Assessment done with students, not to students

This year I have tried to approach assessment differently. I wanted my students to feel that assessment is something I do with them… not to them.

I have made many shifts in my assessment practices to try and accomplish this goal:

Discussions about assessment

As a class we discussed the difficulty of trying to measure a human’s learning and I shared that there are many different approaches to trying to figure out what a student has learned in school. We discussed a handful of approaches for measuring learning and then we tried each of them out within the context of our unit.

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Co-constructed success criteria

Instead of teachers sitting behind closed doors, deciding what ought to be learned by the end of a unit, I made those decisions collaborative with my students. I used the structure of growing definition where first students brainstorm on their own, then they combine ideas with a partner, then they merge thinking with another set of partners, then a foursome with a foursome and so on until the whole class builds a list together. Once their student list was created, I consulted our school curriculum documented and added any knowledge or concepts they might have left out. This list then became our success criteria that we used throughout the unit.

Student chosen summatives

Teachers and teaching teams spend hours, upon hours, discussing and trying to figure out how students can best show their learning at the end of a unit. This year, instead of choosing that choice for them, I handed that decision over to my students. When we approached the end of the unit, I would ask “How best can you share your learning from this unit?” Some students who felt most comfortable expressing themselves orally would submit a vlog or request a one-on-one conference, other students who felt they best expressed themselves in writing would submit a written text, and others who felt they could best express themselves visually would produce a mind map, or concept map or cartoon – some sort of visual to convey their new thinking and new knowledge.

Triangulation of perspectives

Oftentimes as teachers we are the only – and ultimate – voice of assessment. Sometimes we tokenistically invite self and peer assessment, but rarely are those assessments equally valued. So this year I wanted to take a flatter, more democratic approach to assessment. Whether it was diagnostic, formative or summative, we always followed the same three steps: first the student would assess themselves, next they would find a peer to offer their perspective, then purposefully last, I as the teacher would share my perspective. What they end up with, is three different perspectives… all equally valued.

  

Interchangeability of diagnostic, formatives and summatives

Instead of approaching diagnostic, formative and summative assessments as assessments that you do at the beginning, middle and end of a unit – I took a much more fluid approach. If a student did a diagnostic and demonstrated all the knowledge and skills that were expected they could decide to use that as their summative and then either choose to extend themselves in this area of continue with a personal inquiry of their choice – thus the diagnostic becomes the summative. If partway through the unit a student demonstrates the required knowledge and skills, then that formative can then become their summative and they would have the same choice of extending or free learning. And finally, on the “last day” of the unit if a student completed a summative and had not yet demonstrated the necessary knowledge and skills they could choose to continue to learn, and therefore turn that summative into a formative and re-take the summative at a later time when they felt ready.

Decision making conferences

When it came time to enter “final marks” into the report card, I would sit with each student individually and have a conversation about where they thought they were in their learning. They would look back at the assessment data and tools and share where they thought they were and then I would do the same. Together we would agree on a mark that we both felt comfortable putting on the report card.

Taking it to the next level…

All in all, it was a great change in practice! I think my students felt empowered to have a voice in their learning and in the measurement of their learning. I think students felt their perspectives were respected and valued. And on a personal level, it felt much more humane and much more like a partnership in supporting their learning journey!

Upon reflections from this year and visions for next year, here are a few ways that I would like to take the approach of ‘doing assessment with students’ even further:

Individualized success criteria 

I enjoyed the process of co-constructing success criteria with my students, but to take that further I would love to personalize that process even more and have students design their own individual success criteria. Flipping the question “What should we learn but the end of the unit?” more towards “What should I (or do I want to) learn by the end of the unit?” This would open up some great conversations with students about choosing how they might know they have been successful at learning something or acquiring new skills. Here is a blog post with an example of how one teacher approached this.

