Student Exhibitions as a Lever to Support School Change

Heather Lattimer provides insights for school leaders about improving school-wide changes around instruction and assessment. Dr. Lattimer offers examples from schools in the US and Kenya.

“I just don’t know how to get more buy-in,” a school principal who was trying to move her school to adopt a Deeper Learning approach told me recently. “I’ve taken teachers to conferences, had workshops here on campus, formed books clubs, and done demonstration lessons in classrooms myself, but most teachers seem to be only half-hearted in their efforts to use approaches that support Deeper Learning. They make an effort when they know that I’m going to visit but they revert right back to the traditional norm after I leave. I know that they want to be successful but they’ve been so ingrained with instructional practices geared toward standardized test preparation that it is very difficult to encourage a different approach, even if they know that it is what their kids need for long term success.”

Daraja Academy Nanyuki Kenya

This lament is all-too-common. Changing school culture around instructional practice and norms is challenging. This is especially true when the teaching and learning environment have been dominated by high-stakes tests that determine the futures of both our students and our educators. Whether we like it or not, the elements that are assessed are the elements that get prioritized. If national standardized end-of-year or end-of-school tests are the norm – particularly if the results of those tests are public, then the instruction will necessarily focus on preparing students for those tests.

If assessments are designed well and if they reflect the learning outcomes that we want for our students, then “teaching to the test” can be a real positive. The challenge is that most standardized tests are only able to assess a relatively narrow slice of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that our students need to be successful in the 21st century. Standardized tests can do a great job of assessing factual recall in particular subject areas but are not great instruments for assessing students’ abilities to grapple with real world challenges, synthesize information and ideas across disciplines, and present and defend their ideas to authentic audiences. To teach and assess students’ abilities to engage in this type of problem solving and critical thinking – skills which surveys of employers repeatedly indicate are critically important for career success – we must move beyond standardized tests and explore new ways to teach and demonstrate students’ learning.

Daraja Academy exhibition

One approach that has worked successfully to support school-wide changes in practice around instruction and assessment involves student exhibitions. Exhibitions make students’ learning visible by showcasing their work through public displays of student writing, projects, performances, presentations, or other artifacts. Unlike the typical awards or presentations that involve only the “best” students, exhibitions involve all students across a class, grade level, or throughout the school. They engage the larger community by inviting other students, parents, educators, and community stakeholders to come view the work and provide feedback. This public, transparent, and inclusive approach can help to strengthen student achievement, build a strong sense of school community and pride, and encourage equitable teaching practices and learning outcomes.

Meet Dr. Lattimer