by Damian Cooper, Independent Education Consultant
Issue 1, 2009
At the 2008 EQAO conference, Damian Cooper, an independent education consultant, shared “Eight Big Ideas to Support Learning for All Students”: Eight simple ideas that apply directly to classroom assessments and can be used easily by teachers. Cooper encouraged his audience to challenge their perceptions and acknowledged that we, as educators, are wrestling with a major shift in teaching. We are moving from a pass/fail paradigm to one in which failure is not an option and is ultimately unnecessary, now that classroom assessment supports learning rather than just grading.
According to Cooper, until recently, our standards of achievement were neither too hard, nor too soft, but just right—like Goldilocks’s porridge. The use of the bell curve and the assignment of grades throughout the curve reflected this approach—a win-lose proposition, supporting some students and profoundly discouraging others. But this approach is no longer appropriate. When we know better we must do better, and we know that students learn in different ways and at different rates and respond to stress, such as that created by classroom tests, very differently. Our instruction and assessment must take these variables into account.
Cooper suggests that schools have to be about everyone achieving excellence, and that in order for that to happen, we must adapt. Classrooms continue to become more diverse in all respects: language, culture, background and the skills with which students arrive. In order to support all students, we must differentiate instruction, which means we must work together with our students.
Another assumption Cooper asks us to reconsider is that, in the classroom, time is fixed and achievement is variable. You pass or fail on test day and that’s your only shot at success. But consider this: When you take your driver’s test, the level of achievement is fixed and time is variable. That is to say, you can take the test several times, each time learning something more as you go, but the standard that you must achieve is fixed. What if we applied this idea to teaching, learning and classroom assessment? This brings us to Cooper’s first big idea.
Classroom assessment may be used to find out what students already know and can do, it may be used to help students improve their learning, or it may be used to let students and their parents know how much they have learned within a specified period of time.
Classroom assessment is not always synonymous with evaluation. Classroom assessment is a tool to help teachers figure out how to instruct a student, not only how to grade him or her. Classroom assessment is designed to promote learning: it’s practice time, or, to use a sports analogy, it is like a tryout and teachers are the coaches. After plenty of practice comes game day, the tests that are used for evaluation and that result in a score. As teachers, we don’t need to score the practice. It’s a work in progress and it’s meant to help kids take positive risks and engage them in their learning.
Try circling the errors on a practice test in pencil (don’t score), and providing classroom time during which students can work out the answers for themselves, either individually, in groups or as a class.
If our goal is excellence, let’s define learning in terms of proficiency. Identify targeted understandings, determine appropriate assessment for those learning and plan learning experiences and instruction that make such understanding possible. As teachers, we must engage in backward planning. Let’s start by asking the right questions in the right order.
Practice Backward Design by asking “What is critical for kids to know at the end of this unit?”—and this implies taking a close look at the curriculum to see what is important—then “What is the set of exercises that will give me evidence that they are learning what they need to learn” then “What lessons/activities/field trips do we need to do to teach these lessons?”
Classroom assessment must evaluate oral, written and performance responses and it must be flexible in order to improve learning for all students. Going back to the driver’s license analogy, imagine if we issued licences based on the written test only. No road tests. There would be thousands of drivers with no evaluation or record of performance. Students need to demonstrate knowledge and skill in different ways.
Create opportunities for students to demonstrate skill and discuss their understanding, in addition to completing written work.
Students want engaging work, which in kidspeak means “fun and relevant.” Use your lesson plan as a blueprint, but be prepared to adapt and differentiate when you need to do so. Ask yourself: “What do my students know and what can they currently do? Where do I want them to get to? How big is the gap? How do I ensure the gap is just right to challenge students in a way that maximizes learning?”
Lessons on the fly: Adjust a lesson plan to call for a book review instead of a book report, focusing on the “real life” aspect of a book review. Have students research book reviews and present their findings in class, thus establishing the criteria for success for themselves.
It is the prescriptive, anecdotal feedback that helps students improve learning. Students must be informed, in words, about what they have done well or poorly and what they need to do to improve. A classroom culture focused on grades and rankings forces students to look for ways to get the best marks, rather than improve their learning.
Revive the student portfolio as a way to facilitate discussion as you share classroom assessment information with students and their parents. It can also be useful in discussions between students and teachers and students and parents.
Self- and peer-assessment enables students to develop an understanding of what quality work looks like. Students are then able to monitor their own progress and develop critical thinking skills, as well as communication and interpersonal skills. Self- and peer- assessment engages metacognition, which is what allows assessment to facilitate learning. In addition, self- and peer-assessment help teachers identify students requiring individual attention, as well as create the time in class for such attention.
Engage your class in a self-assessment “moment” during lessons by asking for a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to indicate understanding. Be sure to check in with the “thumbs up” students to ensure their assessment is accurate.
When using rubrics in the classroom and assessing for learning, provide feedback to students focusing on the indicators of success and not on the overall level. When you are conducting an assessment of learning, use the rubric holistically by asking “What set of indicators best describes this student’s overall performance at this time?”
Use the four-level rubric response to create a checklist for students. They will know if they have satisfied the criteria or not.
Grading is important but different from teaching and learning—it results in a grade or numerical score that summarizes a large amount of data and represents a recent trend in the student’s achievement. We need to be able to stand behind the grades by keeping impeccable records of a child’s work. Grades must confirm and affirm what everyone already knows. There should be no surprises on a report card.
Take off your teacher hat and put on your parent hat when you are writing in the comments section of a report card. Avoid labelling students, and talk about performance.
Damian Cooper’s “Eight Big Ideas to Support Learning for All Students” tackles learning, teaching and assessment in the information age, where the three Rs Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmatic are giving way to Reasoning, Responsibility and Resilience. As educators, says Cooper, we must be able to respond to this shift, and “we must believe in the potential of all kids to learn. We must believe in the potential of all kids to achieve when their work is relevant and engaging.”