An Unexpected Gift

Last Friday afternoon, when I was just about to walk out of my classroom and head home for the long weekend, there was a knock on the door.  My friend and colleague the Spanish teacher was there, and she asked me if I had a moment to help with something that was really troubling her.

An hour or so later, when that “moment” of conversation was over, we’d both received and given what could only be described as an unexpected gift.

My colleague and I have both been moving away from 20th-century teaching for several years, and I don’t think we realized until Friday afternoon how similar our journeys had been.  We’ve both abandoned textbooks as primary learning resources; we’ve both embraced all sorts of online tools; we’ve both abandoned written homework, especially for our lower-level students.  And we’ve both been struggling with the next big issue: how to change our assessment practices to be in line with our teaching practices.

That is a lot harder than it sounds.  I realized I wrote about my own struggles in this post from 2010 … and just this morning, I found articles like this one and this one (and this one by Doug Reeves, which reappeared in my Twitter stream this morning) which confirm that lots of thoughtful people are struggling with the poor fit between 20th-century, compliance-focused assessment and 21st-century teaching and learning.

Why are “we” (the teaching profession as a whole) scared of these conversations?

I’ll tell you what my Spanish colleague and I think we’ve decided to do, but let me save that for another day.  On this Labor Day Monday, when Americans remember the labor struggles of our industrial era and take a brief rest from our own labors, I challenge you to pause for a moment and consider this:

Is 20th-century educational grading an Industrial-Era relic that needs to be retired?  And if it is, how can we design post-industrial forms of assessment that prepare young learners for the new world as well as 20th-century grading prepared them for the old one?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

 

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Published in: on September 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm  Comments (9)  

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  1. Gratias, amicum, for posing these important questions. Yes, I think that 20th-century grading is a relic that we need to retire along with 20th-century assessments. So how do we decide that a student’s performance on a 21st-century assessment is worthy? Rubrics help, but I hesitate to describe fully what certain levels of performance look like for fear of limiting students’ imagination. And then what is more important–the product, or the process? How do standards fit in to this?

    • Great questions, Katherine! I wish I had definitive answers for them, too.
      I do use rubrics, different ones for different tasks according to whether the process or the product is more important. For different assignments, there’s usually a different blend. For example, with the “familia Romana et familia nostra” product my Latin I students are designing at the moment, I’m interested to know

      • what search strategies they already know how to use;
      • what collaborative strategies they already are comfortable using;
      • how they go about designing their product, and what (online or physical) tools they’re comfortable using; and
      • what kinds of information they’ll be able to find, given the time constraints.

      I’m observing, but not formally assessing, the first three elements, since they’ll serve as a baseline AND give me an idea of what kinds of instruction each group will need. So the rubric itself only focuses on the quality of the information they gather, and it does so in terms of my state’s Essential Standards for World Languages.

      With other assignments (and other Standards), the rubric would look rather different, of course.

      I’ll share a couple of rubrics (and the thought processes behind them) in my next post if you’d like. I’ve actually been moving away from 20th-century rubrics (the kind that spell things out in detail) to something more like a “design brief” that specifies required elements and constraints, but gives a great deal of freedom to the learner/designers about how to organize the required elements and how to present them. I think that balance of structure and freedom is essential in today’s rapidly-changing world.

      Thanks for joining the conversation!

      • I like the idea of “observing, but not formally assessing” certain aspects of the project. It seems like a good way to manage the process. I’m definitely interested in continuing this discussion… it’s something that my colleagues and I sweat over on a weekly basis!

  2. Yes, let’s continue the discussion by all means! I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the distinctions between grading, assessment and feedback recently, and I’ll plan to talk more about those distinctions in posts later this week. I also want to help my students grow in their ability to observe and to assess their own growth in knowledge, skill, and understanding.

    Thanks again for joining the conversation!

  3. […] and I finished the revisions to my grading policy in keeping with the conversation I described on Monday. The old-favorite project, now revised, will combine with the one students are working on now to […]

  4. […] character they’ve come to know.  We’ll see how things go with this first “minor assessment,” but I have a feeling several groups may be repairing and resubmitting their products to […]

  5. […] the symptoms of anger and pain out of the way, we could focus on the real issue: finding the right blend of structure and freedom for this group, at this time, under these circumstances.  Finding that balance has been a […]

  6. […] feedback over the past few years.  I described the new system my colleague Ana and I developed in this post.  Students like it, they feel the grades are fair, and I’ve seen a lot of positive […]

  7. […] my face-to-face teaching world.  My students have been busy with the major assessment process I outlined in this post  and this one, then described more fully in this one.  They’re finishing […]


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