Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Define & Design and Diagnose & Implement

I have known many an educator who is adept at D&D, but is not always so quick to take up the cause of Diagnosis and Implementation.  For some this might come down to the aversion to being a prescriptive educator, for others it might be that D&I gets its due in professional learning community work like ‘student work assessments’.  When I look at diagnosis and implementation it is from the perspective of the learner.  I think when the learner internalizes all four concepts (and not just the first two) you give him/her a better chance of evolving their ability to adapt.

One current planning model that is quite popular (and I think quite effective) is Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe where define and design gets attention by the teacher and sometimes even the learner.  Diagnosis and implementation, although given some attention, are seen as an addendum to the planning effort.   The emphasis is on working it backwards to create an effective learning plan.  Let me explain.

If we agree that knowing what we want to achieve makes it easier for us to put a plan together (have the goal front of mind first) then it would seem logical to design your planning around what you believe the learning destination will be.  For many years (since at least 1998) this concept was not new to me, as coaching had primed my thinking that ‘winning a championship’ should drive all instructional decisions and pedagogical outcomes.  Thankfully I’ve changed my primary goal to ‘winning the learning battle’.  I was fully engaged and committed to the idea that a plan grows out of the learner’s ability to think iteratively (make progress) and recursively (anticipate the future and practice for it now) and to this day I still believe this is true. 

What I didn’t realize was that in my effort to move the learning along (that the ‘performance’ was polished enough for public display) I was the only one in the room who was diagnosing the system, or implementing alternative solutions when the learning refinement had either leveled off or got stuck.  I hadn’t planned for this! This got me re-thinking about planning in general, and more specifically, I wondered how learner diagnosis and learner implementation meshed with the backwards define and design framework that UBD proposed.  What I found was, that even though Wiggins and McTighe weren’t intending to confuse, the linear nature of the term ‘backwards’ had me believing that order should trump context (at least when planning…I know, my bad).  I also overlooked the roll that learner self-analysis and action-alignment played in getting the learning done faster.  The sooner I could get the learners to engage in effective outcomes diagnosis, the sooner we could plan and implement situational (re. adaptive) solutions.

So the shift was on.  From now on it was to be learner diagnostics as much as teacher diagnostics, and not the ‘grand plan’ implementation, but rather the small implementations that accommodate variables both known and unknown. I started by looking at this under one of the most common situations faced by teachers:  Proof-reading written work.  Yes, there are those detail savvy souls who gain some sort of perverse satisfaction from the editing process, but most see editing as both time consuming/repetitive and revealing in a negative sense, especially when review doesn’t uncover the mistake(s) because the mistakes are not recognized.   Add to this, that some learners get emotionally attached to their original work, and that many of us have a strong dislike for being even a little bit wrong, and you can probably appreciate why some students have built quite the aversion to the exercise. 

Regardless, being stubborn and seeing the value in polished writing, I was going to prevail.  But first I had to minimize the ‘taking the medicine’ feel that accompanies most diagnostic efforts.  I had to put the learner in the position of prescribing the medicine as opposed to being the medicine taker…but how?  In the context of writing I’d had some success with ‘writing reviews’ where kids sat in a room with rubrics and critiqued writing samples.  Although most got some sense of what a “1” represented and why a “4” was a “4”, the net effect was that the novelty wore off pretty quickly and the detached nature of the conversation among learners (“this person’s use of sentence starters could be better”) took on a somewhat mechanical tone.  When I mentioned that critiquing work should be more like ‘getting under the hood of your own car in your own garage, rather than being the guy at the dealership who plugs the car into the computer”, all I got back was blank stares, at least metaphorically speaking.

My next thought was, “if I just make personal the nature of the writing assignment maybe there would be a better chance that learners would see that their writing is a clear reflection of one’s communication skills.”  Writing music lyrics worked for some, using a persuasive argument on parents had a few hooked as well.  Slowly but surely I came around to the idea that students would have to do writing that involved reviewing an event staged as a public performance, be an op-ed piece, or be a written petition.  Any of the three channels would have to be submitted to an actual third party outside-of-school and be publication worthy.

This got people’s attention, and even made a few elevate their writing efforts as now strangers were going to be the audience of their work.  As I went back and looked at the progressions I’d employed in the instructional design, I realized that perhaps I’d increased the attention people were paying to the writing, but I wasn’t so sure that I’d really tackled the question of ‘why writing diagnosis?’  And then another a-ha moment came.  I reflected on the whole giving/taking-the-medicine frame, and realized that finding the right prescription for someone is actually very ‘contributive’ in nature.  That sense that you are making a positive difference in someone’s life was what I had to get to as the core focus of the editing process.  The ‘writing for a public audience’ assignment never really captured this, as all the writers were more focused on making their point than in providing a contribution through writing.

Now it was on to implementation.  This ‘writing as contribution’ thing wasn’t going to work as an assignment.  I’d have to come up with some pretty compelling reasons for why writing could morph into contribution.  I’d already been doing some work with learner/professional mentorship programs that contained a contribution component.  It dawned on me; what if we could make editing like riding a bike (that metaphor thing again).  The editing would equate to inertia, something that could be studied, but was more about a way of making the vehicle serve the intended purpose, in this case, make a contribution.  The need to edit messages to mentors, edit information slide decks and edit proposal plans had never been something I’d had to spend a great deal of time ‘correcting’.  I was around to collaborate on how the message should be packaged, or why certain information had to be included, but there was rarely a spelling mistake to be exorcised.  Best of all, “defining” what was correct in terms of spelling and grammar wasn’t up for debate.  The contribution would be lost if reading a message had become laborious due to errors.  In this case at least, writers had become self-diagnosticians. 

You may be asking at this point, was there transfer back to classroom written work like essays and book reviews.  The answer is: mostly.  It is difficult to say that all essays showed significant gains in terms of editing outcomes.  Oddly enough though, written work like speeches and first affirmative arguments in debates were much more polished, I assume because, the work was going to be heard by a significant audience so an editing strategy was invoked.

What I found most revealing about the ‘diagnosis as contribution’ initiative was that my writers stepped back and analyzed written work from a ‘helping’ perspective.  Yes, there were still those who were particularly self-critical, but instead of obsessing through the perfectionist cycle, there was instead an effort to find a trusted peer who would act as a second set of eyes and ears.  Having the ‘have someone proof it before it goes out’ habit cross over from the mentoring program was a pleasant surprise.

A final note:
Some readers might be asking: why not just make lots of excuses to put written work on public display?  Although some work was always requested for bulletin board examples, I found that the person who was reading the posted work was usually the original author (or a relative who’d dropped into the school), and not many others.  I also recognized that writers who weren’t keen on having their effort being put on display weren’t feeling any incentive to polish their work.  They’d just as soon keep things private anyway (no need for extra editing).

Nothing in the meantime has advanced the writing diagnostic effort better than framing the diagnosis as a contribution.  As I transferred over to other subject areas I taught it wasn’t hard to ask:  what’s wrong with government, or, why does our offense always seem to be out of sync?  Again, the premise behind this was that learners could make things better; that a fresh set of eyes on an old or evolving problem could make a real difference, especially if we didn't keep the solutions to ourselves.   These solutions always ended up being put forward as gentle 'suggestions' to those who we thought would benefit the most.  

Making opportunities available to build diagnostics and implementations into your define and design planning is tricky at first.  Learners don’t tend to believe you when you say you are looking for a difference-making contribution.  Have your learners stick around long enough that their contribution makes a difference, and you will have people who appreciate the define-design continuum even more because their contribution doesn’t just fix a problem, but actually helps others out. 

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