Posts filed under ‘Student self-assessment’

Hope and change in my classroom

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AS A HIGH-SCHOOL teacher I’m hoping that the election of Barrack Obama will bring hope and change to my classroom. Even a couple of quite simple changes could make a huge difference.

So, I’ve been surfing and listening to the pundits to try to glean a clue as to what might be coming post 20 January. It’s been a bit up and down.

It was an up that in November President-elect Obama appointed Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford’s School of Education, to head his education policy transition team.

Her title is Policy Working Group Leader for Education, and, unlike some of the other Obama working groups, her’s is not a shared post. Her brief is “to develop the priority policy proposals and plans from the Obama Campaign for action during the Obama-Biden Administration”.

Many hoped she would go on to be the pick for Education Secretary.

Alfie Kohn, writing in The Nation, said Darling-Hammond “tends to be the choice of people who understand how children learn.

“Darling-Hammond knows how all the talk of ‘rigor’ and ‘raising the bar’ has produced sterile, scripted curriculums that have been imposed disproportionately on children of color. Her viewpoint is that of an educator, not a corporate manager.”

Darling-Hammond is a favorite of teachers as the unusual petition which called on President-elect Obama to appoint her to the Secretary of Education post attested with some 2,000 signatures. “Schools are not, and cannot be run as businesses and that’s where public ed. is headed. Linda Darling-Hammond represents true reform,” wrote Bonnie Demerjian from Wrangell, AK.

However, Obama has not appointed Darling-Hammond his Secretary of Education. That honor has gone to Chicago school chief Arne Duncan, who is not an educator and who, many argue, very much sees schools as businesses. On the eve of his appointment, Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spelling hailed Duncan “a visionary leader. He’s a guy who looks at results.

“He’s a terrific school leader. I consider him a fellow reformer and someone who cares deeply about students. He’d be a great choice,” she said at a ceremony to help Chicago’s mayor Daley and Duncan give out $350,000 in merit pay to some of Chicago’s teachers and school employees.

Time-CNN reported: “He’s considered by most to be a quiet consensus builder. In Chicago, his knack for forging alliances can be seen in his strong relationship with the local teachers’ union despite his embrace of reforms the union is leery of, including school choice, pay for performance and a willingness to close down failing schools.”

Introducing his new Education Secretary Obama said: “For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book, it’s the cause of his life.” Obama specifically mentioned pay-for-performance teacher salaries and charter-schools development as strategies with strong potential noted Edutopia.

In a video interview with Edutopia, Duncan said, “quality public education is the civil rights issue of our generation”.

(Edutopia also has a video interview with Linda Darling-Hammond on social and emotional learning to help develop the whole child inside the collaborative classroom.)

But the editor of Substance, “the newspaper of public education in Chicago”, George Schmidt says, “to portray Arne Duncan as anything other than a privatizer, union buster, and corporate stooge is to simply lie.”

Commenting on the Schools Matter blog Schmidt details some of Duncan’s policy actions:

❏ No bid crony contracts

❏ Militarization of Chicago’s high schools

❏ Opposition to continued court monitoring of meager desegregation plan

❏ Opposition to Federal oversight of special education progams

❏ Charter schools segregation

Sam Smith, who has covered Washington for 40+ years and has seen nine presidents, writing at Undernews also takes Duncan’s reputation to task: “If we’re going to insist on judging our children primarily by how well they score on tests, we should probably do the same for education secretary nominees. The problem is that it spoils the fantasy that the major media has been creating around Arne Duncan.”

Under the headline “Flunkin’ Duncan”, Smith examines Chicago’s test scores since Duncan took over in 2001: “To summarize what has happened in Chicago schools: not much. Bear in mind, that even where there has been improvement, it has amounted to less than a 1% increase in test scores over a five year period.”

“Duncan — like DC’s school chancellor Michelle Rhee — has fostered a dysfunctional rightwing, corporatized system of education that not only isn’t working, it is damaging our children as it trains them to be obedient worker-drones incapable of analyzing or understanding what is really going on about them.”

Smith lists the following dangers:

❏ Teaching our children only to give the right answers and not to ask the right questions.

❏ Grossly limiting education to fact accumulation and basic manipulation of data, leaving little time for analysis, creativity, judgment, philosophy, gaining social intelligence, as well as learning about, and participating in, the non-mechanical aspects of life such as art, theater and music. This system deliberately teaches our children not to think.

❏ Through the use of charter schools, turning public education into what was known in earlier times as pauper schools.

