landscape, we realize that our attention needs to focus on the ways that students and teachers interact and experience school everyday. Rethinking assessments to include rubrics for providing student feedback and performance tasks are an important building block for making these shifts. However, only through paying attention to how instructional decisions are made and implemented can we hope truly to deepen learning for all students.