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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 12/ 2/2010

A system to tell how your kid is doing in school

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy based in Carrboro, N.C. He writes regularly about education policy on the National Journal Education Experts Blog. He is the author of three books: Be a Writer, Be a Better Writer, and Reading Allowed.

By Steve Peha
When I began working in education as a tutor, I thought I’d be working just with kids. But tutoring is a family affair, and part of the work involves tutoring parents, too. Of all the questions they asked, the most common was, “How’s my kid doin’ in school?”

Isn’t this what report cards tell us? Apparently not. Even when kids’ grades improved, parents still wanted to know what their children had learned.

Then state testing began and we had volumes of data about student learning—volumes of data, but little information. We had numbers and letters now but even less clarity about learning. And it wasn’t just parents who wanted to know how kids were doing; teachers, principals, assessment directors, everyone wanted to know what kids knew.

So I developed an assessment to address this issue based on five simple questions. If you’re a parent, asking these questions of your child’s teacher will tell you exactly how your child is doing in school. If you’re a teacher, these questions will improve your planning and instruction. And if you’re a student, they will help you improve your academic performance and make school easier.

Start with Strengths

The first question is, “What are the student’s strengths?”

It is better to work from a strengths-based perspective than from a view informed by weaknesses. Though school is a deficit-based system by tradition, it makes more sense to teach to kids’ strengths, and to help kids use their strengths to tackle challenges.

When kids are struggling, it can be hard to spot their strengths. But all kids have them—something they know, something they do, or some way of participating that helps them do better.

When strengths are known, teaching and learning are more successful. When we can’t find a student’s strengths, this is a sign that we are assigning the wrong work or that we need to support students in pursuing different behaviors.

In school we tend to focus on weaknesses, but outside of school, many researchers and clinicians favor a strengths-based approach. “Strengths point to what’s already working instead of what’s not,” says Steve Gavazzi, professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University, and author of Strong Families, Successful Students. “If you’re using a deficit model, you’re just cataloging what doesn’t work.”

An opportunity for strengths-based teaching often shows up in math during 2nd or 3rd grade. Most children at this age handle addition with ease, but many have trouble with subtraction when borrowing is required.

But we can play to their strengths relying solely with addition by using a strategy called “adding up”. Shortly thereafter, kids learn borrowing with more confidence because they know they have another way to solve the problem.


Show How Strengths Lead to Accomplishments

The second question is, “What are the student’s accomplishments?”

Looking at student work, tracing growth over time, and seeing the process and strategies a learner uses reveals the real learning story, the story that grades and scores can’t adequately elucidate.

When we connect accomplishments to strengths, teachers, parents, and kids discover patterns of success. Helping kids understand their patterns of success helps them achieve successful outcomes in new learning situations.

For example, every writer gets “writer’s block”. And every writer needs a reliable way, or a pattern of success, for getting through it. For kids who are planners, pre-writing does the trick. More spontaneous kids and can often free-write their way out. For others, social strengths help them share their work with the class and get feedback about what to write next.


Reframe Weaknesses as Goals

The third question is, “What goals does the student need to achieve?”

Our deficit-based system of schooling encourages a pessimistic outlook. As scientists such as Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism and founder of positive psychology have shown, a pessimistic outlook increases the likelihood of failure.

It’s easy to see what kids don’t know and can’t do. Kids often see it, too. What they don’t see, however, is how to improve. This is where goal setting comes in.

Reframing weaknesses as goals gives kids a constructive end point to work toward. It gives teachers clear targets to teach to. And parents get something positive to observe and support.

Goal setting engages what psychologists like Stanford University's Carol Dweck call a “growth mindset”. A “growth mindset” encourages teachers, kids, and parents to focus on the possibility of success in the future as opposed to being fixated on the failure of the past.

The opposite of a “growth mindset” is a “fixed mindset”, or the belief that things cannot change, and that deficits are permanent and deterministic. Research has shown that learners with a “growth mindset” learn better than those with a “fixed mindset”. Reframing weaknesses as goals encourages everyone involved—students, parents, and teachers—to maintain a mindset optimized for learning.


Use Learning Goals to Drive Instruction

The fourth question is, “What instruction will the student receive to achieve the goals?”

If a student has a goal to learn something new, the student should receive instruction targeted precisely at achieving this goal.

What drives parents and kids crazy is when they know something’s wrong but they don’t get help to make it right. What drives teachers crazy is feeling stuck in a curriculum that doesn’t allow them to address their students’ needs. Using student learning goals to drive instruction solves these problems.

Too often, teachers feel pressured to move on, to keep up with a pacing guide, to cover a prescribed curriculum rather than what they know their students need. This curriculum-driven approach leaves many kids behind and many teachers with the gut-wrenching experience of knowing that they are not reaching their students.

But when instruction is driven by learning goals, and kids and parents know those goals, too, teaching and learning are more satisfying and efficient. As a result, more required curriculum can be covered in less time.


Define Out-of-Class Support

The fifth and final question is, “How can the student be supported outside of class?”

Teachers often complain that parents don’t support their kids at home. But this is often because parents don’t know what support to provide. When everyone involved—teacher, student, and parent—understands strengths, accomplishments, goals, and instruction, determining proper support outside of school is easy, and parents are often happy to provide it.

The support is far more crucial than we think. Kids have many opportunities outside of school to improve academic performance. These opportunities may exist at school during independent or assisted study periods. They may exist at home with family members. Or they may exist through out-of-school tutoring.

When the support students receive is based on their strengths, accomplishments, goals and instruction, learning outside of the classroom can be just as productive as learning inside of it.


SAGIS: Strengths, Accomplishment, Goals, Instruction, Support

I call this the “SAGIS Model” (pronounced “SAY-jiss). There are many reasons why it is helpful. But perhaps the best reason is because all parties receive the same “plain English” information about student learning. Instead of a grade like “B-minus” or a designation like “proficient”, teachers, parents, and kids know what has been learned, what needs to be learned next, and how to work together to make that learning happen.

We have a long-held and deeply destructive notion in American education that schooling is a set of one-way transactions between independent actors. Teachers are supposed to teach. Kids are supposed to learn. Parents are supposed to help. But nowhere in our traditional paradigm do we have an explicit model of how this group of people can come together as a team.

“The SAGIS model is a perfect strength-based assessment tool for identifying the shared responsibilities that students, parents, and teachers must take on in order to create a well-functioning educational environment,” says Gavazzi.

As Gavazzi notes, the key to SAGIS is that it promotes academic teamwork by providing a structure for shared responsibility. Each member of the team has a role to play, a role explicitly defined by the answers to the five questions. When people know what to do, they tend to do it better.


One Thorny Problem, Five Simple Questions

The core problem of education is determining what students have learned, what they need to learn next, and how they should go about doing this. Grades in a grade book and scores on tests do not answer these questions. SAGIS does.

Ask five questions:

*What are the student’s strengths?
*What are the student’s accomplishments?
*What goals does the student need to achieve?
*What instruction will the student receive to achieve the goals?
*How can the student be supported outside of class?

The answers provide a concrete academic profile that forms a foundation for future success. Sharing this information between teacher, parent, and student transforms education from a hit-or-miss solo endeavor to a team effort with appropriate checks and balances that make learning easier for kids, teaching easier for teachers, and the entire process of educating children easier and more rewarding for parents.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 2, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Learning, Parents, Teachers  | Tags:  how kids learn, learning, parents, report cards, teachers, teaching and learning  
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