In Ontario, we currently use a curriculum that is driven by content and performance standards. Content standards refers to either the knowledge, the skills or a combination thereof, that students must possess by the end of a unit of study. The Ontario curriculum organizes these content standards according to overall and specific expectations. As teachers organize their instruction around the specific expectations, the idea is that students can be effectively evaluated on the overall expectations. The performance standards provide a frame work through which students are able to demonstrate their acquisition of the content standards. In Ontario, students can demonstrate their knowledge and skills through retelling knowledge, demonstrating thinking, communication and application. Criterion based standards (as opposed to normative task based learning) are important in providing direction for what should be learned. However, the short-comings of the curriculum standards is that there is a lack of context and purpose as to why students ought to be learning what is outlined in the curriculum. Overarching Learning Goals (OLGs) fill this gap: they provide a reason as to why the curriculum standards ought to be part of student learning.
I deliberately emphasize that curriculum ought to be part of student learning, and not the sum total of student learning. Marc Prensky and Will Richardson, experts in modern learning, advocate for educational transformation based on the premise that the school is no longer the hub of learning, and than in fact there is now a distinction between schooling and learning that at one point did not exist. Schooling, in the traditional sense, is the notion that students must gather at prescribed times for prescribed durations, with prescribed peers, in order to be able to learn from the teacher. Schooling retains the facade that the teacher is a keeper of sacred knowledge that is unattainable elsewhere. The mandated curriculum is the structure by which the teacher organizes and dispenses his or her knowledge. However, with the advent of the world wide web and its various interactions where any one can be a “teacher” learning is happening more frequently outside of the classroom, and is contextual on what students want to know. Students are learning what and when they want. This new reality forces the teacher to transform – the teacher can no longer be the keeper of knowledge, but rather a curator of resources and a choreographer of experiences. The teacher is now a facilitator of learning, not the director.
OLGs then exist in a space in which students are learning independently of teachers and simultaneously are required to learn within the constraints of a system that dictates what is supposed to be learned. The reason that the OLGs can be so transformative, is that when developed by an attuned team of teachers, they can bridge the gap between student interest and legislative requirement. The OLG can do this because the allow the teacher to see the curriculum in a way that is culturally responsive to the students in the classroom.
Throughout this series of Assessment in Action, the primary objective is to better understand what OLGs are, why as educators we need to shift our assessment focus, how to write effective OLGs, and most importantly, how to implement them in the classroom.