Edthena CEO Adam Geller talked with Doug Fisher, a San Diego State University professor and education expert, about how to modernize your thinking around student engagement and assessment.

Watch the video above or read the transcript below. And if you’re looking for more from the expert, here are all of our interviews with Doug Fisher and blog posts about Doug’s educational insights.

Redefining student engagement and student assessments

– Welcome to PLtogether Lounge Talks. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena the video coaching and collaboration platform for teachers. Today, we’re talking with Doug Fisher, he’s a literacy and leadership expert, and he’s got a new book out along with some collaborators, Nancy Frey and John Hattie, that might sound useful given what we’re all going through. It’s called “The Distance Learning Playbook”. Doug, thanks so much for joining us.

– Yeah. Thanks for the invitation. Happy to be here.

– Well, we talked a little bit so far about how teachers can think about redesigning instruction or kind of restructuring it, but you know, let’s talk about who we’re all here for, which is the students and how we adjust what we’re doing to support them. So one place I wanna start is around the dimension of student engagement, because of course, and you mentioned before that you have lots of attendance at your school right now, but just showing up isn’t actually the indicator that learning is going on, right? Like students have to engage with the learning. So lots of teachers are struggling. I don’t get to see my students. I don’t get to be with my students. How can we start to build back on that student engagement piece so that actual learning does happen?

– Awesome. So I think many of us have a very dated view of engagement. And then we talk about behavioral engagement, cognitive engagement, and emotional engagement. Which it turns out is not very predictive of who learns more. And there are more current versions of engagement like an engagement continuum. And I like some of these engagement continuum that are out there now that talk about things like if you are a participating it’s passive, but you are engaged, you’re not disengaged, you’re not withdrawing. But the idea to go from participating to investing in your own learning, and then from investing to driving your own learning. The ultimate form of engagement around driving your own learning. And what I’m seeing is teachers take these engagement continuum, create a Google slide or some other form of collaboration and have students define in their class, in this learning environment, what does avoiding look like? What does withdrawing look like? What does participating look like? What does investing look like? And then at every lesson have students reflect where was I today in my engagement. And what the teachers I keep talking to them about as they do this, it changes the dynamics of their classroom. And over time parents start using that language with their children. So instead of a parent saying, “What’d you learn today?” Or worse, “What did you do today?” Parents are starting to say, “What feedback did you ask for, for the teacher? What was your goal today? What good questions did you ask? Those are indicators of high levels of engagement. And I feel we have forgotten to teach students what it means to engage in this format of school. And every time we change the format of school. So if we go blended, if we go simultaneous, hybrid, high flex whatever the format of school is, we need to remind students what engagement looks like in this format. So I see some people, you know, half-time AB schedules coming back and students have to learn that physically in school, six feet of the park, masks on, this is what engagement looks like. At home, learning on your computer this is what engagement looks like. And I think we just jumped to an assumption that students knew what it meant to engage. When we interviewed students, their perception by and large compliance, it’s all compliance. So we had teach engagement.

– It’s funny that you mentioned compliance right there at the end because I was thinking about how, you know, the education system, the structures of education really are around kind of conflating being present for the purposes of all the operational needs of school and how funding works so that kind of compliance need with presence is being engaged. And it’s funny because the definition you gave really creates an opportunity to have a productive conversation with a student about student engagement and how they’re driving their own learning even if they’re a student who may, you know, maybe they have other limitations and they can’t come to in person class or online class. So it’s, in some ways it’s a more inclusive way of thinking about engagement for students. The other thing that you mentioned, which I maybe is like the power tip here and the really actionable thing for a teacher or in a school leader to kinda start doing is it sounds like you should be talking about what engagement means when you have those parent conversations and parent conferences. ‘Cause there’s a quite subtle but important piece there which is you need that question to start showing up at home as well.

– That’s right. And how much, parents were looking for a role. And while we see a lot is over helping. Parents intend to do well and they tell their kid answers, they do the work for them. So they’re looking for a role. So if we can get parents convinced your job is to make sure the kid’s doing the practice, your job is to ask your child about the learning environment and are they driving their learning? Are they seeking feedback? Are they monitoring their own progress? Are they setting goals? Those kinds of things. If we could shift some of those parent roles, I think it could really leverage some deeper learning with our students.

– Okay. So we’ve gotten to this question of our students learning through this redefinition of student engagement. And then I think there is a parallel piece which is as a teacher, you have an obligation to know whether or not the learning happened, right? Did students get to the end goal which I don’t think there’s a dirty word at all which is the question of assessment, right? You’ve got to assess student learning. So how has assessment changed in pandemic style teaching and maybe what are some of the new positive opportunities of the new ways we could be assessing?

