Teaching & Learning Blog

Learn more about PS1's academic program, philosophy, and curriculum through the lens of Nancy Harding, our Assistant Head for Teaching & Learning. The Teaching & Learning Blog features posts published several times throughout the year. See the latest posts below.

What Is A Learning Goal And How Do We Think About Learning Goals At PS1 Pluralistic School?

Over the winter break, I had the opportunity to read all of the PS1 progress reports, from Youngers to Olders. Rather than it being a chore, it was a pleasure. It is evident from these reports how well our teachers know our students, socially and cognitively. Each report offers a complex snapshot of where a student is at this moment in time. One way that teachers are able to capture this information is because they are thoughtful and purposeful about the learning goals that they set. In this blog, I describe learning goals and how I work with teachers to plan them at PS1.

Setting learning goals is the process of establishing a direction to guide learning (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). Learning goals are the backbone for all lessons. It is the focal point for planning instruction. When teachers communicate learning goals to students, students can then make connections between the steps they are taking in class and what they are supposed to learn. They can gauge their starting point in relation to the learning objectives and determine what they need to pay attention to and where they might need help from the teacher or others. This clarity helps decrease anxiety about students’ ability to succeed and helps to support intrinsic motivation.

Learning goals are specific, and the language that teachers use to articulate them is essential since it requires actions that are measurable and observable. The language of learning goals is precise, objectives are set for specific tasks in particular, and there is a range of activities for the accomplishment of a particular task.

Learning goals are developed on three levels. The broadest goals occur at the unit level. These are created as an essential question that will help interweave social studies, science, and specific academic content. The next level (monthly) goals come from established research-based curricular standards and benchmarks. The third level of learning goals (weekly and daily) is determined by teachers to meet the needs of their students. For example, an essential question might be, "Why do people move?" This question acts as a unifying theme. In this example, geography and history learning goals come from the National Social Studies Curriculum Standards. The final level of planning integrates standard academic curricular goals with students’ academic and or developmental levels. These goals cover a range that is appropriate for all of the students in the class. 

Middles Math Example:

The unit level goal is an essential question. For the Middles Cluster, it is: What are relationships? Specifically, the goal is that students will be able to identify relationships as a concept, how relationships impact their role in the community, how relationships impact objects scientifically, and that students will explore relationships between people and the places where they choose to live. Through this example, you can see the rich opportunity we have to use these large goals to interweave academic and social learning.

At the monthly goal level, we have broad learning goals related to the topic that are based on standards and benchmarks. An example from Middles Math is: Investigate the relationship between multiplication and division. Use a variety of strategies to build subtraction fluency (including looking for patterns and relationships, determining unknown quantities on both sides of an equal sign). This is one example of a monthly math goal and is in no way comprehensive. There can be a number of monthly math goals.

The weekly level contains specific lessons and strategies. In this example for Middles math, these include but are not limited to: practicing facts and fluency with interactive math journals, differentiated stations to review skills related to subtraction fluency, determining unknown quantities on both sides of an equal sign, math learner glyph’s to extend and illustrate thinking, and enrich thinking, having students choose tools to demonstrate their thinking, and continued practice with interactive math journals.

The daily plans are iterative and change based on formative assessments that are ongoing and whether a student needs more or less time on a given skill or concept.

As students become familiar with specific learning goals, they gain experience in self-reflection about their learning. They can self-select learning targets, self-monitor their progress, and self-assess their development (Glaser & Brunstein, 2007; Mooney, Ryan, Uhing, Reid, & Epstein, 2005).

As you can imagine from the paragraphs above, all of this planning takes a lot of time and professional expertise. Teachers are expected to know their pedagogy and the strengths and challenges of their students.  One of the hallmarks of the PS1 program is the level to which our teachers truly know each student and have an in-depth understanding of each student’s development. The process of setting and following through on learning goals in this manner enriches that experience by facilitating students’ growth and their ability to progress.

