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The Problem with Exemplars

Monday, October 15, 2018

I remember many instances over the (twenty-plus) years I was in the classroom when the promise of “exemplars” failed me. Learners are typically eager to complete assigned tasks on time and with quality. They will request examples of expected performance if it’s not provided. This is especially true of new learning, or learning that involves some personal risk. Projects were a particular challenge for my students. In instances where I asked for students to apply learning in new and novel ways, there was instant anxiety. To offset concern, I would hold up examples from previous years and provide rationale as to why they were good models. Some students were able to craft a project with new and novel approaches, while most simply replicated the example. It was clear the students were more concerned with the product than the process.

Student/School Learning Objectives (SLOs) caused me to be anxious at first, and I often thought back to those instances with my students. SLOs offer educators a way to demonstrate that their planning and instruction impacts academic learning. It's been described as "documentation of what effective teachers are doing to impact student learning". Unlike standardized assessments, this process allows educators more control over how student growth is measured. Despite all attempts to address the anxiety associated with SLOs, this process was new, and educators wanted examples! State education agencies responded to educators' pleas for examples by providing an SLO Repository. The repository provided SLO examples for varying grade level and content areas, and was intended to assist educators in learning stages of the process. The problem with this approach was the message it sent to educators. Educators viewed the examples as "exemplars" and had the impression they were stamped with a seal of approved, high-quality. However, SLOs are context specific--so much so, that no example can serve as a true exemplar.

DPI Educator Development and Support has recently changed their approach to SLO guidance, and have eliminated the SLO repository. In place of the multiple examples (yes, the term example is purposefully used here) the new Writing a Quality SLO resources present the eight sections of SLO Planning Template, each with its own guidance. Rather than focusing on a product, educators (with resources for teacher SLOs and principal SLOs) are now engaged with the process and thinking behind each of the components. I wish I would have thought of that approach in my classroom days!

Article Submission: Written by Kris Joannes, Senior Outreach Specialist, Wisconsin Center for Education Research
Kris Joannes served for over twenty years in Wisconsin public schools as a classroom teacher, program coordinator, and teacher mentor. She has led Student/School Learning Objective implementation as part of Educator Effectiveness (EE) Systems in both Wisconsin and South Carolina. Kris currently works with the WI Center for Education Research and supports the WI DPI Educator Development and Support EE training and resource revision initiatives.