Pushing Past The Edge

What if we were to record grades solely on daily observations that led to student adjustments in learning and growth? 

Great question, thanks for asking!

Some background:

In order to begin digging to the core of that answer, I’ll ask you this admittedly very different question…do we have students in our classrooms now who could earn a passing grade on our final tests without actually going through all the lessons?

Of course we do. I’m not talking about 100%. I’m talking about earning the grade at which we allow students to “pass” in nearly every classroom in nearly every school in absolutely every State. The D is for Diploma. What are those kids learning? That class doesn’t matter? That “learning” in a traditional sense doesn’t matter?

Besides, we already know multiple choice tests aren’t the best ways to measure learning.

In case you’re not convinced: Evidence 1 Evidence 2 

So let’s take a look at the original question again:

What if we were to record grades solely on daily observations that led to student adjustments in learning and growth? 

If we’re not relying on a “% correct” mentality and we truly are assessing individual and dynamic growth every day and grabbing deliverables and products at each stage of the project, what does a true grade that indicates actual learning look like at the end of the project? Should it besimply a Y/N of whether a student has mastered an academic standard, forgetting all the soft skills learning, practice, and potential mastery points?

Some people think so. I don’t. Not if we also expect students to learn, develop and practice life skills. We’re missing a huge chunk of what school has been designed to instill in our learners. From the late 1800’s to now, school has been purposefully designed to do just that. And I think, with the target adjusted to reflect modern-day needs, that life practice should absolutely continue.

But when we have curriculum that’s adjusted from a “compliance” type of mentality to one of a more “active/creative” role, the old styles of assessments and grade reports simply won’t cut it.

When we start to take the dusty traditional unit assessments down from their crumbling pedestals, we can see there is indeed a better way for EVERY kid to learn. For every kid to be held accountable for growth, no matter at what academic and skills level they enter our classrooms. Because they do come to us with all manner of skills and knowledge, despite a standardized academic curriculum in schools for the past 120 years.

And to ignore that some students will work hard and never earn the same “% correct” as a student who barely cracked the books is a disservice we dole out to students every single day with the result that many learn to hate school and many others learn to underachieve (and too many learn both). The students wonder why they should give effort if it’s not really required? or rewarded? And  with academic pep rallies, and the talk of paying for grades, our practices do not lead to the development of intrinsic rewards systems, do they?

How assessment in a Project Based environment might work:

See, a teacher in a PBL environment is working with each student every single day, visiting with them, assessing what they know, where they’re going, and what she needs to do to ensure the student hits certain expectation marks as he travels through the project. So if a student is off-task or off track, then she is able to address that classroom management issues right then. So ultimately, a teacher is helping the student learn and grow at a challenging rate every single day.

If we ask a student to stop everything s/he is doing to provide a multiple choice test at that moment of the day, what will we know? Will we see the skills the students are learning, practicing, mastering? Will that 45 minute, high-pressure, inauthentic ‘test’ be able to tell us everything s/he knows about the topic? Because I’m pretty sure that multiple choice tests with a set of predetermined selections aren’t always the best way to make learning transparent. With the obligatory one false answer and the two other “vague/hazy/confusing” selection, what exactly are we measuring?

So instead we can have students create various “deliverables” or products that they are responsible for completing as an authentic example of learning and growth, purposefully placed at various stages of the project. In this way, students can create a multi-dimensional result of their learning in a portfolio type of setting. And if a teacher sees that a student is moving off-course or isn’t working up to expectations, then s/he can make that adjustment at that stage in the project. Compare this to one-dimensional high- pressure, low-authenticity of paper/pencil quizzes.

There are many natural stages for creating deliverable products in any project. I’ll outline a few generic stages, knowing that, depending upon the actual project, students are working on, the stages might be in different locations/times.

1) Initial planning. Whether working in a group or singly, every project needs an initial plan of what we know, what we need to know, what we need to create, and a list of resources for getting us there. Don’t forget a timeline. It’s at this stage we can assess soft skills development and beginning content understanding. Do the students see the “big picture purpose” of the work? Do they see where they fit in? Why they fit in?

2) Daily check ups and conferences, either individually or with groups, either at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day, or during the work are great ways to see what kids are learning and where their minds are during their work. This could be a discussion, blog post, or some graphic illustration of what progress is occurring.

3) Soft and Hard Deadlines. Time is always a rough piece for projects because if a teacher is doing her job, she will consistently be helping the students work for better, more improved, higher-quality work with deeper thinking at every question. We can get tangled up in this; our projects can end up being “time vampires,” as Kevin Honeycutt calls them. In order for students to learn time management skills while still working on a higher-quality product at each moment, we can use soft and hard deadlines.

Hard deadlines are exactly what they sound like. It’s the dead-end of the project. Time is out. There’s no more work time; we’re presenting today (Don’t forget to leave some time for reflection, evaluation and celebration after the presentations). We can see the final, polished product.

But a soft deadline is a bit more amorphic and dynamic. It’s the deadline where nearly all the work is finished. It’s at the “good enough” stage, which, as we know, is never good enough. Selecting a soft deadline date depends heavily on how much time students have spent on a project in totality, as well as how long they might need to adjust their work to “the best we can do.” For that reason, I cannot give a definite time period, no matter how many times I’m asked. I don’t know your students. I will say that with my students, I often gave 2-3 days for improvement work between the soft deadlines and the hard deadlines when we were working on a 2-3 week project. Sometimes the students were able to negotiate for more or fewer days as well. Yep. Dynamic and flexible.

Students receive peer and teacher feedback during their soft deadline presentations, based on a rubric that has been developed toward the beginning of the project by both the students and staff.

And, as it happens, this soft and hard deadline process is exactly one of the possible stages of assessment. They have provided work, but they know they will be given ideas for making it better. This allows them to self-assess their own work in progress more accurately, as well as learn to asses their peers within a growth mindset.

Quite honestly, there are numerous points in which we can pause in our learning and demonstrate the skills and hard academic content we’re gaining. And it seems that it’s a natural reflex that in today’s educational environments, even the best teachers, will find themselves nervous about whether students are actually learning or not when we shift away from “% correct” mentality to a more authentic and responsive PBL environment. Teachers new to a PBL environment have not yet learned to trust our own judgement of whether a student is truly learning. And when we have, there are still plenty of administrators, parents, and school board members who haven’t.

So what do we do? At this point, there’s nothing for the educator to do, but to dive in. We collect student-created deliverables that illustrate the carefully designed learning objectives we’ve created in our purposefully designed  learning environments. We have translated into a rubric those objectives that include both soft skills and hard academic content. We’ve asked students to help design those rubrics, gathering their input on what they think is important to demonstrate in their own learning, as we guide them to quality thinking. We’ve had students and teacher provide feedback to each student (or student group) on what they’re doing well. And what they might need to add to their development list.

We do all of this. It’s not easy work. We do it and we provide not the one-dimensional snapshot of “% correct,” but instead, we provide the multi-dimensional portfolio of constant feedback as the final result.

Messy? Yes. But it’s real. And it’s certainly not Scantron enabled. And our “grades” begin to look more like a supervisor’s evaluation of employee performance (most often soft skills) than a list of how many questions a student missed during the unit, quarter, year.

Now we just need to add whether the student is working at above/below grade-level and at/above/below expected pacing and we might actually have an assessment portfolio that actually says something about what’s going on.

That’s what we did at Turning Point Learning Center for 5 years to positive parent feedback. It was massive work, but it was a true picture of learning. Contact me if you want to know more.

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Written by GingerLewman

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