Assessment in a time of abundance

push

“Never push a loyal person to the point where they no longer care”

I clearly remember a staff meeting from my first year of teaching. The discussion was “lates.” Our principal suggested the “have a quiz at the start of class” strategy to hold kids accountable. This was brilliant! We had curriculum to deliver or push at our students and a fixed amount of time in which to push said curriculum at them. We needed kids in their seats. Period.

Just in case curriculum delivered via push

When I began teaching content was bound by textbooks and the notes I gave in class. It was a time of information scarcity with limited opportunities to expose students to the knowledge pieces they might need in the future. As such, we relied on practices to push students to where the just in case curriculum could be delivered to them. Assessment was used to push students to the just in case curriculum. Assessment was used to determine the success of pushing the just in case curriculum at students. Assessment allowed students (and the system) to demonstrate the successful acquirement of the just in case curriculum and readiness for further investment of the limited resources. In a time of scarcity, procurement of limited resources was a requirement for further investment. Standardized common assessments allowed us to quickly determine who should move on to the next level of investment.

Scarcity shaped our present day assessment tools

Quizzes held students accountable to the knowledge pieces they might need for the test. Tests held them accountable to the just in case pieces they might need for the final exam. And so on.
In a time of scarcity it was not wise to invest in understanding or synthesizing until students indicated (through our assessment tools) mastery of the just in case curriculum (that would not be available to them later).
Fill in the blank worksheets, non-original assigned work, work with time penalty, all created in a time when the itty-bitty knowledge pieces might prove useful in the future.

Reconsider assessment tools designed for just in case and scarcity

Almost 30 years later the textbook and my notes are now the least relevant sources on content. The abundance of information is mind-boggling to say the least. My students show up with encyclopedias in their pockets, experts at their fingertips and the potential of networks waiting to be tapped.

Yet…the assessment landscape of middle and high schools remains unchanged.

The majority of the assessment tools used in high school today were designed to measure mastery of a just in case curriculum pushed at students. Homework asking students to answer already answered questions, in order to copy a line of thinking already thought. Quizzes designed to hold students accountable to a predetermined pathway of just in case content acquisition. Final exams designed to measure the amount of just in case curriculum in the student’s mind (all be it only temporarily), to determine whether they should move to the next level of the pyramid scheme.

Do these tools meet the needs of our students in this time of abundance?

Just in time and pull

In a time of abundance students need skills to pull the knowledge pieces just in time. Projects solving real and authentic problems create the pull and in turn students pull as needed. Students create the need to knows, the just in time schema, through the problems and puzzles they are trying to solve.

Problems, real and authentic need to pull students in. Students need to pull information and knowledge just in time to solve problems and create answers. Students need to be made responsible (rather than held accountable) with the skills, the opportunities, the know-how to pull the information they need, when they need it. Students need to do the pulling.

Holding students accountable to something no longer valuable devalues the system

The steps of mitosis, organelles of a cell, states of matter, dates of the world wars still matter. They do, of course they do. But they matter in context. In context of solving a worthy problem, in struggling with a dilemma, in writing a piece to understand ourselves, in creating a movie, etc.

But knowledge pieces lying in an extracted heap and pushed at students. Valueless. Completely valueless.
Pushing these knowledge pieces is no longer the why of school.

Instead of wondering how we can hold students accountable, shouldn’t we be wondering how we can make them responsible for finding and solving worthy problems?
Instead of designing assessments to validate our ability to push curriculum at our students shouldn’t we be wondering how to help student assess what pieces of content they need?
Instead of trapping students in a quagmire of knowledge pieces shouldn’t we be providing them with the skills to find and access the knowledge pieces when they need to find them in context?

Our challenge in this time of abundance is to create an environment that pulls students in. Not one that pushes them out.

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