“That’s where backward design is really valuable because it’s not starting with, ‘What textbook are we going to read?’ or ‘What assignments are we going to do?’ It really starts with what do we want the students to be able to do.”
Dr. Cat Jackson is TEL Education’s Chief Learning and Research Officer and manages the curriculum team behind the TEL courses. In this podcast with Dr. Rob Reynolds, they discuss the foundations of our curriculum and how they focus on helping students show mastery. These mastery standards are the foundation for our Learning Dashboard, which is launching this spring.
Education Futures Podcast 26: Dr. Cat Jackson & TEL's Mastery Standards
Hi, everyone. Rob Reynolds here with TEL Education. Thanks for joining us for our podcast. I’m really delighted today to have with me Dr. Cat Jackson, who is the Chief Learning and Research Officer here at Dell education. And Cat’s going to join me in a conversation about curriculum development, general education, mastery standards, a whole lot of things. So Cat, let’s jump right into it. One of the things that we’ve been talking about in our podcast is demonstrable equity and that, at the core of being able to give everyone the same opportunity to learn and to prove their learning and to show their work and have it accepted as equal to that of others is curriculum. And in particular, really mapping curriculum down to at a very granular level and including in that mapping, the actual development of skills and competencies that can be demonstrated in an equitable way throughout a course.
So big mouthful there, but it really does get down to curriculum design, granular mapping, mastery, et cetera. So with that in mind, let’s talk a little bit about, from your perspective, as you’re going into developing a course and in our general education catalog, how do you think about capturing this ability to provide demonstrable evidence, to show mastery in something? I mean, it really does get down to this core question that everybody always wants to know when it comes to education, higher education in particular, how do we know that they learned something?
Hey, Rob. Well, it’s really great to be on the podcast. I’m very excited. It’s my first time, so I’m a little nervous, but, you know. Yeah, so I’m very excited to be talking about all of these pieces. I’m a big believer in what is traditionally known in instructional design as backwards design. So whether you’re looking at anything from a traditional academic course, or if you’re even looking at something like internal organizational training, what an employee should be expected to know, you really have to establish those parameters and very clear expectations. And the way that we do that is we develop these skills and these competencies with really specific, measurable language so that everyone, whether it’s a student in a traditional classroom or someone that’s in a training situation and they’re maybe job is dependent upon them being able to demonstrate that they can do a particular task for their job, that expectation needs to be really clear.
And so from my perspective in my background is I look at that through developing really clear skills and competencies, or essentially learning outcomes or doing a task analysis where you really define, what is that particular thing? What do you want to demonstrate? I think that’s really valuable in academia because a lot of times those conversations aren’t always had when we’re looking at what happens in higher education. You have some people that walk in that have some really great knowledge and expertise for their particular field. But they’re so in deep in their particular field, sometimes it takes them a little bit to step back and clearly define at the end of the day, what do I really want my students to be able to show what they can do? And so that’s where backwards design is really, really valuable because it’s not starting with what textbook are we going to read, or what assignments are we going to do, even? It really starts with what do we want the student to be able to do?
No, I think that’s fantastic. And it does remind me that so much of our work in higher education, in general education has traditionally been around what we want people to know. And because knowledge, it still is a foundational piece of intellectual ethical development, et cetera, and not as much specifically around what we wanted students to be able to do. What could they walk away from a course with, knowing that they could do, knowing that they had grown in their ability to function in the world? And so it really is a big change in thinking. And so, for example, when you look at a course or especially a non-skill course, something like US history, that course has traditionally been taught in terms of information acquisition. How do you go about now taking that course and thinking, “Okay, I want somebody, they need to learn the pieces of history and the important concepts of history after 1877? But how do you get people, be your subject matter experts and others on your team, to think about then how do we incorporate specific skills into that?
Absolutely. So one of the things you have to think about is from the perspective of those particular subject areas or domains, you look at what are the attributes of an expert in your field. I had a fantastic history teacher at one time that the first day of class he walked in and he said, “I’m not worried about you knowing dates, dates are what you do on Friday and Saturday nights?” And I always really appreciated that because the focus wasn’t on memorizing certain dates or certain events in history. And so when you talk to, for example, those that are experts in any area of history, one of the things that they’ll talk about is the importance of being able to understand primary and secondary sources and to develop conclusions based on the reading that they’re doing in those primary and secondary sources.