Observe, Hypothesize, and Experiment: Science Education at PS1

At PS1, science is about students learning to observe, record, hypothesize, examine, and experiment to develop their scientific problem-solving skills. We take a three-pronged approach to our science curriculum following the model of the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS). Our school addresses a broad scientific theme every year, and the themes rotate between Physical/Earth Science and Life Science. Within these broad themes, I work with teachers to choose the coordinating NGSS, and clusters follow the associated learning goals. Students maintain detailed science journals that they use to record their science learning and continue throughout their years at PS1.

In the 2018-2019 school year, we are focusing on Physical/Earth Science. This topic examines important questions such as, “How can we make new materials?” “Why do some things appear to keep going, but others stop?” and “How can information be shipped wirelessly.” A fundamental goal in our science program is for students to see that there are underlying cause-and-effect relationships that occur in all systems and processes. Because the physical science ideas explain many natural and human-made phenomena that occur each day, developing an integrated understanding of them is essential for all learners.

NGSS seems to have been tailor-made for PS1. One example of a standard is: Develop a model of waves to describe patterns in terms of amplitude and wavelength and that waves can cause objects to move. Within the standard, there are specific sub-goals. The NGSS divide each one of these sub-goals into three sections: Design and Engineering, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts.  This three-pronged approach is ideally suited for PS1. The design and engineering work occurs in the Studio, teachers address the core science concepts in classroom lessons, and teachers use the cross-cutting concepts to help students make links between science and other subjects that they are learning. Chris works closely with all clusters and classrooms to support science learning in the classroom as well as with the amazing design and engineering work that he does in the Studio.

Design Thinking:

To expand on Chris’ work in the Studio, it’s important to elucidate the design thinking process. The heart of design thinking is Alvin Toffler’s quote (1970), “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." This is the foundation of design thinking. Students are attempting to solve problems—real problems—with their brainpower. They are unlearning and relearning constantly and they understand that their level of success depends on their solution's practical application in the real world.

The principles of design thinking (https://dschool-old.stanford.edu) are:


Identify a driving question that inspires others to search for creative solutions.


Inspire new thinking by discovering what people really need.


Push past obvious solutions to get to breakthrough ideas.


Build rough prototypes to learn how to make ideas better.


Refine ideas by gathering feedback and experimenting forward.


Design thinking supports PS1’s philosophy that engaging students to solve real-world problems empowers them to change the world. Want to see our STEAM Studio in action? Watch our video profiling ongoing design thinking projects with all Clusters at PS1 HERE.


The WHY Behind Multi-Age Groupings

Most of us grew up in age-segregated classes, as did our parents and perhaps, our grandparents. This history makes it easy to assume that such a school structure is both natural and universal. The age-stratified culture in which we educate our children is actually a product of the 20th century.

Early in the history of the US, schools were one-room schoolhouses with age diversity. In the dedicated one-room school building that emerged in the eighteenth century, a full-time teacher would use individual and tutorial methods to instruct a group of 10 to 30 pupils ranging in age from 6 to 14 years.

This one-room classroom practice started to end in 1843 when Horace Mann, the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, visited Prussia and saw schools in which children were “divided according to ages and attainments." This type of segregation seemed to him an excellent model for preparing a populace for the growing factory economy. By 1852, classrooms in the US were more narrowly segregated by age than ever before. Ability grouping, which is so much a part of how we envision classrooms, gained popularity after about 1920. This further reduced the variety present in classrooms.

In 1963, Goodlad and Anderson looked at the current research in child development and proposed that the rigid age/grade system was not designed to accommodate the realities of child development, including children's abilities to develop skills at different rates and at different levels. The graded system does not take into account differences in children's achievement patterns. Goodlad understood that learning is not linear and children typically progress at different rates in different areas of study and at different times in their development. A traditionally graded school assumes that all children will progress through each area of study at the same pace. In this system, a child has no freedom or flexibility to develop at the pace that is optimal for their needs. 

