Thursday, September 23, 2010

Freeing the Frozen Flow: Thawing our Thinking on Assessment

Mike Copes is an elementary counsellor for school district #71 in Courtenay. His circuitous path to involvement with the school system has included work in Community Corrections and in psychiatric care at Riverview Hospital as well as ten years in residential youth care at the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre where he worked as as team leader, unit supervisor, staffing coordinator and complex supervisor. He has also worked as a Conduct Disorder Specialist and as a Therapist for Child and Youth
Mental Health. His brief flirtations with working as a election campaign manager and as a bouncer at a biker bar were outlying sortees at finding employment self-actualization and should in no way be construed as foreshadowings of his eventual enlistment in the public education system

Drafting a brief response to the August 27-28 session on Assessment for Learning has been a very challenging exercise. The range and depth of information, research results, pinions and ideas presented and discussed gives rise to such a vast array of further thoughts, questions and connections as to render succinct summarization a dauntingly difficult task.

If there was a single overarching theme to the session it would have to be that assessment as it is commonly practiced within the current educational paradigm does not accomplish the goal of accurately depicting the learning that is taking place. Even less does it assist in directing learning toward optimal conditions in either process or outcome.

Of the range of ideas for developing a new direction in assessment which emerged, the two that stood out for me the most were the notion of continuous or instantaneous assessment and the work of Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi on "Flow".

Assessment, to properly reflect and assist in the learning process, needs to take place in a continuous fashion that is intimately integrated with the minute to minute enterprise of learning rather than in discrete, widely spaced intervals. Establishing what students already know at any given point in the learning process is not only important so as to be able to proceed from the appropriate point, it is also essential as a way of building confidence in every learner that there is a pay-off in making effort and taking risks. It is a start in the conversation with students that says to them "you can learn this and here is proof that you have already begun to do so".

One promising example of continuous assessment is described by Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi in his research on the subjective internal state he calls "Flow". Csikzentmihalyi identifies a range of mental states which relate to the affective content of the person's experience and the level or quality of engagement or focus on the activity. The emotional states he identifies are apathy, boredom, worry, anxiety, relaxation, arousal, control and "Flow". Which of these states a person engaged in an activity (ie, a learner) will experience depends upon the intersection of the level of skill being called forth and the level of challenge involved. In order to reach a state of Flow, the task must present a challenge that stretches a person to the ordinary limits of his skill level and beyond. Bringing about this mental state while engaging with curricular material in the classroom could be used as a means of creating conditions optimal for learning within a process in which a continual feedback loop - a form of self-assessment - exists for the
learner. The alignment of the idea of "Flow" with the process of assessment has provoked for me a great deal of reflection that will likely percolate through my thinking about learning for a long time to come.

As I write this, I am drawn to consider, for instance, the implications of "Flow" versus non-Flow states for the creative exercise of writing in which I am now engaged. How is it that I so often begin the process of writing so haltingly and painfully, attempting to pull forth ideas and express them intelligibly in an agonizingly slow process fraught with long periods of numb empty-mindedness, only to inexplicably reach at some point a break-through to an effortless flight of prose? Is there a way I can draw upon the much easier and more reliable attainment of Flow in the area of piano improvisation to assist in the too infrequent and hard to reach attainment of Flow in my experience of writing? What happens that occasionally puts me there as I seem to be now? How can I translate any personal insights I may arrive at on entering "Flow" to benefit the students with whom I am working? Questions such as these will need to be reflected upon for some time for answers to emerge. Will they arrive effortlessly when some piece has dropped into place during a rare interval of "Flow", or need to be wrenched forth in the grinding hours of non-Flow states which make up the majority of my waking moments? I can't predict with certainty, but if ever forced to wager on it, I think I'll go with the Flow.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Assessment: Purposes and Purposeful?

Bonnie Kemble is currently teaching high school students in Qualicum Beach BC. Prior to this, she taught in middle school in a variety of student support positions. Her teaching career began in the north with adult learners preparing for entry into college, proving that variety is the spice of life!

