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September 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 1

How Does a Child Understand a Standard?

Conversations and portfolios can help teachers reflect on how students view standards.

Teachers know that elementary students' behavior and conversations are filled with references to standards. Paying attention to these expressions allows us to understand how students think and learn. For example, when we ask students to generate a list of rules—precursors of standard expectations for behavior—we learn how socially competent they can be. But how can we include students' thinking about standards for learning within our adult-authored accountability documents? Doing so would give all of us—students, teachers, and parents—a better understanding of what we want to reinforce in learning. It would also teach students how a standard is developed, a lesson that could have significance for their future learning.
Most efforts to implement standards involve adults guiding students toward common, measurable outcomes. Although students wish to achieve the expectations set for them by their parents and teachers, they recognize competencies and internalize standards that differ from the adult norm. How does a student apprehend a standard? In the same way that the child does everything else—developmentally. Young children take small steps before they walk; they utter words before they speak in sentences. Most important, they interpret the world from their own perspective before they are able to relate their actions or performances to an adult-constructed standard.
So why should we incorporate students' ways of thinking about standards into our standards for learning? And how would we do it? The rationale is simple: If students feel ownership in the standards for learning, they are more apt to devote energy and purposeful work toward accomplishing those goals. We need to develop tools that can bridge the developmental distance from a student's natural sense of competence to an adult-constructed standard. In addition to standardized tests or local assessments, we can use other ways to assess student performance.
At Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois, student portfolios have been a powerful vehicle for understanding what students know and value in learning (Hebert, 1992, 1996, 1997, 1998). Teaching students to reflect on self-selected evidence of their learning through conversations and portfolios provides them with opportunities to rehearse self-assessment—a critical feature of lifelong learning. In addition, the portfolio process helps students establish a connection between their schoolwork and the standards for learning. Before we develop a portfolio, however, we need to understand how students think and learn.

Listen to the Students

Children recognize and value a broad range of abilities. They observe one another carefully and are aware of what their peers do well. Knowing big words, having great ideas for building in the block corner, and being a good friend are all highly acknowledged and valued qualifications for a successful life in the mind of a 1st grader. Observing one another's accomplishments helps children make sense of their social world.
As children enter elementary school, the school begins to place a higher priority on some competencies than others. Knowing big words matters more than having great ideas for the block corner. As an extension of the culture in which they exist, schools communicate a hierarchy of skills. The standards for learning are the current stated values to which our schools aspire. But can we bridge our notion of standards with the student's sense of acknowledged competencies? Engaging students in conversation may be one way to reach this goal.

