Inquiry in the Age of Evaluation


Teacher inquiry is a viable way for educators to improve their practice.  It can lead individuals toward collaborative, supportive relationships with peers and meaningful change in practice.  It is professional learning with an internal locus of control that is focused on an individual and their context.    It begins with a question.  The question, or wondering, becomes the focus and goal.



Ties to the evaluation process  To make professional learning both meaningful and relevant for educators, it seems wise to connect goals and growth to the evaluative process that exists for everyone.  With the educator creating their own goals, energy and effort can be focused with intent; progress is almost guaranteed.

Teacher “Evaluation”

Indeed, the new teacher evaluations have caused much grief to more than a few educators.  The word “evaluation”, alone, infers many uncomfortable things.  The deficiencies of the traditional view of teacher evaluation includes:

  • Outmoded evaluative criteria, usually in the form of checklists.
  • Simplistic evaluative comments, such as “needs improvement,” “satisfactory,” and “outstanding” without any consistency as to what those words mean. Many teachers end up being rated at the highest level on every item, with no guidance as to where they might focus their improvement efforts.
  • The same procedures for both novice teachers and career professionals— no differentiation that reflects veteran teachers’ experience and expertise.
  • Lack of consistency among evaluators; a teacher might be rated at the highest level by one administrator and much lower by another. This makes it much easier to attain tenure in some schools than in others, a violation of a fundamental principle of equity.
  • One-way, top-down communication. Evaluation is a process that’s “done to” teachers, and it often feels punitive, like a “gotcha.”

The purpose of evaluation often gets lost in the series of observations and checklists, causing much fear and general harm to the teaching profession.  The real purpose needs to be made visible:  Evaluations should be about helping teachers learn.  “Evaluations” should be inextricably tied to the educator’s personal professional learning plan.

According to Learning Forward’sStandards for Professional Learning ,

Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment and aligns its outcomes with educator performance and student curriculum standards.


The State of Michigan and the Michigan Council for Teacher Effectiveness has approved several tools to assist administrators in supporting the growth of the teachers.  The Danielson Framework is frequently used.  It is characterized by Four Domains:

  1. Planning and preparation
  2. Classroom Environment
  3. Instruction
  4. Professional Responsibilities


Connecting passion and growth to the evaluative process



A continuum of professional learning that provides surface learning in the eight passions along with opportunities to engage in deep, collaborative inquiry with other educators would seem to be the most meaningful way to help educators learn and grow.


In this evaluative age, collaborative inquiry is an empowering way for educator’s to own their own learning.  Focusing on one of the eight areas of passion, their growth can easily be tied to the evaluative process.  The benefit, though, is the sense of empowerment that comes from inquiry.  Teachers lead their learning; direct their “evaluation”.  No fear.



Rich Dialogue with Effective Feedback


Giving and recieving  feedback is an important part of the understanding process.  When teachers develop effective feedback strategies, self and peer assessment is further enhanced.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project  Zero team has developed a useful tool for providing feedback. The tool is intended for a colleague or peer to provide feedback to a teaching peer about either their lesson, unit or potentially course of learning.  This tool supports deeper understanding via rich dialogue between students, peers and instructors.

The Ladder of feedback has four steps or phases. They are:

  1. Clarify – are there aspects of this lesson, unit course that you don’t believe you understood?
  2. Value – what do you see in this lesson, unit or course that you find to be particularly impressive, innovative or strong?
  3. Offer Concerns – Do you detect some potential problems or challenges within this lesson, unit or course? Do you disagree with some part of the design
  4. Suggest – Do you have suggestions on how to address the concerns you identified during the last step?


Reese, James. “Teaching for Understanding 1: An Introduction to the Framework” Project Zero Summer Institute 2013. Harvard Graduate School of Education. . 22 July. 2013. Lecture.


For more information




What Is the Teaching For Understanding Framework”?


What is understanding?

“The performance view of understanding is consonant with both common sense and a number of sources in contemporary cognitive science. The performance perspective says, in brief, that understanding is a matter of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence and examples, generalizing, applying, analogizing, and representing the topic in new ways.”


