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When High Schoolers Must Defend Graduation Readiness

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This post is by Justin Wells, who consults to schools for Envision Learning Partners and is co-author of Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards.

Right now, educators from around the country are gathering in San Diego at High Tech High for the Deeper Learning 2015 conference. This annual event brings together educators who care deeply about preparing students for college and for the careers of tomorrow.  One powerful way of doing this is to design and build schools focused on public defenses of learning.  Here is one student's story:

Kaleb's First Attempt

It's twenty-seven days until Kaleb Lawson's high school graduation ceremony, and he has just been told that he is not ready to graduate.

Standing alone at the head of the room, Kaleb can't believe what he has just heard. His face loses color, and he struggles to maintain composure. The lights are too bright. The fan of the digital projector whirs too loudly.

Fronting a small audience is a long table, behind which sit two adults and a fellow student who have been asking questions and taking notes. Obvious to anyone who has ever seen an episode of American Idol, this is a panel of judges.

"Your reflections on your leadership skills don't show the depth that we are looking for," says one of the panelists. "Plus, we don't see evidence that you have practiced this presentation enough. You relied way too heavily on your notes. You didn't make enough eye contact with your audience."

Staring at the floor, Kaleb nods slowly to acknowledge what he has heard. He is taking this hard. Preparation for this presentation was not a matter of days, weeks, or even months. This was years in the making. For the last forty-five minutes, he gave a presentation that told his entire high school story. He showed examples of his best academic work, reflected on his successes and failures, tried to make the case that he was ready to graduate.

"You're not ready, Kaleb," another panelist says. "You can do better than this. Work with your advisor to revise your reflections. Polish your delivery. In ten days, you need to try again."

Graduating, Envision Style

In order to graduate, every student at Envision Schools must go through what Kaleb did: not necessarily the failing part, but the standing before a panel and making a sustained, evidence-based claim that one is ready to move on from high school. Across the country, an increasing number of high schools and middle schools are implementing versions of this practice, generally known as a defense of learning.

The idea traces lineage to the Ph.D. defense, but at the K-12 level, defenses of learning are typically designed to feel higher stakes than they really are. For Kaleb, the heavy lifting had already been done. He had already written the papers, performed the experiments, and created the art that needed to fill his portfolio. His teachers had already guided him through the revisions that lifted his work to standard and had, as content specialists, signed off on his work as college ready. He already had a college acceptance letter in his back pocket.

But he still needed to clear the last hurdle: he needed to pass his graduation defense.

Kaleb and his peers overestimate the relative weight of the defense for two good reasons: first, public speaking is inherently nerve wracking, and second, it's natural to invest symbolic significance in the final step of any journey, even though every step was vital to reaching the destination.

This is by design. We want students to attach major significance to this culminating experience. It is designed to be not just a test but a rite of passage (and almost always surpasses the traditional graduation ceremony in momentousness). Implemented with commitment, a defense of learning hits the pedagogical sweet spot, requiring and inspiring the learner's best effort while still cushioning failure's fall with second (and third and fourth) chances.

In other words, while Kaleb was sweating it, his teachers knew he was going to do fine.

Kaleb's Defense, 2.0

And he did do fine. After the tears dried, he went back to work. With support from his advisor, Kaleb rewrote his reflections on his "four C" skills, grounding them with more evidence of his growth over time. He polished his delivery, reorganized his notes, and tidied up his supporting slides. He rehearsed in front of the mirror, start to finish, multiple times.

Ten days later, Kaleb made his second attempt. "Unlike the first time, I felt well prepared," Kaleb recalls. "I started strong and got better from there. Before it was even over, I knew I had passed. It felt so good!"

Kaleb is now in his mid-twenties, the first in his family to graduate from college, and currently working as a compliance officer to prevent discrimination and abusiveness in the banking industry. He says his Envision Defense taught him a lesson he has carried into life after high school.

"For example," he says, "the job I have now came from a temp position. It wasn't handed to me, and I could tell that it wasn't going to be. First, I had to figure out what I wanted. Then I had to size up the situation, document my work, prove my diligence. It wasn't just about doing the work; I had to show my work. I had to make a case that I was someone this firm should bring on full time. And I had a sense of how to go out about it because I had practiced this before."

And how does he look back on the trauma of failing that first defense?

"At first I was crushed," he recalls. "I went outside, and I was crying. But it wasn't long before I could appreciate why the panel failed me the first time. I felt that they respected me, rather than letting me sell myself short. What I realized, even then, was that my teachers and peers believed in me more than I did. And in order to pass the defense, that needed to change."

Kaleb's story reminds us of something important about performance assessment. At its best, it doesn't just give us data about our students: it changes a learner's relationship to his own learning. What happens during a defense, the culminating moment of a many-year journey, is not Kaleb convincing his teachers and peers that he is ready to graduate; it is Kaleb making--and winning--the case to himself.



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