Table of Contents
I) Less is more. The emphasis is on understanding and applying ideas and skills rather than covering content.
II) Students are active participants in the learning process. The classroom is a true seminar where everyone is sharing information. The teacher is the facilitator and guide, not the omniscient lecturer.
III) The learning process is accelerated when students are pushed outside of their comfort zones. Challenge begets positive growth.
IV) A focus for all disciplines is connection to place. Students must be immersed in the environment and challenged to articulate what they sense.
V)The academic work has real world application. There is an actual job to be done that raises the bar beyond the quest for a final grade.
VI) Assessment is an ongoing process, allowing time for revision and clear explanation of expectations. The skill-based assessment process transcends disciplines and fosters a more in-depth learning journey.
VII) There must be time for digestion and reflection.
VIII) The teacher can and should be prepared to participate in assignments and provide models and rubrics.
IX) The classroom must be an open arena where students feel safe challenging ideas, where there is consistent faculty peer review. The classroom door is always open
Teaching students about their environment, in their environment, is what The Island School is all about. Students are forced to think for themselves, provide answers to their own questions, and practice the skills of primary research. Consequently, the semester calendar and weekly schedules are designed to allow students to apply these skills in all disciplines through frequent field opportunities. For example, students practice employing ethnographic interviewing techniques during Settlement Days, Down Island Trips and regular excursions into the local community. In ecology, students learn about the fishing industry on South Eleuthera by accompanying local fishermen on outings on the waters surrounding Cape Eleuthera, or they investigate a local patch reef by diving the site and guiding each other through a natural history lesson. And in research, students spend anywhere from 5-8 hours each week in the environment they are studying—whether it means sloughing through tidal flats studying bonefish, tromping through the bush looking for unidentified Lucayan sites, or juggling an uncooperative Nile tilapia in CEI’s wet lab to determine growth rates in our aquaponics system.
The end goal of all of the students’ efforts is to produce original, authentic work that has value to the wider community. In this way, Island School students are producers of knowledge, rather than consumers of it.
Course Design & Assessment
In order to assess whether students are achieving acceptable levels of comprehension, making connections across disciplines, and developing critical thinking skills, we design courses to have at their foundation fundamental enduring understandings. Using Grant Wiggin’s and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design to guide all curricular development, the process starts by differentiating knowledge from understanding, asking the fundamental question: “What do I want students to take away from this course?” Enduring understandings crafted for each course are spare, focusing on big ideas that are central to the discipline. Essential questions come next and serve as signposts to these deeper understandings. Finally, skills, knowledge, topics, and content that can best achieve the desired learning outcomes are incorporated. Assessments ask the students to employ higher order thinking skills consistent with Bloom’s taxonomy.
Demonstration of Learning
One of the most important assessment pieces we use at The Island School is called a Demonstration of Learning (DoL) presentation. At the end of the semester, students are tasked with composing presentations that outline what they have learned over the course of the term. To do so, students must reflect on the school’s desired learning outcomes, to showcase what was significant to them, and to illustrate how that knowledge connects to their lives at school, at home, and in the world. The Demonstration of Learning is an opportunity for students to appreciate the intrinsic worth of learning. Centered on the vision and mission of the school, there are four guiding questions for the students to address (see below). After making a 15-20 minute presentation, the student must field questions from an audience composed of her advisory and other members of the semester community. Presentations are assessed on a four point, non-numeric scale—insufficient; adequate; developed; sophisticated—by students and teachers alike.
The Island School’s central question and vision mantra, which guide the entire semester program, are:
Central question: How can we live better in a place?
Vision Mantra: Leadership effecting change.
Now that you’ve reached the end of your journey, what do these mean to you? In what ways has the school helped you to approach these goals, and in what ways has it fallen short? Identify specific academic, social and personal events from your experience to support your arguments.
The Island School depends substantially on the ability of its students, faculty, and staff to form a community that learns, works, and plays well together. And, by definition, a community is a collection of individuals with varying talents and skills unified by a common purpose or interest. Using a critical but fair lens, discuss what you learned about yourself and the larger concept of community over the past 14 weeks.
As written into the mission statement, the keystone of sustainability is meant to instill in students awareness of what it means to live and learn in a sustainable manner. How has your perspective on your own learning and lifestyle changed since you arrived 14 weeks ago? What new ideas, practices, or beliefs do you hope to carry back to the life you lead at home?
Sense of Place
In a poem titled “Little Gidding” (1942), the poet T.S. Eliot wrote: We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. In what ways will you “know the place for the first time” when you return home? How do you think you can apply the sense of place you developed at The Island School in your home community?
Person-to person communication is highly valued at the Island School. This is evident in community meetings, advisory activities, in the dormitories—effectively in all aspects of campus life. Consequently, it is a very important aspect of a student’s academic journey, too.
The Island School adheres to the belief that the development of Harkness, or seminar, discussion skills is pivotal to a student’s learning, regardless of the context. In the classroom students are encouraged to take responsibility for the learning that transpires by driving inquiry through thoughtful and respectful dialogue. The teachers are infrequent participants, facilitating rather than dominating the “dance of an open mind when it engages another equally open one,” as Toni Morrison once put it.
Below is a summary of the most important skills we try to develop in the students. They have been grouped by our grading categories to illustrate how they align with assessment.
This skill area describes the student‘s ability to construct logical and reasonable arguments that are well-supported by evidence and to consider the ideas of others when contributing to the conversation. Ideally, a student can identify connections or relationships between ideas, avoid basic fallacies, respectfully ask critical questions of the texts and their peers, and maintain a mind open to different perspectives and interpretations.
Speaking & Listening
The “speaking” half of this skill category refers to how clearly and effectively the student conveys their thoughts through spoken language. It also encompasses the student’s ability to agree or disagree with the ideas of others in a respectful manner. The “listening” half of this skill category describes the student’s ability to fully engage in a discussion, building on the ideas and perspectives of previous speakers rather than simply waiting politely for a turn to speak.
In a Harkness discussion, this skill category refers to a student’s care and effort in preparation for the discussion. Therefore, a student’s ability to decode the text, seek outside sources of reference or interpretation, annotate as they read, identify critical facts and information from the reading, and compose thoughtful questions to drive the class discussion are important to their success in this skill category.
Most seminar classes are assessed using a variety of rubrics and class discussion analysis tools. However, depending on the desired focus of the assignment and discussion, the instructor may not grade each student in every skill category outlined above. For instance, a teacher may want to isolate their feedback to reasoning alone for a particularly dense reading assignment.
Also, though we have no grading category for leadership, seminar discussion is an integral tool for the development of those skills. By allowing the students to uncover meaning in a text on their own, the instructor forces the students to take responsibility for their own learning, encourage and challenge each other to deepen the inquiry, and to develop cognizance of the intellectual and affective processes occurring in their own minds as wells as those of their classmates.
Skills Based Grading
We are fortunate to have a dedicated group of educators and small enough class size at The Island School to be able to provide a detailed and thorough assessment of each student. The format of this assessment may be very different than what students have received in the past.
At midterm, students receive progress grades (not grades of record) in each of their classes. Depending on the class, the overall grades are broken down into either three or four skill categories—reasoning, writing, speaking and listening, and organization—and are supplemented by narrative feedback from their teachers.
Students’ final reports follow the midterm format and are the official grades of record for the semester. The overall grade in each subject area should make it easier for sending schools to integrate our grading system with their own. Since we realize that students take a little while to become accustomed to the new expectations and we are focused on learning and improvement, we weight the grades more heavily during the second half of the semester.
The idea of a skill-based grading system is not new—some of our sending schools have been using such systems very successfully for a number of years already—and many schools (both public and private) are currently investigating the possibility of incorporating this kind of system.
At The Island School, we have adopted the idea of skill-based grading because of the specific feedback it gives students about their academic abilities. It allows students the opportunity to focus attention on the areas with the most room for improvement; at the same time it provides them with positive feedback on those areas in which they are doing well.
The four different skill areas that we grade are:
- Reasoning: This area deals with how well the students are able to understand and apply the more difficult concepts they are learning. Specific grades in this area might be given for how well students are able to use evidence to back up their ideas, or how well students are able to actually apply concepts learned to novel situations.
- Writing: This area deals with the mechanics of the student’s writing. Grades are assessed based on sentence and paragraph structure, grammar, proofreading, and overall effect of the composition.
- Speaking and Listening: This area deals both with how well students are able to communicate their ideas in more formal situations, such as seminars and presentations, as well as participation in classes and group discussions. Most importantly, students are assessed on their abilities to listen to others, build off of discussion, and ask high-quality questions.
- Organization: This area deals with how well the students are able to organize their studies and their time. Grades in this area might be given for how well the students are able to follow directions or perform on test questions that require straight recall of class or reading content.
This system is new and challenging for most students. It is always our intent to assist students in their learning as best as we can. We have found that the skill-based grading system offers more opportunities for growth and long-term learning than traditional method