From The Teaching for Understanding Guide by Tina Blythe and Associates (Jossey-Bass, 1999)


The Teaching for Understanding framework

  1. Throughlines, or Overarching Understanding Goals (extend through the entire course—focus learners on BIG understandings)
  2. Generative Topic (the content we focus on in our unit; what it is about the topic that motivates us to learn more)
  3. Understanding Goals (extend through a unit; connect to Throughlines and stem from the Generative Topic)
  4. Performances of Understanding (learners demonstrate their understanding of the topic at various points in a unit)
  5. Ongoing Assessment (learners assess themselves and one another, and receive frequent formative feedback from the teacher)


Teaching for Understanding: An introduction to the framework (mini course powerpoint) 

Teaching for Understanding Project Organizer


Reese, James. “Teaching for Understanding 1: An Introduction to the Framework” Project Zero Summer Institute 2013. Harvard Graduate School of Education. . 22 July. 2013. Lecture.

On Being a Junior Photographer

Old School Camera

Old School Camera

In the early 1970’s  I was selected for our elementary’s “enrichment” program.  I suspect it had something to do with test scores.  There were just a handful of us little ragamuffins excited about choosing our area of interest and designing projects around them.  I wanted to be a photographer and so I was given the camera with no boundaries and taught how to develop film in a bona-fide dark room.

I WAS a junior photographer.  “Learning about ” was only a part of the bigger picture in which I developed an eye for seeing the world through a lens and bringing it to life in a picture.  I was able to do the work of REAL artists.

Lucky me, although I experienced guilt for having this experience while many of my peers “did school”.

The College of William and Mary School of Education’s curriculum for gifted education  is built off of the Integrated Curriculum Model for Gifted Learners.  Essentially,


  • Big ideas within a higher level  depth of knowledge
  • Advanced Content (as desired)
  • Problem-based inquiry using research and reasoning

While gifted education has historically been saved for the  few, these concepts are beneficial for all

“…..curriculum designed for gifted learners using ICM makes a difference in the nature and extent of learning that these students will amass. It also appears to be a powerful motivator for the less able, especially the scaffolding provided by the instructional models. If we design curriculum for our best learners and use it to stimulate a broader group of learners, then we will have succeeded admirably in our efforts to raise the ceiling for the gifted, but also to provide a new set of standards for others to emulate.”   Joyce Van Tassel-Basaka, College of William and Mary”

 All learners

I will not argue about the needs of the children ICM is designed to support.  I believe they are very real.  However, I believe all children will benefit from models like ICM.  Differentiated classrooms support all children at all times.

In a session at the Project Zero Summer Institute 2013, Dr. Ronda Bondie of Fordham University  facilitated a mini-session entitled  All Learners Everyday.  Dr. Bondie addressed how to effectively differentiate instruction for all students.  What is different about Dr. Bondie’s approach?  She includes thinking routines, teaching for understanding, multiple intelligences and formative assessment.  In essence, Dr. Bondie believes ALL students can learn to think deeply and to thrive in an inquiry-based learning environment.  I agree.

 All students should be able to tinker around as   ‘junior versions of’  (artists, photographers, engineers) in an environment of inquiry 

not just those who “do school” well.

Why Do I Need To Learn This?


An article by Audrey Waters, Is Math Education Too Abstract  , on Mindshift discusses the idea that the typical way of teaching math over time is not the most effective.  Water pulls from an op-ed article by Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford:  

“Today,” they write, “American high schools offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, pre-calculus and calculus (or a “reform” version in which these topics are interwoven). This has been codified by the Common Core State Standards, recently adopted by more than 40 states. This highly abstract curriculum is simply not the best way to prepare a vast majority of high school students for life.  The authors contend that the “traditional” math curriculum focuses too much on abstract reasoning and abstract skills. “Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering,” they suggest.

Audrey’s central question:

“But does thinking about “applied mathematics” mean necessarily that we have to steer clear of algebra and calculus as their own units in math education? Does putting math in context mean that we cannot teach math in abstract?”

The answer seems clear to me:

we need both the pieces and the whole.

There are many sound reasons for teaching the elements and the contexts in which the elements live.   Addressing BOTH is important; doing so is:

  • relevant
  • comprehensive
  • engaging
  • it takes knowing to understanding
  • it allows one to do something with their personal understanding

If we teach the elements and the whole, and  do it well, we will get many questions.   This  will not be one of them:

Why do I need to learn this?

Teaching the Whole


In his book, Making Learning Whole, David Perkins uses the game of baseball as an analogy to discuss the concept of teaching whole concepts in education.

An article in  Ed., the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s online magazine, includes an interview with David Perkins.

