Monday, May 16, 2016

Why is it so Hard to Change our Assessment Practices?

My forte is talking about character education, behavioural challenges, student issues when it comes to addressing personal struggles that are interfering with learning, and integrating technology into the classroom effectively and meaningfully. Often as a young teacher, when I heard we were going to talk about assessment I felt like the person on the left. I'm by no means an assessment expert, although I have read more than my fair share of assessment experts' books, blogs, watched tons of videos, and attended conferences with Rick Wormeli, Doug Reeves, and Dylan Wiliam, and I understand and now practice a Standards Based or Outcomes Based philosophical approach. Before coming to Alberta last year, I thought I was just an ordinary educator from Saskatchewan, who was using and implementing outcomes-based assessment in the classroom largely because I thought most teachers were doing the same everywhere across Western Canada. However, I've come to realise over the past year and a half, that is not the case at all. Most teachers are very good at teaching to the outcomes. They know their material, they teach the concepts, students are learning, and we are seeing success. So it isn't so much in the teaching that we have our challenges. But aligning assessment practices to teaching outcomes is not happening in a consistent fashion across schools, divisions, and the province. I had my struggles with implementing outcomes-based assessment at first, but I made the change because it was the right and fair thing to students. 

Approximately eight years ago, I was put to the test about my assessment philosophy. I say philosophy because I was a district administrator at the time, and not directly in a K-12 classroom. But if I wanted to be an instructional leader, I needed to know what we expected from our teachers. I had just finished my Master's which had done little to redirect my pedagogical philosophy towards Outcomes-Based Assessment (OBA). The program was very traditional in its focus. It wasn't until I was quizzed, or rather challenged by a friend about my assessment views that I realised I needed to make the shift. He kept saying things like, "if we are teaching to outcomes, shouldn't we be only assessing the outcomes?" That was an important question because both of us were watching a lot of teachers assess the end product and thinking they were assessing the outcome.  For example, if a cover page for an essay or project was not one of the outcomes, then why is it being graded and included in the overall mark. Or if participation is not a listed outcome, why are teachers marking participation. That was the first challenge to my thinking about assessment. In addition, I think we really need to challenge the practice of including homework for grades, especially if that is not one of the outcomes.

The next challenge to my thinking was around how we penalise students for not knowing the outcomes at the time of instruction. If a student is assessed on one outcome in September and demonstrates only a basic understanding of it then, typically that was the grade they got at the time of testing.  But in November, I was testing another outcome that clearly required students to demonstrate the prior outcome in order to show they understood the new outcome, shouldn't we be going back and changing the grade of the first outcome to reflect that the student has a better understanding of a previous outcome? I really struggled with this, because I was trained that whatever a student got for a grade was what they carried with them into the final calculating of their grade. I was looking at assessment as defined by time, but if I really embraced lifelong learning, then why would I penalise students because they hadn't mastered the outcome when I taught it, only to demonstrate that they learned it later.

It took months of coaching, but I changed. Hence writing this blog. Maybe my story can be of help to others struggling with making the shift. So I would like to outline some of the challenges I see many teachers getting stuck with and preventing them from making the changes.

Take a few minutes to watch Doug Reeves video where he talks about changing our assessment practices to being more effective.

Although I didn't have the luxury to watch his video before I changed my assessment practices, he captures the essence of my journey. But let me highlight a few of the big changes I made.

1. Don't combine multiple outcomes into one grading category

The traditional breakdown in high school for course outlines usually includes a grading policy. I was trained to write out exactly how the students were to be graded so they knew exactly how I was coming up with their grade. That meant that I clumped all kinds of summative assessment together under one category. Usually, it looked something like this for an English course:

Written Assignments - 30%
Tests/Quizzes - 20%
Major Essay - 20%
Final Exam - 30%

Looks about right, doesn't it? To prove my point, I Googled course outlines and found hundreds of similar examples that are still being used like this today.

What I found was teachers working with categories of activities where they did exactly what I was doing years ago.

