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. ????

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.


“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:

7 CCs of Science Standards – STAT!

Regurgitation Warning: I didn’t sell my soul or anything. My goal here is just to succinctly share what I’m understanding so far from one part of the NGSS – hoping it might make the monster easier to tackle for my colleagues out there. BTW, I’ve been working on an infographic to contextualize it all.

As a teacher of multiple science and engineering courses, I’m starting to digest the “cross-cutting concepts” within the Next Generation Science Standards. At this point only 3 states in the U.S. have officially adopted NGSS, but, since it’s likely that Iowa will also adopt them, I need to get my study on.

ngss_alt_logoThe NGSS have three areas – represented by the three sides of the Möbius strip that makes up the logo.

  • Science and Engineering Practices (This is connected to the methods of learning and teaching associated with the terms ‘inqury’ and/or ‘constructivist.’)
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas (Content)
  • Cross-Cutting Concepts

Perhaps I’ll do a series of posts on digesting NGSS. No promises. In this post I’m just going to start thinking about the cross-cutting concepts. The document from which I glean the following is right here (pdf from final April 2013 edition).

Motivations for Using CCCs Perceived by the Authors

Emphasis and de-emphasis are my own, and reflect my current perception of value.

  • CCCs are notions that help students understand content.
  • CCCs help students understand methods of science engineering.
  • Revisiting CCCs explicitly and implicitly allow students to build familiarity with using them. Let them come to the surface. Let them swim below. Help them emerge again later.
  • Complexity and sophistication of CCCs grow over the years.
  • CCCs can offer common vocabulary.
  • CCCs are not to be assessed directly.
  • (In perceived contradiction to #6…) Performance expectations are associated with CCCs.
  • CCCs are for ALL students!
  • The CCCs are for individual standards are where you’ll find treatment of the Nature of Science and engineering concepts.

The Actual Cross-Cutting Concepts

Here, the headings are the names of the actual CCCs. The scant commentary for each is my own – based on my experiences predominately as a physics teacher.

Category 1: Patterns

CCC 1: Patterns

From my experience in a modeling instruction workshop, the name of the game is creating scenarios … in which students can identify patterns … that can be generalized into the laws of physics.

Category 2: Causality

CCC 2: Cause and Effect

I think this is a good one. When people hear “B happens because A,” I perceive that there is difficulty distinguishing between “A causes B” and “B causes A.”

Example: “Why are there seasons on Earth?”

  • Plausible valid response: “In alternating portions of Earth’s revolution around the Sun, each N/S hemisphere receives alternating more and less direct sunlight.”
  • Surprisingly common response that shows that someone doesn’t understand the causality in the question: “So that flowers can grow in the

CCC 3: Structure and Function

I’m passing the ball to you, Life and Health Sciences.

Category 3: Systems

CCC 4: Systems and System Models

Be they circulatory, respiratory, reproductive, lymphatic, or nervous – systems are certainly present in bio. Also, engineers can be concerned with all sorts of systems. In these cases, though, we’re talking about the tangible.

The system models used in energy-, momentum-, or force-based analyses are abstractions. So, other than a linguistic coincidence, I don’t feel clear about why these are lumped together.

CCC 5: Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

My understanding is that this about numeracy.

  • How does 1 km compare with 1 mm?
  • WRIAEB the radius diameter of a circle and its circumference? (Sorry, Vi! I’m still with you on Tau!)
  • Use unit analysis/dimentional reasoning for problem solving and #pattern finding.

CCC 6: Energy and Matter

From one perspective, I’m wondering why energy and mass are the conserved quantities the sorting hat chose to be crosscutting. Feels a tad arbitrary. What about momentum? Charge? Color?

From another perspective, I’m really feeling how widespread appreciation and respect for the finiteness of Earth’s resources is pressing.

Also, what are the psychosocioeconomic implications of entropy?

CCC 7: Stability and Change

I suppose this is about the first (rate of change) and second derivatives (rate of rate of change) for anything within “scales, proportionality, and quantities.”

Where will I see this stuff?

Left side of each standard page. In green. If you print the NGSS documents, I’d recommend you do so with a color printer; doing so will prevent allay cognitive overload. (Administrators, be ready to refill those color ink cartridges.) Sample.

Physics Games

A friend at work passed along this game advertised for being a physics game. What follows is my response – by no means intended to knock the linked game. (I haven’t tried it yet.)

I’ll give it a shot on our iPad tonight. Lots of games include physics in the software (Minecraft, COD, WOW, Halo, Portal, AngryBirds), but I’ve found it challenging to help students decipher anything meaningful about relaitonships between quantities in the games. It’s too easy (and fun) to just use pattern recognition to play the game without caring about meaning.

Dan Meyer and Dave Major are working to make super meaningful and intuitive and collective-inquiry-based learning apps.

The team at The Universe and More is working to make kick-butt, fun, meaningful apps. Rob and I have used them to give students kinematics graphing practice, but I need to figure out how to keep students focused on applying the graph skills with out skipping to pattern-matching. There’s no height this team can’t reach, though.

Worth mentioning also is SimInsights. I’ve worked directly with them and can attest to their high vision and goal of also contributing fully to inquiry-based learning. They’re committed to using sound pedagogy. A strength of theirs is seeing themselves as collaborators with thought-partners who want to advance education systems.

Finally, I’d be remiss to not mention the creative and collaborative efforts of Brian, Frank, and John who are people I turn to when I want inspiration for developing my own physics simulations – or dare I someday say games?