“If you know why, you’ll figure out how.” –Unknown
“Always share the why before the what.” –Donna Moss, brilliant educator and friend
As a former English teacher, I love quotes. I had them all over my classroom, and now have them in my office as an administrator. The two above are my absolute favorites and I try to keep them at the forefront of my work as an educator. The first quote has been in my email signature for years and I get to see it every time I send an email. The other quote comes from a former colleague who taught me so much and remains a valued friend. With all of that reminding, I still manage to forget that all-important why when I am talking about assessment.
Nearly every time I find myself stuck in the middle of a thorny issue or problem, I can trace it back to losing sight of why we started in the first place. It is not because we were unclear about why we needed the changes or even where we hoped to go. It usually was because in the middle of implementation, we were distracted by the details and logistics of what we were putting in place. When that happened, we stopped talking about our rationale and talked more about overcoming the hurdles and obstacles we had encountered.
An example that I see frequently relates to learning targets. Many school districts are spending time and energy identifying learning targets, which certainly helps create the shared knowledge that is essential for teams to have effective collaborative conversations (Erkens, 2016). These learning targets help guide instruction, assessment, and are the products of effective collaborative conversations that help make sure that a team of teachers has common expectations and understanding of the standards. Learning targets also provide valuable insights for learners as well and can promote self-regulation and self-assessment.
Many administrators communicate the value of learning targets by requiring teachers to post learning targets in a prominent place in their classrooms. They may conduct walkthroughs or informal observations to determine how many teachers comply with this request and even chart the percentage of classrooms with a target posted. It is here that, once again, we should go back to why learning targets are so valuable in the first place. Do we ask if the learning targets were created individually or by a team of teachers? Do we ask how the learning targets are used in assessment design? Do we ask students how they use the learning targets? Do we even stay in the classroom long enough to see how the teacher uses the learning target throughout the lesson? The further we get from why learning targets make a difference both for teachers and for students, the less likely we are to realize that power.
Formative assessment is also something that should be explained and not simply required. When I was a building principal, we talked a lot about the importance of collaborating as a Professional Learning Community and sharing data about what our students knew and were able to do. As a new principal, I asked the teachers if they felt comfortable in their knowledge and use of formative assessment. They assured me that they did and so I required each team to identify a goal for the end of the grading period and to create three common formative assessments aligned to that goal. I met with each team at different points throughout the grading period and came to one team with just over a week left in the quarter. I asked them to share information about their three common assessments, what the results told them, and what instructional adjustments they made based on the results. They informed me that they had not administered any formative assessments and were planning to conduct all three assessments during the last week of the quarter. I asked them why they had waited so long to assess their students. They responded that they wanted students to have as long as possible in order to do their best. As they described the assessments that they created, I realized that they were well-designed and aligned to the goal. I asked how they hoped to make any instructional adjustments with only one week left in the quarter. They did not believe that they would have time to do that.
I immediately understood that I had not done my job as an instructional leader. I had asked a few questions about their skills and knowledge related to formative assessment, but I had not asked the most important question: Do you know why formative assessment is important and valuable? What have you learned about your students through formative assessments? How do you use the information that you gain from formative assessments? I had skipped straight to requiring a number of formative assessments to administer (although there is certainly nothing magic about any particular number) and had neglected to make sure they understood why it would be worth their time in the first place. I realized that we needed to take a step back before we could take the steps forward that we hoped to make.
In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek talks about how discovering his own why helped him overcome a time when his work was not fulfilling. Frustrations with our work are inevitable, especially when we choose to take on challenging work in creating strong and meaningful assessment systems that help us accurately reflect what students know and are able to do. It is easy to become discouraged and to feel that the work is simply impossible. I recommend that before we do that we ask a few simple questions. Where is it that we want to go? Why is this the best possible course of action? Does everyone on my team recognize that same destination? Does everyone on my team understand why this is what we are doing? What is it going to take to get us there? These are the types of questions that help us refocus on our why, especially when the what can feel so overwhelming.
Erkens, Cassandra (2016). Collaborative Common Assessments: Teamwork. Instruction. Results. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press
Sinek, Simon (2009). Start With Why. New York: Penguin.