Beyond triangulation of perspectives

This year I think I did a pretty good job shifting the assessment power away from myself as a teacher, and equally distributing it between myself, the student and a peer. However, I would like to push that model further and perhaps figure out a way to include the perspective of parents, industry experts or community members. I don’t think it would have to be all 6 sources every time. I think there could be a lot of authentic learning in having students decide which assessment perspective is most helpful in a specific situation.

Student written report cards

The only part of the assessment process my students were kept out of this year was reporting. Moving forward I would love to see students take a more equal role in writing their own report cards. Here is a great blog post with some suggestions I hope to be able to follow in the future.

How do you ensure assessment is something done “with students” not “to students” in your classroom or school?

Student Agency vs. Reading Instruction

It is no secret that this year I have been trying to create a classroom culture that respects and supports’ my students’ agency in their journey as learners. One of my biggest challenges this year has been figuring out how traditional approaches to reading instruction can fit within a model designed to help students take back ownership of their own learning.

I’m currently completing my MEd capstone on student agency and in my research I came across a very provocative quote from Mary Chapman (an early learning expert at UBC) and I can’t seem to get it out of my mind:

“At the end of the day, if they don’t like reading and writing and they don’t do it unless they are forced to… what’s the point?” 

If my students only read and write when they are forced to read and write… what is the point, indeed.

So naturally one of my fundamental goals this year has been to create a culture of passionate readers and writers – with the help of much advice from Pernille Ripp. But moving from helping students learn to love reading… to helping students become better readers, is where I feel the waters start to get a little murky.

When I think about the commonly accepted approaches to helping students become better readers through the lens of student agency I begin to question some of our approaches. There are currenlty many common approaches to reading instruction under the microscope by many teachers – reading longs, mandated home reading programs, etc. – all of which I agree with. However, in addition to critically questioning these approaches, my learning tension tends to extend to other strategies for reading instruction – namely traditional approaches to guided reading.

When I think about guided reading through the lens of making students better readers I can see  benefits. But when I think about guided reading through the lens of student agency I can see red flags. In traditional approaches to guided reading the teacher chooses what, when, where, why and how the student reads. So I wonder, where is their voice and ownership in this activity? And how does this impact their love of reading?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not under the misconception that children magically learn to read and we as teachers don’t have a role in helping that to happen. But if I think back to the quote about students only reading when being forced to read, and how a lack of agency in the process likely contributes to this, then I begin to wonder…

How can we get the benefits of guided reading without sacrificing students’ agency in the process?

I have no magic answers, but I do have a few ideas about some possibilities….

I think a first step is shifting the culture of forced feedback to found feedback. Currently, we are giving students feedback about how to become better readers – whether they want that feedback or not. Which begs the question, how effective is unsolicited feedback. If we are telling students how to become better readers, and they don’t care – how much action is being taken based on that feedback? Again, don’t get me wrong I respect and recognize the neccessity and power of feedback in the learning process, I just wonder if there is a way to help students want to gather feedback, instead of just giving it to them.

I think order to create that culture of “gathering feedback” we need to start by asking the question “who owns the learning?” In a traditional approach to guided reading the teacher is doing the learning to the student. The locus of control rests with us as the teacher. We are making all the choices about why, what, how, when and where. The students merely shows up when we tell them to, reads what we tell them to, does what we tell them to and thinks about what we tell them to. They may be “active” in the sense that they are reading, speaking, thinking, and sharing, but they are not “agentic” in the sense of experiencing ownership over their own improvement as a reader. I think until this transfer of ownership occurs we can’t expect students to seek out feedback about how to improve.

I’m not saying scrap all approaches to reading instruction or stop guided reading altogether. I’m just saying that I think it’s time we reinvision these approaches. I think we need to be careful that our best intentions to create strong readers – aren’t creating strong readers… who only read when forced to. I think we as educators need to be asking questions like:

How can we empower students to know themselves as readers so they make informed choices about how they can improve?

How can we give ownership back to the students so that they are signing up to be part of a guided reading session?

How can we get the benefits of reading instruction without compromising student agency? 

