A Pedagogical Narrative for Three Ring

Three Ring is the education project I have been working on for the past month.  It is a mobile app and web platform to allow teachers to easily create digital portfolios of student work and use these for assessment and tracking progress in the classroom.  As it develops, we hope it will also be a tool for communication among members of the school community.  We have been working hard at it and are proud to announce that we will begin testing our alpha version this week.  Below is a copy of some internal writing that I have produced for my co-founders to help illustrate some of my theoretical ideas and how I see them fitting together in the context of this project.

To find out more about Three Ring, visit us at http://www.ThreeRing.com (if you are a teacher, you can still sign up to be a part of our pilot test and design team).  Follow us on Twitter (@teamthreering) and let me know what you think.

Here we go….

What is Education?

“The only purpose of education is freedom, the only method is experience” – Leo Tolstoy

There are many education philosophies, but the most compelling are tied together by a recognition that the cultivation and development of human intellectual abilities can and should lead to a fundamental personal freedom—the ability to think critically, to question authority, to discover, to build new ideas and new knowledge, and to engage with the world around you.  This intellectual activity occurs through experiences that have a formative effect on how people think, feel, and act.  Structurally, education can be said to have two aspects—teaching and learning.

The word education traces its roots back to the latin educo (I lead forth, I erect).  Even here we see the seeds of a constructivist take on education which holds that new ideas must be built up or erected in the mind.  Fundamentally, we should recognize, as was articulated by Paolo Friere, that  teachers and students both teach and both learn.  We cannot expect the teacher to build new ideas for the student.  Rather, the teacher must act as a guide providing help and structure so that the student can erect ideas herself.  It is inevitable that such experiences will be formative for the teacher as well, thereby the teacher also becomes a student.  Philosophically, if we are to suggest how education should function, it should “connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action” (Henry Giroux).

What is Schooling?

School is largely the context for the formalization of education as described above, but it is also largely the setting in which society transmits its accumulated knowledge, values, etc. to new individuals.  The socialization purposes of schooling adds things like grades, discipline, sports, social interactions, activites, which can serve as contexts for education but should not get in the way of the fundamental activities of teaching and learning.  Much good education theory and action is devoted to making sure that the formal structures of schools empower rather than hinder the struggle for intellectual attainments.

What Makes Teaching/Learning Effective?

Given the outline of a theory above, the two fundamental aspects of successful school-based (and arguably non school-based) teaching and learning are: 1) Strong relationships and 2) A focus on formative intellectual activity/experiences.

Lets explore each and try to make them simple:

1)   Strong relationships – these must be built on a solid basis of communication.  Building strong relationships requires involving and respecting all stakeholders (teachers, parents, administrators, students, community members, etc.)  This requires transparency, access, and communication, as well as a shared (possibly negotiated) sense of values and purpose.

2)   Focus on intellectual activity/experiences – For a school to be effective at education, it must take education seriously.  This means keeping the communication and relationships focused on the teaching and learning—that is the experiences, thoughts, activity, of the students and the classroom.  In short the educational work that students are doing should be paramount (and should be broadly interpreted to recognize a wide range of activities including arts, projects, sports, traditional classroom work, and much more than standardized multiple-choice tests).

The Important Role of Assessment/Grading

Grading plays a critical and difficult role in education and schooling.  It is very much a part of the socialization aspects of school but is ostensibly tied to the fundamental activity of education—learning.  For education to be authentic, grading really must be about assessing what students know, don’t know, and are making progress on and toward.  The limitations of traditional grading approaches in these respects have led to the rise of a robust movement towards more formative assessment—that is assessment designed not merely to label students, but also to provide student, teacher, and other relevant stakeholders with detailed information about the students thoughts, misconceptions, strengths, weaknesses, and intellectual activity in general.

In their seminal research, Wiliam and Black (1998) argued that efforts to improve education have too often focused on inputs (money, hours, school year, etc) and outputs (test scores, graduation rates, but also grades etc) while ignoring what happens Inside the Black Box.  The intellectual activity, the student work , the things students know and don’t know have been overlooked.  They argued that grading policies too often obscure knowledge about why students think, know, or don’t think don’t know.  In this research, the formative assessment paradigm was born.  This train of thought argued that it was necessary to use assessment FOR learning and not merely as a tool for finding out what has been learned.  Grading, testing, and other forms of assessment should be viewed as fundamental tools for improving students knowledge and meta-cognitive abilities.  One of the primary tools that they show to be effective in this regard is the student work portfolio.