2. Don't test more than one general outcome per summative assessment.

Why? There are a few problems with this approach. Let's first of all assume that there are eight general outcomes to be covered in this course. If we are teaching to outcomes, there needs to be one summative assessment per general outcome. Summative doesn't mean only tests or exams, but it can be an essay, a project, or a quiz. Essentially, it's anything that determines what a student can demonstrate with varying degrees of understanding at the end of the learning outcome. The curriculum may have three or five specific outcomes or concepts under each general outcome, but for reporting purposes, there needs to be only one summative assessment for the general outcome. I need to use a significant number of formative assessments for each of the specific outcomes or concepts that guide my instruction to ensure that students understand the general outcome before that summative assessment happens. When we add more than one outcome into the summative process, we lose the efficacy of  the assessment process.  It needs to be clear to the student to what degree they have achieved the outcome. If we add other outcomes to our assessment, it has a negative impact on validity. Validity is how accurately a conclusion, measurement or concept corresponds to what is being tested.  How do we really know if a student has achieved mastery or not on an outcome if it's mixed with other outcomes? 

Take Saskatchewan ELA 30A Outcomes for example; there are 10 total general outcomes, therefore, we should only have one summative assessment per outcome. Like I said, I may use lots of formative assessments with the different novels, poems, short stories, non-fiction literature that I use in the classroom. But I don't grade the students' understanding of the literature, but their understanding of the outcomes. The literature is only the medium I'm using to demonstrate the students can show they have met the outcome. So when I'm teaching the first outcome: 

CR A 30.1 View, listen to, read, comprehend, and respond to a variety of grade-appropriate First Nations, Métis, Saskatchewan, and Canadian texts that address:
  • identity (e.g., Define the Individual, Negotiate the Community)
  • social responsibility (e.g., Shift Centres, Blur Margins), and
  • social action (agency) (e.g., Understand Beliefs, Initiate Action).
I may use multiple forms of literature to help students understand identity, social responsibility, and social action as it relates to First Nations, Metis, and Saskatchewan. But my focus needs to be how well students understand identity, social responsibility and social action, and not the literature itself. I don't need to have a chapter test or quiz on everything either. 

3. Don't average grades to come up with a final grade.

Then there is the issue of combining the grades over two or three outcomes and then averaging them. Rick Wormeli says,"Just because something is mathematically easy to calculate doesn’t mean it’s pedagogically sound." Averaging is bad pedagogy. So take the above grading policy illustration, class work is 25% of the final grade. But every outcome has been combined into one category and averaged out for 25% of the grade. In truth, a percentage also tells us very little about what a student knows or doesn't know. Wormeli adds, "we claim to be standards- (outcomes-) based. This means that assessments and grading are evidentiary, criterion-referenced." When we average the scores, it is no longer criterion-referenced.

I like what Todd Rose said about averaging, "The Myth of Average is a belief that’s been prominent in most sciences and in education. It’s the belief that we can use statistical averages to understand individuals. Scientists have come to realise that it’s a myth, and over the last 10 years have been moving from averages to individuals, so for example, we’re hearing a lot of things like ‘personalized medicine.’  Unfortunately, education has not quite realised the myth yet." Transfer that principle from the individual person to the individual outcome, once you average the outcomes, we lose sight of what the student knows about an outcome. It is simply wrong to average the outcomes to determine the score for the student. If we are teaching to the outcome, then we need to assess the outcome.

I'm a visual person and I need visuals to help illustrate for me. Look at this picture of a person on the right. It is multiple exposures over each other. What you are seeing is an average of all the pictures taken together. How clear is the picture? When we average our student's grades and combine everything into one picture or snapshot to give the students or pictures, this is exactly what we are giving them. It's not acceptable.

My preference is to use a 4 point system (Marzano) scale, where I list the outcomes using a bar graph color coded such as illustrated below. The summative results are used to determine the mark. If there is not enough summative information to determine levels of understanding, then formative results are taken into consideration.