And so for historians, it may be looking at something like, “What conclusions can we draw based on these sources about the culture of that particular time or what cause and effect predictions could we make based on what we’ve seen of this thing happening in history versus that thing happening in history?” Now those are really valuable skills, not just for historians, but for someone in, as a person in the workforce in general, right? We’ve actually seen over the past generation, a huge need to be able to understand and recognize the relevance and accuracy of primary and secondary sources, and being able to identify where that information comes from and then be able to synthesize that information, to be able to make logical, well-founded conclusions based off of that. That’s not a history specific skill.
So when I work with subject matter experts that are incredibly knowledgeable, sure, about these dates and have them take a little bit of a step back and look at what are the important attributes of someone in your field, then that’s when we start to find some really good skills that everyone should have, and so we try to focus in on those. So as we’re developing a course, and we’re thinking about the student experience throughout a course, we’re not just thinking about what’s the important content to include, to make sure that, that student feels like they’re well covered in that particular course in terms of content. We’re thinking about, how can we use that content to allow students to develop those types of skills? So the topics may change, whether it’s a focus in history or a focus in a psychology class, the fundamental skill remains the same of being able to properly evaluate sources and be able to synthesize those sources, and to draw logical conclusions based off the information gained from those sources.
That’s wonderful, and thank you for that explanation. Now, when we look at this mapping and what we’re calling the skills or skills and competencies, I know that your team has developed a large matrix of skills and competencies. Generally, we refer to them as 21st-century skills and competencies. These have been informed by a number of world economic forum list, other people’s lists in the United States, and globally around skills and conferences. We’ve tried to create an amalgamation of those and the normalized list. Now, once you get a list of skills and competencies like that, that seem to be really important and agreed upon by a lot of different organizations when it comes to these are valuable to help people succeed in the 21st century, how do you go about presenting those or restating those in a forum that allows them to be aligned to curriculum?
Yeah. So this, a lot, goes back to what I was speaking about earlier with focusing on backwards design. So one of the things that we did when we looked at revising these skills and competencies was focusing in on the language that we were using. So while we maintained the essential skill and integrity of that particular skill or competency, we did focus in on the language to make sure that it was really, really clear and really, really measurable. And so that was one of the things that we did. And that was a consideration that we had as we looked at this revise is, as you looking at how it relates to the curriculum, you want to be very careful in two different ways.
One, you don’t want to try to just simply fit your outcome to the curriculum because it feels good and it makes sense and that sort of thing, you want to do it in a way that still stays true to what the student needs to be able to do. And then at the same time, you want to really use your mapping to these skills and competencies as an evaluation tool of your curriculum. And that will allow you to be able to identify some needs and some gaps in your curriculum as well. So those were some considerations that we had as we looked at that and how it related to the curriculum. I don’t know if I got at your question there. [crosstalk 00:11:23] a little bit.
No, no, no, you did good. No, no, that was good. And one thing you said there, I think is really important is in fact, the focus on measurability, and this is one of the things that I know that is our goal. Our goal as an organization is to try to remove as much of the, what I would call the squishiness of the current system of grading, evaluation, et cetera, that isn’t focused on really measurable performance or measurable things. Traditionally, I know when a student goes through courses and I say this as a former faculty member and an administrator, they go through courses and they take them and they get a grade. The grade they receive can be fairly accurate within the local context of their experience in that course, in that particular instructor. But then comparing that across instructors across institutions, there’s just a whole lot of lossiness there because we’re not tracking that grade, that evaluation to a true measurable outcome that is much more objective.
And I know that something would say, “Wow, but how do you measure critical thinking, et cetera, while you come up with very specific skills that are representations of that type of thinking that can indeed be measured?” So having given that context, why don’t you talk just a little bit about measurability and how we look at that and some of the different ways we kind of approach that.
Yeah. And this makes me think of earlier when you were talking about the focus being on, not necessarily what can students do, but what do they know and what they walk away from with knowing. And the struggle when you’re looking in terms of research and design and toxin in educational psychology, the thing is we can’t open up a student’s brain and actually know what they know. So we have to find ways that we can measure those types of things, you mentioned critical thinking. So what are some things that would show critical thinking? We can’t actually measure critical thinking itself, but what we can do is we can find some things that would point towards that a student is able to think critically about different situations. So it’s quite a challenge and especially when you’re looking at things like very well-defined skills and competencies, that’s where it becomes even more challenging.
Traditionally and in my past experience, not just in developing curriculum at TEL, but also in previous work experience that I’ve had in higher education, you’ll really find that faculty have a tendency to focus around a student’s ability to follow instructions. They get very, very hung up in assessments on a student’s ability to follow instructions. Those are absolutely very important. That’s an important skill to have. We would hope that every employee coming into an institution has an ability to follow instructions. But unfortunately, when all of your education is focused on your ability to follow instructions, you don’t really learn much past that. So you have students, and we’ve seen this as a phenomenon, that seem to be very capable of, they can do school. They’ve learned the game of what is education.
