Assessment’s Value

Assessment is a tool that aims to do an impossible task: figure out where a student is on the path of learning.

  • NOT what direction the student is going,
  • NOT how fast s/he is moving towards the goal (or if s/he’s moving at all),
  • NOT how much momentum s/he has.

Does that mean there’s a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle analog at work here? I’d say that’s a legitimate hypothesis, but without testing it that would be just be an unsubstantiated claim.

Stated differently: Sure, most of our assessments are ostensibly figuring out where our students are on the path of knowledge- and skill-development (or more frequently “what they ‘know'”). But is it possible to do more?

Assessment Impossible

I – a caucasian, American, middle-class male – cannot understanding the life of a female Chinese exchange student, or the unfathomable pain of a student whose skin color and gender combine to prompt so much of society to fear him and even loathe his progress. I’ve got privilege galore and don’t know what it’s like to not have it.

Similarly, we educators – who largely had it easy academically during our schooling – can never get in the head of our students, who have a vastly wide variety of thought patterns and experiences that influence their cognitive development. and know what they know or what they are thinking or where they are coming from. The best we can try is to (co-)create scenarios in which our observations suggest to us where they stand.

Assessment can be valuable when we understand its limitations. That way, a teacher’s efforts are focused on things that matter and not on what doesn’t help. What configurations do offer insights into understanding? While the specifics differ from content area to content area, here are front-runners I’ve found:

  • students write their thoughts
  • students represent their ideas with multiple representations
  • concept development is prioritized over fact-recollection
  • coherence of understanding is measured

I hear you. I’m surely not there yet, but please don’t forget what Dr. Viktor Frankl said about aiming [4 min video]. [Hover cursor here for spoiler.] Assessment can offer insights into student thinking. When I design my assessments with that goal, I better at it each time.

Coherence within Learning Environment

Coherence is king.

If an assessment tool isn’t being used to orient students and me around our learning goals, why would we use it? (I’m writing about how I’m trying to get by within the severely limited context of teaching at a traditional public school. We all know learning happens outside formal school. You may also know that there are revolutions in how learning is configured that necessitate different ways of thinking about assessment.)

Assessment is valuable when the everything else we do in the classroom is influenced by the results of an assessment. (A doctor’s not going to continue with a treatment if any early test informs her that it’s killing her patient, is she?) Assessment becomes more valuable when it has a dynamic relationship among assessment, course goals, and what people are doing.

Home-growing My PLN

The narrative I’m hearing regarding “the” way to do professional development these days is:

  1. Get a Twitter account.
  2. Start a blog.
  3. ????
  4. PROFIT!!! STUDENT-ENGAGEMENT-AND-UNICORNS!!!

It’s true, isn’t it?! My students benefit weekly from the insights I happen upon in the twitterblogosphere that are so generously shared by teachers.

It’s bittersweet, though. I want to have this sort of collaboration among teachers in my own building. This is a common grip.

Just like with your family members, we can be most critical of the people we’re close to. So I’ve got to take Kid President’s cue: (HT @DonPata)

Okay, step 1: Overlook any perceived shortcomings. They’re likely all in my head anyway. How could I possibly know all that another person is going through? I’m happier and more willing to start conversations when I assume others are doing the best they can within the context of their experiences.

Step 2: Check any sort of patronizing attitude at the door. How could I dream of building mutually supportive relationships with my colleagues if I’m harboring an unfounded notion of self-righteousness?

Steps 3 & 4: Seek insights* from the people in my building. I’ve got to schedule time to observe other teachers. I have a simultaneous responsibility to humbly, generously, and unapologetically offer my own insights. But filter words with the palatability-and-relevancy-test.

So, what fruit are your local education discourse efforts bearing? Please share the what and how!

* I really love this word. When I ask for someone’s “insights” or offer my own, I’ve found it can remind the participants in the conversation that we’re only communicating about perceptions. This can avoid either party from getting offensive/defensive.

