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What if Great Student Academic Work Got the Same Treatment as Great Athletic Performance?

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    Alexis Margolin

"When young athletes work hard at their sport, they watch older students, Olympians, and professionals – and imprint that vision in their hearts and minds," says Ron BergerChief Academic Officer of Expeditionary Learning (EL). "But when young students are engaged in academic work in school – creating a scientific report, persuasive essay, geometric proof, or architectural design – they typically have no idea of what would constitute excellence."

In his new piece this week for Education Week's Learning Deeply blog, Berger argues that students need concrete models of "excellence" to inspire them in the classroom. With Common Core and other higher bar K-12 standards being implemented in every state in the country, there is a lot of discussion about the need for "higher order thinking" and problem solving – but what does this really look like?

"Would teachers, parents, or the students themselves know how to tell if their work demonstrated the understanding or skill required by the standard?" Berger asks.  

What's needed: clear models of excellent student work

"With no clear images to inspire and guide us, we are spending our time arguing about definitions, mandates, and accountability, instead of focusing on the goal for all of this change: giving students the vision and skills to do excellent work," says Berger. "Just as watching a World Cup game can inspire a child to excel in soccer, we need models of academic excellence to inspire kids to do great work in school."

To make models readily available to students and teachers, EL worked with colleagues from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to collect two decades worth of photos and videos and examples of student writing – and place them in an online resource called the Center for Student Work.

"This changes the game when it comes to talking about educational standards for kids," he says.

When he and the team at Expeditionary Learning – which has a network of 160 schools nationally as well as a curriculum used in 465 school districts – meet with students, teachers, educational leaders, and policy makers, the conversation shifts when there are examples of student work right in front of them. "We can discuss in the abstract what 'high quality writing' could look like for a first grade student or high school junior, and debate the meaning of the written standards for each. But when we visit the Center for Student Work and look at brilliant writing from a first grader or eleventh grader, our understanding of what these standards mean is transformed."

Ultimately, says Berger, these models are essential for imprinting kids with the inspiration they need to meet the higher standards being placed on them.

"Picture the difference between reading a written explanation of proficient play in soccer, and watching an Olympic soccer game: it's no contest as to what will make a more lasting impression."