Category: Schools

Assessment – The Elephant in the Room

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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.

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Wake up! Slow down. Leave time for learning.

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I caught myself again.

The last time was in 2013 and I wrote about it then too.

What did I catch myself doing? Rushing my children… and, by doing so, denying them countless opportunities to learn.

We’ve just moved to Paris. Everything is new. At the moment, the newest things are christmas decorations in the streets and the increasingly intense cold. Every morning, my children just want to look, talk, feel, experience, ponder, notice, appreciate and wonder. But, I have caught myself rushing them. Hurrying them up towards some imaginary or completely unimportant deadline – the need to be early, on time or not late.

It doesn’t really matter if I’m early, on time or not late. My children matter. their experiences of the world matter.

It’s shocking for an educator to do this to his own children. But, we do it to our students every day. We hurry them from lesson to lesson. We dictate their agenda all day. We reduce break times. We don’t give them enough time to eat. We decide if they can go to the toilet or not. We treat “inquiry” as a stand-alone subject that we do in the last period, if they’re lucky. We make their lives busy, indeed we teach the art of “busyness”, as if we don’t trust them to do anything of value if we don’t.

And yet, we all know that the most powerful learning happens when we slow down, when we give them sustained periods of time, when we don’t interrupt and when they’re making choices about why, how and what to learn.

Old habits die hard. How much of modern schooling is still “old habits”?

Being a PYP Teacher Part 4: Collaborate with your students

 

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Kath Murdoch says that inquiry teachers “let kids in on the secret”, and I totally agree.

Far too often, we keep all of the planning, decision-making, assessment data, idea-generation, problem-solving and thought-processes of teaching hidden away from our students. Because of this, teaching becomes something that we do to students, not with students. As long as we are doing all of those things ourselves, behind closed doors, education will retain its traditional teacher-student power relationship and, no matter how often we use fancy words like “agency” and “empowerment”, students will continue to participate in, rather than take control of, their learning.

PYP teachers take simple steps to “let kids in on the secret”, to collaborate with their students.

They begin by showing students that their thoughts matter – they quote them, they display their words, they refer back to their thinking and they use their thinking to shape what happens next. When students become aware that this is happening, their relationship with learning instantly begins to shift.

Then, PYP teachers start thinking aloud – openly thinking about why, how and what to do in front of their students and not having a rigid, pre-determined plan or structure. This invites them into conversations about their learning, invites negotiation about how their time could be used, what their priorities might be and what their “ways of working” might be. There is a palpable shift in the culture of learning when this starts happening, from compliance to intrinsic motivation.

Finally, PYP teachers seek as many opportunities as possible to hand the thinking over to their students deliberately – not only because they have faith in them, but also because they know their students are likely to do it better than they can themselves! It’s shocking how frequently we make the assumption that students are not capable of making decisions, or need to be protected from the processes of making decisions, or that getting them to make decisions is a waste of “learning time”. As soon as we drop that assumption and, basically, take completely the opposite way of thinking… everything changes. Hand things over to them and they will blow you away! I still love this video of my old class in Bangkok figuring out the sleeping arrangements for their Camp and doing it way better and with more respect than a group of adults ever could!

So… today, tomorrow, next week… look for ways to let kids in on the secret, and let us know what happens as a result!

Being a PYP Teacher Part 3: Know your students

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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.

Being a PYP Teacher Part 2: Talk less, ask (and scribble) more

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I’ve borrowed the inspiration for this one from two important sources, Kath Murdoch and Inquiry Partners.

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.

 

Being a PYP Teacher Part 1: Carry the Book

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The 1st, 50th, 500th and 5000th step required in order to become a PYP Teacher – because this is a never-ending process – is to carry a copy of Making the PYP Happen with you at all times.

Don’t go to any planning meetings without a copy of Making the PYP Happen. Instead, always have it with you so that you can:

  • refer to it for guidance as you strive to make your planning purposeful
  • refer to it to remind you of the five essential elements of the PYP
  • refer to it for ways to make learning rich in possibilities
  • refer to it so that you can ensure you really are educating the “whole child”
  • refer to it so that you understand why, how and what to assess
  • refer to it to seek clarity and the eloquent description of learning in its various forms
  • refer to it so you can become familiar with how education is changing, and has been changing since 2009

Whenever I ask people where their copy of Making the PYP Happen is, in lots of schools, the responses frequently vary between:

  • “Oh, I have one somewhere”
  • “Umm… I have a digital copy, I think”
  • “Yep, it’s on my laptop. Let me just load it up”
  • “I don’t know where it is”
  • “Ha ha ha, I don’t keep one with me all the time!”

These responses are indicative of a school culture in which reference to the most important guiding document has not become a habit. This makes it a thousand times less likely that people will know what it says, and then this makes it 1000 times less likely that people will be able to make it happen.

Naturally, the reverse of this is equally true.

So, go on. Find your copy, or get one printed if you don’t have one (digital just ain’t good enough, my friend) and take it with you to all planning sessions. Having it there for reference, for inspiration and for guidance will empower you as you seek to become a better and better PYP Teacher.

I just hope that the enhanced PYP doesn’t bring with it the removal of this amazing resource. In fact, I hope it brings quite the opposite.

Designing powerful learning experiences

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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.