How can we create better readers and writers without creating readers and writers who only read and write when forced to?

What if?

I started this year with a dream to build a fair, free, democratic classroom where students have agency over their own learning… and to be completely honest, it has been quite difficult. Most days I feel like I am trying to jam a round peg into a square hole. There are so many constraints and structures that run deep within the current system of school, that it has been difficult to circumvent them.

This year I have tried to change my practice to fit within the system, but I’m beginning to wonder if those goals are fully achievable without changing the system itself.

So I have begun to wonder…

What if curriculum, instead of being multiple pages with hundreds of bullets, was simply “find out where students are and help them move along”?

What if assessment, instead of being focused on achievement, measured and celebrated the amount of progress made by a student?

What if school goals, instead of being focused on an percentage increase of reading scores, focused on a percentage increase of love of reading?

What if reports, instead of being written solely by the teacher, were written collaboratively by the student, their family and the teacher?

What if timelines, instead of being based on pre-determined start and finish dates, were driven by students’ learning needs and interests?

What if grades, instead of ranking and labelling with letters, numbers and words, changed exclusively into feedback that advised students about how to improve and where to go next?

What if day plans, instead of being written by the teacher, were written by each student?

What if standardized tests, instead of measuring skills and knowledge, measured how much students enjoy school and find it beneficial to their life?

Sir Ken Robinson urges us that reform of the current system is not enough – it’s a complete learning revolution that is needed. Based on my experience this year I would have to agree. I think that making small shifts within the system is not enough, we as educators need to continue (or for some of us begin)  critically looking at and discussing what parts of the school system are harmful to or a hindrance of student learning. It’s time to stop talking about how best to jam a round peg in a square hole, and time to start talking about how to change the whole itself.

What revolutionary, systemic “what ifs” would you add to the list?

Throw out the day plans and follow your students 

Many educators today are faced with students who want to discuss nothing other than the US election… even in countries outside of America. My class was no different. So when one of my students asked “Can we spend some time today talking about the election?” I had two options.

1. Say no and offer an explanation about our lack of time due to assessments, report deadlines, and being behind in our unit…

Or

2. Throw out the day plans, clear the schedule and go for it.

I chose the latter. I told the students that if they were interested they could come participate in a class discussion about the US election. About 90% opted to be part of the discussion and the rest of the class followed along with their pre-planned schedule. I decided to take on the role of facilitator, to allow students to explore their own and each other’s perspectives and ideas, instead of listening to mine.

It was great on so many different levels:

From a social/emotional stand point…

My students had very strong emotions about the US election. This gave them a safe place to share that they were sad, worried, upset, nervous, and confused. There were moments of tears and moments of laughter – lots of big, genuine emotions… noticed, named and shared within the safe space of our classroom community.

From a learning stand point… 

We learned about democracy. We learned about the US electoral system. We learned about the US branches of government. We inquired into the composition of the house, the senate and the cabinet. We learned new words like “advisor”.  We learned about the different states in the US. We discussed concepts of power, influence, and prejudice.

From a critical thinking stand point…

We discussed the importance of reliable sources and recent information. We learned how to ask the very important question “how do you know that?”. We talked about facts, opinion,  bias, rumour and propaganda.  We compared sources of news (BBC, CNN, SnapChat, ,YouTube).

Students wondered if you could ever be sure about the reliability of a source. Students questioned whether the current electoral system was the most fair way to choose a president. Students challenged the notion of children not being able to vote. Students were curious as to why there can only be one president and why it can’t be a shared position.

From an international mindedness stand point…

Students compared the US electoral system to that of their home country – Canada, Portugal, Kuwait. Students explored the concept of open-mindedness. Students discussed the desire to learn more about their own country’s government. Students discussed international relations. Students explored the common humanity of all people, regardless of colour, culture of religion.

It was open. It was honest. It was amazing.