Curious thing about assessments and the power they can have to alter life choices and courses... In education, as in life, there are bigger assessments and smaller assessments, ones that change life opportunities, and others which change the course of the day. I have come to know both as an educator in the classroom who makes daily decisions about learning opportunities, and as a specialist whose assessments may build a student's permanent learning file, which can in turn create places for students to be, on occasion, and how teachers may come to know them, for I regularly do what is referred to as Level B testing, normally a step beyond classroom assessment. I take this responsibility very seriously, for these higher stakes tests, done carefully, can take on a mystic of their own at times. "ah, this test will reveal that this student is ...(pick your pigeon hole)", yet the testing CAN be helpful even if it is at the same time, rather artificial information about a student's ability to learn. Assessments are limited in the ability to describe how a student learns, or how intelligent the student may be, by the questions that are asked, and so there are times when it is frustrating knowing that the assessment tools I am using, standardized and legitimized, show not the student who is before me, but how well the test is measuring up to a standard set by anonymous others. I participate in it because there are opportunities for supporting struggling learners who meet the criterion set, so on it goes.

Assessment for learning in the classroom seems friendlier somehow, because as an educator, you can change the flow according to what you see and hear from your students who are in the throes of learning. It is responsive, at its best, and useful. Assessment for learning is good teaching, because it relies on relationships and communication to resolve the edges of "I am learning and I am not there yet". It contributes to education as a transaction and transformation in contrast to assessment of learning, which is largely "I transfer to you and you and transfer back to me in as close to a accurate approximation to the original as possible". For me, assessment for learning is a way to figure out what we are doing in the classroom together, and how do we make it even richer? I get to guide the boat, for I am the teacher leader, but the journey is more rewarding when we are all part of the adventure. We will stop, and take photographs, and based on these snapshots, I may decide to speed up the boat, take side trips, continue on, back track, or make a speedier finish so that we can take another journey together sooner, but we will all have a part in the experience.

I was struck, this past year, by two classes in particular that I taught: one a grade 10 Social Studies classroom, the other a grade 12 Geography classroom. The grade 10 classroom, generally, was a livelier place. Students did not have a choice in their to take this course as it is a requirement for graduation, but at this age level, most were still willing to question the teacher, engage in conversation, offer differences of opinion out loud, challenge some ideas about the subject matter (and my teaching of it), and wrestle with if it had any meaning to them as people growing and developing. The life of the classroom was had assessment for learning elements, and lots of assessment of learning standardized practices too (professional development opportunities abound for me as a teacher to work with this mix more!) A departmental final and expectations for "what is usually done" and "what I was ready for" kept me in check, quite frankly. Students too were also quite surprised when practices beyond "read this section, do these questions, the unit test will be on Friday" were tried, and some were a little nervous that I was changing the rules to some degree. The grade 12 classroom was so "schooled" in older practices, it was really tough to break down barriers. "Is this going to be on the test?", "How did I do on the assignment?" were common questions. Breaking it open to ask them what they learned, what might be useful for them to know and how did our study of Geography relate to them were scary questions. I was saddened by how the students relied so much on the teacher to tell them, by way of marks, how much they had learned, and by how little they knew about their own work and how to evaluate it as having worth. I learned a great deal about the end of high school experiences by teaching this group. I can't say I felt overly optimistic about the experiences these students have had through out their formal education. We have a lot to learn as teachers about how to help students be learners: interested, curious, and eager to feed their hungry brains. For this group, they just wanted to get out of school. This was, I suspect, not the same group of youngsters who arrived at the school's doors a dozen or so years earlier. We have better work to do, more enriching work to do, than what we have, as a system, already done. September beckons...

Friday, September 17, 2010

Summertime and the livin’ is easy........

Jillian Walkus is our guest blogger today. Who is she? She writes: I am doing the job I was destined to do. One of most exciting parts of the job is that lightbulb moment- we all know the one- when you see that a student "gets it." Personally, that is so rewarding and has such an addictive quality to it. I have been teaching for 15 years on the beautiful North Island. I have lived in Alert Bay, Port Alice and Port McNeill. I currently reside in Port Hardy, where the ocean is our front yard, with my husband, our two younger daughters. My adult stepchildren live in Campbell River and Courtenay where they are pursuing their work and postsecondary passions. Last summer we brought a soft-coated wheaten terrier home and I relish the daily forty minute walk on my lunch break.

Anyone feel like leaning against my photocopied hand? [See Jillian's strategy here.] I sure do! I survived the first week and if you are reading this not only did you survive, you have managed to eke out a few moments of time at the computer. Congratulations to you!

