master or masterpiece?

It’s late August, you are back at school setting up your classroom. Your neighboring teacher pokes her head in to say hi and catch up: “Have you seen your class lists yet? Who do you have?” You hand her the printed lists lying on your desk. As she glances over the lists she shares: “Oh him, he is great! Oh no, not her, she struggles with everything!”

So innocent and so human, to want to know a bit about the students you will work with over the course of the next several months.

***

I promised myself I would try to avoid preconceived ideas about students. I wanted to let them be blank canvases as they entered the class and paint their own story, fresh for the first time. I even went as far to make a poster in big bold letters and post it up at the back of the classroom as a daily reminder to myself of this very thing:

Expectation becomes the realization

While my intentions were good it turned out my practice was not.

A couple of years into teaching I had the chance to work with students I worked with in Science 8 again in Chemistry 11. I was thrilled to have already established relationships in place! As such we had richer conversations, less ground work to cover to create mutual understanding. But with that prior knowledge of each other guess what else crept in?

I learned in talking with students how I had broken my own rule of thumb. In conversation one day, a student said: “Yeah I even got “name of student who always gets A’s” to do my lab for me and you still gave me…”
In that moment I was caught; I had fallen for the name on the page and not the words on the page. I was judging students on what I knew of them rather than the evidence of their learning they were sharing with me. I was marking everything students put a pen on and evaluating nothing. Oh I had so much to learn!

My take away that day (beyond the burning shame of being blatantly wrong and floored by how much I had to learn) was…
I needed to look at the evidence and not the person presenting it, regardless of what I knew of them, felt about them or had heard about them. I wanted to look for the potential masterpiece…and sometimes it would be crumpled, the spelling atrocious, and handed in late…but it could be a masterpiece! Would I see it?

Today I continue to ask myself when:

  • I read a tweet or a blog…
  • I evaluate or assess…
  • I listen to a student’s idea or suggestion…
  • I choose to retweet or share a blog…
  • I sit in a meeting…
  • I read student work on the crumpled or torn paper…

What am I reacting to? What am I really evaluating? What am I connecting to? What do I base my opinions on?

What do you react and connect to?

The master or the masterpiece?

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How do you talk assessment?

“The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to a student but goes on inside students…
Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school.
How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.”

Ron Berger

***

Trying to change assessment practices in your classroom? Where do you start? How to begin?

Part of changing my assessment practice was driven by altering the words I used with students. When I first embarked on this change, I was intentional and purposeful with “assessment talk.” Like learning a new language, I had to stop and think rather than reflexively rely on words I had used in the past. I found the intentional and consistent use of these words over several months helped to shift both my mind-set and students’.

Previously, my “assessment talk” had consisted of numbers on a spreadsheet, printed up, neatly tacked on the classroom wall and emailed to students and parents. I saw numbers as unemotional, objective and transparent. I believed sharing numbers frequently made me an effective teacher. Over time I realized I had blurred together assessment (which comes from the Latin assessus meaning to sit besideand evaluation. Regretfully, the predominant use of numbers to talk assessment, did not help students learn at all. Numbers signaled the learning as done and the numeric calculation was my evaluation of it. Numbers indicated a finality which made the focus of class culture centered around how to collect of points…rather than on understanding, exploring and unpacking the cognitive processes occurring for and inside each student. To explore learning with students, numbers had to be removed from the everyday conversations and I had to find simple direct words to signal this shift.

I now realize my practice of using numbers to talk assessment prevented, rather than encouraged, meaningful dialogue about student learning. Evaluation of the student learning had to happen later in the learning journey (when students were ready) after a significant amount assessment. But how to talk assessment? What words could replace the numbers I had grown dependent on? I had to find them. I had to practice them. I had to learn a new language to talk assessment with students

***

Below are some of my favorite catch phrases and convo snippets:

1. This is not for marks…it is for learning.
Student’s query to any activity is “Is it for marks?” Students use this question to decide on where to focus their efforts. To shift their focus to learning strategies rather than on point accumulation strategies, activities need to be about learning and in the service of student learning … choose to do these activities in the service of your learning not in the name compliance and playing school.

2. YET…
When a student says: “I am not good at writing, reading, graphing.” Offer the simple word, yet, to the end of their fixed mindset sentence to change it to a growth mindset one (Watch Carol Dweck’s short video on yet here).

