I have found that, in general, educators don’t like talking about assessment. This could be for any of a variety of reasons:
- It may be because of standardised testing.
- It may be because it is confused with archaic habits like marking.
- It may be because of its relationship with reporting.
- It may be because it often has little or no effect on learning.
- It may be because it often remains hidden from students.
- It may be because methods are unsophisticated and/or don’t represent the types of learning valued by modern educators.
- It may be because it is subjective, biased or even prejudiced.
- It may be because it can be time-consuming.
- It may be because it gets used against teachers, and even students.
The problem is that, as we reject all of the forms of assessment that seem devoid of purpose, value and ethics, we risk not replacing them with forms of assessment that do have a purpose, that do have value and that are ethical. It is very easy to reject things, but it is hard work to design better alternatives. Often, the void that is left behind by the rejection of something can be just as harmful as the thing itself.
Sadly, the origin of the word is not helpful. Originally associated with calculating how much tax people had to pay, assessment has come to signify “the act of making a judgment”. Neither of these have any place in education.
No wonder it doesn’t feel right!
So, why are we still using the word?
I’m not going to pretend to suggest a better word. Lots of people have already done that. But, assessment lives on and may – either present or absent – be damaging learning.
Instead, I’d like to put forward some suggestions, and here they are:
- I suggest that educators take the time, put in the thought and make the effort to define why students are learning what they are learning, how they may be learning and what they may be doing when they are learning.
- I suggest that educators design effective tools and strategies that will illustrate learning to their students, guide students as they seek to make progress, help them become aware of their achievements and identify next steps.
- I suggest that educators make these tools and strategies highly visible to students, co-create them with their students when possible, and make reference to them and reflection through them a regular routine.
- I suggest that educators seeks ways to involve parents in these processes, helping them understand how their children learn and how they can be part of it.
- I suggest that schools seek ways to communicate, share and celebrate what is revealed by these approaches as they are likely to be much more accurate representations of learning, and of growth, than other forms of assessment have been for years.
- I suggest that we commit to doing these things with a genuine sense of urgency as traditional forms of assessment, or nothing in their place, are continuing to hold us all back.
It all sounds quite obvious, really, but this is how we represent, value and promote growth. We don’t do those things through judgment, but neither do we do them by saying “its all in my head”. For a start, thats not true. But also, if its in your head then your students can’t see it, and they deserve to see it.
It is, after all, their learning.
Bill and Ochan Powell (rest in peace, Bill) always say, above all else, “know your students”.
The written curriculum in your school is the students’ curriculum.
Your curriculum is the students.
They are learning about all the things expressed in their curriculum (and hopefully much more!).
You are learning about them.
Understanding this will help you make the shift from “deliverer of content” to a facilitator of learning, a designer of learning experiences and a partner for each of your students as they learn and as they navigate their curriculum. Each day, you will arrive at work full of curiosity, poised and ready to:
- get to know your students better
- inquire about them
- research into them
- get a sense of who each of them is in the context of learning taking place at the time
- discover what motivates them
- find out what interests and inspires them
- help them develop their own plans for learning
- get a sense of what they can do and what skills they may develop next
- learn about how they think
- try a wide variety of strategies to do all of the above
- never give up…
It is a very exciting moment when PYP Teachers realise they are inquirers who are constantly seeking, gathering and using data (in it’s most sophisticated and powerful forms) about their students.
It is this realisation that sets apart genuine PYP Teachers from those who simply work in a PYP school, for the two are vastly different.
PYP Teachers need to be determined to allow their students’ voices to dominate discussions in the classroom, and to use strategies that promote the thinking that is necessary for that to happen. They use open-ended questions or problems that invite debate, differing perspectives, controversy, elaboration and uncertainty… and then they listen, they probe and they invite others to add their thoughts. Most of all, they are curious about what students may be revealing through their words and how they might be able to use that information to guide what happens next.
The traditional “whole class conversation” tends to be between the teacher, who controls the conversation, and the one student doing the thinking at the time. There may a few others listening and waiting to contribute, but there will also be some who have drifted off, who have stopped listening and who may just be waiting for it to be over.
Simple strategies like “turn and talk” or “chalk talk” set things up so everyone is doing the thinking at the same time, not just one person at a time. Asking students to record their thoughts in writing also ensures they’re all doing the thinking, and sets them all up to be able to contribute to discussions afterwards.