In a non-graded school like PS1, there is a longitudinal concept of curriculum and planned flexibility in grouping. We describe a student’s trajectory at PS1 as one seven-year experience. The curriculum includes continual and sequential learning, with behavior and content running vertically through the curriculum. Grouping is flexible and changes to meet student needs. Groups are organized around interest groups or work-study groups or achievement, or a combination of the three with some groupings being heterogeneous (mixed levels) in skills and other groups being homogeneous (similar levels) in skill levels. Teachers adjust their lessons to ensure that students grasp concepts, skills, and content through their entire educational journey.

Multi-age groupings are (and always have been) an integral part of the structure of the PS1 learning experience. Just as the research suggests, we see how our multi-age groups enhance learning on a daily basis. Year after year, and now generation after generation, parents come back and tell us that a two-year age range was the most important piece that made their children the well-rounded, well-spoken, confident, comfortable, agile people they have become.

Source: Author (2002). Title. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/assignment1/  (date accessed).


Mathematics Education at PS1

The mathematics curriculum at PS1 consists of three components that interact to create a comprehensive and motivating approach to learning and understanding mathematics. The graphic above depicts the three components in a triangle with CGI on top, the Bridges math program at one corner and the Common Core Standards for Mathematics at the other corner. Together, the three components provide a conceptual framework that implements a variety of tools for teaching, and clear standards for monitoring students’ progress. In this blog, I will describe each of the components and how they interact.

Cognitive Guided Instruction

CGI is at the top of the triangle since it provides the underlying philosophy of mathematics teaching and learning at PS1. The goals of CGI go beyond teaching students to calculate. CGI creates students who are problem solvers, can communicate mathematically, and have mathematical reasoning ability.Below I explain what each skill means and what it looks like in the classroom.

Students who are mathematical problem solvers question, find, investigate and explore solutions to problems. They demonstrate tenacity and stick with a problem to find a solution. They understand that there may be different ways to arrive at an answer and apply math successfully to everyday situations. In the classroom, students will use different strategies to solve problems and be encouraged to teach each other their strategies to expand their problem-solving repertoire. It is essential for the teacher to “hear” what students are thinking.

Students who communicate mathematically go beyond simply answering a question. They use mathematical language, and numbers, charts or symbols to explain things and to explain their reasoning for solving a particular problem in a certain way. CGI requires that students employ careful listening to understand others' ways of thinking and reasoning. In the classroom, students model the actions or relations described in the problem. +, =, >, <, etc. so that symbols become actual words and pictures with meaning for the students. 

The student with mathematical reasoning ability is applying logical thinking, seeing similarities and differences in objects or problems, making choices based on those differences and thinking about relationships among things. This occurs when students apply what they are learning in math to their work in The Studio (for example) and visa-versa. Students who are learning measurement in the classroom use this knowledge to estimate and plan what they will need to build a birdhouse.  The “measure twice, cut once” adage has meaning to them.

Bridges Mathematical Program

This year, PS1 implements the Bridges Mathematics Program. This program is a philosophical fit with both PS1 and CGI. A task force of teachers worked with the entire faculty over a two-year period to look at math programs that fit the philosophy and structure of our school. In total, approximately eight different programs were examined. We looked for a program that promotes learning as a collaborative and social endeavor, that supports problem solving, skill-building and provides excellent professional development support for teachers. Bridges does all of this. The Bridges philosophical underpinning is that mathematical learning is a process of constructing meaning to make sense of concepts and requires perseverance and willingness to encounter new problem-solving challenges. This is an excellent match to PS1.  Students learn to apply problem-solving strategies new and different ways and in different contexts. This is an essential preparation for higher mathematical thinking.