As educators, we often spend hours among hours trying to plan for learning that is significant, relevant, challenging and engaging… when often times the most significant, relevant, challenging and engaging learning is not something we plan for in advance, but instead something we need to listen for and notice.

And most importantly, when those moments of opportunity appear, we must be willing to throw out our day plans and follow our students.

A class misunderstood…

I knew this year was going to be hard. I knew that I wanted to take risks, innovate, and try new things. I knew that many people would have different perspectives and opinions about what I was doing. I knew that I would have to stand up for my beliefs, my philosophy and what was happening in the classroom. I knew that I would probably have to explain myself… justify myself… defend myself…

I just didn’t know my students would have to as well. 

Today one of my students was chatting with me at recess and sharing his frustration that many people think all we do is play.

“Miss, it is not okay that they think all we do is play all day because we do a lot of learning and they don’t think we do. It’s not fair.”

I tried to sympathize with his frustration and tell him that we can feel confident in the amazing learning that takes place in our class and that I know what it feels like to be misunderstood. The he told me something very interesting.

“Miss, it’s not only students who misunderstand us, it’s also teachers.”

… oh really!? Tell me more about that!

“I was walking to the library with myself and a teacher stopped me and asked where I was going. I told her I was going to the library. She asked my name. I told her. She asked who my teacher was and I told her. When she found out I was in Miss Taryn’s class, she asked if we actually ever do any learning in there. So I told her, yes we do so much learning. Then she asked what we were learning about it. I told her we were learning about relationships and perspectives. Then she asked if all we are learning about is relationships and perspectives how are we doing any math. So I told her were learning about perspectives and relationships in math. Like how everyone has a different perspective when solving  problem and that numbers and shapes are connected in many ways.”

Then a different student who was sitting close by chimed in…

“Yeah, the exact same thing happened to me! I was walking in the hall and a teacher stopped me and asked my name and my teacher. When they found out I was in Miss Taryn’s class they also asked if we ever did any learning. So I told her we do a lot of learning. She asked about what. I told her about relationships and perspectives. She asked if we were learning any knowledge. I told her we were learning so much knowledge like relationships that happen in nature, human relationships, perspectives in art, how technology affects relationships and more!”

I can’t remember a time where I felt more proud of my students. Not only are they able to understand our approach to learning, but they are able to advocate for it, and defend it! When confronted by a teacher, they were able to explain our concept-based approach to acquiring knowledge. They were able to point out the transdisciplinary way that we have been approaching math and literacy. And most importantly they were able to be critical thinkers and confidently share an opinion different from an authority figure in a respectful, but self-assued way.

They might not get us…. but we definitely get us!

The initial frustration at being misunderstood by students and teachers has turned into a class inside-joke. Now my students kid with one another and me by saying  “we don’t learn  anything”, “no learning in Miss Taryn’s class”, “all we do is play all day”.

The cherry on top (as if it could get any better!) was a student who came up to me after this conversation and said…

“Miss I’ve been thinking. What are the point of grades? They are just letters and numbers – but it’s so hard to make a letter or number that measures our learning. I think I’m going to write a blog post about it to share my perspective on this issue.”

My school’s mission focuses on creating critical thinkers and contributing world citizens. Check and check.

… even if that comes at the cost of being misunderstood and misrepresented…

we can take it.

“But they’ll need it for when they are in university”

I’ve noticed that a common road block for us educators to embrace new practices, new approaches to teaching and learning, new technology, and new literacies is the response…

But they’ll need it for when they are in university.

it” can be anything from a 5 paragraph easy, to sitting and listening to a lecture, to a multiple choice test, and the list goes on.

This notion that post-secondary institutions are stuck in the past, seems to work as an easy-out for us educators to resist change in our own practices and shifts in the educational paradigm. It’s not just high school teachers – who have students mere years away from university – but it is also middle school teachers… and even elementary school teachers.