Carey Lehner example

The general outcomes are listed on the left and the bar graph illustrates where the individual student is at for each outcome. We had a policy in Saskatchewan that "if it wasn't a 2, it was a redo." Teachers emphasised to students on getting 2 or higher. In order to move forward into the next grade students needed to get a minimum of 2 in 75% of the outcomes. If they didn't, that's when credit recovery kicked in requiring the students to only have to redo the outcomes they had lower than a 2. Credit recovery recognises all prior student learning and assessments and does not penalise students for where they were, but acknowledges where they were now. During the course, we encouraged our teachers to go back and reassess student understanding when they demonstrated their understanding of an outcome had grown from a previous assessment.

If it is necessary by the Ministry of Education or for scholarship purposes to have a percentage, Saskatchewan Rivers School Division developed  this modified Marzano conversion scale.

Personally, I don't think it's necessary to convert from the 4 point to the percentage, but some folks need that still. My question is, "How accurate is the percentage system anyways?" It's all fairly subjective in the end. I lean more towards the simple system that gives me a better picture of the learning, rather trying to tell a student they have an 85% understanding. How do I really know they have an 85% really?

If you think for a second that the change has been easy, you’re wrong. I went to school and was graded one way. I went to college and university and was trained to grade the same way. It was when I really looked more deeply into this issue and realised the error of my ways. I made the switch, I had to make the switch. I didn’t switch for me, I did it for the students, because it was the right thing to do. I hope you see it too.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Our Student's Mental Health is More Important than Their Grades.

I came across this picture recently that prompted me to think about writing about this for my next blog. Then I decided to do my first podcast about the topic and embed it into the blog as well using Soundcloud. I hope it works well.

If you like what I had to say, please share. Thank you!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Do we treat academic mistakes differently from behavioural failures?

Recently I came across a Tweet that caught my attention, stating that we treat academic mistakes differently from behavioural issues? My initial reaction was to question the premise and refute its credibility outrightly. None of us educators want to think that we aren't being equitable in the classroom and not treating every student the same. But the reality is often disconnected from what we preach. We call ourselves student-centred in our pedagogy, but are we sudent-centred when it comes to discipline? The next Tweet I read outlined examples of inequity in how we treat mistakes in the classroom. I was hit with the reality that exists in many classrooms and schools across the country. 

I don't know about you, but has this been your experience? We go to great lengths to ensure students have second chances to relearn learning outcomes, fix mistakes, and retake tests or exams. All which are the right thing to do for students. We will reteach a concept until the students get it, but how different the story is when it comes to negative behaviour from students. We often assume that when a student misbehaves, they are willful and deliberate in their lack of respect for us. Students are then removed from the learning environment with little hope of being given an opportunity to relearn the expected behaviour; even though studies show how long it takes for students to unlearn and relearn attitudes. I love the quote by John Maxwell, who said "once our minds are 'tattooed' with negative thinking, our chances for long-term success diminish.  

It's so easy to forget about where many of these kids are coming from. Sadly, so many of the students with behavioural challenges come from broken homes, neglected home lives, uncommunicative parents, stressed out and even depressed personal battles. And all we can do is look past their hurts and fears to see the anger, defiance, and bad attitudes. It's so easy to pass judgment on these students when we have no idea what they are going through. I realize not everyone is like this, but it happens enough times to tell me we have a problem that we need to address and fix. I see students sent out of the classrooms to sit in the school hallways  too many times to think that these are isolated incidents.  

I was speaking to an elementary administrator recently, who recounted arguing with a teacher who wanted a student suspended because they were being defiant and refused to get their homework done and turned in on time. The principal was arguing that the teacher needed to take into consideration what the student was going through. He had recently been removed from his home because his parents were going through some marital issues, and he was living with a non-relative without any idea when he would be able to return home. And somehow his homework was the most important thing that mattered.

We have a dual mission as educators: 1) to teach these students the curricular outcomes, and 2) to guide and inform them in the virtues of life that form their character as the future citizens. That means we cannot be so detached in our role as teacher to only be concerned with teaching the curriculum. Yes, it's important, but how do you teach a child whose life is a mess when the last thing they want to do or can do is think about learning.

We need to think about whether we treat academic mistakes differently from behavioural failures? I think we do, but what do you think?  Maybe the better question is, "Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?"

Sunday, April 10, 2016

I Have my Opinions, But I'm Still Very Open-Minded!

