How to Create Better Students and a Better School

This post represents the TASIS academic philosophy and therefore is lengthy. Please be seated :)

"The good news is that people's beliefs about intelligence aren't immutable. They respond to the situations in which people find themselves. This means that it is possible to help students develop learning-oriented goals and an incremental view of intelligence, and set them on the upward spiral by which they can become smarter and deliver the kinds of high-level academic achievement for which everyone is hoping. To do this, we must create effort-based schools in which academic rigor and a thinking curriculum permeate the school day for every student." (Resnick, Lauren B. Making America Smarter, 1999).

Successful intelligence is defined as one’s ability to set and accomplish personally meaningful goals in one’s life, given one’s cultural context. A successfully intelligent person accomplishes these goals by figuring out his or her strengths and weaknesses, and then by capitalizing on the strengths and correcting or compensating for the weaknesses.

"Although intelligence is viewed as of various kinds, the mental processes involved in creative, analytical, practical, and wise thinking are the same." (Sternberg, R. J..Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence, 2011)

Specific school and classroom practices, based on cognitive and learning organization research at the University of Pennsylvania, indicate ways of helping children ascend the “spiral of improved thinking.”

Teacher and two students

Academic Rigor in a Thinking Curriculum.

Thinking and problem solving are the "new basics" of the 21st century, but the common idea that we can teach thinking without a solid foundation of knowledge must be abandoned, along with the idea that we can teach knowledge without engaging students in thinking. Knowledge and thinking must be intimately joined.

This implies a curriculum organized around major concepts in every discipline that students are expected to know deeply. Teaching must engage students in active reasoning about these concepts.

In every subject, at every grade level, the curriculum must include commitments to a knowledge core, high thinking demand, and active use of knowledge.

TASIS has selected the Core Knowledge curriculum, Singapore Math pedagogy, and Visible Thinking routines for exactly these reasons.

Organize for Effort.

An effort-based school assumes that how much students learn is connected to sustained and directed effort, and that this can yield high achievement for all students. Everything is organized to evoke and support this effort. For example:

· High minimum standards are set, and all students' curricula are geared to these standards.

· Some students will need extra time and expert instruction to meet these expectations.

· Providing that time and expertise helps send the message that effort is expected, and that tough problems yield to sustained work.

TASIS subscribes to this expectation and utilizes a curriculum which emphasizes both knowledge and skills. Everyone teaches the same curriculum to the same standards.

All students are expected to achieve at a high level, although some will require more support at times than others. Our classes employ differentiated instruction to provide the support and challenge each student requires.

Clear Expectations.

If we expect all students to learn at high levels, then we need to define what we expect them to learn. These expectations need to be clear--to school professionals, to parents, to the community, and above all to students. 

With visible accomplishment targets to aim toward at each stage of learning, students can participate in evaluating their own work and setting goals for their efforts.

At TASIS, our teachers set out learning goals for each lesson and topic, routinely assess students’ learning, and communicate with expediency and clarity about where students are meeting, exceeding, or falling short of expectations.

Students who are not successful at first are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning.

Recognition of Accomplishment.

Clear recognition of authentic accomplishment is a hallmark of an effort-based school. This recognition can take the form of celebrations of work that meets standards, or intermediate expectations. It can also be tied to opportunities to participate in meaningful student and family events.

Progress points should be articulated so that regardless of their entering abilities, all students are able to meet real accomplishment criteria often enough to be recognized frequently.

At TASIS, we recognize and celebrate not just academic performance, but rather the full skill set and learning of each student, including individual effort, teamwork, leadership, and self-regulation.

This is reflected in our reporting to students and parents.

Fair and Credible Evaluations.

Long-term effort by students calls for assessment practices that students find fair. Most importantly, tests, exams, and classroom assessments must be aligned to the standards and the curriculum being studied.

Fair assessment also means using tests and exams that are graded against absolute standards rather than on a curve, so students can clearly see the results of their learning efforts.

At TASIS, our teachers use their own rubrics to evaluate student achievement, and make it clear to students when and how they will be evaluated.

We also utilize Cambridge International assessments at each grade level to compare our students' understanding of topics with other students around the world.

Accountable Talk.

Talking with others about ideas and work is fundamental to learning, but for classroom talk to promote learning, it must have certain characteristics that make it accountable.

Accountable talk seriously responds to and further develops what others in the group have said. It puts forth and demands knowledge that is accurate and relevant to the issue under discussion.

Accountable talk uses evidence in ways appropriate to the discipline (for example, proofs in mathematics, data from investigations in science, textual details in literature, documentary sources in history). As such, it helps develop the skills and the habits of mind that constitute intelligence-in-practice.

This is the essence of the Visible Thinking routines.

Socializing Intelligence.

Intelligent habits of mind are learned through daily expectations placed on the learner. By calling on students to use the skills of intelligent thinking and accountable talk, and by holding them responsible for doing so, educators can "teach" intelligence.

This is what teachers normally do with students from whom they expect much; it should be standard practice with all students.

This is accompanied by our Core Virtues curriculum, which stresses the virtues our founder, Mrs. Fleming, professed and are represented in the TASIS Paideia.

Learning as Apprenticeship.

For many centuries, most people learned by working beside an expert who modeled skilled practice and guided novices as they created authentic products or performances. Much of the power of apprenticeship learning can be brought into schooling through appropriate use of extended projects and presentations and by organizing learning environments so that complex thinking and production are modeled and analyzed.

TASIS utilizes an extended thematic curricular approach and a low student-teacher ratio to provide personalized formative assessments, allowing each student to self-assess and understand her/his learning.

As we approach our fast-paced and ever-changing new world, it is increasingly evident that the educational methods we have been using for the past 100 years no longer suffice, but changing them has been slow because the nature of educational reform has largely been comprised of tinkering with institutional arrangements. Rarely has reform penetrated the "educational core."

TASIS Portugal is attempting to change that, with a vision of creating effort-based systems grounded in knowledge-based constructivism--systems that allow all students to reach high standards of achievement.


*This blog was adapted from the research by Lauren B. Resnick & Megan Williams Hall in "Learning Organizations for Sustainable Education Reform", Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Vol. 127, No. 4, Education Yesterday, Education Tomorrow (Fall, 1998), pp. 89-118.

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