Constancy

“Seize ye the chalice of constancy … quaff then therefrom …”

For years I’ve prioritized re-conceptualizing education, school, the teacher-student relationship, etc. to be more supportive of my student’s broad skill development. Fine, that’s step two of knowledge, volition, and action [PDF] [Google Books excerpt].

But how is my practice as a science/engineering teacher advancing accordingly?

The question, though, is: Am I doing so consistently? Am I building momentum? Growing from strength to strength? Am I doing so collaboratively with other educators and learners?

A goal of mine this year is to chug from that chalice of constancy and see how inebriated I can get.

Meta-Learning Targets

Round two for #TLC2014. This week’s prompt: What learning outcome(s) would make you feel most accomplished as an educator? (I’m choosing brevity in my response in favor of keeping up with the weekly blogging challenges.)

I would feel most accomplished as an educator, if my students could:

  • articulate the aspirations of their hearts,
  • identify the positive and negative social forces operating in school, at work, at home, online, etc. that influence their decisions,
  • embark on collective endeavors that support the material and spiritual well-being of their communities,
  • reflect on the results of their actions, using such as a launchpad for next steps forward.

These are more like human capabilities than they are content knowledge. But we’ve all got our implicit curricula. This is mine.

What might progress towards them look like? I’ll be digesting that question this year. Maybe I’ll update this later with any fresh insights.

I’m on a crusade for coherence. Coherent student-teacher relationships. Coherent conceptual frameworks – within my mind, the minds of my colleagues, the minds of my family and neighbors, and the minds of my students.

How I View Teacher-Student Relationships

I’m biting Gary Abud’s hook. One of his gifts to the teaching profession this year is the 2014 Teacher Leadership Challenge. The schtick is: Get more teachers blogging, which to me reads “Augment the quantity and quality of education discourse in the United States.” This feels like a gift because I’m one of those teachers who’s been appreciating bloggers, hoped to blog, but cornered myself into believing my contributions weren’t worthwhile yet. Perhaps Gary’s challenge will give me enough structure to reflect regularly throughout this school year. Here’s my response to the first prompt: Who is ‘the learner’ and who is ‘the teacher?’.

Whether you draw motivation to teach from fear of disintegrating forces of society (oh, say … injust financial systems, patchwork attempts at advancing education systems, capricious approaches to local and global diplomacy – a whole teetering civilization) and/or from a rich optimism and belief in students’ latent abilities, you likely also perceive inherent connectedness in society – whether local or global. So I’ll start there as I explore foundations on which to build a conceptual framework for the “learner”-“teacher” relationship.

Consider for a moment all of humanity. You know, your fellow space travelers trapped on the surface of this sphere. Well, if we compare all those people with a human body, the billions of people that make up humanity are like individual cells of that body. The well-being of an individual cell is wholly dependent on the well-being of the whole person. Similarly, the healthy development of whole entity relies on the health of the small cells. Indeed, unhealthy cells either prevent organs from functioning properly or are cancerous – growing at an unsustainable rate, and threatening the death of the whole person. Isn’t it undeniable that humanity and the individual, too, have a reciprocal, mutually supportive, and mutually dependent relationship?

This is also how I view a country, a town, a school community, and the people within classroom. There’s no meaningful difference between the student and me in terms of inherent wisdom, valid life experiences, or value to one’s community. I am simply charged with the task of giving us direction and focus.

Now, this perspective could be taken too far. At various points in my career as an educator so far, I’ve let this belief convince me to have a laze-faire approach to the interactions and relationships that emerge in my classroom. (e.g. I rebelled against the no-smiles-before-Christmas rule by letting my students say and do what they want – while I used artificially scarce class time to validate their every whim, rather than accompanying them in restraining their frivolous impulses.) Instead, a teacher has the responsibility to command the ship, to learn to balance flexibility with firmness, to facilitate emerging clarity within a constructivist environment.

Regardless, I wholly holistically reject the notion that I, as a “teacher” – despite having a Master’s in science education, am any more likely to come up with and implement a revolutionary community-transforming idea than my students are. My goal is to coach them in that process.

Relevant links don’t naturally fit above: