Presentations of Learning or Exhibitions? Yes, and…

All around the world (or at least the Northern Hemisphere), teachers and students are returning to school. Those teachers who are intentional about their learning experience design have been thinking about their “end in mind,” and not a few students will longing for the end as well, at least until the fun of the school year starts to replace the freedom of summer vacation.

For me, this is usually the time to reflect on the business that is my summer consulting season. One of the best experiences I had this summer literally began with the “end in mind.” A small team of teachers and administrators at Health Leadership High School (HLHS) in Albuquerque, NM, spent the day wrestling with a growing problem of practice at their school: Presentations of Learning (POLs) and/or Exhibitions?

Students at HLHS do Trimester-long authentic projects in partnership with the Albuquerque health and/or health care community. These always end with some sort of presentation, but were they “Presentations of Learning” or “Exhibitions.” Both terms were used–often interchangeably and without clarity–by students, teachers, and administrators alike.

To wrestle with the problem, I introduced Republic Polytechnic’s (RP) “One Day, One Problem” model. RP divides a school day into six big chunks with some breaks in between. Part 1 began with my attempt to frame the problem as I understood it from prior conversations. This provided some common reference points for the work that followed. In Part 2, teachers had an hour of independent work time to comb through their notes and student work, or to read a small selection of articles I curated for them. After that, they came together for Part 3 and shared their learning as individuals. This allowed them to form “affinity teams” around common questions. Those teams then received two blocks of about an hour each (Parts 4 and 5) before presenting their findings and debriefing in Part 6.

About the middle of the first team-meeting block, it became clear that the root cause of the problem of practice at HLHS was that some faculty and administrators saw POLs as an ongoing formative assessment, and Exhibitions as the final summative accomplishment. On the other side were teachers who saw POLs primarily as an internal summative demonstration of mastery between the teacher and the students—what the student wants to show. By contrast, exhibitions were seen as external summative presentations to clients in the community. One was a question of assessment, the other a question of audience.

The fact that the two teams realized this during their informal break time conversations proved critical—a reminder that teachers are always working, even when on break! As with students, project- and/or problem-based learning should not always be a competition, but an opportunity for all involved to solve a problem. Aware of their differences, and encouraged to engage in “Yes, and…” thinking by me as the facilitator, both teams spent part of the second team meeting understanding the other team’s viewpoint in order to defend their position from points of commonality.

What solutions emerged in the presentations and debrief at the end of the day? As I review the “quotes” from the videos, I’d say there were three key takeaways.

1) Both teams agreed that POLs should be an “ongoing” and more “informal” process, one that is “organic” to the student and provides the “feedback they need to keep growing.” If that’s true, it’s time to lose the suit and the PowerPoint! Teachers should focus on what the student wants to share with them about the Attributes, Skills, and Knowledge (what we call ‘ASKs’ at HLHS) they are mastering as part of the targeted learning outcomes in the project. This could happen in class, at student facilitated parent conferences, or, one last time at the close of the project. Taking all this in to consideration, in the debrief we introduced the idea that maybe these weren’t Presentations of Learning at all, but rather a range of student “articulations of learning.” They should not be organized around a formal presentation rubric or exhibition checklist, but instead driven by the student’s desire to articulate their own growth and mastery of targeted learning outcomes.

2) One team used this understanding of POLs to argue that Exhibitions, by contrast, are about “community connections,” skills for “employability” and “what the client wants to see.” If a suit is going to be involved (and it should only be involved if that’s the way adults in that industry present to their clients!), it happens at Exhibitions because students are trying to convince their audience not of what they learned, but that they were able to transfer and apply that learning in a way that might add value for the client or the community. To do this, any well-prepared presenter might well make a mental, physical, or digital checklist of things to prepare in order to make sure they impress the client. Both teams agreed that it was the teachers’ job to provide the scaffolds that would support that preparation. In the debrief, we agreed that Exhibitions were less about feedback for learning forward, and should have a tone and timing that helps the students meet the needs of the community rather than the needs of the school.

3) As you can see, even in our debrief, there was a tendency in both teacher presentations to see the audience–and its intended purpose–as something that makes POLs and Exhibitions different. This is a reasonable tendency, but as I reflect on the videos and my notes from that day, I want to offer a final takeaway about students as learners who live in their community. The inspiration came from Wynnell Lebsack, a relatively new teacher at HLHS who closed her team’s presentation by asserting that:

“Passing a class isn’t doing a thing and walking away from the class. Passing a class is about learning, and owning your own learning. It’s not a checklist, a list of stuff to get done before walking away. Its about the thing you’ve done that has value.”

Yes, a good POL IS an opportunity for a student to own and value learning, and a good Exhibition IS also an opportunity for a student to own and value learning.

Focusing both POLs and Exhibitions on students as learners who own and value their learning in different contexts solves the problem of practice that leads many to see POLs and Exhibitions as different. The common denominator to both is an opportunity for students to own and value their own learning. Yes, part of that learning is learning how to do this for different audiences, and the opportunity for student learning is even greater!

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