Synergy: Complexity~Simplicity, Collaboration & Brainstorming

Our Synergy team is at the halfway mark, time wise, of the semester.  For the past 9 weeks we have been recording images, questions, and thoughts in our observation journals.  We use a common space, a Posterous group, to communicate, collaborate, and connect ideas.

The challenge now upon us…What data mining strategies should we employ to uncover community issues that, as a team, we want to study, investigate, problem-find and problem-solve?  We have over 300 posts.  It seems daunting, almost overwhelming to sift through our data.

Via his talk at TEDGlobal 2010, “How complexity leads to simplicity,” Eric Berlow was our “guest expert” to help us think about and learn that “complex doesn’t always equal complicated.”

A couple of key insights that stuck with us include:

[Use] the simple power of good visualization tools to help untangle complexity to just encourage you to ask questions you didn’t think of before.


The more you step back, embrace complexity, the better chance you have of finding simple answers and it is often different than the answer that you started with.

Here is a quick trailer and then approximately 4 minutes of video from Monday’s Synergy learning experience to show one of our attempts to find simplicity on the other side of our complex task of data mining for new projects.


  • If you facilitate project-based learning, how do you empower students to determine the team projects?
  • What other methods would you recommend to us for putting students in “that driver’s seat?”
  • How does assessment for learning change when immersed in PBL?
  • How would you assess the various learning demonstrated in the video?

We would love your feedback.

[Cross-posted at It’s About Learning]

Translating Rubric Scores When You Have To…

I work and learn with several teams using rubrics to promote learning and growth.  We have been working to translate our 4-point rubric scores to the 100-point scale required by our school.

It is that time of year.  We want to report our learners’ progress to their parents, Grade Chairs, and other important members of their learning teams.  While we understand the 4-point rubric score and what it means in terms of a child’s learning and growth, we feel that it is necessary to report their progress in more traditional terms.

We know that a single number can never represent the unique progress and learning of a child.  We include a written comment with this number to provide additional information and evidence of learning.  See the following blog posts for more information about these comments.

But, for now…We must have that single number.

We have worked together to develop a plan.  We started by studying Classroom Assessment & Grading that Work and Transforming Classroom Grading by Robert J. Marzano.  As a team, we have analyzed student work to calibrate our understanding of the rubric and how we score student work.

In Transforming Classroom Grading we read and studied Chapter 5. Assigning Final Topic Scores and Computing Grades and Appendix D: The Power Law Formula.

We investigated the following conversions by scoring student work and then analyzing the following scales to determine which scale most closely aligns with the team’s thinking about a score out of 100 points.

We looked at this data graphically.  We wanted to see how a power function looked on the data.

Looking at Scale 1…
4 translates to 100, 3 translates to 90, 2 translates to 75, and 1 translates to 60.

It appears that a power function would fit the data.

It appears that this power function would over estimate the team’s rubric score of 2 when converted to the 100-point scale.  Would there be another function that might fit better?  Should we adjust the translations?  We tried another type of function.

This is the same data – no adjustment in the translation – but we used a logistic model rather than a power function.  Interesting, huh?

Looking at Scale 2…
4 translates to 100, 3 translates to 90, 2 translates to 75, and 1 translates to 65.

Power Function:
 Logistic Function:

Looking at Scale 3…
4 translates to 100, 3 translates to 88, 2 translates to 73, and 1 translates to 65.

Power Function:

Logistic Function:

Numerically, the logistic function more closely converts our 4-point rubric scores to our agreed upon 100-point scale translation than the power function.

You are welcome to make a copy of our 4-Point Conversion E-PLC  or 4-Point Conversion S-PLT Google spreadsheet and investigate for yourself.

This is where we are today.  We have decided which of these scales works for our teams.  We have calibrated our understanding and use of our rubrics.  We have investigated these conversion tables numerically, graphically, and analytically.  We have agreed to use the same conversion table to represent our learners’ work and progress.

This is a work in progress.  We would love to know how you translate your rubric scores to the 100-point scale.

Empowering and Guiding Students to Take Charge of Assessment – Synergy 8 Example

For many, many years, at school “marking periods,” I have written narrative comments regarding eighth-grade student progress. Typically, these comments have been summative and brief in nature. They generally covered work habits, class-participation trends, and performances on quizzes and tests. When I completed such a comment, I recorded my progress report in a school database, where it was reviewed and proofed by a grade-level administrator. Then, after about a week, the comments were sent – now emailed – home to parents.