❏ Damaging communities by destroying schools, institutions that not only served students but their parents and provided commonality in ever more atomized urban areas.

Kenneth Saltman, associate professor in the department of Educational Policy Studies and Research at DePaul University in Chicago, and Henry A. Giroux of McMaster University in Canada, write on Truthout that “Duncan largely defines schools within a market-based and penal model of pedagogy… he does not have the slightest understanding of schools as something other than adjuncts of the corporation at best or the prison at worse.”

They place Duncan’s tenure in Chicago as serving the Bush agenda of destroying public education: “The hidden curriculum is that testing be used as a ploy to de-skill teachers by reducing them to mere technicians, that students be similarly reduced to customers in the marketplace rather than as engaged, critical learners and that always underfunded public schools fail so that they can eventually be privatized.”

And after reading their long and detailed description of Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 project, it is hard to give Mr Duncan the benefit of the doubt.

Arne Duncan’s appointment was a bit of a downer.

So, Obama has brought on board educator and former teacher Prof Linda Darling-Hammond and CEO Arne Duncan to be the team of rivals that will oversee public education for the next four, possibly eight years.

What will it mean?

Prof Darling-Hammond met with the Council of Chief State School Officers in November in a closed meeting to brief them on the likely Obama education themes. According to Education Week Prof Darling-Hammond outlined the Obama philosophy as…

❏ Teacher quality, early education, and innovation.

❏ Mend, not bend, No Child Left Behind

❏ No cuts in education funding

Well, President-elect Obama has already pledged $10 billion for early school education.

But will teacher quality be Duncan-style sackings if test scores are not met? Or Darling-Hammond collaboration in the classroom?

Or, do they have more in common than revealed in the blogs and articles? Both have talked of mentoring for teachers, for instance. Prof Darling-Hammond’s call for a Marshall Plan for Teaching sounds as dramatic and urgent as Duncan’s talk of education as the civil rights issue of our generation.

Well, I don’t pretend to know or be able to predict. I just remain hopeful, and frankly, for the moment I’m hoping for more Darling-Hammond change and less Duncan change.

I suspect that Prof Darling-Hammond is more likely to be sympathetic to making the few small changes I need in my classroom… ending the emphasis and priority given to alpha-numeric grading and frequent testing in favor of creating a collaborative classroom where students are free to develop the essential life skill of becoming critical and creative thinkers.

December 21, 2008 at 3:16 am Leave a comment

Assessment… a new sort of gradebook

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WHAT could authentic assessment look like in the classroom?

For four years I have been experimenting in my math classroom to replace percentage and letter grades with much more meaningful descriptive feedback.

There’s no shortage of percentage-based grade books for teachers. Punch in the numbers and out come the letter grades.assess_screen_02
Assignments built from learning targets with student self-assessmentassess_screen_04 They don’t tell the student what they need to do to improve… they don’t even tell the student what it is they have achieved.

They just divert the student’s attention with a meaningless letter grade from the essential tasks of learning. The frustrated and anxious student is left vainly to plead for extra credit in a bid to get more nonsense points.

The challenge is to create a gradebook that is not based on numbers and letters, but records descriptive progress and gives the student the sort of valuable feedback that describes just what it is they need to do to improve their learning.

Well, take a look at this powerpoint and let me know what you think.

The system is based on student-friendly learning targets. Assignments and questions are all linked to a learning target.

Against each assignment and learning target the teacher can record and feedback to the student a description — ranging from Starting through Getting it to Got it — and add a suggested revision learning target plus a customized study skill tip.

It also records the student’s own self-assessment of progress.

And rather than add up meaningless percentages, the system summarizes to what extent the teacher and student agree on their assessment of progress.

It can show a matrix of an individual student’s progress. Or, it can show, color-coded, the progress of an entire class.

Input screens allow the teacher to add questions (+ pictures, diagrams and equations), new targets, target notes and assignments — and link them together in a host of assignment designs.

December 14, 2008 at 11:14 pm 1 comment

The business of parent conferences

LIFE is like a business the father was telling me and his child. As he warmed to his theme he lost me, so I can’t recall whether his child’s grade was part of the product-mix, the prospectus or the marketing plan. Certainly it needed to be factored into the matrix for the overall offering… viewed helicopter, in the big picture on a blue sky.

This week was spring parent-teacher conferences at my school.

First, they work better when they’re student-parent-teacher conferences, with the student taking the lead.