I've never been one to shy away from controversy.  Some might say that I can be quite opinionated. I would have to agree. I do hold some strong opinions about things. Lately, though, I find that I am less willing to share my opinions because I'm so tired of the intolerance. I may be opinionated but I am very tolerant of others opinions as well. In fact, I want to hear others express their ideas and opinions, because I believe that helps me learn as well. Many of the opinions I have held have been tweaked and modified because someone else made a good point that I hadn't taken into consideration.

While I'm opinionated, I have also noticed people being intimidated by another person with an opinion. That's the last thing I want people to feel around me. I want to hear what they have to say. Then there are those people who use their strongly worded opinions as a form of intimidation to keep people quiet and not oppose them. They use words like "That's stupid or crazy," because it shuts people up. This tactic is simply a means to shut down any further dialogue and indicate they are not interested in hearing another perspective. 

Maybe it's because of my college days studying philosophy cross-legged on the floor in a circle in the professor's office that I learned the value of debating ideas, asking the right questions, and utilizing the Socratic method.

We were taught that the Socratic method was one of the oldest teaching tactics for fostering critical thinking. Using the Socratic method we focus on giving students questions, not answers. We inquire and probe a subject with questions. As a result, we explore elements of reasoning in a disciplined and self-assessing way that heightens learning. Yet, recently, I saw this quote sourced from John Hattie on Twitter that said "Some teachers ask between 200-300 questions a day. Most students ask 2 questions a day."  I don't know about you, but there's something critically wrong with this picture. If students are engaged in the learning process, they will ask the questions. Our role as teachers is to engage in such a way that students are drawn into dialogue and discourse that causes them to dig deeper for their own understanding. So why doesn't that happen.

In a recent Gallup Poll, a couple of things were highlighted regarding engagement levels in schools:

Student engagement in school drops precipitously from fifth grade through 12th grade. About three quarters of elementary school kids (76%) are engaged in school, while only 44% of high school kids are engaged. The longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. If we were doing this right, the trend would be going in the opposite direction.

About seven in 10 K-12 teachers are not engaged in their work (69%). And teachers are dead last among all professions Gallup studied in saying their opinions count at work and their supervisors create an open and trusting environment. We also found that teacher engagement is the most important driver of student engagement. We'll never improve student engagement until we boost teachers' workplace engagement first.

This falls completely in line with the quote from Ken Robinson, who said, " There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of the schools." While as a teacher and administrator, I wholeheartedly agree. However, there is some onus on teachers to first and foremost possess a positive outlook about students. Sadly, that's not always the case.  I have worked in some extremely challenging school environments where teacher opinion or ideas was never listened to or considered. Yet, despite the difficult and hostile work environment, it was my love for students and their learning that kept me coming back day after day because I wanted to instill hope in the kids' lives. I didn't get into teaching for the paycheque or for a job. No. I became a teacher because it was my mission in life to give to students what I never received going to school. I had some horrible experiences as a student in school. I could hardly wait to get out of school. What awaited me in college clearly demonstrated how unprepared I was by high school. 

Today, I love learning, and I am learning something new everyday I go to school to teach. I look around me and see families suffering from the loss of employment in this present economy, and I am grateful to be employed. I don't take it for granted. I don't worry too much about work conditions and how alone I feel in my role sometimes. It's not easy to lead, but I hope that I am modelling a hope and a care that I have for students, their learning, and their future. As teachers, sometimes we have to be extremely selfless and humble We make mistakes and fail miserably at times, but that's how we learn. So, yes, teachers are the lifeblood of a school, but they need to possess the ability to breathe that life into their students. Sometimes that means we need to change the way we are doing things, or have done for 20 years. Inherent in the word, "change" is the idea to transform, adjust, adapt, amend, modify, revise, or refine. We don't change for the sake of change or just to be different, but to improve something. That means we need to be open-minded despite our opinions and beliefs and consider the possibilities of improvement. So I've come full circle to where I started. Teachers have lots of opinions, and I love to hear what they have to say, but what I take exception to is; "That won't work," or "That's a stupid or crazy idea," or "I hate change." All which I have heard in the recent years. When educators discount any other thought or opinion in other adults immediately without any discourse, I have to ask, "is that how students feel in the classroom?" Discounted and dismissed? 

