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Schoolwide Structures for Checking for Understanding

Principal Stephen Mahoney at the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, MA describes the integrated approach that he and staff use to support checking for understanding practices in every classroom.

This video accompanies the book Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment.


- It was clear to us all the way along that we needed to ramp up the level of rigor, and critical thinking and engagement and accountability in our classrooms, right from the get-go. And I think somewhere along our third or fourth year, we got to a place where we had the systems and structures and cultures in place around classrooms, we had created a place for us to really be able to focus on instruction in a way that we hadn’t up ‘til then. We knew that our kids could do better and work harder and think harder and be more articulate about what they were learning. And we were looking for what are the right instructional levers, where we could start a culture of do you really know what we’re asking you do know? Can you really do what we’re asking you to do? And so we landed on five or six very simple routines or techniques or strategies where teachers were checking for understanding throughout the instructional period. So the high-leverage strategies that we’re paying attention to in the class, check for understanding. One, I want teachers to constantly be referencing the learning target. What we’re doing right now connects to what the purpose and goal of this class is today, and what the purpose and goal of the course is over the semester or over the year. Two, we’re using guided practice. When kids are engaged in independent or group work, there is one, you know, the teacher is providing an exemplar for how they do that, and what they’re expected, you know, what’s the end in sight for them. Three, we’re doing catch and release. So, while our kids are engaged in independent work or group work, you’re coming back together as a full class to that the teacher can lift up, here’s a really good insight, here’s what’s really working, or, you know what, I’m noticing we’re getting a little off task, let’s put ourselves back to this, or let’s connect it to the learning target. We use no opt out and cold calling, which is about making sure that kids are being held accountable for understanding what they’re doing as well as making sure that you hear from every kid in the room, and not just the ones who wanna raise their hands. We’re using a debrief at the end of every class, so we want teachers to circle kids up, to sit down and say, here’s what we did, what did we learn today, what was the process, how did we do as a team in working, how did we do as learners today, how does this connect to what we did yesterday, how does it connect to what we’re doing as we move forward, how does it connect to the big picture of the whole course. We keep our eye on the ball for the checking for understanding techniques, and that push that we have for all teachers to be using them in a couple of ways. One, we have a very aggressive individual teacher coaching program and we’re very clear about who’s coaching whom, and that this is the focus of our instructional coaching. Two, every week we distribute to our faculty a datasheet or a data breakdown of the classes that we visited, how often we saw each of the techniques. And we break that down into percentages, so teachers can see that 90% of our classes did a quality debrief, but only 50% of our classes did catch and release. And that gives the faculty as a whole a sense of, okay we need to do better, where am I in that 50%, am I one of the people doing it, or am I one of the folks not doing it, and if I’m not doing it, what do I need to do differently so that I can move us up to our school-wide goal of 80% all the time. And to pronounce that to students and to faculty and to parents and to the wider community, that 80% of the time we’re gonna walk into our classrooms and we’re gonna see all of these strategies being used. That is what is unique to being an Exposition Learning School.

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