Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"And the competition is fierce! Only a few will make it!"

The Olympics was only the most recent reminder of the role of competition in our society. I loved it when an athlete being interviewed after having received a silver medal in her sport reminded the interviewer that she had “earned silver, not lost gold."

We value hard work, commitment, and expertise. We also know that it takes a lot of practice to become an expert. And as every award-winning athlete knows, it also takes a team.

Did you know that although it appears that trees in a forest compete for height as they reach for the sun, underneath the earth they are sharing nutrients? What appears to be competition is actually deep collaboration.

What’s the assessment connection? We forget that those of us who work in support of classroom assessment are also a team. It is why I am so enthusiastically championing all the international experts coming to the International Symposium and companion conference Assessment for Learning: Canada in Conversation with the World. 

We've just found out that Dylan Wiliam is able to join us. Susan Brookhart is coming. Heidi Andrade. Linda Allal. Michael Absolum. Sandra Herbst. Dany Laveault. Ruth Sutton. Gordon Stobart. Lorna Earl. Paul LeMahieu. Louis Volante. And twenty-six other people you will be thrilled to get to know.

As I’ve reflected, I’ve come to understand that people have a hard time appreciating the amount of deep collaboration that exists in the world of classroom assessment.  And that is what underlies the International Symposium on Assessment for Learning.Deep respect. Deep knowledge. Deep collaboration.

I think about Rick Stiggins who, in 2001, invited six country teams so we could engage in the first International Symposium. I think about all the members of the international country teams who have stepped aside so as to make a space for a new member to gain the valuable experience of meeting and working alongside international colleagues. Remember, it takes many trees to be a forest and many drops of water to create a wave.  One person, one idea, one path will never be enough if we are to ensure that assessment is used in the service of learning.

This is why it is important that you register and attend the Assessment for Learning: Canada in Conversation with the Worldconference being held in Fredericton, NB on April 11 and 12, 2014. Space is limited.

Register now and attend this fabulous gathering of classroom experts! It is the quickest way for Canadians to tap into the deep learning, expertise, and results of the amazing collaboration among more than 36 experts in the field of classroom assessment. Attendance that will, in the end, support your work in this area.

All my best,


PS  This event can only happen because every single expert presenter is donating his or her time as part of his or her commitment to classroom assessment. All registration fees go to the costs of actually hosting the Canadian events in Fredericton, NB. In 2009, we did the same thing in New Zealand. And, in 2011, an equally powerful group of assessment teams met in Norway. Again, we volunteered our time on behalf of the host country. Be kind to yourself! Register. Do it now. Space is limited.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

From Vagueness to Specificity: The Power of Language to Increase Understanding and Learning

Specific.  Descriptive.  Feedback.  We use these words freely and easily in connection to assessment for learning and formative assessment.  Research reminds us and our own experience tells us that specific and descriptive feedback causes learning.  Evaluative feedback – words like “great job” or “try harder” or “good enough” or “92%” or “4/10” or “3 on a four point rubric scale” can evoke either positive or negative emotion.  For many learners, though, it just isn’t enough to build on what was done well or to adjust what needs to be attempted again. 

Peter Johnston writes in his book Opening Minds:  Using Language to Change Lives that, as educators, the words we choose can either promote a fixed-performance frame or a dynamic-learning frame. For him, small changes in our language to include increased specificity can have broad consequences. This sounds easy and yet as we listen to each other speak, we realize that evaluative and vague phrases are used frequently and effortlessly.  Art Costa and Bob Garmston also recognize that this type of language gets in the way; for them, it “…blurs understanding and hides opportunities” (Cognitive Coaching; A Foundation for Renaissance Schools, 2002).

As leaders of learning, we can help others and ourselves to become more specific and descriptive as we listen to the language that is used around us - “That was a great concert!” or “This has been a particularly difficult week.” or “We probably could come up with a better solution.”  Each of these sentences includes a word or turn of phrase that, because it is inherently evaluative, does not lead to a deeper understanding. 

Recently, I found myself engaged in conversations that promoted vague awareness and appreciation.  At connect2learning, we have been celebrating the completion of three resources that have lately been published – A Fresh Look at Grading and Reporting in High Schools, Établir et utiliser des critères, and Lesson Study:  Powerful Assessment and Professional Practice.  This celebration included some good food, of course, and congratulations all around.  For weeks, we have been saying things like, “It is so good that these books have been published.” and “Isn’t it great what we have accomplished?”  Of course, statements like these at times like these are expected.  But I paused to wonder what they actually meant for the eight people gathered around our staff room.  So, I took out a piece of chart paper and wrote down a couple of the statements that I had been hearing.  And then I asked the question, “What specifically do we mean when we say  ‘It is so good that these books have been published?’  and  ‘Isn’t it great what we have accomplished?’ ”  We can make assumptions that they mean the same to others as they mean to ourselves; yet this type of language, by virtue of it vagueness, can actually lead us to believe that we are all thinking the same thing.

We took only about ten minutes and, in that time, we listed many, many phrases that gave everyone a better understanding of what those words actually meant to their colleagues.  A couple of examples included:
·      “We have been waiting over a decade to have some of our resources translated into French.”
·      “We are introducing new authors to our colleagues across North America.”
·      “We are a Canadian publisher that is publishing more Canadian authors.”
·      “We have published another book solely for the secondary audience.”
As we reflected on the list, we realized that the words “great” and “good” had a depth of meaning that could allow us to examine our publishing schedule.  That is, not only did we make our thinking visible to each other, but we could take this shared understanding and apply it to possible next steps.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not suggesting that we clear our language of evaluative words and phrases.  As one Grade One teacher said to me, “We share ‘feel good’ statements after we have provided feedback for learning.”  However, it is important that we, both educators and adult learners, pause to practice the giving of specific and descriptive feedback; we need to uncover what the vague qualifiers that we use actually mean.  When we practice this, we not only model it for ourselves, but for our students as well.  This means that as leaders, we need to ask others and ourselves what they mean explicitly, because this is a way to bring specificity to our language and, therefore, to learning.  We do this deliberately and consciously in our leadership practice when we ask, “So what might we mean when we say……”

And as Dylan Wiliam said in 2006 while being interviewed, “Evaluative feedback usually causes an emotional reaction – a positive reaction or a negative reaction.  The crucial element of effective feedback is that it should cause the students to engage with that feedback and take their learning forward.”

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Are you in a doctoral program? Are you focusing on assessment?

There is the most amazing opportunity for anyone focused on assessment as part of their doctoral studies. The dates for this great event?  Tuesday, April 8 (eve) to Saturday, April 12 (all-day), 2014.

Ten Canadian doctoral students/candidates are invited to be observers to the International Symposium and the Canadian Symposium. There is the most amazing group of International guests with great expertize in the area. You can see who the delegates are and their research interests here.

The Canadian delegates are from every province and territory in Canada. There will be more information posted about them soon. The facilitators for the Canadian Symposium have their biographies posted here.

The doctoral observers will also attend the Assessment for Learning: Canada in Conversation with the World. There will be more than 32 speakers over the Friday evening and all day Saturday event.

You can access the complete agendas for all three events on the website.

There are only 5 spots left and they are going fast.

If this is you or someone you know, please contact Ann Sherman, University of New Brunswick as quickly as possible.