– That’s a great question. So at the beginning of the school year was all about routines and procedures and relationships and all that setting things up and establishing norms and all that. And then slowly, all of a sudden, you know, weeks in it all became about assessment. How do we know if students are learning? So I spent a lot of time thinking about this, a lot of time learning about assessment. Are lock-in key assessments of the old, you know, like I have a test and no one’s gonna see the test until I handed out and I supervise my students. Well, anytime you do that, there are thousands of Tik Tok videos on how to cheat on every kind of test there is. A proctored live exam, thousands. You wanna have a test on a learning management system here’s how to cheat. So, we have to think of new ways. So I’ll start off with some very simple ways these universal responses, the things that we’ve been doing as teachers for decades, that we kind of forgot. We have to bring back response cards. Having kids hold up their work, whether it’s in calculus or when they’re five. Having, I call it waterfall chat, we’ve been doing this about 10 weeks now. It’s amazing to watch. So instead of the live chat where students respond in real time and the first four or five students respond and everybody else is waiting, and then they just copy what someone said, paste it in the chat, the teacher thinks they participated. Instead, you ask them a question, you go, I’m thinking time, processing time, typing time. But nobody sends until you say waterfall. And literally it just flows words in the chat. So it’s more inclusive. And students say that feels so much safer because their response is nested in a whole bunch of other responses. And then we have students go back and read. They look at each other’s peers responses and they, a question might be what’s one that surprised you? What’s one that resonated with you? What’s one you hadn’t thought about? Copy that one, put it in the chat, and type a little why that resonated why that struck you, why that was a surprise to you. They really liked doing that. It’s a good assessment as well because if you save your chat, and you know when this waterfall started and stopped you can see who participated and what they said. The other one that I’m super enamored with, is teach back. We are seeing all kinds of assessments where students are teaching back to their siblings, to their parents, to their grandparents, to the class, to a breakout room. That the responsibility when you learn something is to teach it to someone else. And that is a great assessment because what a child chooses to teach back shows stuck. It also identify errors and misconceptions of where to go next. So I’m seeing all kinds of teach-back. It’s probably our most current form of assessment right now. Over time, I’d like to push us to self-assessment. I believe students are the owners of their data. Students should be learning how to self-assess and monitor. Teachers become validators and challengers. So in your self assessment, I agree with you here, I agree with you here, I wanna question you here. So we are not the arbiters. We’re not the judges of whether or not you learned something you are. My role is to validate that or challenge you on it. And if we could shift that and make that a norm in school no matter what school looks like in the future, where students own their data and students are given tools to self-assess, how powerful could that be?

– One thing I should call out here before we talk about those student engagement ideas which that was a bounty of good ideas, by the way. You know, you have some phrasing here where you say we or I or things I’m really liking and, you know, just so everybody knows who’s listening to this, that’s because you’re still teaching. You’re a classroom teacher in addition to a scholar who writes books that people read and know like you are someone who’s teaching K-12 students right now, right?

– Yeah. I think that’s, for me, that’s part of the role that I don’t wanna give up. I want to be around the energy of a school. I wanna be around teachers and students and principals. I wanna be, I wanna be still in that lab. That’s my learning space personally.

– Well, I think it’s helpful context because it means that the ideas that you were just sharing which were kind of really awesome and if people haven’t like I hadn’t necessarily heard those before I suspect, well I know, I’m gonna be turning around and sharing them with some teachers I know that are teaching right now but they can know it wasn’t dreamed up in a back room this is stuff that’s really trying, being tried out. So I think you put kind of the hammer to the nail there, which I was thinking about when you were talking about assessment. Which was kind of here’s some novel ways to think about student assessment. First of all, it was that kind of hard shift away from prioritizing the like big one moment at the end. I think you probably struck some fear in some educators hearts, when you started talking about Tik Tok videos, they were like, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t wanna know. I don’t wanna have to know.” Right. But, you know there were these other ways to creatively assess along the way as what I was hearing. And then I was also thinking about that which is like, okay, well, the pandemic is going to end we’re gonna go back to classrooms. We need to be thinking about how do we continue these types of things going forward and so I was just thinking about like, okay you go back to a classroom, how could you do waterfall chat in a classroom? You know, buy some cheap versions of whiteboards have everybody have their thinking time have everybody write it down and then waterfall it’s not a waterfall maybe it’s more like the arts at a sports event. You gotta come up with a new name for it but I can see how those new ways of thinking about assessing should translate. And in some ways they’re more authentic ways to gauge learning along the way.

– Yeah. Awesome. Yeah. And imagine if we learn this now, when we have a little bit of freedom to experiment when we’re all learning new things and we returned to school better. We returned to school with some new tools for saying to students, you’re in charge of your assessment data. I’m here to validate you. I’m here to challenge you. You have a responsibility to teach other people that’s part of your responsibility. What have we changed those norms in school?

– Potentially the first time in one of these interviews someone’s positioned the pandemic from a truly asset based perspective. So I like that maybe this is an opportunity that shook us free from our ways of doing things and let’s look at it as an opportunity to reinvent and be creative. Doug, we have to take a break but we’ll be back for more of this conversation. If you’re joining us and wondering what we’ve talked about before or what we’re going to talk about next or who else I’ve talked to, head over to pltogether.org for the rest of this conversation, as well as many more. Doug, thanks so much for being part of PLtogether.

– Of course. Thank you.