Dr. Tim Kubik
October is the month when most of us settle into a rhythm as educators. It’s a wonderful time in most schools. As the leaves turn, so to do our lessons turn from earlier, more diagnostic efforts, to the heart of our teaching—moving our learners toward our ultimate objectives for the year. Most are off and running, and the last thing you may have time for is a blog. I hope you’ll slow down, and take the time to “sharpen your axe” (Covey, 2013), and maybe to learn how to swing it a little differently.
If you pause, even for the six minutes it will take to read this blog, you’ll recognize that there are also some disquieting rhythms that surface in our classrooms this time of year.
Like the leaves, some of our students are beginning to fall behind. We’re tempted to think that it is their axe that is dulling, and so we intervene with recommendations to help them “sharpen their axe.”
Alternatively, we take comfort in the rhythms of the season, and celebrate those students who will remain ‘evergreen’ through the long winter ahead.
Rarely, however, is there an opportunity for educators to receive feedback on how we’re doing, especially when it comes to assessing students’ ability to access and utilize the texts that are still our primary vehicle for learning.
Assessing disciplinary literacy
Despite the attempts to standardize approaches to literacy through the Common Core or Colorado Academic Standards, every discipline has it’s own criteria for assessing disciplinary literacy (Sedita, 2015). While I’ve seen many well-intentioned attempts at “writing across the curriculum” in some of the schools I’ve coached, and while Colorado’s new Writing, Reading, and Communicating (WRS) Standards set lofty goals here, practice is usually something very different when it comes to assessment of those goals.
Most will be familiar with theoretical distinction between assessmentof learning, and assessment for learningthat “inform(s) instructional decisions and…motivate(s) students to try to learn” (Stiggins 2005:1). Most of us experience this distinction as a challenging, day-to-day balancing act, and the Colorado Teacher Quality Standards (especially IIIb and VIb), hold professional educators accountable for applying this distinction with deft and precision in our classrooms.
Yet too often this is daily challenge falls to us, alone. Too often, when the leaves start falling, we keep hacking at the trees with the same, dull axe. Too often, that makes the leaves fall faster.
Don’t just sharpen, swing with new rhythms!
In my role as an independent instructional coach, I am mindful that this time of year is crucial to “sharpening the axe” of our own practice. I have also learned that this is best done in a way that allows teachers to learn from one another. Fall is the perfect time of year for this work. There is still time for better rhythms of assessment for learningto sow the seeds of success in the year to come.
Earlier in October teachers in the Blended Collaborative cohort in St. Vrain Valley School District were given some time to “sharpen their axe” together. We took up the question of how advances in technology can support better feedback loops in assessment for learning, and we asked teachers how they might transfer and apply a new technology, such as Mentimeter.com or Padlet. Part of this was making sure that teachers understood how to use these tools. A more important part was to ask how these tools could be deployed in a sequence of assessments for learningthat would scaffold a rhythm for students’ learning experiences with, and around, that technology.
From a student’s point of view, no assessment stands alone (Laur & Clayton, 2018). Each is a part of a larger whole that makes up a learning experience, or a unit. Students must master each of these parts in turn to achieve the learning targets that we can already see as the end in mind.
Collaborating with colleagues helps us to understand how confusing this can be for students. What you might see as a logical sequence for your planning, or your discipline, may clash with a colleague who struggled with your subject area when they were in school. That perspective is a valuable whetstone not just for “sharpening your axe,” but also for discovering new rhythms in your swing!
Early in the rhythms of our assessment for learning, it is important for students to show not only what they are learning, but also what they understand about the learning opportunity before them.
It’s one thing for English/Language Arts teachers to assess whether Prepared Graduates can “read a wide range of literature (American and world literature) to understand important universal themes and the human experience” (CAS RWC, Standard 2). It’s another thing altogether for a History or Social Studies teacher to assess whether Prepared Graduates can transfer and apply this skill to “understand[ing] the nature of historical knowledge as a process of inquiry that examines and analyzes how history is viewed, constructed, and interpreted. (CAS, SS PGS 1). The complexity that arises for students when we mix these two, is yet a third opportunity for assessment. That opportunity must be easy to access, and easy to understand, because it launches learning toward the two required standards. If students cannot show us they us they understand this learning launch, they will quickly become frustrated, check out, and start falling like leaves.
Simple self-assessments, such as an exit ticket or a Padlet reflection can be powerful tools in the launch phase of learning. They are low-stakes, and they require a student to articulate their own understanding of the learning opportunity before we ask them to demonstrate that learning.
Sustaining the learning arc
Midway through a learning experience, assessments can be opportunities first to learn–assessments as learning(Earl, 2012)–or they can be assessments for learningthat tell us how students are learning, how they are feeling about their learning, and also what they are learning. Our rhythms must not be built solely on what we need to know, but what our assessments are telling us students want, and need to know about the learning we’re offering. It is here that peer assessment can be a very powerful opportunity for those falling students to “sharpen their axe.”
In our St. Vrain workshop, we encouraged teachers to think about how they were scaffolding assessments for learningsuch as peer critiques, or team progress logs, so that students could not only demonstrate what they’re learning, but also how students are directing their own learning in a way that is sustains the learning arc of the lesson or unit. Collaborating to design a rhythm of assessments that allowed students to share their learning arc empowered the teachers to return to their classrooms with a slightly different swing for their “sharper axes!”
Finally, as our assessments for learningcome to an end they should offer us crucial information about what students still need to learn in order to stick their landing on our summative assessments of learning.
It matters little whether these summative assessments take the form of projects or standardized end of unit tests of common assignments. What matters most in this phase is whether we are using our assessments for learning, such as a Mentimeter word cloud or a protocol based class discussion such as a Socratic Seminar, to understand what instruction we need to offer to ensure success for each and every student.
If your assessments for learning in this phase are only telling you who will succeed in the end, and who won’t, you may need to “sharpen your axe” to include a more student-centered sequence of assessments for learning.
Complexity: small variations make big differences
To everything, there is a season, and the rhythms of the season may actually be more complex than you notice once you settle in. The rhythms of how we use assessment as learning, and assessment for learning, play out for our students week-by-week, and even day-by-day. Small variations can make a big difference in whether students keep learning with you. Talking with your colleagues about those day-to-day rhythms—and how you can adjust them for better teaching and learning—can be one of the joys of this season, too.
Dr. Tim Kubik has coached over 2000 teachers via @Kubikhan on Twitter, the Kubik Perspectives blog, one-on-one Skype sessions and in traditional face-to-face workshops around the United States. Professional development can be serious fun!
Covey, S. (2013). Seven habits of highly effective people: powerful lessons in personal change:Simon & Schuster.
Earl, L. M. (2012). Assessment as learning: Using classroom assessment to maximize student learning: Corwin Press.
Laur, D. & Clayton, J. (2018). Developing natural curiosity through project-based learning: five strategies for the pre-K through 3 classroom:Routledge.
Sedita, J. (2015, April 1). “What is disciplinary literacy?” Literacy Lines: Keys to Literacy Blog, Retrieved fromhttps://keystoliteracy.com/blog/disciplinary-literacy/
Stiggins, R. (2005). “Assessment forlearning defined.” Pearson. Retrieved from http://downloads.pearsonassessments.com/ati/downloads/afldefined.pdf