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Looking At Student Work–A Fine Idea for Our Time

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In the past couple of weeks I’ve had occasion to participate in a couple of Looking At Student Work exercises, and it’s been a treat.

Based on protocols developed at Project Zero and elsewhere in the 1990s, these exercises today—amid all the cries (including those heard here) for more tech-mediated, more project-based, more collaborative, more student-driven learning experiences—seem almost quaint in their focus on simple questions: What does learning look like? How do we know when our students are learning what we intend them to learn?

Although the rigor of the protocols used in the LASW process was novel in its time, there’s nothing particularly newfangled about teachers discussing learning. Such discussions, though, are rare amid the bustle and endless brushfires of school life, and they tend to be haphazard. Looking At Student Work brings discipline to the process, but best of all the protocols, which require a certain amount of quiet contemplation and reward close observation and measured (and in many cases explicitly non-judgmental or evaluative) discourse, create oases of tranquility and focus in our lives—opportunities to actually do the reflection that we so often urge on our students and our colleagues.

How pleasant, how almost redemptive it is to sit in a circle of peers looking at a piece of student work—and it can be an essay, a math test, or the video of a student presentation—and drill down into the complexities of understanding student learning. We can explore the behavioral and emotional layers that inform whatever students (and their teachers) do and expect, look for the fit between the work and the assignment or between the work and the rubric. We can talk about the ways in which tech-mediated or project-based or collaborative or student-driven work meets the goals of a course, achieves the short-term aims of a teacher, or ignites passion or engagement in a student. We can observe the struggle of a student to reach understanding or the struggle of a teacher to find a way to elicit understanding.

Somehow, as we have our own conversations about professional culture and new ways of learning, the kind of “teacher talk” that Looking At Student Work inspires seems more important, more foundational than it did back when Critical Friends groups were like other work from Project Zero founders like Howard Gardner and David Perkins, brand-new ideas. Here are researchers and theorists whose toil in the agony and sweat of the human spirit—how we all learn and act—predates but is still wholly relevant to all today’s talk of apps, PLNs, and “Schools of the Future.” Their work also, it seems to me, cuts through most of today’s increasingly tiresome interplay of cheap shots at education as we know it and overhyped “innovation” that will “change everything” for the better, and devil take the hindmost. Looking At Student Work is about the basic building blocks of teaching and learning.

I’ve made it clear here that the generality schools have light years of progress to make up and that new ideas and practices will help accomplish this, but I also think we need to take time every now and then to take the kinds of professional deep breaths that Looking At Student Work requires. It’s a fine way to remind ourselves of our own humanity and that of our students, and nearly twenty years on it continues to offers an avenue into reflective practice that is every bit as valuable and as promising as it was back in the day when multiple intelligence theory, like the Macintosh computer, was new.

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