Posts by Tom Hierck


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Moving Forward to a New Better

In the mid-1940’s, as the end of World War II was near, Sir Winston Churchill was credited with saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  

I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of educators could not have imagined being in a time of twin crises. One brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the second due to the unrest borne out of systemic racism resulting in the loss of black lives.  

So, the question facing us today is:

How can we recognize these current crises, respond to them, and extract the greatest good for our students and ourselves?

As I ponder this question from both instructional design and assessment lenses, I turn to the work I’ve been doing with schools and educators over the last six weeks. A common theme has emerged as I’ve heard colleagues express a desire to return to the “old normal.”  

This worries me as it devalues, on some levels, all of the new learning that has happened during this challenging time. I also don’t think we should be hoping for a “new normal,” as “normal” connotes some limitations as well. I hope instead that we are moving forward to a “new better.”

I believe this “new better” will cause us to embrace the best of what we knew prior to the crises, with the best of what we learned during the time classroom instruction was occurring remotely. I know there is deep concern about all of the learning loss that occurred, as well as challenges driven by how to best assess student progress.  

When it comes to academics some panic has been created in educators by reports that suggest a 30% loss in literacy, and 50% percent loss in mathematics has been the end result of schools closing in the spring, and remote learning being a poor substitute.  

It’s important that we recognize that students are where they are. Spending four weeks, or four months for that matter, on what educators think was missed, is not going to ensure that students learn at high levels, nor will it make up for the lost time. Instead, there is a need to focus on what’s important for the current year and provide small group sessions to address students’ needs.  

I have been advocating that the return to school should focus on the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, and also SEL (social-emotional learning), as educators determine the baseline levels of their returning students and plan for their growth during the 2020-21 school year.  

I believe educators should also prepare for the struggles associated with breaking some habits that students may have acquired during their additional time at home which may not be in tune with school success. Our students have been away from the routines that are necessary for success in school. Think about this from your own perspective. During your time away from school, has it been easier for you to sleep in, have a second cup of coffee, or only have to dress the upper half of your body for Zoom meetings? We need to extend grace to our students, display empathy for them as they struggle to return to successful school routines, and to ourselves, as we return to work habits that align with successful teaching and leading.  

When it comes to assessing, the same important question has always been there whether instruction was being delivered remotely or face to face:

Did they learn what I taught?

Educators need to use assessments to gather evidence and focus on feedback and learning rather than accountability and grading. By focusing on the formative aspects of assessment and using the results to guide students and teachers in making improvements, there’s a greater likelihood of closing gaps.  

Formative assessment (assessing to gather evidence, not numbers) drives the next steps for teachers and students. It’s the same process whether remote or face to face. Teachers are experts at this checking for understanding with students present. In a remote learning world, teachers need to be similarly collecting regular evidence of student learning before simply moving forward. There may be an adjustment in the remote world. Simple checks for understanding could include choral response or head nodding. It can be as simple as “if what I just said is correct, make a ‘C’ with your hand; if it was incorrect, show that with an ‘X.’”  

As an aside—when it comes to talking about these gaps, I think we also need to remember that when it comes to the current crisis, it’s a global phenomenon, so the question needs to be asked:

“Who are our students behind?”

In other words, if we’re comparing everything now to a non-crisis-filled school year, that point is both self-explanatory and irrelevant. If we’re comparing ourselves to other countries, they are in the same boat. Let’s focus on the current school year, get our students back to the positive thinking and learning habits they are all capable of, and build their skills anew.  

Let me conclude by mentioning another common colloquialism. You’ll all be familiar with the notion of “trying to put the genie back in the bottle.” This refers to the attempt to revert a situation to how it formerly existed by containing, limiting, or repressing information, ideas, or advancements that have become commonplace or public knowledge.  

During the time of remote learning, there were some tremendous new insights gained by colleagues about our sector of education. It has been shared with me that parent engagement increased in many jurisdictions as a result of Zoom (or other program) meetings, telephone calls, and letters home.

In a return to any form of “normal,” are you prepared to abandon this increased contact so we can return to the very stifling, sterile parent-teacher night?

Other colleagues have shared with me the surprise of finding previously identified reluctant learners or introverts who have shined during this time. They have produced high-quality work unseen prior to the move to remote learning. Are we going to forget that and return those students to instruction that did not work for them or result in their best learning indicators?  

I believe a move to “go back to,” when we’ve gained some deep insights, as these two of many examples offer, would be the equivalent of educational malpractice. Instead, it’s time to accept that the genie is out, that we’ve learned some valuable things, and that we should move forward to a new better.



Assessment: Why Bother?

The title of this post is intentionally provocative, and since you’re reading it, there might be some ideas rattling around in your head that might be aligned with that provocation. Let me be clear from the outset, however, that I am not on a rant to eliminate high-quality, effective evidence gathering.  

I do struggle, though, with the pursuit of numbers simply for the purpose of rank and sort, or mathematical computation as per a formula or computer program.   Educators are familiar with the work of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and the four questions originally defined by the DuFours and Eaker. I want to zero in on questions 3 and 4:   Read more



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A Beautiful Noise: Productive Student Talk Time

It’s a beautiful noise
And it’s a sound that I love
And it makes me feel good
—Neil Diamond

I’ve been working a lot lately with educators in developing curricular units of study and the corresponding assessments while talking about the learning skills necessary for students to experience success. As an aside, I’ve deliberately not used the label “21st Century” in front of “learning skills” as I think we all understand in 2017 that we are in the 21st century. It’s lost its cache or novelty. Read more



The Most Important Three-Letter Word in Assessment Practice

Think of any group of thirty people whose only commonality is their age. Would it be reasonable to expect that each member of that group has the same ability in mathematics? That they all read at the same level with the same fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary? They all have the same writing ability and can produce high-level prose on any topic? Would they all demonstrate the same self-regulation in social situations? I think we can readily agree it would be folly to make those broad assumptions. Read more


Engaging Students in Dialogue

One of the most powerful aspects of effective assessment practice resides in engaging students in dialogue about their learning as a result of the information gathered during the assessment phase. Formative assessments are check-ins throughout a unit of instruction to see how students are progressing. The more engaged our students become in conversations with teachers about their learning, the greater the likelihood that they will experience success. Read more


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When is Assessment Formative?

Formative assessment is one of the strategies most often talked about by educators in schools today. Type those two words into a Google search and hundreds of thousands of items are identified. Yet the practice is still confusing and unevenly applied within districts, schools, departments, and classrooms. Read more


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Why Assess?

The question of “Why Assess?” is one that is posed in schools and districts everywhere. It’s important to challenge educators to think about their assessment practice and how they derive information about student progress. If the purpose of assessment is merely to rank and sort, then little needs to change from the assessment practices of previous generations. If, instead, the purpose is to focus on student learning, then educators need to examine whether their current practice is aligned with that outcome. Read more