When I started teaching I gave very little thought to my assessment practices. I gave exams and my students wrote papers, and occasionally I assigned a project of some sort. I DID lots of projects and creative things in class, but I evaluated the traditional tasks. That was just what you did. In hindsight, it reflected a highly behaviourist theory of knowledge, an instructivist centred practice. I did focus my assessment on the outcomes, but students needed to reflect the knowledge that I transmitted to them. If their knowledge was different from the knowledge I was expecting, the answer was wrong. Again, my initial practice was so simple, and lacked thought and reflection. With the guidance of mentoring colleagues and further education, my pedagogy quickly changed. The choice I made at the time suggested that the teacher was the sole holder of knowledge.
My assessment practices now mirror the change in my instructional strategies. I would consider myself now much more of a constructivist in my instructional design and so my assessments mirror this. For example, I use learning contracts, which I wrote about in my last post. I have noticed that they do focus the students on assessments for learning rather than looking ahead to that all important summative mark. And because students have so much more choice in a learning contract, they have choice in their assessment tools as well. Learning contracts do pose some challenges for the practical elements of reporting, however, as they are designed for formative assessment over a long period of time, and then one final summative mark. So, it becomes a little onerous for the teacher to report regularly via the LMS so parents can see how students are doing before that final mark is entered. Our school and division asks that we update marks every two weeks, with a specific number of assessments over the course of the semester. However, inputting formative assessments into the LMS doesn’t impact the mark and so parents are sometimes unaware of how their student is actually doing because they don’t read the comments in the formative column — they only look for numbers. I do assess so much more formatively than I used to, and unfortunately, parents don’t always appreciate that feedback as much as the summative assessment. In terms of my formative assessments, I did appreciate that the assessment group offered some tools that I had not heard of, and it was also reassuring to see the study conducted on effectiveness of these tools: “Plickers is an effective tool in aiding
the learning process.” As a classroom teacher I can see the effectiveness of these tech tools in formative assessment, but it is comforting to have the credibility of a study to back up what you think you know.
In the past three years as I’ve become a part of a teaching team that integrates ELA and the arts, I have been challenged multiple times to rethink the way students can demonstrate English outcomes. While some of the writing outcomes still need to be fairly prescriptive – after all there are a limited number of ways you can interpret “compose a 1500 word inquiry paper using external sources” – my team has definitely forced me to think about the way I design and assess other ELA outcomes, especially ones that are not necessarily written.
Take, for example, one ELA A30 outcome: “Identify the various elements of style used in First Nations, Métis, Saskatchewan, and Canadian texts, and explain how the elements help communicate meaning and enhance the effectiveness of the texts.” I would typically interpret this outcome by reading a poem or short story or novel and breaking down the literary elements that work together to suggest the meaning of the work as a whole. So, we might look at narrative voice, author’s style, etc. and then discuss how these elements impact the whole work. My arts team suggested that we view “text” in a broader context, and do the same process for a dance or a work of art. The skills are parallel – you look at a piece of art, you examine the techniques and elements that work together to create a specific effect. Honestly, at first this was hard for me as it felt like I was somehow slacking, or not being rigorous enough in reading “real” texts – the written word. But as I started to work through these same formative assessments using fine art texts I noticed that we were using the exact same critical thinking skills that we use in analysing written texts. In fact, the two styles of text very much complement each other in terms of the analysis they engender.
This also brought me to a place of self reflection where I needed to analyze why I privilege the written word over other types of texts. This privilege is certainly reflected in my assessment weighting. Of course, much of the English curriculum directs what we privilege in our assessment, and I’m not trying to devalue the written word. What I am trying to do is trouble how I view the colonialist structure of the curriculum. Why does a formal spoken presentation generate so much more page space than the informal narrative style of storytelling, and thus demand more marks attached to it? These are the questions that I now consider as a result of being a part of a team, and expanding my own pedagogical view. I would say that now, as a result of this class, I have the words to attach to some of these changing beliefs. In 20+ years of teaching, I haven’t studied the theories of knowledge. I’m sure I probably did in my first ed degree, but I was young and stupid and didn’t care about such things. I just wanted to talk to kids. To have the vocabulary to attach to the changes in my pedagogy over the years causes me to think again about my current practice.