Confident, excited teachers make for confident and excited students. Jim Knight (2007), an expert on instructional coaching, suggests, “When people talk about learning, the experience should be exciting, energizing, and empowering” (p. ix). Assessment has the potential to generate all three of these conditions when designed and used in the service of learning.
What kind of assessment practices generate this type of culture? What kind of professional learning experiences contribute to teachers developing their assessment practices? As the school year closes, it is a natural time for reflection. I want to share a couple of conversations and experiences I have had in the past few months that center around the question: How can assessment build confidence and excitement that leads to higher achievement and more investment by both teachers and students? Three big ideas emerged from these experiences.
1. Believe in the capacity of those with whom we work and signal this belief through providing ample time to grapple and apply important ideas
Margaret Heritage, a leading researcher in the field of classroom assessment, made a passionate plea to a group of educators attending a symposium at the 2016 American Education Research Association Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. She noted that if we are to increase the capacity of our teachers, we must provide them “the intellectual space to think” (Charteris & Smardon, 2015, p. 12, cited in Willis & Adie). When we focus our efforts and protect ample amounts of time for reflection and application, we will see results. This act fosters a sense of efficacy, signaling that we believe our teachers have the capacity to do amazing work.
At a recent professional learning, we strived to do just that. The intent of the session was to create higher quality assessments that better reflected the standards. As teachers talked with colleagues about what they wanted students to learn and what kind of meaningful student work might help them gather information on the extent to which students had learned, there was energy in the air. I posed a few ideas around quality assessment design-precision, action, and student investment (Vagle, 2015). With a few tools to structure the conversation, this team spent the next three hours talking, designing, and producing the documents to implement their assessment with students. The energy and excitement was palpable. Teachers left feeling empowered and ready to try something a bit different than what they had done in the past. This was a dramatic shift in their practice – the idea of first thinking about what you wanted students to learn and then crafting or choosing items to intentionally gather information and evidence on this learning. Both important aspects of a teacher’s work, but in the past learning came second and the item and task was chosen or just used because it was in the curriculum. Initially, the team was overwhelmed, but a little explanation and a few tools to guide the conversation with the key element of triple the amount of work time to apply these ideas was the recipe in this context for generating excitement about learning and assessment.
2. Build in opportunities to co-design to foster investment and ownership
Wynn-Anne Rossi is a composer, pianist, and educator who is passionate about guiding her piano students of all ages through a process of composing. She describes one aspect of being a teacher as making complex ideas simple or describing them in a way that makes them accessible and understandable. The art in this skill is being able to make complex ideas simple without reducing their complexity or losing the big picture so that the meaning or sense of “why” is lost. For example, identifying the main idea of text after text or practicing multiplication facts over and over again to gain speed is the simple but if we wait months or years later to help students see the overarching purpose for reading (to learn something; to seek information to make decisions; or to find interest and patterns in theme and central ideas; to explore various perspectives of an issue) or using math to solve problems (find the square footage of an area to determine how much carpet to buy) or make sense of the world (seek patterns and critique problem-solving), we risk students missing the whole point. This usually leads to students believing the purpose of learning is to do well on a test.
Back to Wynn-Anne and composing-she guides all ages of students through a scaffolded composition process of building ideas and stories; talking about potential patterns or skills; composing original pieces that reflect these stories and patterns; offering and receiving feedback; revising the piece from feedback; notating; and, finally, performing. Through the co-design process, a sense of pride and confidence emerges as students struggle and then land on something they feel excited about; this leads to a sense of ownership and investment. My son Chase’s piece, The Centaur’s Wedding, came out of this process. Take a listen to this 3rd grader’s story and piece at https://youtu.be/K8-cKQhr0zs.
In what ways can students be co-designers of their learning experiences? Co-design can happen in constructing quality criteria together. As students examine strong and weak samples of work, a co-constructed list of criteria offers students a sense of what quality looks like and a clearer vision of expectations. This leads to higher quality work.
Students might even co-design experiences to learn a concept. What if students were posed something like the following: We are going to focus on learning about the impact of war on the environment. What might be the ways we can learn about this? Work individually or in pairs to research and design an activity or two to guide your peers in learning about war’s impact on the environment. Mr. Phillip is a preschool teacher at the University of Georgia lab school. He did just that with his four and five-year-old students. After the students voted on a topic of interest. He asked his students to brainstorm all the different things they might learn about pirates and the different activities that might do. He took their ideas and developed a week of lessons that aligned to standards (Chapman & Vagle, 2011).
