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Illuminating Standards—One Piece of Student Work at a Time

By Contributing Blogger — April 24, 2015 5 min read
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This post is by Steve Seidel, Bauman and Bryant Senior Lecturer in the Arts in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Just last week over 50 educators gathered at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) for a highly unusual film festival--probably the only one of its type in the world! What made these films so unique? Each featured complex and impressive student work done in American K-12 public schools along with the voices of young people and/or their teachers talking about what they did to create that work and what they learned in the process.

Over three hours, 17 short videos were shown, all made by Harvard graduate students. The videos aim to answer this question:


  • What can a close look at specific pieces of student work reveal and illuminate about the real meaning of Common Core or other standards, like the Next Generation Science Standards?

That question is at the heart of the Illuminating Standards Project, a multi-year study that my co-teacher, Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer at Expeditionary Learning, and I have been conducting in collaboration with our students at Harvard.

Berger and I share a passion for studying rich examples of student work. We’ve also been worried, since the start of the standards movement in school reform, about the tendency to respond to atomized and decontextualized state standards with similarly atomized and decontextualized approaches to curriculum and instruction. Of further worry has been the all-too-common language of “covering” or “doing” the standards: “We’re doing the fourth grade Math standards this fall,” or “This lesson covers CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.4.” In other words, we worry that far too much conversation about standards is about compliance and far too little about understanding.

We worry that most discussion of standards falls far short of the rigorous analysis and debate that they invite--and require. So two major questions animate the Illuminating Standards Project:


  • What do standards actually look like when met with integrity, depth, and imagination?
  • And how can we have deeper, richer dialogue about state standards, particularly what they mean and look like in actual student work?

We decided several years ago to study rich examples of complex student projects--often arts-infused, aesthetically rich, interdisciplinary, community-connected, long-term studies of important ideas, concepts, and skill sets--to see if they could help us “illuminate” specific standards--making those standards “visible.” We thought if we could actually show what standards look like, there could be different kinds of conversations about them among teachers, with students, and in schools of education.

We started to work with our students to create short videos about specific pieces of K-12 student work and how they can help us to consider the meaning of particular standards. That was the genesis of last week’s film festival.

In his film about “Original Physics Experiments,” a book of lab reports by first and second graders at the Santa Fe School of the Arts and Sciences, filmmaker Elliot Dickson raises fundamental questions about the model of conducting experiments that prevails in science classes:

In science classrooms across the country, students are given experiments to perform. They are told what to observe and how to collect data. Even though learners may be engaged and say that they are having fun in their science classes, are they truly developing essential scientific thinking skills? Are they actually understanding concepts or just following directions? Are students really inspired to ask questions when told to follow specific procedures? Are they denied opportunities to grapple with real problems and explore the world in which they live? What could learners do if given the opportunity to explore the answers to their own questions?

Kit Willey, now a high school student, reflected on camera about her own “original physics experiment.” In her experiment, she studied the frequencies of sound in glasses of water.

“I was a little surprised I was thinking about that,” she says in the film, as she looks back on her work as a second grader. But she goes on to suggest that it was that early work that has compelled her to study science and to participate on the “super-computing team” at her high school. “Rather than learning what everyone is learning and you are forced to learn, you get to learn about stuff that sparks your curiosity.”

Dickson examines the relationship of these student-designed physics experiments and the Next Generation Science Standards. As Dickson notes, at the heart of those standards is a firm belief that students must be encouraged “to think and behave as scientists by engaging in authentic science and engineering practices.” One child proposed to study balls rolling down one ramp and up another--and then going back and forth.

In this study of the effects of gravity, several of the Next Generation “science and engineering practices” are vividly present.

But is it justified to call this collection of films unique?

Sadly, the presence of students and teachers talking about their work alongside images of that work is a rarity in professional development workshops and schools of education. In a time when teachers are so often portrayed in the popular media as “failing” in their jobs and students in so many of our public schools are notorious for what they don’t know and can’t do, it is easy to forget just how brilliant and capable our students actually are. Featuring proud, confident, intellectually engaged, and quality-driven teachers and students in films and the press is a crucial step toward countering the assumptions of mediocrity and inadequacy that dominates our national conversation about public education.

If you doubt that students in any school in America can produce beautiful work that reveals what standards actually look like in practice, I invite you to go to the Center for Student Work, a “museum of learning,” if you will, that lives on the Expeditionary Learning website. Check it out here.

And while you are there, check out the Illuminating Standards Video Series, where videos like those shown at Harvard last week are available online.

All of the films shown at last week’s film festival will be added to this site in the coming weeks. Please watch them--alone, with colleagues, with your students. If you teach in a school of education, use them in your classes to analyze the standards. Don’t just accept the points made in these films. Argue with them. Suggest different interpretations of the standards or of what’s really happening--or not happening--in the student work. And argue with the standards, themselves.

Standards are not going away, nor should they. But all standards guiding educational practice in schools should be analyzed, argued, rewritten, and reinterpreted by the people who are actually teaching in those schools. Is there any other way to really understand those standards well enough to teach them?

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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