Learning Through Conversations

  • Robbie sits on the window bench in his 1st grade classroom, next to his 4th grade reading buddy. The older student listens attentively while Robbie takes time to sound out each word in the story he has selected. "That's good," remarks the 4th grader. "You're a good reader." These few words encourage Robbie to try to read more challenging stories. Acknowledgment from an older student helps young students gain confidence in themselves as learners.
  • William passes his writing journal to his classmate, Ray. Throughout the school year, the teacher asks her 2nd graders to regularly exchange their journals to express in writing what they notice about one another's efforts. The students enjoy receiving notes from their classmates, and they like "being the teacher." They eagerly engage in this activity, which adds to their own writing skill and refines their ability to evaluate one another's work.To William:I noticed that your stories are getting longer. I have also noticed that you have been drawing with one color. Your handwriting is getting better.—From Ray.To Diane: I think you are getting much better at writing than before the year. I like the story about your cat. You really improved in your handwriting. And before you did capital letters on the end of the sentences.—From Jerry.
When students talk to one another about their learning, they become more self-aware of not only what they learn, but also how they learn; in other words, they become aware of their metacognitive processes. In addition, referring to specific pieces of work helps students understand the concept of evaluation. Most important, however, such conversations allow the teacher to discern what students notice about the learning process and how they perceive the stated benchmarks of improvement.
For the teacher to discover how and what students are learning, the students must be able to express their self-awareness of their learning in a way that a teacher can witness. For example, 8-year-old Lauren presents her science fair project. "This is about the digestive system. Just talking about this makes me want to eat," she begins. Lauren's poster display complements her presentation. She used packing popcorn to portray intestines and three balloons for the stomach, pancreas, and liver. "The digestive system starts up here in the mouth. You chew and with the help of saliva the food goes into this tube, the esophagus." She points to the throats of her kindergarten and 1st grade listeners but omits this gesture for older students and adults who stop by to hear about her project. "Then food goes to the stomach where it gets turned around," she continues, gesturing with her arm for the younger students. I listen to Lauren's presentation a dozen times—each delivery is slightly different as new connections and ways of stating it occur to her.
Lauren will probably be able to recite the stages of digestion for many years. She has demonstrated competence in achieving one of the standards for learning: to speak effectively using language appropriate to the situation and audience. More important, Lauren is motivated by her awareness of her competence. In fact, she is already considering creating displays of other human body systems.
In a 4th grade classroom, Beth is in deep conversation with a writer of mysteries. Her teacher has arranged for local authors to visit the classroom throughout the year so that the students can learn about the writing process from experts. Beth finds a short mystery that she wrote two years ago. The story takes place in the woods adjacent to the school. The author praises Beth for choosing the woods as the setting of her story: "Wooded areas are filled with mystery, and it's a setting you know—that's important for a writer." Beth rereads the opening sentence of her story: "One day Jenny walked into the dark woods." She shakes her head. "No, let me change it: 'Jenny steps into the silent woods and listens.'" She explains to the author that you really can listen to the silence in the woods.
Beyond checking for correct spelling and punctuation, Beth's teacher wants her students to know how ideas travel from imagination to paper. A writer knows the struggle of choosing just the right word to communicate a thought—and the thrill of discovering it. Beth has achieved a standard in her writing: to understand how literary elements and techniques are used to convey meaning. Beth achieved this particular standard for learning by engaging in a meaningful conversation about writing. She learned the standard by experiencing it.
In a 1st grade classroom, Ashley and her teacher are reviewing the books that Ashley has read. Ashley is an exceptional reader. Her teacher knows that a conversation with Ashley will uncover the strategies that she has used to become a strong reader. The teacher asks Ashley which book was most difficult for her to read. Ashley picks up a chapter book and says, "This book, because it has lots of words that I don't know." The teacher prompts Ashley by asking her what she does when she comes to an unfamiliar word. Ashley responds that she has trouble defining the word if the book doesn't show a picture for it. The teacher then asks her if she can think of a way to figure out the word. Ashley explains, "Sometimes you find the next word kind of hooks on to the word you don't know. . . then you know what the word means." Ashley's teacher responds, "It's important that you know that because good readers do just what you described."
When Ashley and her teacher discuss reading, Ashley senses the importance of thinking about her cognitive processes and learns techniques and skills to improve her reading skills. Ashley has achieved a standard of reading for comprehension. More important, Ashley is able to voice how she thinks when she reads.
In all these classroom scenes, students are learning through conversation. Fred Newmann, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, believes that substantive conversation is a key component of assessment (1991). For Newmann, a substantive conversation occurs when a student has an opportunity to express a view, an insight, or a connection between prior and present learning, and an adult or student responds to that view in a reflective manner.
Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto focus on the importance of conversation in the development of students' metacognitive understandings (1983). They view the student as the teacher's coinvestigator in the process of constructing useful learning strategies though conversation. Bereiter and Scardamalia provide specific guidelines to help adults develop techniques to encourage students to talk about their thoughts on learning. The authors remind us thatwhen a child is telling us something that seems insignificant or very confused, we are probably missing something very important. . . . the child is probably struggling to explain something at the edge of current awareness. (p. 67)
Assisting students in mapping out their cognitive development has far-reaching consequences for the students as they develop intellectual maturity.

Lifelong Accountability

Educators have many tools both to measure and to appreciate the complex dimensions of how and what a student learns. The most useful tool may be conversations, which allow teachers to see how each student thinks. Teaching students how to gather their work into portfolios provides educators with a purpose and process to engage in these learning exchanges.
Schools must be accountable to their communities. In support of that universal mandate, administrators and policymakers encourage teachers to focus on what parents and the community can recognize as proof of students' progress toward meeting objective standards. Standardized tests are a good tool for this purpose. A longer view of the purposes of education, however, should urge us to be equally mindful of the process that students use in learning new skills or understanding new concepts. We should want to know how new knowledge changes students, what standards they use in the process, and how they incorporate new learning into everything else they know. This focus on a far-reaching notion of lifelong accountability is just one of the benefits that portfolios can provide.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1983). Child as coinvestigator: Helping children gain insight into their own mental processes. In S. Paris, G. Olson, & H. Stevenson (Eds.), Learning and motivation in the classroom (pp. 67–69). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hebert, E. A. (1992). Portfolios invite reflection from students and staff. Educational Leadership, 49(8), 58–61.

Hebert, E. A. (1997, Spring). An inclusive approach to assessing children's learning: Conversations about portfolios. In E. A. Hebert (Ed.),Schools for everyone—A new perspective on inclusion. New Directions for School Leadership (No. 3, pp.39–50). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hebert, E. A. (1998, April). Lessons learned about student portfolios. Phi Delta Kappan, 78, 583–585.

Hebert, E. A., & Schultz, L. (1996). The power of portfolios. Educational Leadership, 53(7), 70–71.

Newmann, F. (1991). Linking restructuring to authentic student achievement. Phi Delta Kappan, 72(6), 458–463.

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