In my old school in the UK it was really a big point that the conference was student-centered and student-lead. It works much better. Students almost always know how they’re doing and what they need to do in terms of effort, attitude and the like. And when they say out loud what’s needed for them to improve, then it comes much more forcefully than if the parent or teacher was to say the same thing.

You could call it a student self-assessment conference.

It’s also a chance for the child to see the adults most concerned about them, sit together and listen to their point of view. The listening is important. Not all parents, or teachers, are good at that.

It’s also a great opportunity to get beyond just the disciplinary stuff that parents and many teachers seem obsessed with… talking in class, not listening to the teacher and other stuff like that.

Are you happy? is a good question to ask a kid at a student conference. Is it working for you? is another. Is there anything we can do to help? What do you think? And then listen.

Paul, the head of my old maths (with an ‘s’ in the UK) department once told me one of those secrets-of-being-a-good-teacher… once the kids know you’re on their side, then it’ll work. And he was right.

The fall parent conference, in particular, is crucial to telling a kid you’re on their side. The are-you-happy? question can go a long way towards changing the student-teacher relationship overnight. If before you were adversaries, then after teacher and student can start to be a team working together to help the kid.

Here in the US the parent-teacher conference can be obsessively grade focused.

Armed with pencil and list of courses, parents go from one teacher to the next to ask the single question: “What’s the grade?” This can then be followed by versions of the good-cop/bad-cop threat and bribe speech on the need to get/keep those grades up. The kid rarely wins. Even a good grade often ends in a speech along the lines of well-we-need-to-keep-this-up-no-slacking-off-now.

Last year I had a father and daughter. He had taken an evening class in business leadership I believe. “Right,” he barked in opening, “I’m taking control of this meeting…” Clearly, it was not expected that I would respond. “Grade!?” he shouted.

She sat next to her father in terror, her face quivering with emotion. Overwhelming fear, but with a look in her eyes that appealed, screamed at me, “what you now say could condemn me to absolute misery and pain for the rest of my life… and certainly as soon as I leave this conference.”

Normally, the grade question is my cue to deliver my I’m-not-so-concerned-about-the-grade-I-want-the-student-to-be-focused-on-what-we’re-learning speech. This time it didn’t seem as if it would work.

The student in question was an absolute pain to try to teach. She was funny, cocky, self-confident, mouthy… and completely focused on destroying any progress in my class till she’d had the last word. The secret, of course, was to work out how to let her have the last word… and move on. Not always so easy. She often just got chucked out of class. Somehow all our battles, tussles every other day now made sense.

“B,” I invented. “She could get a B if…” I tried to continue, but by then the father was delivering his own speech that B wasn’t good enough. The lie had not really saved her, and alas it did not in the end do much to save or help us build a new relationship in class. In the pantheon of win some, lose some… I lost her. So, I suspect, did her father.

But back to my own don’t-focus-on-the-grade speech. Well… it’s three paragraphs above, and then I give the parent a rubric describing what it is to be an A, B or C student. I ask them to give it to their child and ask the child to tell them what their grade is. The kids are usually far more tough on themselves than I. And the rubric is like a To-Do-List of how to improve. Most parents are intrigued by the descriptions and seem to like the idea.

There are formulae describing this:

Grades = stress

Stress = no learning

The point is, judgemental letter grades (destructive, and certainly meaningless in the absence of any descriptive definition) do nothing for learning. Non-judgemental descriptions provide a learning-centered focus. And so, do help learning.

One last aside before I conclude: Grades can only serve a useful purpose if they help motivate a student to build meaning for themselves. Grades, if they must be used, need to be divorced from the destructive rank-and-sort mentality that so obsesses much of the US corporate education system.

Such grading guarantees Fs… it is a system of success and failure. The fear of the F is what motivates the successes going. You can’t have the fear, if you have no Fs. The system depends on the Fs for its seeming success. Except, it is not successful. The Fs are branded, and the successes often have little clue how to think creatively or critically for themselves… only how to collect points and jump through repeated hoops.

Many teachers feel most comfortable with a handful of As, lots of Bs and Cs and some Fs. The teacher who gets this out of balance is held in suspicion. Ranking and sorting is part of the job. Except it isn’t. The job is to help every student find their success within. Every class should be a classroom of As… or, rather, a classroom of positive and individual and unique successes.

Grades should serve the learning needs of each individual student as if they were in a bubble. The grade should have no role in comparisons with other students. Which means, of course, grades are redundant.

Far better would be to replace letter grades with descriptions… as some more progressive colleges and schools are now doing.