3. Explain to me how you think your learning is going in this unit, topic, or semester.
If I had a dollar for every “What is my mark?” question I have heard I would be a rich woman! Every time a student asked me this question I had to clearly put it back on them. They had to be able to talk about and describe how the course was going for them and if they couldn’t explain this, then we had to spend more time talking about their learning (this is not to say I withheld marks, it is to say evaluation has to come when it is relevant and useful to do so).

4. Are you ready to show me what you know/understand? When do you think you can be ready to demonstrate your understanding? How can I help you get there?
Many struggling students are not willing to engage; it is too risky to try only to fail yet again. Allowing students decide when they are ready to be evaluated removes the stress and game playing that goes along with avoiding it.

5. What does quality…writing, presentation, conclusion, lab design, questioning…look like, sound like, and feel like?
Students need to recognize what quality looks like, feels like and sounds out.  Understanding quality comes from experiencing the process without fear of  being penalized for not being at quality yet. Students need to know they will get another chance or opportunity, they need to know they have time to grow and develop towards quality.

6. Show me your evidence for/of your learning.
I recognize my learning  when I develop a mental picture or story about of a concept or idea. When I can explain or map out this picture, I feel like I have done some learning. The mental picture is my evidence, the tracks of my thinking. Students need to make tracks of their thinking in their own way and have a chance to talk about this process. Learning is not a set copied teacher notes, or a set of worksheets they mechanically and thoughtlessly filled in.

7. Show me how you figured it out.
Asking students to unpack their thinking, makes learning about what is going on in their brains, not something a teacher does or does not do. 

8. What is your plan to get there?
Many students are uncertain how to navigate to quality. Providing them opportunities to make and talk about specific actions portrays learning not as accidental (or just for gifted people) but requires strategies, habits, and specific situations. Many variables contribute to learning. Students need to know and decide what variables they need to support their learning.

9.  Let me know when you are ready for feedback.
Having the opportunity and time to do quality work is intrinsically satisfying. Quality work is not work done by gifted students but by students who have the gift of time with useful and specific feedback.

10. What do you notice about your brain when….you get confused, you feel confident, you are engaged, you are make sense of the problem.
Talking about what goes on inside our brains, invites students to connect with the mental process they are experiencing.  Learning is a process going on actively inside of them rather than something passively happening to them.

What are your fav words or phrases to use with students? What words have shifted your mindset and invited students to explore their learning as a journey rather than a destination?

What is the point?

cheering crowd

Cheering Crowd by Michael Streat

The win! The cheering crowd, the champion cup, your team won! How do you know?

EASY. Look at the score board.

Is the educational game to determine the winners and losers so we can “fairly” award the victors?
Is learning an event that can produce data with mathematical accuracy?

Point Collection Culture

Point collection is both pervasive and invasive in school culture; assessments (tests, quizzes, assignments etc.) are designed to maximize the efficiency of point harvesting and not necessarily to provide relevant information around learning. Point collection, more than any other consideration in high schools, determines the selection of the summative assessment tool. Learning in high school happens in spite of point collection but not as a result of, or guided by, point collection (the main form of assessment in play in high schools).

Points are the currency of value and are what students work to acquire.

Students often see learning as a waste of energy as it may inhibit maximum point acquisition. Many students become desensitized to recognizing or identifying what learning feels like after being exposed to point allocation for non-learning activities over long periods of time. Point allocation for worksheet completion, word counts or even the wearing of a team jersey on spirit day, informs students that they should concern themselves with mastering point acquisition over learning strategies. Overall, points carry clout and value in the school setting and trump learning.

Point Driven Mindsets

Teachers in the name of efficiency are driven to collect as many points as possible in the shortest period of time. Points (and the collection of) are used primarily to determine how effectively the teacher transferred a fixed body of knowledge to the student (focused on what the teacher has taught). Point collection does not describe the student’s conceptual development of a subject and is limited to the highly prescribed curriculum. Most assessments reveal what a student does not know rather than reveal where students have mastered. The common student laments “I understood topic X perfectly but it wasn’t on the test”, “I studied all the wrongs things” and “But you never even taught us that!” all speak to this perspective. As points are deducted from students this that will determine the students overall average in a course, the focus avoiding mistakes at all costs.

