“Data-Driven” Need to Knows

August 19, 2013
Jeffrey Spencer, Prinicpal

Jeffrey Spencer, Principal

What do you need to know to be successful in this endeavor? While it is the starting point in all good Project-Based Units, dragging them out of young people can be a challenge. Quality Project-Based Learning Units also focus on deeper learning and facilitate inquiry and research skills needed to be successful participants in a constantly evolving workforce.

This last year, my co-teacher Ryan Steuer and I grappled with the concept of creating meaningful Need to Knows for our middle school learners and we came up with two strategies to improve them. New Tech Network School Development Coach Drew Schrader started Ryan and my thinking around this concept when Ryan attended the Language Arts Meeting of the Minds in the fall. We’ve continually reflected and adjusted the way we complete Need to Knows. It’s been a frustration and reflection point on how to create a meaningful process.

We implemented breaking down Need to Knows into three categories (Skills, Content, and Project).

We looked at marking and coding academic standards as a way of breaking down content Need to Knows but it’s never been what we wanted. Data-Driven Need to Knows We started playing around with the concept of creating data-driven Need to Knows based on a content pre-test which we included in the project roll-out. Oftentimes, middle school learners cannot self-assess regarding a content standard so the pre-test creates a concrete need. Each question on the pre-test correlates to a standard (content or skill) to assess the learner’s understanding of a key part of the project. From that data, we created an excel sheet or Google document to use as a data wall for the project.

From the results, we marked each learner as non-mastery, partial mastery, or mastery. Our workshops are then scheduled based on this data as well. Non-mastery and partial mastery learners must attend a workshop that ends with an assessment of that standard content or skill. At project end, learners will take a post-test to demonstrate evidence of learning.

In a typical PBL environment, we create rubrics for the final assessment of the project and the 21st century skills assessed during the project but to rigorously measure deeper learning of the content, there has to be more. This process creates a road map for individual learners, focusing on their needs and a way to acquire the skills and knowledge to be successful. Instead of assigning a group grade for the project, we combined the group deliverable with a tracking system of individual concept. Google-able Need to Knows Project-based learning must also ensure learners can delve deeply into rigorous content.

Paul Curtis wrote a great blog on the concept after Alan November visited New Technology High School in Napa, California. The school is one of the growing number of New Tech schools which use Project-Based Learning as a vehicle for meaningful learning around authentic, engaging problems we face in the real-world. Because New Technology High School is an established 1:1 computer environment, Curtis expected the students’ digital literacy to impress November but students struggled to address deeper questions and find alternative perspectives around the topic he provided. This prompted our thinking about developing the skills needed to use technology to inquire deeper into a subject. From that, we developed Google-driven Need to Knows.

After dividing our Need to Knows into the categories of content, skill, and project, we then asked which of those skills and content they could discover on their own with an Internet search. Facilitators modeled how to tackle a question using Google. What is abolition? Who were abolitionists? How does this connect to our project? Why do we care? Were there different perspectives about abolitionism? We haven’t perfected the process but it’s been a good start. By modeling this process and providing our learners with a structure and process to do more detailed research, we equipped them with the tools for meaningful inquiry. Getting students to ask good questions and teaching them how to answer them creates young people capable of solving problems on their own. As facilitators, we need to give systems to support their learning. Being a part of a learning organization means that we will never arrive at a finished product but we’re happy with the journey toward a more meaningful Need to Know process.


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