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November 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 3

Making Students as Important as Standards

Educators can align curriculum, instruction, and assessment with both standards and students in mind so that standards serve teaching and learning—instead of the other way around.

The Geneva, New York, school district, which serves more than 95 percent of its county's low-income families, is celebrating its recent awards: the U.S. Department of Education's Model Professional Development Award and an Outstanding Title I School award for Geneva's North Street Elementary School.
In LaGrange, Georgia, 6th graders at Long Cane Middle School have achieved gains of 20.5 percent on state tests in reading, 18.6 percent in math, and 15.1 percent in language arts.
And in Bossier Parish, a mid-sized city in northwest Louisiana, the district's high school students have just tied for the lowest failure rate on the state's LEAP 21 test—Louisiana's newest and most rigorous standards-based test.
A similar pattern involving the recent success of students whose performance had been average and below average is emerging in Illinois, Oregon, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Georgia, where schools have organized their work in improving student performance around the concept of double alignment—the idea that curriculum, instruction, and assessment need to be aligned to both students and standards.

Why Double Alignment?

  • Make standards simple and deep.
  • Use models of difference like learning styles and multiple intelligences to help all students succeed.
  • Increase the role of assessment and conversation to help students identify and overcome difficulties.
  • Stop writing curriculum documents and start writing curriculum that students want to learn.
  • Collaborate with colleagues to determine what kinds of work are easy and difficult for students.

Standards: Simple and Deep

This is not a call to dispense with standards. Rather, standards can serve teaching and learning—instead of the other way around—when educators develop a clear and manageable vision of what they want students to understand and be able to do. In short, schools need standards that keep educators focused on achievement but that leave them the time and flexibility they need to pay attention to the individuals in their classrooms. Through six years of research into state tests and standards, we have found that no matter the content area, almost all states' test items assess a relatively small, but important, skill set. We call these core skills the Hidden Skills of Academic Literacy.
  • Collect and organize ideas and information through note taking;
  • Use abstract vocabulary; and
  • Read and interpret visual data.
  • Plan effectively;
  • Critique performance against set criteria; and
  • Persevere when work becomes difficult or complex.
  • Make reasonable inferences, form hypotheses, and test those hypotheses;
  • Analyze and apply models and concepts; and
  • Conduct a comparative analysis.
  • Construct well-formed explanations;
  • Write effectively in the following genres: personal, narrative, comparison, problem and solution, and argument; and
  • Write effectively about two or more readings.
When schools focused their instruction around this simple but deep set of skills, teachers found that these standards gave them increased freedom to select the content, texts, and projects that would best produce new learning for their students.

Models of Difference

Schools have at their disposal two powerful models for understanding learning differences and developing student potential: learning styles and multiple intelligences. The concept of learning styles stems from the work of Carl Jung (1923) and, later, that of Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers (1962/1998). Learning styles models provide educators with a map of how different students learn best. For example, our learning style model (Silver & Hanson, 1998) documents four learning styles: a mastery style described as realistic, practical, and results-oriented; an understanding style that tends to be theoretical, logical, and knowledge-oriented; a self-expressive style characterized as imaginative, insightful, and future-oriented; and an interpersonal style that seeks learning that is personal, experiential, and socially oriented.
Howard Gardner's (1983, 1999) multiple intelligences model describes eight ways in which humans can be smart. Unlike the learning styles model, the multiple intelligences model focuses on the content of learning (language, math and logic, music, spatial relations, bodily/kinesthetic, social interaction, self-understanding, and the world of nature) and its relationship to the various disciplines.
By tapping into the power of these models and using them to guide decisions about teaching and learning, educators have succeeded in reaching all students. Consider the following examples:
  • What are you good at?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • What interests you?
  • When school is hard, what makes it hard?
  • Five years from now, what do you want to be like?
After students have reflected on their learning strengths, interests, difficulties, and goals, schools use learning style instruments like the Learning Preference Inventory (Hanson & Silver, 2000) and multiple intelligences instruments like the Multiple Intelligences Indicator (Silver, Strong, & Perini, 2001) to develop a learning profile for each student. Schools keep all this information—each student's self-reflection, learning style profile, and multiple intelligences profile—in a permanent record so that teachers can determine how to engage students who are particularly difficult to reach. The information is especially valuable when working with underachievers. Teachers use students' style and intelligence profiles to determine why specific types of learning prove difficult for particular students and to develop effective prescriptions that accommodate students' preferences and strengths. For example, knowing that mastery-style learners focus on facts and details but often have trouble making inferences when reading makes prescription both easier and more effective: Capitalize on the mastery-style learner's strengths (thrives on modeling and practice, looks for regular feedback, and likes direct instruction) to help the student develop the needed inference skills.
Using styles and intelligences to select appropriate strategies. When Carl Carrozza, a middle school science teacher in Catskill, New York, plans the next week's lessons on eco-systems, he doesn't just think about content and he doesn't just think about academic skills; he thinks about his students as well. Carrozza knows that he has students with diverse learning styles and intelligence profiles. For example, one student prefers to learn step-by-step and has a strong predilection toward all things visual, whereas another student is more interpersonal and learns best through conversation. Meanwhile, a third student loves numbers and likes to figure things out for himself. A fourth student is a dreamer with a strong ethical or intrapersonal twist. For him, everything needs to be connected to values and imagination.
Because Carrozza knows that his class includes a blend of learning styles and multiple intelligences, and because he knows the importance of note taking for student achievement, he uses a strategic index (see fig. 1). The strategic index helps him select the note-taking strategies that he will use throughout the week to help his students learn about both note taking and biomes, while he also demonstrates his interest in the different styles and intelligences within his classroom.
Figure 1. The Strategic Index

