Relevant, Meaningful, Authentic, and Challenging Learning

by Page Stites, Upper School Director

Upper School Director Page Stites shares how Field teachers design and plan for specific learning outcomes through standards-based learning. 

Questions like “Why do we teach English?” don’t tend to be popular ones to ask in schools. Of course, we teach English, and we have for years! But when we start to examine a question like this more fully maybe we can realize that it’s a valuable question to be asking, and we might recognize that answers like “because we’ve always done it” aren’t particularly useful. 

Transfer Goals 

Transfer goals identify the effective uses of understanding, knowledge, and skill that we seek in the long run for students to be able to do when they confront new challenges – both in and outside of school.

Over the course of the last school year, we took the time to ask ourselves these questions - not just for English, but for everything we teach. This questioning took the form of identifying what we call “transfer goals” for each of our departments - that is, what are the key enduring understandings, mindsets, skills, and dispositions students at Field take away from their seven years studying any one of these disciplines? The examples listed below use a common structure and begin with the phrase, “Students will be able to independently use their learning to…”

Students will be able to independently use their learning to…

…contend with multiple perspectives and diverse types of sources to better understand societies. (History)

…construct and evaluate scientific claims and models that are rooted in evidence. (Science)

…develop a sense of individual and cultural identity and empathize with others across linguistic and cultural differences. (Language)

…reflect on, engage with, and apply critical thought to works of art. (Studio)

…make evidence-based decisions about their individual health and wellness. (PE)

…build and develop their mathematical identity to approach challenges with curiosity, vulnerability, and perseverance. (Math)

…communicate ideas and questions in a variety of ways, employing authentic voice and synthesizing evidence. (English)

Each department limited itself to three “transfer goals” to impose discipline on ourselves and force us to make hard choices. What resulted was a series of impassioned, stimulating, and challenging discussions that ultimately forced us to examine and debate those things that we felt held the highest value for our students to learn.

This process of reflecting on our hopes for student learning at the highest level and identifying transfer goals was inspired by the work of Jay McTighe, who, along with his colleague Grant Wiggins, is one of the originators of the curriculum-building approach known to educators as “Understanding by Design.” This approach urges schools and teachers to start at the end and work backward, starting with identifying desired outcomes for students. From there, schools can determine what evidence of achieving those outcomes looks like, and only then start planning curriculum, projects, units, and lessons. By identifying our big goals for students to achieve over their time at Field, each department zoomed way out and engaged in this work at the biggest scale first.

Essential Questions

Essential questions are overarching questions that guide student inquiry, teacher lesson planning, and curriculum.

Each department also developed six “essential questions” to accompany their three transfer goals. These are questions that, through engaging with our curriculum, students should consider repeatedly and to which they can return multiple times, developing increasingly nuanced responses. As the section below suggests, each question began with the phrase “Students will continue to consider…” 

Students will continue to consider…

…how do I master technical skills and develop an organized process for different forms of effective communication? (English)

…how do I differentiate among opinions, randomness, patterns, and bias? (Science)

…how do I use math to help me model and understand the world? (Math)

…how do I develop a complex understanding when History has no one answer and no singular truth? (History)

…how do I use structure in languages to make meaning? (Language)

…how do I plan, prepare, iterate, and manage my creative process? (Studio)

…how do I set attainable goals for myself and establish a plan to reach them? (PE)

Skill-Focused Standards

Skill-focused standards are the building blocks of student learning, which provide a roadmap for teachers and students to achieve greater mastery of skills and knowledge.

To conclude last school year, we replicated this process for each of our courses. Teachers developed transfer goals and essential questions connected to the departmental goals and questions, translating them into the context of a yearlong course. As we began this school year, we turned our focus to a process of articulating the specific content and skill-focused standards each class would prioritize, thereby getting into the all-important questions of what specific evidence of proficiency looks like in each class.

This has been a major project for us as a school, but why are we doing it, and to what end? This work serves our students and their learning in multiple ways. First, when teachers are truly committed - as Field’s amazing faculty are - to teaching in ways that guide and facilitate meaningful learning for their students (rather than simply filling students’ heads with information or just “covering” material), they appropriately release some degree of control of the learning process to the students. To do this effectively requires teachers to be extremely clear about their objectives and what it looks like for students to meet those objectives. Our work with transfer goals, essential questions, and standards is intended to do just that - to provide clarity and create the structure to engender the type of learning we know is valuable for students. 

Second, this work benefits our students by instilling a growth mindset and encouraging depth of learning. We believe there is value in the idea that a student could spend seven years as an English student at Field examining the same six big “essential questions” with greater and greater depth and nuance, bringing fresh perspectives as they grow and develop as people. This allows students to dig deeply into meaningful work, to recognize that learning is not about guessing what the teacher has in their head, and to take ownership over their own learning in powerful ways. 

Lastly, our entire community of learners - including students, faculty, and families - benefits from a clear understanding of the “why.” What’s the point of studying math or science or Spanish or French for seven years? What do we get out of this experience and how does it reflect our beliefs about the value of learning? What enduring understandings do students take from their time in the Field classroom? Although these aren’t questions schools ask themselves very often, we believe it’s essential to examine and articulate our answers to these questions if we want to ensure relevant, meaningful, authentic, and challenging learning for our students.