The co-design process works beautifully to empower teachers. As schools and districts aim to improve the quality of their assessment practices, why not ask teachers to co-design the process and the products that will help assessment create this culture of learning.
3. Provide feedback and deliberate practice to increase confidence and achievement
I sat next to a man from Alberta on an early morning flight this year. He began his career as a video game developer. He described the environment in which he worked as a place that provided time and space for innovation. Driven sometimes by creative whims and other times by customer feedback and demand, there was a sense of empowerment; of being valued; and of working on something you were passionate about. This led to a conversation about the nature of school and what it would be like to foster an environment for students and educators much like he had experienced in the start-up video game company. Getting all learners to achieve at high levels is a tall order. There are many things that contribute to the conditions where kids achieve. What kind of experience builds student confidence? So much of our work is influenced by how we manage and promote students’ and teachers’ beliefs in their own ability.
Creating a culture of opportunity and possibility begins with the tone and spirit with which we invite students and teachers into conversation and continues through the types of feedback offered. Feedback and the tone and setting in which it is provided generates confidence or shuts it down. This man who was a now a software developer by day and artist by night claimed he could teach me to draw in the time it took us to fly from Oklahoma City to Minneapolis. He was right. He began by dividing a piece of paper into four equal sections. He described a story that stemmed from the research on deliberate practice, where expertise is developed through thousands of hours of focused practice, and not on innate talent (Ericsson, K. Anders; Krampe, Ralf T.; Tesch-Römer, Clemens (1993). Describing a pottery class experiment, where one class was told they had the semester to create one pot and the other class was told they had the semester to create as many pots as possible. At the end of the semester, those who built many pots had produced high quality pots than those who focused on producing only one.
He was going to replicate this design with targeted feedback in a short 30 minutes. He pulled out a picture of a tiger and told me to draw him. I had seven minutes. Then, he gave me a piece of feedback and a strategy for looking at proportions. After seven minutes, I had little drawn, but had improved the proportions in my drawing. The final seven minutes, I was to get more of the shape and shading in place. My third drawing was dramatically better then the first and second. It was engaging to get that targeted feedback and use it immediately. Seeing growth and improvement from the feedback was empowering. Drawing again and again made me better and not so worried about getting it right immediately, which can undermine my confidence and delay the practice that helps me get better. I wondered about this experience and its application to students. What if our students took one sentence or one paragraph and wrote it, got some feedback, rewrote it, got some more feedback, and rewrote it again? What if students got a math problem and solved it? Got some feedback, solved it again and again? What if students wrote a conclusion in science or represented data in a graph form? And then rewrote with targeted feedback a few times? How would this type of deliberate practice where students see growth and continually practice help build confidence and achievement? It was only 30 minutes, but I was pretty excited about my drawings. Granted, we can’t do this on everything, but we could really focus on one or two of the important skills and that confidence and excitement just might be contagious.
At the core of learning conversations making people feel energized, excited and empowered is ample time to create, involvement in a co-design, and targeted feedback in the context of deliberate practice. These practices create a space where listening is central –people (students and teachers) feeling listened to and believed in. The road to achievement and confidence is paved with creative time, an ongoing commitment to co-design, and deliberate practice with targeted feedback.
Adie, L. & Willis, J. (April, 2016). Developing teacher formative assessment practices through professional dialogue: Case studies of practice from Queensland, Australia at the Annual Meeting of the American Education Research Association. Washington D.C.
Charteris, J. & Smardon, D. (2015). Teacher agency and dialogic feedback: Using classroom data for practitioner inquiry. Teaching and Teacher Education, 50, 114-123.
Ericsson, K. Anders, Krampe, Ralf T.Tesch-Römer, Clemens. Psychological Review, Vol 100(3), Jul 1993, 363-406. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.100.3.363
Hambrick, D.Z., et al., Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2013.04.001
Heritage, M. (April, 2016). The use of formative assessment results to educate all in diverse democracies: Research results from four different countries. Discussant at the Annual Meeting of the American Education Research Association. Washington D.C.
Lyons, B. (2016, May 24). The inside voice: An interview with Wynn-Anne Rossi. Retrieved online May 24, 2016 at http://blogs.jwpepper.com/?p=7861