Amy Janecek is the district level principal with Osseo Area Schools in a diverse suburb of Minneapolis. With more than 20 years of experience, eight of which she served as a middle and high school principal, she has also served as a secondary social studies teacher, secondary district office coordinator, and assistant principal—in diverse school settings, both urban and suburban.

Shift Away from Learning Loss and Focus on Relevant Assessments that Emphasize Creativity and Critical Thinking

There is a buzz in education circles and districts raising concerns about the significant learning loss affecting students after the absence of in-person learning and the multiple shifts between learning models. It is important to shift away from this idea of learning loss, as it focuses on the deficits of students and does not recognize the strengths and assets students developed during the pandemic. The Spencer Foundation and The Learning Policy Institute created six principles to consider when addressing this concept of learning loss. One pillar identified is to focus on creative inquiry forms of learning. This was further explained as:

“Learning environments can engage in disciplinary and interdisciplinary inquiries through a variety of contexts and by using artistic forms of expression. All students deserve the opportunity to be treated as creative thinkers and makers. Learning should be an opportunity for play and authentic meaning-making, with the focus on how students are learning instead of drilling content in isolation. Children should be inspired, their curiosity encouraged, and their dreams fed. Research demonstrates that such environments provide rich opportunities for deep learning. Such forms of learning can support meeting multiple learning goals and create opportunities for students to imagine and contribute to thriving post-pandemic worlds that serve themselves and their communities” (Bang et al., 2021).

This report started the wheels turning in my brain. Summer is the time for educators to step away, refresh, and reflect. It is also the time when intentional and rich collaborative conversations take place around curriculum and assessment among teaching teams. They may be formal or informal conversations but what is so powerful is the creativity that comes from these collective voices coming together.

What if this understanding of creative inquiry was shared with teams in advance of planning together? Would this guide teams to think differently about formative and summative assessments? Would it spark new ways to allow students to show their knowledge? Instead of defaulting to traditional assessment practices such as multiple choice, a short essay, or matching, the sky’s the limit in the ways that teams can collaborate to create assessments that are meaningful, relevant to their students’ own lived experiences, and allow students to show what they know. Stephanie Woldem, a brilliant math teacher in a south Minneapolis urban high school, asked students to analyze tables of data showing numbers of homicides, assaults, and arrests. She asked students to find out which police precincts had the most positive interactions with police compared to arrests and crimes. (Star Tribune, Mattos, 2015). Interactions between the community and police were a growing concern. Woldem was very aware of these concerns among the students and created a relevant learning task with an assessment in her freshman algebra class. Policing impacted many of the young scholars in the community around the school. Woldem knew that having a deeper understanding of the data and helping the students make meaning of the data was far more impactful than practicing a few algebra problems.

Bringing lessons to life
The teachers at this school also asked students to participate in data tours, using relevant city data and students created questions to dig into the data. Often they came away with more questions than answers when analyzing the information. What this teacher learned is that in a subject matter such as math where students struggled to make meaning and find relevance, math jumped alive for these students. The teacher found a way to use content and assessments to motivate, engage and inspire the students to become critical thinkers using the data in ways they have not done before.

Through understanding what is going on in the lives of her students and the community in which the students live, the teacher helped them develop the skills of critical and creative thinking. The three great assessment gurus which taught me much of what I know about assessments today, Cassie Erkens, Tom Schimmer and Nicole Dimich, wrote a book called Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens. In the text they outlined critical competencies necessary for success in a changing world. Two of these tenets that Woldem also used in her math classroom were critical thinking and creative thinking. While the authors argue that all seven are critical for deeper and more meaningful learning for student’s today, I want to focus on critical thinking and creative thinking when developing assessments for students.

Reimagining assessments
The authors identify the skill of critical thinking and to also consider the dispositions or how to help students behave as critical thinkers. Students need opportunities to engage in practicing this skill prior to providing evidence of their learning through a formative or summative assessment. As did the math teacher, “it is preferred that learners emerge as partners and key decision makers in their own experiences, allowing them to create relevance while exploring those areas and topics that naturally pique their curiosity” (Erkens et al., p.77). Inquiry and project based learning can be valuable examples of helping learners to practice these skills. As teachers working in collaborative teams in the summer, how can teams reimagine a unit summative assessment to build in critical thinking skills in a way that is relevant for the students in their school community?

The second of seven critical competencies is creativity. Erkens et al., state that “creativity is the backbone of innovation, and humanity thrives on innovation; indeed, it is what improves the quality of living across all age and continents” (144). Creativity may be difficult to measure and far too often students do not have an opportunity to imagine, invent or develop original ideas. Schools are looking for right and wrong to prepare students for standardized tests, which also do not assess creativity. Thus, teaching this critical competency is left behind. A mentor once said to me what is measured is what identifies the values of an organization. If the school is only looking at standardized tests, then students often would not have experiences to produce or create and collaborate to develop new solutions. However, if educators were to ask employers what are the top skills they are looking for in employees, often creativity and developing new, innovative solutions rises to the top. Schools are not preparing students well for the skills they need in our ever-changing world. Again, as educators work together to develop new curriculum and assessments in the summer, consider embedding teaching the skills of creativity into units of study. Allow students an opportunity to practice these skills. In fact, work together to create new opportunities for students as you get your own creative juices flowing. One recommendation from Erkens et al., is to teach the creative process. Melissa Purtee came up with this visual to assist in helping educators understand the creative process.

Inspiration design creation reflection and presentation flowchart

(Purtee, 2017).

One middle school classroom in a STEM school had a specific design course. The students were asked to design musical instruments that were required to make a noise at a certain level of frequency. The students spent time walking through each step of the creative design process. They kept journals documenting and reflecting on each stage of the design process. This was also used as a formative assessment for the teacher. The teacher read a few journal entries each day to get a grasp of how students were making sense of each step in relation to their instrument design. In the end, the students were asked to play the instrument. If the criteria was not met, the teacher provided feedback and the students were able to have another attempt, as failure and revision is a necessary part of the design process. However it is not necessary to have a separate course to teach creativity and this can be embedded into any course or subject matter. To further understand the creative process, visit for a free reproducible of a table called” Instructional Questions for Teaching the Creative Process”.

Growing tomorrow’s citizens is important to engage in relevant and meaningful assessments that tap into creativity and critical thinking. This aids in motivation and engagement for the learners when they find assessments where they can make personal connections to prior knowledge, new learning, and develop new skills. With an emphasis on creativity and critical thinking with assessment practices, this will aide in the acceleration of learning instead of focusing on this concept of learning loss. The time is now to engage in critical and creative thinking while collaborating with your own teams during the summer to develop authentic and relevant assessments that are meaningful for students.

Matos, Alejandro (2015, December 6). “South High teachers illustrate inequities through math.” The Star Tribune.
Bang, Megan, et al. The Learning Policy Institute, 2021, Summer Learning and Beyond: Opportunities for Creating Equity.
Erkens, C. et al. Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens in Today’s Classrooms: Assessing 7 Critical Competencies. Solution Tree Press. 2019.
Purtee, M. “The Essential Framework for Teaching Creativity.” The Art of Education. 2017,

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