Essays, projects and tests are often given to students with the “I need to collect marks” mentality as raspberries in season that need to be harvested in haste before the birds get to them. Rather than the consideration of the student’s learning and progress as the deciding factor, a pre-set date for harvest dictates when a student will have the chance to acquire points.  The school calendar dictates harvest dates and not the progress of the child.

Does this in any way improve the next crop of raspberries?

Point Driven Strategies

Over the course of their school careers, students develop highly sophisticated point acquisition strategies to succeed. These strategies generally reward students who are socially well-connected and those who know how to negotiate. Students who are willing to hound the teacher often benefit from more points (this speaks to personality rather than mastery of content).

Knowledge or understanding of content beyond material that will be tested is deemed “useless.” The common refrain “Will this be on the test?” speaks to this mindset. Students want and demand from teachers perfectly worded answers which are easy to mimic and memorize in order guarantee point acquisition.

Demonstration of learning is done so as to avoid error; errors are permanently costly in an averaged point acquisition set up. Evaluation is separated from the learning process and has nothing to do with the student themselves. “What did I get?” is the most commonly asked question of the classroom teacher instead of: What did I learn?; How can I improve?; Can you help me figure this out?

Students are routinely given the message that they should trust a number over what they feel and know about themselves as learners. “I thought I knew it better than that” reflects a student ability to self-access which is ignored in a scantron world “Well that’s what the bubble machine score showed us.” Regardless of wording, nuance or interpretation of questions, the scantron is given absolute authority over determining the student’s learning or lack there of.

The end game

What is in fact our end game in education? When our students exit the building in their final year with their school record what do we hope that record speaks of and speaks to about that student? When parents receive their child’s report card at the end of the semester and this is the only piece of information that they will receive about their son or daughter what do we want the piece of paper to communicate about this child?

At the moment report cards are the end game that drive the cattle home so to speak, all roads lead to report cards. When we work back from these it explains and decodes many of our schools habits and mindsets. Final exams, exam periods, and midterms exist in many cases to create and justify a final letter grade.

What do we want to be able to communicate in regards to student learning? What are we hoping to convey? Who is it for? Who is to benefit?

Do we as educators have a moral imperative to consider and begin to advocate for assessment that empowers learning?

Resources:

Looking for feedback: Assessment & Grading Guide

MIDDLE-CLASS KIDS BENEFIT FROM ‘PUSHING’ FOR TEACHER HELP, RESEARCH SUGGESTS

‘Money reduces trust’ in small groups, study shows

It’s Time to Stop Averaging Grades

Grading Practices that Inhibit Learning

Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading

The Point Factory

factory

Photo shared on Flickr by Societies Illusion

The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students.
                                                                                                                                                            Ron Berger

_____________________________________________

Each September millions of children return to point factories. Children are assigned to work groups where a supervisor will monitor and track each child’s point production.  Point quotas vary from group to group but daily production is strictly enforced. Children remain at their work stations throughout the work day or risk point deductions for absence or reduced productivity. Children who fail to meet weekly point quotas are reported to the factory warden. Such children are mandated to complete their point quota or risk removal from the factory.

Supervisors assign point producing projects with strict time lines. Without such time lines children reduce overall productivity of the factory. Overly sentimental supervisors may reveal point allocation for work projects in advance. Efficient supervisors like to keep point allocation to themselves; “Just complete the task children! You will be told in good time!” This breeds the trust necessary to run an efficient factory.

Supervisors keep accurate and detailed data logs on each student’s point production. Detailed data reports are sent home to parents daily. In the modern age parents prefer monitoring their child via electronic sensors. Supervisors may include comments such as: “Congratulation your child is expert at point acquisition; we feel certain this will ensure their success in the future.” This type of tracking is preferable to time-consuming conversation and discussion. Daily point output provides a reliable and efficient means of determining the child’s progress towards being a valuable member of SOCIETY. For children who can’t be productive point producers it is dubious if they will ever contribute in a meaningful way to SOCIETY. 

Children are required to prove authenticity of their point production. Children create new point counterfeiting strategies daily. As a result supervisors receive extensive training to allow them to remain diligent. Regardless, point buying is common when children have access to currency. Haggling is a known and accepted way to increase point allocation from a supervisor. Parents often provide point negotiating training for their child. 

Most supervisors believe daily point tallies are vital to keep children focused on their purpose. Children are not to be trusted for remembering why they are at the factory in the first place, they are children! Once points are assigned, students wear these points publicly displayed on their work jackets. This allows supervisors to efficiently judge what they are up against and adjust working conditions accordingly.

______________________________________________________________

Just because something is mathematically easy to calculate doesn’t mean it’s pedagogically sound.
                                                                                    Rick Wormelli

Re-do’s and rolling grades.

Over the past year and a half I have been tinkering with re-do’s (re-tests or re-assessments) and rolling grades (grades that do not get set until the end of the semester) with my Biology 12 classes. Assessment is both a volatile and emotional topic for teachers, parents and students. I want to emphasis that what I am sharing is still in progress; I am not there yet but I am trying to get there! I am not an expert in this area, this is still relatively new for me and I am still learning.

To create a re-do policy took several revisions, I worked collaboratively with my colleague Graham Johnson, consulted with my principal, and referred to Rick Wormeli‘s book Fair Isn’t Always Equal.

Re-Do Policy Fleshed Out

1. Students complete an application form and get it to me by the end of the day on Tuesdays. At this time I might have a quick discussion with them about what went wrong the first time. If I have not already done so in class, I might ask them a couple of quick questions about the content. If it appears the student has no new or significant evidence of their learning, I might suggest they wait until the following Thursday. The application is the basis for a meaningful discussion and it is not black and white (they fill it out and they re-write). I have had students show up on a Thursday morning (re-do morning) with no application turned in and have sent them away. I want the re-do to be something they plan for and commit to in advance. As I say to them: “You are not going to Vegas to gamble!”

2. Re-do’s happen outside of class time on Thursday before school or after with no exceptions. If a student says “I can’t make it this Thursday.” I respond with “choose a Thursday you can make.” This avoids the “I have a spare Monday afternoon” runaway train of individual appointments that I can’t track or manage.

3. There is a two-week black-out period at the end of the semester (and is highlighted on our class calendar). This provides me the time I need to focus on end of the year activities, report card deadlines, final exams, etc. I did not do this last year and ended up feeling overwhelmed.

4. Re-do’s are a privilege, not a right. If I think they are trying to game me or take advantage of the opportunity I have the right to refuse their application, or we defer it until I see they have committed to the intent of the process.

5. Re-do’s are open to all students regardless of grade.

6. The most recent mark is the mark that will be used. I call this “rolling grades” and grades continue to roll all the way to the final exam (this semester there are 3 parts to the final: a written portion, portfolio presentation and an exit interview, but that is another post!) which is when the grades will stop rolling.

7. A limit of 2 redo’s per semester.

General Insights from working with Re-Do’s

1. I needed to define my limits in terms of time and energy in the policy. Sometimes this is hard for teachers to do, but making this policy made it easier for me to define those limits.

2. The idea of a “re-do’ is new for students and I needed to talk about both re-do’s and rolling grades on a daily basis. I know that sounds unbelievable, but I had students in last month of the semester ask incredulously “You mean I can re-do that test I bombed back in September?” Students see marks as set in stone so it takes time and many conversations before they begin to intuitively understand how it works.

3. I am using written assessments and no longer use multiple choice tests (Good bye multiple choice! Good-bye?). Re-do tests are very similar to the original; questions follow the standards for the course that we use in class on a regular basis.

4. If a student never chooses a re-do, they can still show what they know on a topic on the midterm and/or final exam, and their mark will roll with the most recent information (so in essence both the midterm and final exams are re-do’s).

5. Tests have an advanced and core questions; students can omit the advanced part if they are struggling to keep up and can challenge at a later date. Last semester I had several students who struggled with advanced questions but were ready to challenge these questions by the end of the semester with much success (it was pretty neat to see 🙂 ).

How about you? Do have re-do’s in your class? Would love to hear!

Marks and money matter.

Do you have a child? If not you can play along…

Let’s scan, in your mind’s eye, the life you imagine with your child.
Does it include travel? Does it have family activities or adventures?
Does it involve your child partaking in activities like dance, reading, yoga or hockey?
Maybe you envision camping trips, hiking, or riding bikes?
Perhaps you dream of taking your child to New York City to see a Broadway show?
Maybe sharing a Canucks’ game?

Regardless…money probably is not THE central focus of your family. In context however, money matters and will make a difference to the decisions you make as a family.

In the above schema context is everything; the value of money is related to the value we place on experiences we share with our children (not to imply that only those that cost money are valuable). We as a society share ideals and dreams we have for our children and some of these cost money.

Let’s follow the same process with your child’s education. Let’s imagine your child’s life as they move through school. What do you dream for them? Do you encourage them to follow their hearts and find a passion? Do you imagine they might follow a passion into post secondary education? If at age 5 your child has a dream, to write, design, sing or care for animals, would you discourage or support them? Would you do everything in your power to make their dream a reality? Your child reaches high school, their passion still in place as they head into Grade 12. As you discuss post secondary plans with them, ONE of the variables in the discussion will be your child’s marks.

#truestory or not?

Marks can be used badly….just as money has the potential for abuse. But can’t marks be used as a meaningful way to document growth and progress? When we react to the misuse of traditional point based marks do we serve our children?

In context… marks matter to our children and the choices they can make (for grade 11 and 12 students). Lets recreate how we define marks and evolve our marking systems (updating report cards to provide information related to the specifics of your child, using grading practices not based solely points). Let’s engage in a conversation in the grey areas between traditional marking system and no marks….

The hard conversation is not the one that decides that marks are “bad”. Marks can be misused and abused. Marks can be used for behavior modification, marks can be used as punishment, marks can be given as rewards for Kleenex boxes, cans of beans for food drives, and marks can be bought and sold. But does this mean marks are bad in ALL situations.

If we are to topple the tyrannies inherent in our existing mark system, let’s address and rectify the abuses that exist within the system right now. Let’s work to create marking schemas that allow students to show what they know over a spectrum of time and ways. Let’s not, because our present marking system is outdated and rife with problems, walk away with our children sitting in these chairs right now. Let’s work consistently and conscientiously with children, with parents, to make marks matter that fulfill dreams and aspirations. Marks that enable rather than disable.

The hard conversation is the one that recognizes that our children receive marks. That is a fact.  Marks may be part a dream, as money might be part of a dream.

This is where we need to converse and put the spotlight. Not on mark hate, but on mark smarts.

Not on the polarized conversation for and against marks. We can do less marks, just as we can discover activities that don’t require money. Let’s not go black and white, let’s do grey. Lets build a mark system that empowers and matters.

Let’s make context our conversation. Let’s work to make marks matter in the way our children matter.

Meaning of grades? You tell me.

Student D shows up for class early, Staples-issue binder, Lou Lou Lemon lovely, warm breakfast sandwich lovingly wrapped in one hand and a Venti Starbucks in the other. As she enters she asks: “Can I ask you a couple of questions?” She sits at the front, during class she will ask up to 10 questions and gets impatient if her needs are not quickly meet. At break she hangs out with other like-minded’s and they map out a plan of attack for the up coming Physics project.

Student S shows up late. She struggles to get to school every day. Her mom tries to text her from work in the morning to wake her up. Her binder is somewhere, she just can’t remember where? Maybe her boyfriend’s car? She does not have time for breakfast or really the energy to make it. She rushes out the door hair wet. Once again, she did not bother to get the answers for the chemistry homework assignment….oh well.  None of her friends are in chemistry and she does know anyone well enough to text them for the worksheet answers.

Student C works upwards of 20 hours a week. She and her Mom have just moved to an apartment closer to school so she can walk to both school and work. When homework is assigned she relies on her friends. She is happy she has smart friends. She would like to do her own work but she just can’t keep up with the demands of work and school. For a Physics assignment where she had to build a catapult she thankfully purchased one from a former student. She tries to get her friends to tutor her right before tests and go through the material. She finds she is too tired most days to focus in class.

Student M sneaks quietly into to class, head down, books clutched tight, treading lightly as she moves to the back corner of the room, hoping to remain unnoticed a little longer. During class, she does not interact with other students and only on the rare occasion will talk to her teacher. She dislikes group work and any enforced group activities make her feel anxious. For the last group project she had no one to work with and ended up by default having to work with the other “left-over” student. The partnership did not go well and as a result the project feel on her shoulders to complete.

Now. Guess the grade for each of the above students?

Go on. I’ll wait.

By guess I mean use your detective skills to figure them out.

Did you have a knee jerk reaction of some sort to each description on how you expected them to do based on your experiences and biases?

Lately, I have been wondering (and feeling kind of queasy as a result) if grades, especially at the secondary level (as I watch my teen and her friends move through) in a points based transactional model, are more related to how the student is socially connected and than anything else.

What do grades tell us? You tell me.