How many times do students feel that way with me? I hope they don't, but I know I have messed up lots of times over the years. I still make mistakes. But I'm all about the growth mindset for myself and my students. And most importantly, I hope that students are engaged and learning in my classroom. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Lavish, Magnanimous, Munificent, Ungrudging Giving of Time and Money called Generosity

Generosity is something we all need in our lives. It's a natural progression of kindness and caring for one other. Our acts of kindness activity at the school this past month really took off. The students received a footprint that they put up on the wall, leaving a trail of kindness. 

To build on this enthusiasm, we are extending the acts of kindness for another month and adding acts of generosity. It's important to note that generosity isn't only about giving money or making a donation of some form, but it also includes acts of service and giving of our time. So we are encouraging the students to practice their generosity  and collect a hand print, which they will put their name on and the generous action they performed. Each classroom will have different colored hands and as they collect the hand prints, they will place them on a wall in the gymnasium in the shape of a Christmas Tree. When the parents arrive for the Christmas concert later in December they will see the visual of the Christmas tree made from all the generous acts of the students. This is just one activity that we will do to promote the virtue of generosity within the school.

Here a few practicing generosity ideas for home or the classroom

Give Away the Extras

At our home, we have had a longstanding practice that every time you bought a new piece of clothing, you gave something away from your closet. Otherwise, we found that we just began to accumulate too much stuff. So here's a game you can play with your kids,  “What do we have extra that we could share?” Go through your stuff at home and if you haven't worn it or used it in a year or even in 6 months, give it away to a local charity.

Some examples include:

  • Food – take some food to the Food Bank,
  • Clothing – pack up clothes that have been outgrown or not being worn, and give them to a charity or needy family,
  • Blankets and other household items – many inner-city ministries make home starter kits for those in need,
  • Toys – many organizations collect toys for underprivileged children.
Acts of Service

It's important to note that generosity isn't only about giving gifts, or money, it is also about giving your time. So it's important to think of different ways in which we can help someone out with our acts of service. Make a gift for someone – a card, cookies or a care package – and pay them a visit.

Have the kids make something for someone else. Ask yourself, "is there someone who needs to be encouraged by a gift or a visit from us?” Maybe it will be creating a card for a relative, baking cookies for the homeless, making a care package for someone in need, or spending time with a widow who struggles with loneliness. 

Fun with Generosity

I think one of the things children and even adults struggle understanding is what it means to be generous. Generous is defined as showing a readiness to give more of something, as money or time, than is strictly necessary or expected. The word comes from the Latin, Generosus, which means to be magnanimous or lavish kindness on others. So to illustrate this, have the kids make ice cream sundaes or decorate monster cookies for other members of the family, being generous with the toppings.

Each family member makes a sundae for someone else in the family. Put out ice cream and a variety of toppings, and allow your children to be generous in making sundaes for other family members. You can also do this with “monster cookies,” which are oatmeal cookies filled with numerous additions like nuts, chocolate chips, sprinkles, etc. Family members can make monster cookies for designated family members, decorating each other's cookies generously. 

When it's all said and done, talk about it with the kids and ask them to explain how being generous with the toppings can translate into being generous in everyday living.

Habits of Sharing

During meals and while you are visiting with others, model how to share treats and be specific about encouraging your children to share.

Some fun ideas include:

Sharing your dessert with your spouse or children and say something like, “This ________ is so much sweeter because I shared it with you.”

A family tradition you could start is that when treats, desserts, etc. are given out, whoever divides the treat allows the other to choose which part of the treat they would like. For example, one child breaks the chocolate bar in half, then lets the other choose which half they would like.

Demonstrate sharing without being asked. Provide extra treats for your children to take when going on outings with friends so they can practice sharing and being generous.

While driving, use these questions for conversation starters:
  • How do you feel when someone else has a treat and you don’t?
  • How do you feel when someone is playing with a neat toy and does not share it?
  • How does it make you feel when someone shares a special treat with you?
  • How about when someone gives you first choice of which toy to play with?
These are just a few ideas about teaching generosity to our children.