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A Q&A on Learning Recovery with Jay McTighe

The Newsela Team
Apr 13, 2021

As schools welcome back students to the classroom, the pandemic’s impacts on learning loss are coming into focus. The findings are troubling: A McKinsey study found that on average, students missed the equivalent of one and a half months of reading instruction and three months of math after last year’s school closings, with students of color falling even further behind. 

Now, school districts and educators have an opportunity not only to remedy the learning losses of 2020, but also to create a template for deeper, more meaningful learning even after the pandemic recedes into the past. To discuss how to fully leverage this inflection point, Newsela co-founder and Chief Academic Officer Dan Cogan-Drew hosted a Q&A with educational author and consultant Jay McTighe, an expert on instructional strategies, curriculum models, and assessment procedures. 

He answered a variety of audience questions on how to achieve deeper learning — that is, how to go beyond simply covering a lot of content as quickly as possible, and instead prepare learners to apply their learning in new situations.

New Curriculum Maps for a New Educational World

Even before the pandemic, McTighe was calling for a new, third-wave approach to curriculum mapping. He was asked where curriculum mapping started, where he proposes it go, and why that evolution is so important. 

McTighe has identified two past iterations of curriculum mapping, and he is currently proposing a third. The first dates back to Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ work on diary mapping, in which educators create calendar maps for when and how long they will teach topics, units, or skills. As uniform curriculum standards were widely implemented in the late 20th century, McTighe, Jacobs, and other education leaders shifted their focus to consensus mapping. 

Now, McTighe argues, there is a need for a third-wave approach that focuses on mapping performance tasks that students should be able to do with their learning. These could range from preparing an infographic on a complex topic, to mathematically modeling a real-world phenomenon. Rather than focus on covering large amounts of content in limited time, McTighe suggested that educators think like athletic coaches. They can instead focus on preparing students to give authentic performances that connect to tasks they might one day perform outside of school. “Why are we teaching this stuff, anyway?” he asked.  

He added that this approach to curriculum mapping is a perfect fit for learning recovery and shoring up gaps. “We’ve got to take players where they are,” he said. “Every coach knows that. If they don't have basic skills, if there are gaps, that's what we work on. But always with the game in mind, always authentic performance.” When authentic performance is at the core of a curriculum, it transforms every phase of the learning process: from organization and planning, to engaging students’ curiosity, to assessment and transfer of the knowledge to other contexts. 

Thinking Beyond Recovery

Kim Marshall, an advisor, instructional coach, and Boston Public Schools veteran, asked McTighe: “What will we do better in schools as a result of what we've learned during the pandemic?”

McTighe emphasized that preparing students to thrive in the 21st century means teaching for transfer, as well as self-direction. The pandemic has highlighted the need for greater independence among learners, with one of teachers’ most common complaints being the difficulty students face in managing their time and being productive during asynchronous learning. He shared the story of one school district that has recognized the importance of this. Rather than abandoning the challenges of asynchronous learning, it has stepped up to permanently keep one asynchronous day per week for students to work on longer-term projects and performance tasks, taking advantage of the freedom to pursue their curiosity within clear expectations and success criteria. 

Deepening Learning for All Students

Another attendee asked, “How can we mindfully encourage student engagement with deeper learning without furthering the divide for students who were already low performing… and were most impacted by the pandemic?” 

McTighe called on educators to ask a fundamental question: “What are the factors that would engage a learner irrespective of their skill or achievement level?” 

The same core factors that have always engaged students will remain essential as educators shift their focus to teaching for transfer and self-direction. Now as in the past, students need to see the purpose and relevance in what they’re being asked to learn, and a great way to establish that is to present them with more authentic tasks to frame that learning. 

Next, students need clear directions and an understanding of what is expected from them — and this is where well-designed success criteria, models, and examples are critical. 

Finally, students need to believe they have the ability to succeed at the task. McTighe explained that to imbue their students with the confidence that they deserve, educators need to offer tasks that are authentic to the “real world,” as well as all students’ interests, experiences, and cultures. To identify performance tasks that meet both of those requirements, educators can build student choice into the curriculum.

“That boosts engagement,” he said, “and success builds success. Even if you haven't been successful in school, if you are engaged by a project, you have voice and choice, and you've done well according to success criteria. You're going to be more inclined to want to do it again.”

To learn more about how to use performance-based learning to set off a cycle of success for all students, watch the full Q&A session here.

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