When working with educators in the past I’ve used a buffet of counterpoints to provoke their thinking about this argument. No one has a crystal ball and can say with certainty what students will or will not need when they get to university; Don’t let the tail wag the dog – why are we allowing the 4 (6? 8?) years where students end their educational journey to dictate the first 15 years of their education? Change is inevitable, it will happen with or with out… so jump on board!

Yet, somehow the argument sticks. We need to do X because they will need it in university.

And then something amazing happened!!!

I myself experienced that this statement not to be true…

I am currently in university… in the very institution we use to galvanize our practices against change. And guess what? The skills and knowledge I need are the very skills and knowledge teachers are weary of, because “that’s not how universities are”. Bah! Not true! And I have proof!

Each week my professor shares multiple forms of text with us pertaining to our topic – songs, memes, infographics, hyperlinks, videos, wikipedia pages and more. We need to be literate in multiple ways in order to access and analyze the  information.

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And the best part? Each week we must compose a post in response to the ideas presented in the course material and we are NOT ALLOWED to share our thinking through only written paragraphs. We MUST demonstrate our meaning in multiple ways!

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One week I shared my thinking, questions and challenges through a sequence of tweets:

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Classmates of mine have shared through emojis:

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Through thinglinks:

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Through blogs:

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Through memes:

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This is a real university course, from a real university and the literacy skills that are helping me be successful are many of the literacy skills we as educators are uncomfortable or nervous or flat out refusing to teach.

Of course I still need to be able to read and write. But those traditional skills in and of themselves are not sufficient any longer. Not for me as a university student and not for our elementary, middle and high school students either. I need to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning in multiple ways that span far beyond “traditional literacies”… and so should they.

An argument that clings to traditional literacies and opposes new literacies for the sake of preparing students for a model of university that may not longer exist is cause for concern. It is time to embrace new literacies, multiple literacies, digital literacies, and making multiple meanings in order to preparing students for the world as it is today. Because the world that used to be no longer exists… not even in slow-changing institutions of education like universities.

Are we providing “space” for virtual making?

Maker Space is the current hotness. No debate there. I cannot scroll through Twitter without seeing a school’s new Maker Lab, a classroom’s new Maker drawer or an article about the benefits of “Making”. Yet I can’t help but wonder…

Are all “making” experiences being treated equally?

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students cutting cardboard, rummaging through tools, using a hot glue gun, and twisting wires together . They would probably be pleased. They would probably say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students all on their iPads. But, on their iPads they were playing the game MineCraft. Would they be pleased then? Would they say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”?

A few weeks ago I know I wouldn’t have. A few weeks ago, my understanding of Maker Space was something that existed in actual reality. Then one day last week, when my students were taking a ten minute break to “recharge their batteries”, I made the great decision to ask my students a simple question:

What are you doing on Minecraft?

I was actually blown away! One of my students showed me a three story mansion with over 10 rooms – stables, secret panic rooms, appliances, fireplaces, staircases, furniture – that she had built by herself… brick by brick! She told me about the different materials she needed, and the different combinations that made certain structures. She spent three weeks building it – of her own time. 

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My thinking was instantly challenged and my perspective began to shift. Wasn’t the Maker Movement about the essence of designing, creating and building – not hammers, boxes and ductape. Were those goals not still being accomplished, virtually, through Minecraft?

I began to wonder if virtual making is being held in the same regard as physical making in today’s schools. And if it’s not, why? Is it because as adults we are unfamiliar with virtual maker programs like Minecraft? Is it because as adults we have biases against virtual experiences? Is it because as adults if we don’t understand it, it must not be worthwhile? I know for me, most of the answers -sadly – are yes.

So I will strive to learn. I will strive to become familiar with what my students love and are using. I will strive to become literate in new literacies. I will strive to become more aware of my own biases and my prejudices against things that I don’t understand. I will strive to not value learning in the physical realm over learning in the virtual realm.

And when visitors come into the room, see my students on their iPads and ask “What are your students doing?” I will confidently answer “they are doing Maker Space”.