They know how to look through the syllabus, maybe they’re pretty sophisticated students. They know how to look through the syllabus, they know how to find cheap textbooks, and they know how to look at that rubric to make sure that they’re following all of the instructions and they’re checking the boxes. But what we found is a pretty significant gap in students being able to think, and to problem solve and to be creative and to be innovative, or to take ownership over things, because they’ve simply been taught to follow instructions. This is not necessarily the fault of the faculty per se, because it’s a challenge to measure how students think in courses. And so both in design and in my previous work, one of the things that I really try to focus on is if you’re, let’s say you take an assignment, that’s like a writing assignment, you don’t want to focus just on penalizing students for not following the instructions.
You really want to construct that rubric, or that whatever tool you’re using to measure it by, in a way that gets in at those really deep thinking types of skills. And again, you have to find ways that point towards that thinking ability. So that’s what we did when we were looking at the mastery standards as well, is we wanted to align very precisely with Bloom’s taxonomy, which is very commonly used. I always like to say it’s an oldie, but it’s a goodie. It’s a series of action verbs that help us really define what students are able to demonstrate. My team knows very well that one of my pet peeves is when I see outcomes that use the words know or understand. Because we have no way of opening up a student’s brain and really being able to see that. We can have a student select, we can have them identify, we can have them classify or evaluate or synthesize.
We can have them do those, those are actionable things, but we cannot have them just know a thing. It’s just not something we magically are able to be able to see that a student knows something or understand something. And it takes a lot of hard work to be able to really think through those things. And I think that’s the other challenge when you’re working on something like measuring any outcome or measurement tool like a rubric is it’s hard work. It’s hard work to think through that and it’s iterative. And you know from being in education as well, that you define your parameters and you really try to dig deep and make it really measurable for the things that you want to measure. And you get an assignment back and you start going through that assignment and the student just goes way off into left field.
So it definitely is iterative because we’re looking at essentially, it’s almost like a reflection in the mirror. You’re not getting the actual thing that the student is thinking, you’re getting a reflection of that in their work. And if they perceive your instructions in a certain way or your rubric in a certain way, that’s totally different than how you perceived it, you’re going to have to backtrack a little bit and iterate on that to improve it and to continue to refine it and make it more specific.
Right. Now that’s very helpful. I talk a lot these days about the importance of making learning visible. In my experience as a teacher, administrator, et cetera, and as a curriculum designer and builder and working with different companies, I know that we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in education, education curriculum, and educational technology and trying to make the learning process visible to instructors, to designers, et cetera. So we’ve been a lot of time focused at the top. So it’s important that we have instructors understand pedagogy, that they understand what they’re teaching, how they’re teaching it, why they’re teaching it. What has struck me a lot and had a pretty big impact on me of laid in my thinking is that we haven’t spent the same amount of time thinking about the need to have students understand what they’re learning, how they’re learning, what they’re getting out of this course and how to do that.
Beyond the syllabus, we just don’t spend that same amount of time getting an understanding, “Hey, if you did this, you would learn this. And here’s how this can be valuable in the real world.” It’s pretty much still, “Take the course because you need to take the course to get the degree, or you need this to get that.” But we’re not helping students when they get into each individual course, really grasp the process and what they can get out of it and how to do that and making that learning visible. And one of the things I love about mastery standards, about mastery assignments, about this deep tagging to outcomes into skills is it gives us something that’s really concrete, that we can share with students to help them understand why they’re learning, what they’re learning in concrete terms that means to them in the real world.
For sure. And I liked that this exists outside of the domain, and this gets back to what I was talking about when you were thinking more holistically about the skills that you want a student to walk away from a course with, the history example that I had earlier, this, this exists outside of a domain. And as we worked on this, one of the things we really thought about, you know, we were trying to kind of think about sort of iteratively, you know, how this related to our curriculum, but then also how it relates to the outside world and how just kind of, we kind of went in a cycle with all of these different pieces, right. To kind of see how each was improving each piece upon itself a little bit. And so I liked that it exists outside that domain, and I think that’s really important.
