Learning Outcomes and Our Ability to Pivot
It seems like every month there is a new term or phrase that surfaces as we journey through the COVID-19 educational landscape – Hybrid Learning, the Digital Choral Classroom, Synchronous and Asynchronous Instruction. Now here in Central New York, we have another new phrase going around called “the pivot.” With most CNY schools teaching in-person or using a hybrid model, many of our colleagues are planning for the pivot as they anticipate their schools moving to all virtual learning.
The Pivot – Verb
Educational Definition: A teacher’s ability to effectively and efficiently transition their teaching at a moment’s notice from hybrid to virtual, or virtual to hybrid instruction.
Example: At 5:00 in the evening, teachers were notified that their high school would be pivoting the following day to virtual instruction for the next two weeks.
* Last Sunday night, October 4 at 8:42 PM, I received notification from my superintendent that due to a staff member testing positive for COVID, the high school would be closed on Monday, and we would move to virtual instruction for the day. Note to self – Always be prepared for the pivot. I have a video at school that I was planning on pushing out to my choir today (Monday), but I only saved the file to my desktop and did not upload it to my Google Drive. My bad, lesson learned!
Teaching in the Pivot Model
So, I am now experiencing the pivot. I am lucky because my teaching assignment this year has prepared me for this experience. I call my teaching assignment this semester “teaching virtually in-person” because:
- The high school vocal music program is virtual, but
- I can teach on campus in my classroom.
- Most of my students attend cohort hybrid classes throughout the day and come down to my classroom during lunch or study halls.
- I will be teaching eleven of my student’s virtual vocal music all year, and
- On Wednesdays, the entire high school goes to virtual learning for the day.
A Pivot I Was Not Expecting
Besides learning how to pivot and teach in both the hybrid and virtual learning models simultaneously, a much more subtle and significant pivot is currently taking place in our classrooms. Due to the cancellation of school performances and county and state music festivals, our course designs and student learning outcomes/expectations may have changed and could now be incomplete.
If traditional concert performances and choral opportunities are not available to our students at this time, then what is taking its place?
What is our new goal, or how do we adapt?
Learning Outcomes and Backward Design
What is helping me organize my teaching and navigate the lack-of-concerts shift is the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. In their book Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe present a three-step process called Backward Design. This framework encourages educators to design their course of study “backwards.” First, by Identifying the required student learning outcomes, then Determining the appropriate skills and assessment, and finally, Planning the essential course content and specific learning objectives.
Student Outcomes and Specs Grading
The Backward Design framework was also influential as I adapted Specification Grading or Specs Grading for my high school music students. In chapter two of her book Specification Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time, Linda B. Nilson reframes the Backward Design Framework and presents the following (2014, p. 21).
- Step 1, Ultimate Outcomes: Identify the skills and abilities students will achieve at the end of the semester or course.
- Step 2, Mediating Outcomes: Order and sequence learning outcomes that will prepare students for forthcoming skills and abilities.
- Step 3, Foundational Outcomes: Determine the necessary skills and abilities students will need in preparation for mediating outcomes
Semester Course Design
Using elements found in both the Backward Design Framework and Specs Grading, below is my course design that I am using this fall. Because my school will be shifting this year between the virtual and hybrid teaching models, I am attempting to provide my students with the tools and skills necessary to continue studying, performing, and creating music independently.
Ultimate Learning Outcome – Maintain my students’ engagement, participation, and enjoyment of high school vocal music.
Intermediate Experiences – Create autonomous, student-centered assignments and activities focused on the Ultimate Learning Outcome.
Essential knowledge & Skills – Establish standards for students in developing their fundamental music abilities, course management skills, and individual responsibility to the ensemble.
Weekly Course Assignments
Realizing that we will probably not have any in-person concerts this year, I have focused my weekly learning outcomes on encouraging my student’s growth in three areas: 1. developing their personal musicianship, 2. maintaining and strengthening their fundamental choral music skills, and 3. Facilitating their autonomy through teaching time and class management skills.
- Individual Ensemble Musicianship (IEM) – Student-initiated independent music study
- Choir Fundamentals (CFun)– Music literacy, audio/video performances, and ADIF self-sprints
- Course Management (CM) – Weekly meetings/surveys, group contributions, and communication
Each week, my students work on one assignment from each of these three focus areas. So far, the most critical assignment this year was last week when the students and I brushed up their technology skills. We created folders for their Gmail (one senior had 4,876 emails in her inbox), set-up their Remind and Sight Reading Factory accounts, reviewed the procedures and protocols for Google Meet, and confirmed the skill/subject for their independent study this semester.
Conclusion: Our Ability to Pivot
With the realization that we will need to remain fixable and pivot our instruction this year, and that our traditional school concerts will not resume for some time, we need to reevaluate our course design and our required learning outcomes.
Many of our best practices from the past have been successful and will remain. But there is a danger in maintaining the expected – the known – not realizing that education is changing right before our eyes. Elements of Backwards Design and Specs Grading offers teachers a new perspective and a way to review, redefine, and reimagine our instruction.
Wiggins, Grant P., and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008.
Nilson, Linda Burzotta, and Claudia J. Stanny. Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2015.
Ackles, Brian O., 2018. Agile Development Instructional Framework (ADIF): A New Strategy for Student-Centered Music Education. Choral Journal, September 2018. Vol. 59, No. 2.