““From the beginning I built up a feel for the whole game. I knew what hitting the ball or missing the ball got you. I knew about scoring runs and keeping score. I knew what I had to do to do well, even though I only pulled it off part of the time,” he writes in the book. And then, the epiphany: “I saw how it fit together.” Why not apply this same logic to teaching, Perkins thought, especially in subject areas like math and history, where students often struggle to make connections?

Read more:

We teach the ‘whole’ beautifully in reading and the arts, where students see complete models and get to practice being a reader, an artist, a dancer.  

Why not other areas in school?  From the Ed article

“Partly it’s because learning bits and pieces now and putting them together later simplifies the classroom routine: it’s easier to work on isolated pieces. Partly because when kids make mistakes, the most obvious mistakes concern the pieces — arithmetic errors, misspellings, facts not remembered. Partly it’s a failure of imagination, a failure to figure out what small-scale accessible meaningful versions of mathematical modeling or building historical interpretations would look like for children.

Read more:

Elementitis and Aboutitis

The first plague of education:

We educators always face the challenge of helping our students approach complex skills and ideas. So what to do? The two most familiar strategies are learning by elements and learning about. In the elements approach, we break down the topic or skill into elements and teach them separately, putting off the whole game until later — often much later. So students end up practicing meaningless pieces to score well on quizzes without developing a sense of the whole game, like the kids . . .who can do the computations but don’t know what operations to use when. This is a persistent plague of education, so to have a little fun I call it ‘elementitis.’ “

The second plague of education:

In the learning about approach, instead of teaching how to do the thing in question, we teach about it. For instance, we teach information about key science concepts rather than teaching students how to look at and think about the world around them with those concepts, which supposedly comes later. But again, the information tends to be meaningless without a context of use, and often “later” never happens. This is another plague of education, so to have some more fun I call it ‘aboutitis’. “

So, how do we avoid this?

Perkins summarizes the “Seven Principles of Teaching”:

1.    Play the whole game.

2.    Make the game worth playing. Motivation and relevance are key.

3.    Work on the hard parts. While he advocates the whole game, he clarifies that he doesn’t mean “just” the whole game.

4.    Play out of town.  In Red Sox Nation, it’s a resonant sports metaphor, but it also refers to the transfer of knowledge from one context to another. 

5.    Play the hidden game.  A stats view of baseball is one of baseball’s “hidden games.” In baseball, algebra, or anything else we learn, there are richer, more layered aspects than show up on the surface…drawing “learners into the game of inquiry.”

6.    Learn from the team.  Perkins notes the importance of social learning, and he urges students to learn from teammates and from other “teams”–other students in different roles.

7.    Learn the game of learning.  Perkins suggests that teachers allow students to be  in charge of their own learning by putting them in the driver’s seat and letting them take control–rather than having them sit in the passenger seat and watch their education
roll by.

Finding the sweet spot where we teach the “elements”; we teach “about” in the context of a meaningful whole,  is how we engage students in deep understanding and meaningful learning.

Learning to bat is virtually meaningless if you never get to “play ball”.  

The Genius of And

Chalk Talk

Chalk Talk

I am prepping by reading the packet of articles for a class through Harvard’s Project Zero next week.

The mini session is called “Effective Professional Learning Communities:  Supporting Learning in  Staff Rooms and Classrooms”.   Daniel Wilson is the facilitator.  The first article is called Building a Professional Learning Community by Richard DuFour.

DuFour addresses a very real conundrum I see over and over in education “The Tyranny of the Or”:  the belief that we must make a choice between option A or option B.

  • Explicit Instruction vs Constructivism
  • Whole Language vs. Phonics
  • Workshop vs. Guided Reading
  • Multi-Tiered System of Support vs. Teach Well and Just love them

These false dichotomies, I believe, support unnecessary conflict in schools.  This is particularly evident when special educators and general educators have discussions about “how”  and “what”  to teach.

DuFour discusses how administrators often struggle with the “and/or” dichotomy when deciding how to lead.  Should they be the forceful leader or support site-based decisions?  Successful superintendents embrace “The Genius of And”;

“The strategy proven most effective, however, is one that is loose and tight, a strategy that establishes a clear priority and discernible parameters and then provides each school and department with the autonomy to chart its own course for achieving the objectives.”

If we all focused on the big idea (say, student learning) and truly know where our students are and what they need,  we will free ourselves up from this false dichotomy.  

even if it forces us to crack out the phonics book and do a little explicit instruction