More complex approaches, like Philosophy for Children and Harkness, model and teach the art of conversation and invite students to participate in deep conversations in which all are equal members.
The most simple strategy though is simply to remember to talk less. Say less at the beginning of lessons. Only repeat instructions to those who need the instructions to be repeated. Even better, display instructions or processes visually so that those who are ready and able or get on with it can do just that. You’ll be amazed how much time – a precious commodity in schools – can be saved.
Some of that time, of course, is yours… and it can be used to redefine your role as a teacher. Rather than doing so much talking, you can be observing students, listening to them, taking notes, writing down quotes that come from their mouths… all of that scribbling is formative assessment, planning, affirmation and honouring the importance of things your students say. It is inevitable that the teaching that follows will be different as a result.
Once teachers have a good sense of the “big picture” of units, they turn their attention to designing the initial learning experience, or provocation, for their students. Not much more than this should be planned as everything else really depends on how students respond to this initial experience.
When designing powerful learning experiences, it is important to consider these points:
Check teacher attitudes – all teachers involved need to be genuinely curious about their students and how they will react or respond to learning experiences and see themselves as inquirers who are researching their students.
Return to learning – continuously remind yourselves of the desired learning in the unit and also be aware of any other learning that may unexpectedly become part of it.
Know your curriculum – familiarity with the curriculum – basically “knowing it like the back of your hand” – means you can plan for learning and also include unexpected learning as it arises.
Understand difficulty and create struggle – students will only really reveal useful information about themselves to you if there is an element of challenge or struggle involved. This is what separates a provocative learning experience from an “activity”.
Consider group dynamics – be very purposeful about how you intend your students to work… are you looking for them to think independently or to collaborate? Are their choices about how to work part of the information you’re looking for?
Collaborate for effectiveness – work well with your colleagues to make sure each of you has an active role during the experience, such as observing and documenting in different ways.
Test on yourselves – it’s always a good idea, as well as fascinating, for teachers to try out a learning experience on themselves to see how it feels, what is revealed and whether or not it is really worth doing.
Use pace, place and space – these three elements are often overlooked, yet can totally make or break learning experiences. Think carefully about how time will be used and how you can read the situation to add or take away time accordingly. Think carefully about the best location for learning experiences to take place and how that location could be adapted for the purpose. Explore the space and discuss how you can use space intentionally, including the movement of students and the placement of materials, to create the right feeling and atmosphere.
Understand the power of mood – explore ideas and strategies for the creation of particular moods to enhance learning, such as relaxation, mindfulness and music (I’ll write a posting about this soon). Most importantly of all, have high expectations for student attitude and let them know you care about it and take it seriously.
Yes, we all know that we should be moving rapidly towards models of education that can be described as self-directed, self-regulated, student-driven, learner agency etc… and many of us are genuinely trying to do so. Many more have been trying to do so for many years… bit-by-bit, step-by-step. If you’ve been part of this for a while, “hello again”. If you’re just joining us, “welcome to our struggle”.
Creating the conditions for these types of learning to occur is not simple. It just isn’t as simple as handing control over to students and saying “go for it”. Like all people, our students need to know what “successful” looks like and how they can be it. At some point, someone has to articulate what we are looking for from our students. In collaborative teams, this means argument, compromise, semantics and considering what the different stages of learning might be as students work towards success. Assessment should be formative, purposeful and provide students with the guidance they need… it should illustrate their next steps. The language this is articulated in should be instructive, easy to understand and present in the daily vocabulary of your learning culture. Creating the tools and strategies for this to happen effectively is a very hard task, but it is hard because it is worth doing.
This notion of “successful” cannot remain a nebulous, abstract notion in the mind of an individual teacher. There can be no “hit and miss” about whether or not this notion of “successful” is communicated clearly to students, or even communicated to them at all. There can be no half-hearted attempts or abandoned thinking just because it’s difficult or “uncool”. Teachers and groups of teachers must deliberate about:
- where the learning is going
- what they’re looking for from the students
- how they might reach – or get close to that
- how they will guide students in that direction
Guess what… that’s going to end up being a rubric or a continuum or some other form or model of criteria – because that’s the point we’ve reached so far in the evolution of education. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to move beyond tests, multiple choice, right and wrong, yes and no, good or bad. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to turn the abstract into the tangible, to convert randomness to clarity and to extract what has been hidden in the minds of teachers and make them visible to students. They symbolize the attempt to allow for more freedom of pedagogy, more room for manoeuvre, more real, on-going differentiation and the recognition that our students learn and do at different rates.