I was a former math teacher and so I got that question in my freshman algebra class all the time. When are we going to use this? That’s always the question you get in an algebra course. And one of my critiques was you would see a lot of times examples and you still, to this day, they make good examples, but I don’t know if they make particularly relatable examples. Things like learning how slope-intercept form works in relation to your electric bill and you know how your electrical bill is going to go up the more energy you spend and that’s a demonstration of a relationship. And my critique was always, these are freshmen students, they’re not paying electric bill. So that’s not a real-world example for them because even though it’s real world, they’re not there, you know what I mean?
And so I like that this really sits outside of that domain, but at the same time, also allows us to create and map to assessments that are more relatable and contextualized for the students. And I think at the point that you make it more relatable, you make it more contextualized for the students, you’re making students more aware. I think they’re looking for that piece. They wouldn’t be asking for the question. They wouldn’t be asking the question, “How am I going to use this in the real world?” You got some of those boogers that are like, they just want to get out of math class. But for the most part, they’re asking those questions because they do want to see that relationship. They want to see the bigger picture. They have some sense of awareness of wanting to be able to understand making their learning visible and being able to demonstrate that learning.
And so I think at the point that we’re able to exist outside of a domain, and then also create assessments that while, some of the topics may be domain related, the skills are not domain related, and we’re able to get students contextualized and motivated and interested in those pieces that they’re working on. That’s when they start to take agency and ownership over what they’re doing and that’s going to help them really make learning more visual for them.
What you’re working on, what we’re working on, I think is so incredibly important because it really does have the potential to move us beyond, “I’m taking this course because it’s part of my degree sequence,” to, “This course can be valuable to me personally, and help me succeed in life and help me succeed in my profession. And I can tell you exactly how it can help me because I have this map that shows what I’m learning, how it can help me develop these skills. They’re going to be valuable, not because I want to necessarily be a psychologist, but principles of psychology is teaching me specific skills about inquiry, about understanding human relationships, about working in groups, et cetera, that are going to be really important as I continue on my journey.”
So this is all part of our work is that we’re pulling together and combining our curriculum and technology into our student learning dashboard project. Just as a final question, Cat, what, in your work, what excites you the most right now in this area that you see us being able to make a difference in? How do you see that happening and what really jazzes you about all this?
There’s so much. I am a person that is, I like things very logical and sequenced and organized. I like it to make sense. And I think that comes back to what I was just mentioning about a student wanting to know how it applies to them and how they can use it. And something that I really like is that we’re looking at an entire program of curriculum. We’re not just looking at, “I’m the head of the psychology department and I’m just looking at the psychology courses.” We’re looking at all the courses in all of this and it allows us to really think very holistically. We can be interdisciplinary in what we’re doing. We’re able to really look at this and start to map this and iterate it, and all of those pieces, in a way that creates an entirety of an experience for a student.
So it’s not just a one-off, “I took this course with this professor over here,” or “I took this course with this professor over there.” It’s not siloed in a way that students walk away from it and they’re not really sure what it all means, or how it all connects. This gives us a central point in those skills and competencies as the mastery standards to go back to, and then it infiltrates all of the rest of our curriculum and connects the rest of our curriculum in a way that creates this really powerful experience for students that we will continue to iterate on and continue to improve so that students get it. They get what it all means, they see how everything goes together, and they really feel like they walked away, not just with, “Hey, I took a couple of classes, I checked a couple of boxes.”
They feel like they can actually do something and they see how everything’s connected. And I think that’s what really, really excites me about what we’re doing with this, but just in general, how we are developing our curriculum and continue to improve and add some incredible technology and functionality like the TEL Learning Dashboard. It’s just really exciting to be able to provide those types of experience for students and continue to see in the future about how it just continues to that relationship between the courses and in the curriculum holistically gets stronger and stronger in the future.
No, that’s very exciting and I appreciate you sharing that. As all educators do today, we have tremendous challenges in front of us, but lots and lots of opportunities to continue improving and also to continue finding new ways to have an impact on students’ lives. Not just today and in the classroom, but as they go through their life journey.
So this is exciting. I love having you as a partner in this journey, and I know you’re into so many things and with your research. And what’s one thing we should mention is, all of this, this granular alignment and tagging allows us to have a much deeper insight into what students are actually doing and how they’re benefiting from a research perspective, which in turn allows us to continue improving what we do so that we can get better at it.
Well, everyone, thank you for joining us today. Like I said before, our guest today has been Dr. Cat Jackson, the Chief Learning and Research Officer here at TEL Education. And she’s been helping us understand more about how TEL Education is using mastery standards to align the curriculum, to really guide students more in their learning in more concrete ways. So, Cat, thanks again for joining us today.
Thank you, Rob. Appreciate it.