Finale. Of course, it is easy to be sniffy about grades and grade-obsessed parents. But there are real reasons driving very real concerns.

Grades are linked to numbers. The numbers build up an average, the Grade Point Average (GPA).

Forget the learning. The difference between an A or a B or a C could mean the difference in a GPA that qualifies for getting a scholarship or not getting a scholarship. It could mean the difference between affording a respected college or less-respected college or no college.

The obsession goes on. It could mean the difference between a good job… or even no job. A house, a health plan.

GPA is sorting, ranking and competition in an unforgiving society committed to competition… with no safety nets. This is a society that lives in fear.

For parents, it’s the stuff of sleepless nights. And for students too.

After all in America, education, as well as life, is a business.

March 16, 2008 at 7:46 pm Leave a comment

My mistake… I didn’t read the question

BRODY got stuck. And did exactly as I’d requested: he turned over the worksheet and completed the questions.

Where am I stuck?… Why am I stuck?… How am I going to get unstuck?

He confessed. Where he was stuck was right at the start.

Why was he stuck?… He’d got stuck because he hadn’t read the question carefully.

How was he planning to get unstuck?… read the question carefully.

It was the first time I’d used these particular student self-assessment prompts on the back of an assignment. Brody’s cooperation was helpful… to us both.

For him, it was not a bad lesson to realize that it helps to read the question carefully before you start. For me, it gave me the opportunity to talk again about student self-assessment, and the advantages of self-reflection and students’ taking responsibility for their own learning… as well as reading the question.

Soon, much of the rest of the class was submitting the assignment with notes on the back. Some even noted math difficulties. Mick was smiling broadly when he gave me his sheet that said he was frightened of exponents! But if he remained calm he could overcome his fear and learn to love them. This smacked of the discussion on how even negative numbers need someone to go to the prom with.

And then there was Anya who wrote “Nowhere” to the question where. “I’m not stuck” to the question why. And “Nothing” to the question of what she intended doing about getting unstuck. Seems reasonable.

Five million points for all those who completed the self-reflection.

Other assignment designs call for an explanation of how students have tackled a problem. They all contain a box along the lines of…

❏ Got it!… I can do this without help + I can help others

❏ Almost got it… I can figure it and sometimes help others

❏ Getting it… I’ve got the idea + I can do it with a little help from my friends

❏ Good start… I can do it with help step-by-step

❏ Starting… I can start problems and ask questions to get help

Self-assessment rubrics can be downloaded at The PiFactory assessment page

March 7, 2008 at 6:02 am Leave a comment

Annah and Camilla get unstuck… and 5 million points.

ANNAH and Camilla have got themselves unstuck. And they’ve written a couple sentences each on where and why they got stuck… and how they got themselves unstuck.

They’d had trouble tackling an expression with a negative exponent, and writing it as a positive exponent. Their strategy was to look up their notes, find a similar problem and see they could take the reciprocal and change the sign of the exponent.

I can only hope they found in their notes the demonstration and informal proof using the number 2 and meant to show why expressions with negative exponents are, effectively, fractions… rather than just use the bulleted-rule “flip it and change the sign of the exponent”.

The demo takes, say, 23 and divide it by 25. By writing out the three factors and dividing them by the five factors it is clear from cancelling that the answer is 1/22. It is also clear from such demonstrations that the answer can be derived from subtracting the exponent 5 from the exponent 3… 2−2.

Annah and Camilla’s brief note didn’t go in to even this limited level of detail. But at least they wrote some sentences of reflection and, indeed, had reflected on the problem. It’s a welcome start.

Student self-assessment is meant to help students focus on their own work and their own learning… to take responsibility for getting themselves unstuck. At the moment students seem reluctant to reflect, let alone to leisurely reflect and to intellectually wander and to ask what if? Getting the answer, and as quickly as possible, mostly seems preferable.

I’ve tried to break this by simply abandoning traditional assessment approaches that inevitably value the answer, rather than putting the main focus on the mathematical thinking provoked by the problem.

The closest my classes have got to an heuristic approach to questioning and thinking is when we’ve gone completely off-curriculum and thrown up a couple of problems and let the conversation and argument go where it will.

Congratulations to Annah and Camilla for stopping, looking back, thinking and working out how to solve the problem. Five million points!

February 26, 2008 at 2:58 am Leave a comment

Student self-assessment − the research says…

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Student self-assessment… what does the research say?