From the Bridges website:

“Bridges focuses on developing deep understanding of math concepts, proficiency with key skills, and the ability to solve new and complex problems. Learning activities tap into the intelligence and strengths all students have by presenting mathematically powerful material alive with language, pictures, and movement. Students in a Bridges classroom talk about math, describe observations, explain methods, and ask questions. They are encouraged to find multiple ways to solve problems and show different ways of thinking. This is a vital way to help students build more flexible and efficient ways to solve increasingly complex problems. Hands-on activities engage them in exploring, developing, testing, discussing, and applying mathematical concepts.”

In August, all of the teachers attended a two-day (16 hour) professional development training at PS1 to learn about how to implement the Bridges program. Bridges will continue to provide support to teachers live and online throughout the year.

While Bridges is the tool that we have adopted school-wide, we always supplement our curriculum to meet the diverse needs of our students. Olders teachers have been using the Eureka program as a supplementary math tool. Eureka has a very strong 6-12 curriculum. Olders teachers will continue this practice.

Common Core Standards for Mathematics (CCSM)

The Common Core Standards for Mathematics were developed in partnership with the National Council for Teaching Mathematics. They are detailed and developmentally appropriate. CCSM provide a clear road-map for teachers to monitor student progress. The Bridges tool is aligned with the CCSM. Additionally, the CCSM have a foundation of eight practices that pervade learning mathematics at all grade levels. As you will see from this list, these practices complement and support CGI. The Mathematical Practices are:

  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. 
  • Reason abstractly and quantitatively. 
  • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. 
  • Model with mathematics. 
  • Attend to precision. 
  • Look for and make use of structure. 
  • Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning. 

These three programmatic elements of CGI, Bridges and CCSM create a robust mathematical curriculum for students at PS1. 

Finally, parents often ask what they can do to encourage their child in math. If we are not advocating that you practice drills and flashcards, what else can you do?   Encourage your child to be a good problem solver by including them in routine activities that involve math—for example, measuring, weighing, figuring costs and comparing prices of things they want to buy. You can help your child learn to communicate mathematically by asking them to explain what they must do to solve a math problem or how they arrived at their answer. For example, ask your child to draw a picture or diagram to show how they arrived at the answer. You can encourage your child's mathematical reasoning ability by talking frequently with her about these thought processes.

We look forward to continuing to update you about our math curriculum through Class News throughout the school year.

The “Summer Slide”

You may have heard the term, “Summer Slide.” It refers to the perceived loss of learning that children may experience over the summer months. The assumption is that the only learning that matters occurs in school, and without that daily reinforcement children will be at a deficit in September. This is a very narrow definition of learning, and yet it often goes unchallenged. Grey, 2017, suggests that the most important lessons of life are learned in more unstructured settings; giving us opportunities to make our own decisions, create our own activities, and figure out how to be with ourselves and each other.

Posted Jul 22, 2017, Peter Gray Ph.D. Psychology Today

As we head off into summer break, I reflect back on my own experience as a parent.

In the summer of 2001 my son was five years old and I started to read him the first Harry Potter book. We sat on the couch and read a lot that summer. Sure he went to day camp and swimming lessons and participated in other summer activities, but what I remember most fondly is being curled up together and reading to him for hours on end. Happily, there were seven other books and we got to do this for seven summers. Sometimes as he got older, we would share the reading, but mostly he preferred just listening. And yes, as he got older, the space between us on the couch grew… though he stayed close.

These are deep and lovely memories of being with my boy (who is now grown). Why am I telling you this story? I think that as parents, we want to give our children EVERYTHING. We want to be THE BEST parents and make sure that our children don’t MISS OUT. But the most important stuff happens in the times between all the planning and structure.

Be quiet with your children this summer, lay around, relax, draw, read, listen to music, play! They will be out of the house in what will feel like a minute. The summer slides to think about are the slip n slide or the slides in the playground or the slides at the water park!

​Have Fun. Enjoy your precious children.​

Additional Posts:

PS1 and Thematic Curriculum:


Structure in a Progressive Classroom: