Thursday, December 11, 2014

Making “It” Make Sense for Parents



December is a busy month and it is also a month of reflection as we prepare for a new year. As we’ve worked this year with educators across Canada and internationally, we’ve been heartened by the powerful conversations in support of ensuring assessment, evaluation, and reporting is in the service of learning. These changes require that we thoughtfully build plans to support the learning of our teachers, administrators, Trustees, and senior leaders. A mindful plan also includes involving parents in the conversation. Bridging home to school and school to home is an important pursuit.
  
In our work with school systems, we are often asked to meet with parents. For us, this work can occur after we have had the opportunity to better understand the context in which students learn and educators teach, including reading board reports, viewing information on the district website, working with teachers and division support staff, and meeting with school leadership teams.

The point at which we are asked to engage in parent information meetings or district parent sessions is often when the structure that reports student learning begins to shift. Across this country, jurisdictions are changing report cards and reporting mechanisms to reflect today’s challenging curriculum and communication landscape. The reality of this work often results in mixed reviews from parents and the broader community. And no wonder – the perfect report card or reporting process just does not exist.

The complexity of the curriculum, the diversity of learners and communities in which they live, and the inherent errors that occur when we communicate using a coding system and the written word can seem overwhelming. What we can do, however, to mitigate these issues is to involve students in communicating evidence of their learning, to ensure that teachers’ professional judgment is informed and guided by district policy, and to build trust over the long-term. This often requires that we seek to understand before being understood – that age-old adage serves us well.

As we plan for meeting with parents, we reflect on the large number of sessions that we have facilitated over the years. We strive to be respectful of the experience, intelligence, and commitment that each parent brings to the conversation. And at the same time, we wish to acknowledge the expertise and ‘craft’ knowledge that educators hold as they work in support of student learning.

1938 Report Card
For us, there are five essential points around which we build the conversation with parents. Each one pulls parents and community members from their past experience as a student in school to the reality of pedagogy and politics today.

It used to be that teachers chose what they were going to teach.We show parents what curriculum looks like today – its specificity and breadth. As we open curricular documents up to parents, we convey the depth of these documents and how it both directs and supports teachers’ teaching and students’ learning. No longer do educators choose a topic because it only interests them. Today, a unit or a theme must unfold in support of the learning expectations or outcomes.

It used to be that the students who “crossed the finish line” of the course first, were awarded the best marks. No longer do our marks ‘reward’ students who require the least amount of instruction or those who can most quickly understand the concepts. Rather, curricula across this country allow students until the end of the term, the semester or the course to achieve those outcomes. In other words, our curriculum does not ask “How fast?”, but rather it poses the question of “To what degree of quality and proficiency?”

It used to be that test scores and results from quizzes and exams were sufficient evidence of learning. The complexity of today’s curriculum requires that students provide evidence of their learning in ways that go beyond tests, quizzes, and exams. For example, we cannot determine whether a student engages in a scientific investigation safely by giving them a test. We need to watch them in action. Nor can we determine whether a student can engage in classroom discussion by having them write a paragraph about it. We listen to them talk through issues and questions. If a term or course mark is comprised of marks gathered from tests, quizzes, and a final exam, then we know that the breadth of the curriculum has not been addressed….only a part of it has.

It used to be that all students had to show what they had learned in the same way and at the same time. In the past, if our students were studying the water cycle, for example, then all students had to write a paragraph about that scientific concept. The curriculum states that students should be able to describe the water cycle. Period. It does not dictate a singular way in which students should show what they know about this scientific concept. So today, students might write about it, they might put together a narrated video, or they might even make it rain by bringing in a kettle, a pie plate, and some ice as they demonstrate the water cycle. This does not mean that writing or putting things down on paper is not important. In fact it is. Many curricula speak to the importance of the written word; however, a student who deeply understands how she solved a trigonometric equation should not be penalized if she cannot tell how she arrived at the answer in perfectly formed sentences. The best way of explaining her thinking and making her mathematical problem solving visible to others might be to record herself going through the question, step by detailed step.

It used to be that external examinations were the most important source of assessment evidence. Provincial or jurisdictional examinations do provide important and essential information. But because they cannot evaluate the breadth of the curricular outcomes or expectations, they are not the only measures upon which we can rely. We look to our teachers and their understanding of the curricula that they teach, of the ways in which students learn, and of what proficiency and quality look like. Teachers bring these three factors to bear as they pull evidence from multiple sources to make a professional judgement that informs the final evaluation or mark on the report card. What teachers do in classrooms with students matters a great deal. And their consideration of all that they know is important in giving the most accurate and up-to-date picture of how a student is doing compared to how they should be doing.

As we write in our book Transforming Schools and SystemsUsing Assessment for Learning (p. 83), “It is not enough that parents and community be ‘informed’; they must be invited into the thinking and visioning that will provide the foundation for all that comes. They can become some of the most powerful advocates for thoughtful change when their resistance, concerns, and questions are dealt with honestly and respectfully.”

We believe that we build relationships of trust, action, and support when we provide information that not only contextualizes the work but allows parents and community members to be able to contribute and challenge from a position of understanding and strength. John Dewey says it incredibly clearly, “Communication is a process of sharing experiences until it becomes a common possession. It modifies the disposition of both parties who partake in it.”

All our best,

Anne, Sandra and Brenda










Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Making "It" Make Sense for Parents


December is a busy month and it is also a month of reflection as we prepare for a new year.  As we've worked this year with educators across Canada and internationally, we've been heartened by the powerful conversations in support of ensuring assessment, evaluation, and reporting is in the service of learning.  These changes require that we thoughtfully build plans to support the learning of our teachers, administrators, trustees, and senior leaders.  A mindful plan also includes involving parents in the conversation.  Bridging home to school and school to home is an important pursuit.  In our work with school systems, we are often asked to meet with parents. For us, this work can occur after we have had the opportunity to better understand the context in which students learn and educators teach, including reading board reports, viewing information on the district website, working with teachers and division support staff, and meeting with school leadership teams.

1938 Report Card


The point at which we are asked to engage in parent information meetings or district parent sessions is often when the structure that reports student learning begins to shift. Even though, reports cards haven't changed dramatically in the last hundred years, what is to be learned has changed immeasurably.  And as a result, across this country, jurisdictions are changing report cards and reporting mechanisms to reflect today’s challenging curriculum and communication landscape. The reality of this work often results in mixed reviews from parents and the broader community. And no wonder – the perfect report card or reporting process just does not exist.

The complexity of the curriculum, the diversity of learners and communities in which they live, and the inherent errors that occur when we communicate using a coding system and the written word can seem overwhelming. What we can do, however, to mitigate these issues is to involve students in communicating evidence of their learning, to ensure that teachers’ professional judgment is informed and guided by district policy, and to build trust over the long-term. This often requires that we seek to understand before being understood – that age-old adage serves us well.

As we plan for meeting with parents, we reflect on the large number of sessions that we have facilitated over the years. We strive to be respectful of the experience, intelligence, and commitment that each parent brings to the conversation. And at the same time, we wish to acknowledge the expertise and ‘craft’ knowledge that educators hold as they work in support of student learning.

For us, there are five essential points around which we build the conversation with parents. Each one pulls parents and community members from their past experience as a student in school to the reality of pedagogy and politics today.

It used to be that teachers chose what they were going to teach. We show parents what curriculum looks like today – its specificity and breadth. As we open curricular documents up to parents, we convey the depth of these documents and how it both directs and supports teachers’ teaching and students’ learning. No longer do educators choose a topic because it only interests them. Today, a unit or a theme must unfold in support of the learning expectations or outcomes.

It used to be that the students who “crossed the finish line” of the course first, were awarded the best marks. No longer do our marks ‘reward’ students who require the least amount of instruction or those who can most quickly understand the concepts. Rather, curricula across this country allow students until the end of the term, the semester or the course to achieve those outcomes. In other words, our curriculum does not ask “How fast?”, but rather it poses the question of “To what degree of quality and proficiency?”

It used to be that test scores and results from quizzes and exams were sufficient evidence of learning. The complexity of today’s curriculum requires that students provide evidence of their learning in ways that go beyond tests, quizzes, and exams. For example, we cannot determine whether a student engages in a scientific investigation safely by giving them a test. We need to watch them in action. Nor can we determine whether a student can engage in classroom discussion by having them write a paragraph about it. We listen to them talk through issues and questions. If a term or course mark is comprised of marks gathered from tests, quizzes, and a final exam, then we know that the breadth of the curriculum has not been addressed….only a part of it has.

It used to be that all students had to show what they had learned in the same way and at the same time. In the past, if our students were studying the water cycle, for example, then all students had to write a paragraph about that scientific concept. The curriculum states that students should be able to describe the water cycle. Period. It does not dictate a singular way in which students should show what they know about this scientific concept. So today, students might write about it, they might put together a narrated video, or they might even make it rain by bringing in a kettle, a pie plate, and some ice as they demonstrate the water cycle. This does not mean that writing or putting things down on paper is not important. In fact it is. Many curricula speak to the importance of the written word; however, a student who deeply understands how she solved a trigonometric equation should not be penalized if she cannot tell how she arrived at the answer in perfectly formed sentences. The best way of explaining her thinking and making her mathematical problem solving visible to others might be to record herself going through the question, step by detailed step.

It used to be that external examinations were the most important source of assessment evidence. Provincial or jurisdictional examinations do provide important and essential information. But because they cannot evaluate the breadth of the curricular outcomes or expectations, they are not the only measures upon which we can rely. We look to our teachers and their understanding of the curricula that they teach, of the ways in which students learn, and of what proficiency and quality look like. Teachers bring these three factors to bear as they pull evidence from multiple sources to make a professional judgement that informs the final evaluation or mark on the report card. What teachers do in classrooms with students matters a great deal. And their consideration of all that they know is important in giving the most accurate and up-to-date picture of how a student is doing compared to how they should be doing.

As we write in our book Transforming Schools and Systems Using Assessment for Learning (p. 83), “It is not enough that parents and community be ‘informed’; they must be invited into the thinking and visioning that will provide the foundation for all that comes. They can become some of the most powerful advocates for thoughtful change when their resistance, concerns, and questions are dealt with honestly and respectfully.”

We believe that we build relationships of trust, action, and support when we provide information that not only contextualizes the work but allows parents and community members to be able to contribute and challenge from a position of understanding and strength. John Dewey says it incredibly clearly, “Communication is a process of sharing experiences until it becomes a common possession. It modifies the disposition of both parties who partake in it.”










Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Becoming the Sample


What does quality look like?  How can I describe proficiency to my learners?  We know that one response to these questions is to engage the learners – whether students or adults – in the process of co-constructing criteria.  This process often begins by sharing samples to illustrate quality and proficiency.  However, with that understanding can also come other realizations like – I have just started teaching and I have no samples to share with my students.  What should I do?  or Even though I have been teaching for eleven years, I have never thought to collect samples.  What are my options?  These are questions that teachers often ask me, especially during the first term of a new school year. 

It is true that we could create some samples on our own…and yet this might prove too time-consuming.  It is also possible to scour the Internet for samples to print off and use with students.  And yet, these samples might not reflect the unique context or culture of our school communities and classrooms.  So, what might be some other possibilities?

Actually, this lack of samples – paper product – provides us with incredible opportunity and a practical next step.  We can “become” the sample.  What do I mean by that?  If we have not yet collected samples of math problems that are solved completely, we could solve math problems in front of the students.  If we have not yet gathered samples of strong lead paragraphs, our students could witness us writing some.  If we don’t have video files of students engaged in a respectful class discussion, we could pull a group of adults together to demonstrate what this process looks like. 

In each case, we are careful to chunk the sample.  That is, we solve a bit of the problem at a time and stop along the way to ask the students what they are noting about what we are doing.  By way of examples, as we compose a strong lead, we pause after each couple of sentences to have students talk to each other about what they are noticing in our writing.  Or, as we demonstrate a small group discussion, we stop after every 4 or 5 minutes, and turn to the student so that they can tell us what they notice the adults doing. 

The sample that unfolds in front of the learners’ eyes is a powerful way to witness quality and proficiency. Our curricula are filled with expectations that call our students to be metacognitive – for them to make their thinking visible to others.
“Becoming” the sample presents an additional opportunity.  As we write the lead paragraph or as we solve a math problem or as we engage in a small group discussion, we make the thinking visible – why are we writing this sentence in this way or why are we taking this step in the problem or why are we saying what we are saying.  We let students in on that which is often hidden or assumed.

And yet, even though expectations of metacognition are embedded in all curricula, it can feel like a risky thing to do – making our thinking clearly visible for others does not necessarily come naturally to all of us.

And herein lies an additional opportunity for leaders.  We can simply tell teachers or require them to “be” the sample, if they do not have product samples.  We can make this an expectation as if it is the most obvious thinking in the world…or we can “walk the talk”… literally.

I recently had this experience working in northern Saskatchewan, when I was invited into Canoe Lake Miksiw School on the Canoe Lake Cree Nation.  I was asked to do two demonstration lessons – one in a grade three class, focusing on “What counts in personal writing?” and one in a grade twelve English class around “What does it look like when we are reading to make meaning?”  Samples for the Early Years class were readily available.  But how to tackle the second one?  Obviously there can be no paper sample and yet what a powerful question to have students consider!

Instead of asking others to provide the live model, I decided to do it – not only would this be a sample for students, but it would be an example to the other teachers of what is possible when we “become” the model.

I enlisted Tanis Crawford, Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment for the Meadow Lake Tribal Council.  Together, we chose a text to read aloud by Ray Bradbury.  We did not pre-read the entire piece; rather, we spent our time preparing by talking about what we do as readers to make meaning.  Our conversations included ideas like:
·      Uncover our biases
·      Use textual cues
·      Make connections to our own lives
·      Reread to check for understanding
·      Ask questions along the way
·      Verify previous predictions

We were ready to go.  We sat on stools facing each other and began to read.  I read the title and Tanis immediately stopped me to tell me that the title reminded her of something else she had recently read.  We decided to scan the text for clues that could help us anticipate what might come next.  We read two or three paragraphs at a time, pausing to share what connections we were making, what questions emerged.  We looked up words that we were not too certain of.  And every five or six minutes, we stopped altogether, allowing the students to record what they saw us doing that served to answer our original question.  This pattern continued for the next 35 minutes – 6 or 7 minutes of the sample, followed by 8 or 9 minutes of small group and then large group debriefing related to what had been observed. 


 After that, the next steps of co-constructing criteria unfolded:
·      Sorting the ideas into like groups
·      Identifying criteria for each group
(For a full accounting of this process, please read Setting and Using Criteria by Gregory, Cameron, and Davies.)

While these steps are important, they build upon a sample(s) that unmistakably and clearly illustrate(s) quality and proficiency. Without the sample, the rest of the process would inevitably fall flat.

So what can this account teach us?  Samples can be demonstrated and witnessed.  When samples are demonstrated and witnessed, they can offer a clearer view into what is going on internally for the learner.  In essence, we give voice to talking about our thinking.  As leaders, we can provide to students samples in this way.  We can also offer our staff an alternative to the product sample – we “become” the sample of using live samples. 

And as this account so clearly communicates, we do not have to wait to build up multiple files of samples – being a learner in front of our students can fill an immediate gap for us so that we can respond to those oft-asked questions - What does quality look like?  How can I describe proficiency to my learners?

Examples are instructional workhorses: they carry a great deal of the burden of teaching and learning. They help us dig into ideas and plow the land of the abstract. They help us transport information and ideas from one person to another and from one context to another. One way to improve teaching and learning is to improve the examples we use so that they more effectively communicate difficult concepts.” The Teaching Professor

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Multi-Age Classroom Demonstration - Learning the Language of Assessment



This past September, I had the opportunity to spend a day watching Sandra Herbst in classrooms with the students and staff of Kaw Tay Whee School in Dettah, Northwest Territories. 
Sandra was doing a series of demonstration lessons in classrooms with students from 3 years of age to students in Grade 8. The staff members and I watched Sandra co-construct criteria with students from two different multi-age classes. It is something Sandra has written about in her blog, both from the perspective of observing colleagues as well from a learning perspective
Some people might make assumptions about what students in a small, northern community can do or not do or how they may or may not participate. If the assumptions were that these students would be knowledgeable about writing and enthusiastic learners, then they would be correct. 
In one class Sandra adapted the four-step process from Setting and Using Criteria and used a writing sample to help focus students on quality and proficiency. Here are a series of photographs to show the process she used:

Sandra asked the question, “What counts... what matters... what is important when we write well?"

Sandra led the process. Together students, with Sandra's guidance, examined part of a sample and brainstormed ideas about good writing.

 
As students identified what was important in a chunk of the sample, an adult recorded student ideas on sentence strips. Then, another chunk of the sample was examined.
 
They continue, chunk by chunk, until all ideas were surfaced. The teacher also contributed ideas.
 
Once all ideas have been recorded, it was time to sort the strips into three to five groups.
 
The next step was to use the criteria. One way is to have students practice by finding proof in the sample, in another sample, in their own work, and then, eventually, in a peer's work.
.           
 As you consider this example, think about what learning processes are being used. Think about words such as analyze, synthesis, collaborate, and more. This is what one group of teachers, after watching Sandra do demonstration lessons, said:



Every curriculum document and set of standards includes these kinds of words. When we co-construct criteria with students we help them better understand quality and proficiency as well as learn the language of assessment – of learning. And, at the same time, students learn
This is a powerful 'assessment in the SERVICE of learning' undertaking. It is also a powerful way to teach students executive functioning... and that will be the subject of my next post.

All my best,

Anne

PS If you'd like Sandra Herbst or Brenda Augusta to demonstrate quality assessment, teaching, and learning in your school, please contact Kathy (kathy@connect2learning.com) or call 1-250-337-8244.






Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Does Classroom Assessment Work?

Recently I read a piece by Bennett (2011) questioning the true impact of formative assessment. And, while I appreciate the powerful questions he asked, there are also some significant, unstated assumptions. One of those assumptions is that there is a lack of observational evidence to inform the work of teachers and others. And, that this lack undermines the process of formative assessment.

While I can't speak to his experiences, I can speak to my experience in this regard. In my work over the past 30 years, formative assessment is considered within the larger context of classroom assessment (Davies, 2000, 2011). In Canada, for example, many policy documents have taken the stance that classroom assessment – which includes both formative and summative assessment – is actually a research undertaking. That is, classroom teachers need to triangulate their data much the way social scientists do (see, for example, Lincoln and Guba, 1984). 

In practical terms this means teachers need to collect the products students create, observe them as they engage in the processes to be learned, and have conversations with them (through words spoken, written, or recorded) to better understand the meaning students are making as they learn. As students learn, teachers collect evidence from multiple sources over time to inform their professional judgement regarding student learning.

As teachers deliberately plan to collect evidence in relation to what the curriculum states what students need to know, understand, do, and articulate, they increase the validity of their professional judgements. As teachers engage in ongoing professional learning, they come to better understand the quality expectations for students, given their age range and the subject area discipline. Powerful professional learning goes way beyond scoring of common assessments and includes moderation of collections of evidence of student learning - a process shown to increase the reliability and validity of teacher judgement (ARG, 2006).

Further, as teachers deliberately collect evidence over time in relation to curriculum outcomes, they increase the reliability of their professional judgement. They have 'proof of learning' from multiple sources over time. The 'trustworthiness' of their findings is increased (Davies et al., In press).

In this context, when teachers use an ongoing collection of evidence of student learning to inform their next teaching steps, the evidence of learning informs them. It ensures they are able to engage in 'informed assessment' and use that assessment information to inform their teaching and student learning. This is the true meaning of formative assessment.

And, as teachers involve students in the assessment process they engage in formative assessment for themselves - a process often referred to as Assessment for Learning. This photograph was shared with me recently by a teacher working with 7-year-olds in British Columbia. Notice how she is teaching students to understand quality and giving them the information they need to engage in formative assessment for themselves.

Bennett (2011) is right when he notes that educators and others can often be found reducing formative assessment to "five simple ideas" or the "eight great strategies." It is fair that this over-simplification invite criticism. It is critically important that we not limit classroom assessment in these ways.

What does work when it comes to classroom assessment?
  1. Teachers begin with the curriculum outcomes.
  2. They thoughtfully consider possible evidence of learning (products, observations of process, and conversations) of all the curricular outcomes.
  3. Teachers research quality so students and others have samples and models to illustrate the expectations for quality and proficiency.
  4. Teachers use the assessment information to inform their next teaching steps.
  5. Teachers deliberately help students use the assessment information to inform next learning steps.
  6. Teachers teach students to engage in formative assessment in support of their own learning.
  7. Teachers use the assessment information to inform their professional judgment and engage in summative assessment.
This is the classroom assessment process. Classroom assessment is a research undertaking with clear procedures and articulated methods. It is the one upon which Making Classroom Assessment Work is based which is the reason a growing number of universities are using it as a course text in professional courses leading to teaching degrees. 

After all, classroom assessment is a research process. And, as Bennett's (2011) article reminds us, it doesn't come easily. It needs to be learned and carefully implemented.

References


Assessment Reform Group (ARG). 2006. The role of teachers in the assessment of learning. Pamphlet produced by Assessment Systems for the Future project (ASF) http://arrts.gtcni.org.uk/gtcni/handle/2428/4617.
Bennett, R. E. (2011) Formative assessment: a critical review, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 18:1, 5-25, DOI: 10.1080/0969594X.2010.513678
Davies, A. (2011). Making Classroom Assessment Work 3rd Ed., Courtenay, BC: Connections Publishing and Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Davies, A. Herbst, S. & Parrott-Reynolds, B. (2011). Leading the Way to Assessment for Learning: A Practical Guide 2nd Ed., Courtenay, BC: Connections Publishing and Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Davies, A., Busick, K., Herbst, S. & Sherman, A. (In press). System leaders using assessment for learning as both the change and the change process: Developing theory from practice. The Curriculum Journal. http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rcjo20/current#.VEgWFeffozg
Lincoln, Y. and Guba, E. (1984). Naturalistic Inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.