Education Place: When students are collaborators in assessment, they develop the habit of self-reflection. They learn the qualities of good work, how to judge their work against these qualities, how to step back from their work to assess their own efforts and feelings of accomplishment, and how to set personal goals (Reif, 1990; Wolf, 1989). These are qualities of self-directed learners, not passive learners. As teachers model, guide, and provide practice in self-assessment, students learn that assessment is not something apart from learning or something done to them, but a collaboration between teachers and students, and an integral part of how they learn and improve.

The Center for Development and Learning: Self-evaluation is defined as students judging the quality of their work, based on evidence and explicit criteria, for the purpose of doing better work in the future. When we teach students how to assess their own progress, and when they do so against known and challenging quality standards, we find that there is a lot to gain. Self-evaluation is a potentially powerful technique because of its impact on student performance through enhanced self-efficacy and increased intrinsic motivation.

Testing, Motivation and Learning, Assessment Reform Group: The degree to which learners are able to regulate their own learning also appears to foster pupils’ interest and to promote focus on the intrinsic features of their work. Pupils who have some control over their work by being given choice and by being encouraged to evaluate their own work are more likely to value the learning itself rather than to focus only on whether or not it is correct.

Beyond the Black Box, Assessment for Learning Group: Current thinking about learning acknowledges that learners must ultimately be responsible for their learning since no-one else can do it for them. Thus assessment for learning must involve pupils, so as to provide them with information about how well they are doing and guide their subsequent efforts. Much of this information will come as feedback from the teacher, but some will be through their direct involvement in assessing their own work. The awareness of learning and ability of learners to direct it for themselves is of increasing importance in the context of encouraging lifelong learning… But it is important to remember that it is the pupils who will take the next steps and the more they are involved in the process, the greater will be their understanding of how to extend their learning. Thus action that is most likely to raise standards will follow when pupils are involved in decisions about their work rather than being passive recipients of teachers’ judgements of it.

More to follow…

February 19, 2008 at 6:46 am Leave a comment

I’m stuck! − do I get 5 million points?

THE CLASS burst into cheers and applause. Annah and Camilla looked embarrassed, but pleased.

They were stuck!

This was a great moment, they were about to enter the process of learning. But only if they were prepared to get themselves unstuck.

Getting stuck is the new joke in my classes. Students put up their hands and announce, “I’m stuck, do I get five million points?” Only if they get unstuck.

This semester the target is to get more students working on assessing their own work, student self-assessment. The argument is that if they can critically assess the quality of their own thinking, they will take more responsibility for their own learning.

I’m focussing on pushing them to work on that point when they get stuck. Why have they got stuck? Where have they got stuck? Just what is it that they don’t understand? What can they do to help themselves get unstuck?

And when they’ve got unstuck, could they get unstuck again? Could they explain it or help another student to get unstuck?

For the past couple of years I’ve used a number of rubrics to try to help students assess their own work. At the end of each semester I ask them to tell me what they think their grade should be, and why… using a rubric describing the grade levels. A tear-off form gives them the opportunity to anonymously grade me.

Basic day-to-day formative assessment in the classroom is based on student-friendly learning targets and the idea of starting through getting it to got it. The descriptions focus on talking math, to what extent students can explain or discuss or simply formulate a question about an idea.

Assignments and worksheets and working paper all contain five check-boxes with brief descriptions to help students tell me how they are getting on:

Got it!… I can do this without help + I can help others
Almost got it… I can figure it and sometimes help others
Getting it… I’ve got the idea + I can do it with a little help from my friends
Good start… I can do it with help step-by-step
Starting I can start problems and ask questions to get help

Lately assignments include prompt questions to help students reflect as they search for why they are stuck and then reflect on how they got unstuck. Fold the assignment from the left-hand edge to the center and read questions which help find why the student is stuck, such as:

❏ What have I done that’s OK?

❏ Is my answer reasonable?

❏ Have I missed a negative or made a calculation error?

❏ Where have I got stuck?

Fold from the right and find more reflective questions, such as

❏ What did I not understand when I got stuck?

❏ How did I get unstuck?

❏ Could I explain what I did, or help a friend to get unstuck?

For my own use, the rubrics also contain descriptions or the sort of things students say, and their behaviour, at different points in the starting-getting-it-got-it cycle. Plus how they cope with processes and concepts. That’s work in progress. Feedback and suggestions would be appreciated.

So, the big question is… will Annah and Camilla get themselves unstuck? Watch this space.

February 19, 2008 at 5:40 am 2 comments


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