Making Students as Important as Standards - table 1


Purpose and Description

Learning Style

Multiple Intelligences

Etch-A-SketchA note-taking device using symbols and discussion of key ideas and important details.Interpersonal Self-expressive MasteryVerbal-linguistic Spatial Interpersonal Intrapersonal
Four-Way Reporting and RecordingA strategy that uses a jigsaw structure and a variety of note-taking devices for collecting and sharing informationSelf-expressive Mastery Understanding InterpersonalVerbal-linguistic Interpersonal Spatial Logical-mathematical
Power NotesA note-taking device for organizing information according to the power of the ideas recordedMastery UnderstandingVerbal-linguistic Logical-mathematical
*Adapted with permission from So Each May Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences (p. 109) by H. F. Silver, R. W. Strong, and M. J. Perini, 2000, Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Giving all learners the chance to succeed. Joyce Jackson, an educator who works for the Kentucky Department of Education, makes it her business to help all students in low-achieving schools succeed on the state tests. Jackson knows that the tests and standards are challenging; for example, one standard states that students should understand scientific ways of thinking and working and use those methods to solve real-life problems. Core content associated with the standard include knowing (1) that each plant or animal has structures that serve different functions in growth and survival, (2) that scientists develop explanations using observations and what they already know about the world, and (3) that reasonable explanations are based on evidence from investigations.
Jackson also understands that classrooms are diverse places and that different students process and apply information differently. In response, Jackson and a group of science teachers developed a set of task rotations (Silver, Hanson, Strong, & Schwartz, 1996) associated with the standards and test items. The task rotations allow students with different learning styles to acquire the content and skills in the ways that best match their needs and strengths as learners (see fig. 2). Teachers can use task rotations in various ways; for example, to build the deepest level of comprehension, they may ask students to complete all four tasks. Alternatively, teachers may ask struggling learners to choose from the rotation those tasks with which they feel most comfortable. Then teachers can use these tasks as bridges to help learners develop their thinking in other, less-preferred styles.
Figure 2. Task Rotation on Fossil Evidence

Making Students as Important as Standards - table 2

Mastery. What can we learn about the past by studying fossils?

Interpersonal. Some animals are omnivores; they eat both meat and plants. Observe yourself as you eat a strawberry and a slice of steak. How did you chew differently? What teeth did you use? How did your jaw move? Describe the differences you observed. Explain the differences and tell why they might exist.

Understanding. Compare pictures of dinosaurs. Explain how the creatures are alike/different in structure (head, body, teeth, eyes, etc.). Explain how these differences helped the animal survive and adapt.Self-Expressive. You have been on an archaeological dig and have discovered the bones of a new dinosaur. Draw a picture of the dinosaur. Write a riddle or set of clues so that other scientists may properly classify the creature by its characteristics.

Assessment and Conversation

When Jerry Huels, a high-school mathematics teacher in Ladue, Missouri, became frustrated with the quality of his students' mathematical explanations, he discussed the issue with them. He learned that his students were equally frustrated and found their own explanations confused, confusing, and downright boring. This gave Huels an idea. Tapping into his math library, he found a selection of general audience math books that explain math problems, puzzles, and solutions in clear and compelling language. Huels and his students examined samples of the authors' writings and kept track of the techniques that the authors used to achieve clarity and maintain readers' interest. His students then used these models and their analyses of them to improve and revise their own explanations.
Huels is not curtailing his commitment to standards by using conversation as an assessment tool. Rather, a simple review of his lesson shows that students are building four of the Hidden Skills of Academic Literacy, including the ability to use abstract vocabulary, critique and revise performance against set criteria, analyze and apply models and concepts, and communicate effectively within key genres (mathematical explanations).
Just as important as standards, however, are students. Unlike purely cognitive models of instruction, Huels's work demonstrates his interest in students—how they think and why they struggle.