What makes the student work portfolio effective is that it focuses the thoughts and conversations of students, teachers, parents, and admin where it belongs—on the students intellectual activity.  As we explored earlier, focusing on intellectual growth is a prerequisite for effective education.

Happily, protfolios and other formative assessment tools are also ideally suited for facilitating better communication among stakeholders.  In this way, rigorous formative assessment practices become extremely effective pedagogically because they help build relationships but base those relationships on the intellectual work of the students in the school (stakeholders can therefore have good relationships with each other, but also a good relationship with the work that schools and students must do for education to happen).

Pedagogy of Three Ring

It is perhaps obvious then why Three Ring is such a potentially powerful pedagogical tool for teachers, students, parents, and schools.  Three Ring will make the process of building portfolios convenient and better.  It will add the ability to search, parse, and organize in new, more efficient ways.  It will integrate with but also mold other approaches to and aspects of grading.—making them more formative, hence more useful and more pedagogically appropriate.  The digital “portfolios” of Three Ring will also be able to accommodate and facilitate other important aspects of peer and self assessment which have been outlined in the rich research history of the Assessment For Learning movement (Black, Wiliam, Wiggins, Stiggins, many others).  These include self-assessment, peer assessment, comments-based marking, standard (competency) based grading, and other practices.

By making the student work digital, accessible, and a centerpiece of grading and communication practices, Three Ring removes many of the obstacles to good assessment pedagogy and makes it easy for teachers to explore ways of improving teaching and learning in their schools and classrooms by taking the research and “putting it into practice”.    The intuitive design, easy social and web 2.0 features, and new ability to capture important artifacts with a mobile app will empower teachers to do more with their assessments while simultaneously making good assessment easier to do.

At its heart, Three Ring will also be built to empower and facilitate good relationships.  By allowing sharing of real student work, Three Ring can allow teachers to digitize the parent-teacher-student conference removing the physical and temporal obstacles to strong relationships and good communication.  In this way, Three Ring will serve as a powerful pedagogical tool that brings focus to the educational activity of students, makes it easy to share that focus, and thereby facilitates stronger communication and relationships improving the teaching and learning of all members of the school community.

This is what teachers want.  They want tools and support for the practices they know are good.  They want their energy to be shared by the students, parents, and administrators.  They want to track and learn from real student work and not standardized tests.  They want to improve authentic student learning.  They want to understand the minds of their students better and more easily, and they want to share that understanding with their administrators, students, parents, and colleagues. They want these things to be easier to do.  Three Ring is the tool for them and ultimately for all stakeholders in education-based communities.

The trouble with “Us” vs “Them

Sorry I missed my schedule post on Friday, but I am making it up to you with a quick interlude.

@Stephe1234 on Twitter sent out the following couple of questions considering if there is an “Us” vs “Them” culture in school systems, and how it can be erased.  As any of my students would likely tell you, this is an issue dear to my heart.  I really hate terms like “they” and “them” and  “us” referring to groups like teachers, students, admin, parents, etc.  Sadly, these terms are incredibly difficult to avoid.  But we should try.  I am posting the questions and my answers below, anyone wanting to participate can answer the questions themselves at http://bit.ly/s4yoLX

Q: How do you think the “us vs. them” culture negatively impacts change in schools, ed reform, and creating high performaing schools fo All – students, community, parents, and teachers/administrators? *

A: Us vs Them is prevalent at all levels of the schooling system. In some ways, this derives from the fact that schools are inherently colonialist institutions–that is they derive their purpose from one “higher ranking” social group trying to help and/or control a “lower ranking” social group.  So, it is not surprising that power relationships pervade the institutions of schooling.  At every level, their is a tendency for paternalistic interactions with the next level.  This can cause the group being dominates, or treated paternalistically to feel a host of negative emotions which can be easily aimed at the higher power group.  Needless to say, this is problematic for building community.  If students, teachers, parents, admin, don’t trust each other, it can be very hard to embrace the more meaningful purposes of education.  Schools can become institutions seemingly without purpose other than control–and one can hardly blame a young person, a teacher, or even a whole community for “dropping out” of such a place.  Such a school has lost its educational purpose and retains only its institutional purpose and power relationships.  It is probably very rare for a school to swing to such an extreme, but many schools are further along the spectrum of “learning place – control place” than is advisable.