Assessment as an Invitation
The first thing Garfield challenged us to do was to consider traditional summative performance tasks as an invitation to learning, that is, to put the assessment task right up front, rather than waiting until the end of a unit to see what students have learned.
It all "counts", so we can dispense with the myth of the "formative vs. summative assessment trap", and instead consider how we use the evidence gathered throughout a unit of study.
Failing with Dignity
Helping students to see that "everything counts" reduces the number of disengaged students who just don't bother trying on formative tasks, Garfield suggested. He also reminded us of the importance of allowing students to "muck about" with new learning, and suggested using tools like "thoughtbooks" to encourage students to record changes in their thinking over time. (These artifacts also become important pieces teachers can use to facilitate learning conferences with students.)
When students aren't allowed or encouraged to experiment, especially in the intermediate years, they are more likely to pursue the "failure with dignity" route, that is, for these students, there may be more pride in failing after not doing the task, rather than trying hard and then failing anyway.
Failure is important, Garfield noted, but we must provide opportunities that allow students to speculate and try things out and figure it out -- in essence, to "fail" in a safe environment". This is more easily accomplished, he suggested, when we begin with the assessment task, as an invitation to learning, rather than tack it on at the end.
Targets vs Methods
The difference between a target (the specific curriculum expectation to be achieved or demonstrated) and a method (how that achievement will be shown) were reviewed; for example, the target might be for students to "identify Canada’s political and physical regions, and describe their main characteristics and some significant activities that take place in them" (Revised Social Studies Curriculum, Grade 4, 2013) and some methods by which students can demonstrate that target include drawing a map, creating a prezi or writing a test.
Garfield reminded us of the importance of including a variety of methods, from all three domains (conversations, observations and products/performances) to triangulate assessment data in ways that allow a wide variety of learners to effectively demonstrate their learning. However, he also noted that it was not necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater, that there is nothing inherently "wrong" with more traditional methods of assessment (pencil/paper tasks) in some cases... e.g., of course a Grade 12 student bound for university will need to write an essay to communicate her learning. (In that case, the "target" may be not only the subject-specific curriculum expectation, but also writing in a particular style.) But in general, we need to be clear that the methods we use to enable students to demonstrate learning targets may vary.
Defining an "A"... and allowing students to demonstrate it!
Garfield shared his definition of an "A" or "Level 4" as as sound (or reasonable) answers rather than right answers. Allowing students to demonstrate this requires teachers to provide not just open questions, but questions that encourage critical thinking, judgement, creativity... as an example, "What pet would you like for our classroom?" becomes "Which pet would be best suited to our classroom?" and "List 4 battles Canadians fought in in WWI" becomes "List 4 significant battles Canadians fought in in WWI" -- Adding qualifiers is one way to effectively move questions from recall to judgement. (Rather than one right answer, there are a range of possible answers, based on criteria.)
All Students should be invited to think and solve problems
Defining Criteria for Success
This was perhaps biggest "a-ha" moment of the presentation for me: the difference between descriptive criteria and qualitative criteria.
The former are more requirements. For example, in order to be a teacher, one needs the following descriptive criteria: OCT certification, Criminal Record Check, TB test... one could in essence meet all the descriptive criteria, but be a lousy teacher; It is the qualitative criteria that define standards of excellence (in a teacher, in an essay, in another performance task).
Effective success criteria need both descriptive and qualitative criteria. Further, we should separate one from the other, and help kids see that the requirements are needed for task completion, and the qualitative criteria are there to determine what level the work demonstrates. (Slide 21 from Garfield's presentation gives an example of an assessment tool that illustrates how teachers might help students distinguish between the two on a given task.)
As one of the participants noted, "it speaks to why we have to move from a grading (evaluative) culture to a learning culture".
Four Areas of the Achievement Chart
We're supposed to assess four aspects of learning: Knowledge & Understanding, Inquiry, Communication and Application. Here's a reader activity... define each of these (no peeking), then go look in a curriculum document (front matter) and see how close you were. Which do you most often assess? I bet it's the first (confession time, me too!!)
Presenting students with rich, meaningful performance tasks at the beginning of the unit helps students demonstrate all four areas and helps us as teachers to assess all four areas.
Throughout the session, Garfield challenged us to think about our assessment structure in new ways. He was very up front about the fact that we'd not always agree, and I appreciated the mild intellectual dissonance he provided. This session gave me many practical strategies (thoughtbooks, dashboards, etc.) and a number of things to think about with regards to assessment for learning. I look forward to applying my new thinking when I return to a classroom in September!