Curriculum for Student Engagement

Educators have mapped, benchmarked, and analyzed gaps in their schools' curriculums for years—valuable work, to be sure. The time has come, however, to pay attention to what motivates students when we design curriculum. When we conducted research on what motivates students in the classroom (Strong, Silver, & Robinson, 1995), we discovered that four factors play a significant part in student motivation and that each of these factors tells us something important about curriculum design.
Success. Students want to feel competent and believe that their efforts pay off and are recognized, so standards should be clear. To achieve this clarity, educators can organize curriculum around a few powerful content ideas and teach to the Hidden Skills of Academic Literacy.
Curiosity. Students want to feel engaged by meaningful questions, enigmas, mysteries, and conundrums. Educators should provide students with thoughtful questions and interesting problems to explore.
Originality. Students want to create unique products. Educators should design assessments that allow students to enunciate their own visions and points of view on the subjects that they study.
Relationships. Students want to see the relationships between what they are studying and their own experiences and futures. Educators should connect standards to students' lives, concerns, and futures as workers and citizens.
Thus, designing curriculum that engages students means addressing the factors that contribute to student motivation. Figure 3 illustrates one teacher's efforts to address these factors in a unit on Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).
Figure 3. Questions Tied to Factors in Student Motivation: To Kill a Mockingbird

Making Students as Important as Standards - table 3

Success. What are my standards?

Ideas Prejudice Courage Skills Persuasive writing Character description

Curiosity. What questions and problems will I use to organize my unit?Where does prejudice come from and what can we do to overcome it? What makes a great persuader and how can you become one? How can an author create living characters with only a pen and some paper?
Relationships. What contexts can I create to make learning meaningful?Improving teaching Newspaper reporting Legal argument
Originality. What products can my students create to help them learn my standard (persuasive writing about character and prejudice)?A letter to Miss Caroline on how to be a better teacher. A summation to the jury. An editorial arguing that Tom Robinson be found not guilty.
By focusing on student motivation as well as on standards, teachers have created units that have not only increased student engagement but that have also positively influenced student performance on state tests.

Collaborating on Double Alignment

  • At least one retelling each week,
  • At least one explanation of a character's actions each month,
  • At least one story each month,
  • At least one personal narrative written about a memory each month.
Once teachers create these contracts, they select four students at various levels of achievement (high, high-average, low-average, low) as case studies. The students' work serves as the basis for collaborative decision making about how to revise instruction to meet various students' needs.
Assessment contracts are not for teachers only. Administrators also get involved, helping teachers construct realistic time lines and secure adequate planning time for reaching the systemwide goal of helping all students succeed. Indeed, as Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Demirsky Allan show in Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms (2000), administrators play a crucial role in responding to students' differences and needs. Double alignment requires school leaders who use such models as the Hidden Skills of Academic Literacy to provide focus for instruction and a results-centered approach to assessment, ongoing professional development linked to differentiation, and the time and resources teachers need to assess and plan for student differences.
When leaders provide sufficient support, schools change for the better. Good teaching flourishes. Rich dialogue about improvement emerges. Structures such as assessment contracts foster buildingwide discussion about students and their needs. Curriculum does more than cover—it motivates. And, even as test scores improve, students no longer harbor the suspicion that tests are the only things that their schools care about.

Briggs, K. C., & Myers, I. B. (1962/1998). Myers-Briggs type indicator (form M). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press. (Original work published 1962)

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: BasicBooks.

Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hanson, J. R., & Silver, H. F. (2000). The Hanson-Silver learning preference inventory. Trenton, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Jung, C. (1923). Psychological types (H. G. Baynes, Trans.). New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Silver, H. F., & Hanson, J. R. (1998). Learning styles and strategies (3rd ed.). Woodbridge, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Silver, H. F., Hanson, J. R., Strong, R. W., & Schwartz, P. B. (1996). Teaching styles and strategies (3rd ed.). Woodbridge, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Silver, H. F., Strong, R. W., & Perini, M. J. (2001). The multiple intelligences indicator. Trenton, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Strong, R. W., Silver, H. F., & Robinson, A. (1995, September). What do students want (and what really motivates them)? Educational Leadership, 53(1), 8–12.

Tomlinson, C. A., & Allan, S. D. (2000). Leadership for differentiating schools and classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Richard W. Strong, Vice President of Silver Strong & Associates, has served as a trainer and consultant to hundreds of school districts around the world. As cofounder of the Institute for Community and Difference, Richard has been studying democratic teaching practices in public and private schools for more than 10 years. He has written and developed several educational books and products, including Questioning Styles and Strategies for the Thoughtful Education Press and the Teaching Strategies Video Library for ASCD.

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