Like everything in life, there’s some amazingly good examples out there, and there’s some incredibly bad ones, and a whole lot in-between. What makes them amazingly good is thought. What makes them incredibly bad is lack of thought (I feel a rubric coming…). If you’re not a fan of rubrics or continuums, or don’t think they’re fashionable… come up with another way of doing what’s in the bullet points above and share it with everyone. Fashion designers don’t ditch the previous season’s designs and tell everyone to go around naked until someone randomly suggests an article of clothing! They come up with new designs, they innovate. I’m sure everyone in education would be very interested to see what you come up with, although I can’t promise a “Paris Rubric Week” any time in the near future!
Let’s face it, without guidance, most students would be completely lost… largely because their teachers would be equally lost because they never really bothered to discuss what the learning was really about. The “blind leading the blind” is never used as a positive example, unless as a joke.
Our job is not a joke.
Now, of course, the ideal situation is for students to be defining “successful” in their own terms, in the contexts that they design instead of those designed by teachers, setting their own goals, and to be articulating:
- where they think the learning is going
- what they’re looking for from themselves
- what they’re looking for from their peers
- how they might reach – or get close to that
- who might guide them in that direction
But… guess what… they’re going to need their teachers to work with them on those things. They’re going to need to get good at doing those things… they are skills that are developed in steps (sound familiar?). Teachers will be need to be observing, noticing, assessing and giving useful feedback/feedforward about how the students are learning, the levels of autonomy or independence they are demonstrating, their ability to reflect on themselves and use those reflections to move forwards. But how will they make sure they’re using a common language? How will they make sure they have a shared vision of what “good looks like”? How will they ensure they’re consistent in their support and guidance for students? How will they make sure they appreciate the steps students take as they make progress? How will they help their students appreciate their own development?
Right now, I don’t see a better way to frame those conversations and decisions than in the collaborative creation of rubrics or continuums. Do you?
So, make your rubrics or continuums about that. And if you don’t like rubrics or continuums, come up with another way of communicating with students about their learning, share it and be a person who is part of the evolution of education, not a person who gets in our way while we try to do so.
I often hear people who are reluctant to talk about assessment tools use the very clever line about “thinking outside the box”… probably because (yes, its subtle) many of them look like boxes. It’s scary that creative people use this sort of reasoning as they seem to forget – almost instantly – how useful boxes are, how beautiful they can be, how many sizes, colours and shapes they come in and how they can be transformed into other things.
In PYP schools there are six units of inquiry over 6 ‘grade’ levels from PREP to Grade 5. That equals 36 units of inquiry. That’s 36 opportunities to analyse and synthesize the learning at the ‘conclusion’ of a unit of inquiry. Yes, I’m fully aware that formative assessment is happening all the time. But as far as the summative assessment goes, we do this only once at the ‘end’ of a unit. This is a way to gauge what a student’s understanding of the central idea is after 6 weeks of learning and inquiring.
How can we effectively capture all that learning and understanding?
For years we’ve been creating rubrics. They take a long time to design and develop. This process does allow the people in the same room to not only deepen their understanding of the learning and make connections to the central ideas and lines of inquiry…….this approach also creates a common language and sets clear expectations on the possibilities and the potential that may come out of those learning experiences.
Is the investment (time, effort and energy) worth it when developing a rubric to assess students’ understanding and knowledge? Does this process add value?
In short, yes. Taking teachers through this process requires a lot of constructing and it is through that process we are able to share, defend, explain and talk about student learning. That in itself is pretty exciting stuff. While it does take time in reaching consensus… only then can we achieve clarity. It helps us see how to measure progress of learning and evidence it alongside of the rubric. Students still can choose the best way to demonstrate their learning, it is the rubric that anchors how student’s represent what they have come to know and do.
