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The Urban Community Magazine | Fall 2010
Feature Stories
How Do We Know They're Learning?

Each year Urban hosts dozens of visitors who want to learn about our innovative approaches to teaching high schoolers. We've had educators from Russia to Singapore; from Puerto Rico to Algeria; and from New York to Mississippi to Washington and nearly every state in between. After singing the praises of our block schedule (instituted more than 40 years ago), our decade-old 1:1 laptop program, and our inspired teachers and engaged students, many of them ask the same question: How do we know our students are learning, really learning? With a unique assessment policy, our faculty-developed Urban Advanced Studies (UAS) curriculum and a whole host of creative classroom endeavors, educators are sometimes puzzled: What are the metrics?

"We are 'smitten' with this question," says Dean of Faculty and longtime Urban English Teacher Jonathan Howland. "The question of 'how we know' is an engine for us at Urban—we've always embraced the fullness, challenge and discomfort of the question rather than the cozy limits of tidy answers. And we don't simply outsource it—relying on agencies like the College Board or ETS or even our own strong college admissions record to answer it for us."

In some fundamental ways, our strength as a school is rooted in our willingness to pose the question How do we know? and to pursue its implications well beyond conventional measures. According to Jonathan, traditional assessment activities such as papers, problem-sets, tests and projects embody important measures of comprehension and mastery, but other less conventional ways register with us as well: conversations with students, the gratifying ah-hah moments of discovery and synthesis, and creative application of concepts. "Urban teachers innovate, reflect upon and refine their practices on the basis of what they see in their students' learning—in their proficiencies and accomplishments as well as their missteps or misconceptions. The standards you see in course report rubrics reflect the faculty's priorities and many of Urban's fundamental values."

Working within our core values is at the heart of this issue, says Henri Picciotto, Math Department Chair and Director of Urban's Center for Innovative Teaching. "We employ ‘disciplinary learning,' in our classrooms," says Henri, "and what that means is we ask our students to approach any course as though they are mathematicians and historians, or artists and scientists. Science is not about learning things from a textbook and then taking a test to show you ‘know’ those things. A scientist cannot know science without doing science. An artist can’t be an artist without doing art."

The core values Henri cites read as follows:
  • Learning is an active, joyful process of discovery where students are challenged to ask essential questions, solve problems in disciplined and creative ways, and construct substantive understandings under the guidance of passionate and inspiring teachers.
  • Academic excellence is demonstrated by depth of conceptual understanding and achieved through rigorous engagement, comprehensive assessment and thoughtful self-evaluation.
Jonathan adds, "Comprehensive assessment requires an array of so-called 'measuring devices' to verify that our students know their stuff. Markers of the conventional marketplace—SAT and AP scores and college acceptances— aren't irrelevant; neither are the familiar tests and quizzes and papers. But in the end, we truly believe there are more important, more telling and more meaningfully challenging ways of rendering mastery and conceptual understanding than we find in many traditional assessment contexts. Many of these involve performance—doing something, making something—synthesis and application."

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