What exactly does a strong critique of someone else’s work look like? How is it the same and different from a critique of one’s own work?
When do readers identify the main idea of a text? Which processes lead to the identification of a main idea?
What does a good data analysis look and sound like? What are the critical components of a strong analysis?
These are just some of the questions I have witnessed teacher teams wrestle with in the last few weeks of collaborative assessment work. The answers to these questions and others like them serve as the bridge between teacher assessment design work and student ownership of learning goals. When we explore goals in explicit ways, we can begin to imagine how we might explain complex skills like critiquing, identifying main idea, and analyzing data to our learners. We have to make these concepts tangible and accessible if we are going to nurture student investment and hope.
The essence of assessment
To begin this process, let’s first review the essence of assessment itself: Assessment involves a clarification of where we want to be—an articulation of our goals, and a clarification of where we are now—our current state. Once teachers are clear about both these things, they can begin to imagine how they might support students in moving from current state toward the goals. This is the primary focus of assessment—to advance learning.
The chances of doing this are vastly enhanced, however, when assessment processes involve the learners themselves, so they can become partners in achieving the goals. This means teachers need to be clear, themselves, about exactly what proficiency looks and sounds like. How would someone recognize proficient skills and/or understanding and how might educators develop proficiency in students who still have room to grow?
Seeing how our learners see the work
As a long-time teacher myself, I have to assert that this work is far from easy. In all my years of teaching the concept of main idea, for example, I didn’t really consider when and how a reader identifies this aspect of the text. I knew what it was, and I could do it myself, but breaking it into clear steps to help someone who was having difficulty was a little harder. It helped to examine student work and realize some students were confusing main idea with making a prediction, while others were using too much of their own background knowledge and were missing the “of the text” aspect of the main idea.
Once I realized this and thought deeply about how a person identifies main idea, I was able to help my students understand that identifying main idea involves a process of predicting and confirming, from the beginning of a text to the end. It means thinking about the meaning of a text as we are reading it and threading details together to pull out the crux of the text. All of this is to say that thinking deeply about our learning goals is not always simple, nor is it common practice. However, when we miss this part of assessment design, we also miss out on leveraging this work to bring students into our assessment conversations. This process is the essence of assessment as learning—using assessment to build understanding and skills.
‘This means that…’
So, how do teachers remember to engage in this work? Once they identify learning targets or “I can” statements for each learning goal (a common practice when deconstructing goals to facilitate assessment design), they can immediately ask themselves how they might make these targets truly tangible, clear, and real for the students they serve. A phrase I find helpful to direct this work is, “This means that…” I use this phrase to imagine I am going to explain a target to someone who has no clue what it means (which may be the case). For example, if I am attempting this process with the target “I can write using a strong voice,” I might say, “This means that…
- I can say things in my own way, with my own words and my own ‘turn of phrase.’
- I can use my own experiences to communicate my ideas.
- I can select a topic that is interesting to me, that I know something about, and that I am passionate about.”
These ideas help learners make sense of the complex concept of voice. They help our students begin to imagine how they might develop a strong voice in their own writing and what they might be looking for when they read the work of others. The concept of voice is abstract unless teachers make it clear through this kind of clarification process.
See it once, see it many times over
This work also ensures that students will be ready to determine their “current state” more accurately. Once they understand a concept, they are able to recognize its presence or absence in their own work and in the work of their peers. This increases the chances of successful self and peer assessment. When educators turn academic language into language that is accessible, they open the door to a shared understanding of complex goals.
Next time you share a goal with your students, work with them to build a crystal-clear understanding of that goal. Help them know exactly what it means to analyze, to critique, to create, to defend, to justify, and to perform proficiently. Make these verbs tangible to learners by exploring “This means that…,” and make your students true partners in your quest to achieve learning goals.