Professional Development Using the Learning Record Model
by Mary A. Barr and Margaret Syverson
Note: This document described professional development for K-12 teachers, during the time the Learning Record project was still widely in use in K-12. However, it also applies to a considerable extent, to the use of the Learning Record by teachers at all levels.
In the beginning, it is common for teachers to feel overwhelmed at the thought of using the Learning Record with all their students. The procedures are unfamiliar, and they seem like an extra burden on teachers already overloaded with competing demands for accountability.
By the end of the first year, however, they have gained a deeper understanding and respect for the students they are observing, and generally they begin to reconceive their methods and practices. Often they entirely rearrange the classroom environment as well. Although using the Learning Record model does not dictate these changes, teachers typically break desks out of rows, replacing them with learning centers stocked with resources for independent group and individual activities.
Standard measures, such as miscue analysis and running records in reading, can be incorporated into the record as supporting evidence of development, or as diagnostic tools to help teachers recognize what help is needed. Teachers begin to talk less, and listen more. They develop more collaborative activities where students can work with partners and with small and large groups. They begin to view teaching as providing opportunities for students to add to what they already know.
Teachers also experience many struggles in learning to see students differently; they commonly meet with other teachers to share their growing understanding, their problems and questions, and, most of all, their unfolding records. By the third year, teachers have internalized the process of keeping the Learning Record, and the whole process has come to seem quite natural.
Although the Learning Record reflects current pedagogical theory and good teaching practice more closely than other measures, it is a dramatically different kind of assessment tool from the tests and grades most teachers are accustomed to using. Because it links classroom-based assessment of individual students to the large scale assessments needed for program evaluation, the "learning curve" in its use is lengthier than commercially prepared assessments which are less comprehensive.
The Learning Record's public accountability system is also far different from the intrusive snapshots afforded by norm referenced multiple-choice tests. Schools use their own curricula and learning activities instead of standardized tasks or the genre menus required for the portfolio assessments being offered commercially. Then, too, as is true of all teaching, this assessment system is admittedly labor-intensive, relying as it does on the informed and, by the way, informing judgments of teachers. Observation of learners has a way of teaching the observer, teachers tell us frequently.
Because the Learning Record model differs from present assessments, relies on teachers as assessors of student progress and grows out of classroom practice rather than on externally designed systems, a staff development model has evolved over the past five years to turn these "obstacles" into advantages. The following procedures have evolved out of six years of research and development in California, funded by the California Department of Education, as well as from the experience of the British originators of the Primary Language Record (Barrs, Ellis, Hester, & Thomas, 1989) from which we adapted the LR. The procedures support schoolwide use of the assessment without coercing reluctant teachers. Rather, the staff development melds with the assessment and aims to build leadership at the site with the following design:
At LR-registered schools, the site administrators, teachers and parent representatives agree to phase in the use of the LR with all or target groups of students. (Examples of target groups are students at one grade level or in one subject area, students identified as at risk of academic failure, or students learning to use English as a second language.) "Phasing in" means that teachers of these students voluntarily use the LR with three to five students the first year, more the second year and with a whole class by the third year. Participating teachers meet regularly throughout the year with their designated LR "coach" to prepare for collecting evidence of student learning, to present their findings and to discuss what they have learned. Coaches are teachers experienced in the use of the LR in their own schools and classrooms and are certified as such by the Center for Language in Learning in El Cajon, CA, the non-profit organization which produces the LR.
During each of the first two years of the phase-in, participants meet for thirty hours of seminar; the third and subsequent years for fifteen hours each year. The seminars, scheduled throughout the year, help teachers learn about the various parts of the LR, try them out with a few students, and share their findings with their teaching colleagues. The seminars address the following topics with such support materials as the LR video tapes, the LR Handbook for Teachers (Barr, 1995; Barr & Syverson, 1994), readings from current research, and student Learning Record exemplars:
- An overview of the LR and its history, first, as an adaptation of the British Primary Language Record, and, then, as a model of portfolio assessment for California schools, K-12.
- The developmental versus the deficit model of learning, with a focus on the five dimensions of learning embedded in the LR's literacy performance scales: confidence and independence, experience, skills and strategies, knowledge and understanding, and reflectiveness.
- Questions of bilingualism, dialect and culture which impact academic success, especially important in improving the achievement of those students who have traditionally been underserved by schools, those living in poverty, those learning English as a second language, those from cultural minorities.
- The LR's parent and student learning conferences, ways of managing them, results of recording them.
- Data collection, that is, observing and sampling student learning, using observation notes and samples for planning instruction, analyzing and summarizing what has been observed and sampled.
- Year-end conferences and updating teacher, student and parent assessment.
The invitation to join the leadership group of LR teachers at the school must be an on-going opportunity so that teachers can develop their own strategies and understandings about using this very different way of assessment. In his reflections written at the end of four seminars in the thirty hour series, one high school teacher shows not only why the process takes time but also why it is worth every hour:
- September: "I have many questions about the LR and how to hold a parent and student conference. How do I manage the conference in a way that will enable theparent and student to speak candidly....When will I hold the conferences? What will I say first? These questions arise from my inexperience at interacting with parents in a positive way."
- October: "I feel more confident now about the conferences I had with parent and student. The discussion I had today with my colleagues [in the seminar] confirmed that we have managed to gain insight into the literacy of the student and also, perhaps, to establish a bond with the student's family."
- December: "I believe that I am much like other high school teachers in experiences and training and in feelings of inadequacy about how kids learn to read. I now know that I need not judge a student's rate of reading against some complex formula. Instead, I plan to facilitate a variety of 'events' which will allow me to observe the student in the act of reading or in an activity that leads to reading or has been facilitated by reading."
- January: "Today [in the seminar] we discussed the writing samples. The teachers at my table were much impressed by my student's writing fluency and her sophisticated handling of complex issues based on literature. Their comments helped me to see the student's work in a different way. I go away with an increased appreciation for my student's accomplishment. We discussed the current practice in writing classrooms of assessing student work punitively and how the LR may be a way to redirect assessment to help fulfill the avowed functions of education helping people grow and change."