When we (Jill Gough and Bo Adams) inaugurated Synergy 8 in 2010-11, we decided to use this non-departmentalized, non-graded, community-issues, problem-solving course to run some “pracademic” experiments in a number of areas, including assessment and student-progress reporting. Now, instead of an adult (teacher) writing a static comment to another adult (parent), the Synergy 8 students utilize moderated journaling to prepare their self-assessment reports. The student learners take primary responsibility for preparing their reflections about their own learning and growth. The student learners initiate the communication of this self-generated progress report to their parents, their teacher-facilitators, their grade chairs, and their director of studies. Before the published draft is sent, student learners peer review other team member’s reports, and they engage in a series of iterative prototypes, enhancements, and revisions.

The student learners “live” at various stages of maturity regarding their capacity to self-assess and initiate their own progress-report discussion with adults. BUT…they are practicing this incredibly vital, life-long skill of evaluating their own learning, performance, skill development, and growth. They are precipitating virtual, student-led conferences when they send their reports to the adults who serves as guides and coaches. Unlike the database-housed comments of the past, these student-based comments stir responses from their parents and the adults at school to whom they write. During the course, we see growth and progress in EVERY student’s capacity to engage in such self-assessment and progress reporting, and we believe this is a critical skill to develop at this middle-school age.

Obviously, because of the relatively private nature of such progress reporting, I cannot publish one of the student samples here. However, I am pasting below what now goes in the school database, so that you can see additional context about this student-centered way of reporting progress, learning, and growth.

From Midterm Marking Period (Friday, October 14, 2011):

Since we last wrote to you, the Synergy 8 Team has been hard at work, engaged in the KP Challenge. At the same time, we have been focused on communications, presentation, and design. Additionally, our team members have collected almost 300 community observations on a tool called Posterous. At this midterm, we will be transitioning from the KP Challenge alpha project to projects conceptualized and organized by the Synergy 8 student learners – projects that will be born from the Posterous observation journals. Expect more project news and updates as those projects get underway.

At the first-interim marking period, Mr. Adams and Ms. Gough concluded their comment this way:

“As we dig deeper into our projects and learning rubrics, you can expect more information coming to you. Much of the assessment will be relative to the “essential learnings” expressed on the course logo – the Synergy 8 Light Bulb and Gears ( At the midterm, you can expect more self-assessment from YOUR CHILD, and Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams will provide more feedback from their seats, as well.”

Working intensely and introspectively for the past two weeks, our Synergy 8 members have been preparing a “bright-spot” reflection regarding each person’s deepest learning. YOUR CHILD will be presenting that evidence-based, essential-learning story to you soon. You can view a short movie (, password: provided only to parents and school personnel due to new school policy) to see an overview of our approach, and you can access the originating rubric ( from which the stories emerged. As you receive an email summary from YOUR CHILD, Mr. Adams and Ms. Gough will respond to that communication so that all of us – student-learner, teacher-facilitator, and parents – can engage in a discussion about YOUR CHILD’s learning and growth.


From 1st Interim Marking Period (Friday, September 14, 2011):

When Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams conceptualized Synergy 8, we envisioned an interdisciplinary, problem-based course rooted in student-directed inquiry. Now that the course is underway, we increasingly desire to share responsibility from teacher to student, so that the eighth graders can practice being even more involved in their own learning – similar to the powerful, self-directed learning that children engage in before and after formal, traditional schooling. Synergy 8 possesses many elements of experimental design, and progress reporting in a non-graded course is one such element. Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams expect Synergy 8 students to take a more active role in the assessment and evaluation of their own learning and growth. Therefore, you can expect your child to send you more information about Synergy 8 and his/her experience thus far. At this marking period, you should have already received a progress report via email.

As we dig deeper into our projects and learning rubrics, you can expect more information coming to you. Much of the assessment will be relative to the “essential learnings” expressed on the course logo – the Synergy 8 Light Bulb and Gears ( At the midterm, you can expect more self-assessment from YOUR CHILD, and Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams will provide more feedback from their seats, as well.

[Cross-posted at It’s About Learning]

PBL PD – The Kindezi School

Through the support of our school, Bob Ryshke and the Center for Teaching, Bo Adams and I connected our learning with the learning and experiences of the adult learners at The Kindezi School.  The conversation and learning on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 centered around PBL (project-based learning, problem-based learning, place-based learning, passion-based learning,…).

Bo posted Kindezi – PBL – CFT yesterday to record our plan as well as our projected learning and experiences.  While all of these teacher-learners have iPads to learn with and use in their daily work, they have Windows-based computers.  We used Keynote to hold and display our resources which has made it difficult to share our resources with the Kindezi teacher-learners.

So here is my version of the morning, learning, and shared resources:

After quick introductions, Bo read a passage from Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.  We read the story of Jerry Sternin from chapter 2, Find the Bright Spots.  You can read the story we chose to read at the blog post Switch, Don’t Solve Problems—Copy Success.  This blog post has an exclusive excerpt from Switch.  While we have experience using PBL with our student-learners, we are not experts in the Kindezi community.  We came to learn as well.