We’ve changed the branding of ‘rubric‘ to ‘learning continuum,‘ which has created a positive spin on developing robust, relevant and authentic learning expectations.
Our goal as a school is to develop 36 learning continnums, just like a POI. We can critique these, challenge them, build upon them, just like we do with all central ideas, not only as a POI review, but at the start of each unit. We are finding that we are getting better at writing these over time too. Yes, at times we hit walls and get stuck, but it is the fighting through it that we have the best conversations which leads to better ideas, resulting in better teaching.
Personally, I feel that most assessments fall short and teachers end up doing another reflection as their summative assessment. This is not good enough and it touches on Sam’s previous blog post of salmon swimming up stream…. teachers just run out of time; therefore, well put-together, thoughtful and meaningful assessment tools take a back seat! The unit simply fizzles out and doesn’t become much for student’s to engage with it and look for way they can transfer this into other areas of learning.
So why am I writing this? Well, there are a few reasons… the main one is that through the self-study process, I’ve come to realize that section C4 (Assessment) is an area that we need to challenge. We don’t have a clear approach or expectation on what that is or can look like. If we are to be true to the teaching and learning then we need to honor it with a rich and authentic learning continuum – it is all in the feedback we give to our students. Finish the unit well by taking it all the way! Do more than notice the learning, embrace it and set goals with your students, so that the next unit is a continuation from the previous one. How can our students improve from unit to unit, not just wait for the next ‘Sharing the planet’ unit in a year’s time.
What do you do to capture your students’ learning?
Let me know if you want to take a look at some of our Learning Continuums. We need to share these more with one another, so we can adapt them and design powerful assessments – together.
(apologies for the low quality image, but it really says it all)
Working with our Grade 5 team is really interesting at the moment because what’s going on is a real to and fro’, a real Ping Pong game in the way that the students are responding to the provocation that the teachers have designed for them, and then the way the teachers are responding to the provocations offered back to them by the students’ responses.
The teachers are having to re-think, not only having to re-think the nature of this current Who we are unit, but today they began to re-think how the data they’re getting back from the students affects the unit that comes next also. This is very exciting because this means that the teachers are not seeing difficulties as roadblocks, but instead seeing difficulties – as a result of what their students are doing and saying (or not doing and saying) – as an opportunity again to reflect and to think “OK, how do we respond to what we know about the students now?”
The case in point here is that Grade 5 teachers, through the provocations they have been doing this week and last week, have really unearthed that the students (a) are not particularly curious about human behaviour and, probably as a direct result, (b) are not particularly good at observing human behaviour and noticing patterns. And so, as a result, they’re thinking that their initial hopes that students would be able to get to the point where they are designing their own social, behavioural experiments as part of Who we are were overly ambitious. Instead, they are going to have to devote the time and energy of Who we are to really developing that curiosity about human behaviour – with an ongoing reflective angle that “learning about other people’s behaviour helps me reflect on my own” – and also developing their ability to actually observe human behaviour and asking those questions… what am I looking at, what am I looking for, what do I notice, what evidence is there, how do I record that evidence and what kind of patterns am I noticing that could become a big idea or even a hypothesis?
They then said “OK, well let’s do How the world works next… and in How the world works, we give them six whole weeks just to test those hypotheses and to do so using a clear scientific process. Now that flow and constructivism from one unit to another is really exciting.
And, there’s a lot of tension and worry about “how am I going to get my students to this point or that point by this time?” or “oh, my students haven’t responded to this very well” or “they’re not that interested in it yet”… all of these natural tensions that teachers feel – good teachers feel. But then, coming together spontaneously – not waiting for a meeting – coming together spontaneously, working their way through it using all that information to help them redesign and redefine how things go from here.
It also reinforces a point that I make over and over and over again and that is that teachers have to have difficult conversations, teachers have to go through the struggle themselves, teachers have to finish the day thinking “I don’t know where this is really going… how do I find that clarity, how do I help my students find that clarity?” The only way they can do it is by having difficult conversations, by challenging each other, by challenging themselves. Good teaching is not just a series of tick-boxes that you can say you’ve done. Good teaching is critical thinking, it is tension, it is emotion, it is responsiveness, it is spontaneity.
As Suzanne, one of the Grade 5 team said after reading this post:
“Openness to spontaneity makes good teachers great.”