Bo and I facilitated a discussion of current PBL practices at Kindezi where teaching-partners spent 10 minutes preparing a presentation of one successful PBL experience done this year and gathering an artifact to show as evidence.  Bo and I shared two videos of the work and learning happening in Synergy.  See Synergy 8 Update – Week 3 and Synergy 8 Update – Week 3 Part II…Game Plans for our evidence.  The PBL presentations from Kindezi were varied and interesting.  I hope that these teachers will share their practices in a more public venue soon.

To help calibrate our current PBL practices we looked at the following from Linda Darling-Hammond’s book Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding.

Also summarized from Darling-Hammond’s book, we discussed the following expectations of PBL.

Then we learned to seek “i can” infection from Kiran bir Seth

Can we find connections between the curriculum and the current PBL practices of others at Kindezi?  We asked for an attempt to coordinate practices, to add to an existing PBL idea, write about contributions that other classrooms could make to join and support these lessons.

We concluded our time on this day with the following community PBL idea for this community.  We do not expect these teachers to take this as a “do now”.  We hoped to show a path to find a collaborative learning project that the community could build together.  Can we plan a school-wide PBL where every learner can make a contribution?  Is it possible to build a meaningful lesson that where any age learner can learn, grow, complete complex age-appropriate tasks, and contribute to solving a problem in their community?

“What can we do” versus “What we can’t do”

Are we teaching our learners to focus on what they can do or what they cannot do?  Are our assessments and our feedback geared toward bright spots?

If you have not read Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, stop now and at least read the blog post Switch, Don’t Solve Problems—Copy Success.  This blog post has an exclusive excerpt from Switch.  Read the story of Jerry Sternin.  Read about the community’s results.

The two strong quotes in this story, for me, are

“Knowledge does not change behavior.”

“Sternin said that the moms were “acting their way into a new way of thinking.” Most important, it was their change, something that arose from the local wisdom of the village. Sternin’s role was only to help them see that they could do it, that they could conquer malnutrition on their own.”

How are we helping our learners grow?  Are we giving them knowledge or are we helping them act their way into a new way of thinking?

Do we think about and discuss what can’t be done?  Do we act and focus on what can be done?

Let’s do something!  When in doubt, do more of what is working.  Find the bright spots.  Do.

Formative Assessment: Feedback and Action

In Synergy, Bo and I have asked our learners to complete a couple of standing assignments each week in lieu of traditional homework assignments.  One of the standing assignments is to make observations, ask questions, and think about why things are they way they are.  We ask that our learners post their observations to a common place so that we can learn from each other and find common ground of interest in our community.  (You cannot see our common space because it is password protected.  I wish you could see how interesting and varied our learners observations and questions are.) The standing assignment is to post 2-3 observations per week on our common site.

Here’s the progression of assignments and formative assessment:

The first formative assessment was launched on Wednesday, August 31.  Notice that it is not graded; it is just a check-up.  Review your observations journal posts and do a quick count.

This week we issued a more formal formative assessment as shown in the class plans.

This lesson integrates observation journaling with data collection.  It is our hope – our plan – that we will use their observations to help identify the next projects/problems we want to tackle.  We have collected lots of data and now is the time to organize the data and search for trends. As shown in the class plan above, we asked our learners to review all of their posts, to count and tag them, and to self-assess their observation journals based on a rubric that we are developing.  We asked our learners to self-assess and graph their progress in 4 areas using 4-point rubrics.

Here are a couple of examples of graphs submitted by our learners:

Learner 1 Learner 2 Learner 3 This is formative assessment at its finest.  Each learner is informed in several ways.

  • Am I meeting the stated expectation for the number of posts?
  • How am I doing on each category in the Observation Journal rubric?  Is there an area where I am preforming at or above the stated expectations?  Is there an area where I can improve?
  • What action should I take now to do my part?

Bo and I are also informed. We see our Excel experts, our graphing experts, and our observation journal experts.  We have data and graphs to analyze.  We have the opportunity to differentiate – enrich and intervene – as needed by our learners.  

Our learners have taken action.  The expectations are clear.  The path to improve has been communicated.  As a team, we can take steps to improve, learn, and collaborate.  


  • How can this idea be translated into other classes?
  • Now that our learners carry MacBooks, how can we empower/challenge/charge them to take more ownership in charting their progress and growth?
  • Would this type of formative assessment experience spur learners to more/different/better action in traditional classrooms?
  • Would this type of formative assessment help the teacher to differentiate – intervene and enrich – quicker, easier, better?