On Friday I grimaced and confessed to my colleague, "I think I bragged a little too early about how well things were going in my English/English First Peoples 10 class. My lesson today totally bombed! I was asking inquiry-type questions and nobody was answering. Maybe my questions were too hard." Karen, my colleague, smiles politely as I continue on. "I don’t know if this was too new for them. I had to give them a few (too many) prompts. I hope they are not expecting a worksheet and boring old questions! You know the kind. The worst ones--the lower than the between-the-lines kind. I can’t do that!"

[Aside #1 ] I spent good money on Jim Burke’s new book What’s the Big Idea?
[Aside #2 ] I just spent two fascinating days stretching my mind about assessment at VIU and man do I ever have some great insights and new ideas to try.

"On Wednesday and Thursday they were dialoguing, volunteering ideas, think-pair-sharing, relocating to sit with new people. I just know I jinxed it when I told you every single student stood up and read aloud on Thursday."

[Aside #3] Shelley mentioned no opting out so I created a safe lesson where students would feel comfortable to read out another student’s 4 line poem.

Karen smiled again and began to speak. I was prepared to eat crow although my appetizer had already been a steady diet of self-flagellation.

"They’re tired. Everyone is tired."
Don’t you love Karen? It was true! So simple and so true!

It makes perfect sense to me. I am tired. My students are tired. Why wouldn’t we be tired? I think it is important for us to recognize the transition from summer to work. September has a crazy way of sneaking up and disappearing on us. If at all possible take some time to honor and acknowledge the transition. So many times we plow forward at break neck speed only to lose ourselves and our focus. It may surface as the “back to school cold” or the sore back that comes out of nowhere. We have had the luxury of sleeping in & staying up late as well as, reading, eating and drinking whatever we want. Is this why the transition is so hard?

Or is the transition hard because we hit the ground running? Maybe I hit the ground so hard I winded myself. I have decided that my personal goal for this month is to slow down and be mindful. When I am in the classroom, I will be in the classroom-- I will not worry about the next period, tonight’s dinner or who needs to be driven where after school.

There is a difference between physical exhaustion and mental exhaustion. I can sleep to combat the physical; I can be gentle with my thoughts and myself to combat the latter.

Fish are jumpin'....
Right now at the Quatse River the fish are travelling upstream. I watched this on Saturday with my family. We walked the nature trail and picked huckleberries. I enjoyed every second of it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

He who asks questions cannot avoid the answers.

Guest Blogger Shannon Johnston is a teacher with 20 years experience teaching K-12 in Canada and overseas in Japan and the Philippines. She lives on Saltspring Island with her wonderful husband and three active fun kids. This year she is starting a new position in an Alternative Ed school teaching K-3. She is excited about the possibilities of connecting her own recent schooling at VIU in TLCP (Teacher Leadership Certification Program) and SETS (Special Education Diploma) to a unique classroom environment. When not in school, or hiking with her kids, she is a Pilates instructor and Group Fitness Leader as well. She loves being active and alive! She live with the philosophy of Carpe Diem ~ seize the moment! Life is a gift, treasure it!

At the end of the summer, I spent a weekend asking deep-layered ‘Assessment’ questions. I leave feeling inspired and challenged. Will my practice change? Likely- though in small do-able bite size ways. Will my thinking change? Absolutely. The lens I view Assessment with has altered. Really chewing on deep beliefs and values challenged my own biases and personal tendencies. Though some may view this as threatening I actually embrace the idea. I love thinking about my thinking…and isn’t that what we want of our learners? We want, indeed we need, critical thinkers who challenge life and challenge themselves to look at things differently. This weekend has opened that long hidden box of personal values and beliefs attached to ‘assessment’.

As a Type A ‘people pleaser’ I recognize that I give myself value by what others perceive me as…in other words, I try to perform my way through life for extrinsic rewards from others. Recognizing that now and watching my own daughter follow my footsteps in trying to please everyone all the time is evidence that this is not what I want to pass on to her… or to any of my students. What a burden to place on small shoulders. I feel convicted. I want to do life (and assessment) differently. I need to… for her sake, for others and for myself.

Being cognizant of ‘Fixed Mindsets’ as compared to ‘Growth Mindsets’ is the first step. Examining my beliefs and practices in a real way, moving from lip service to heart is gong to take time and effort. Slipping back in to old thought patterns would be easy and natural when the pressures of life and school start back up next week. My goal and hope is that to be ‘aware’ when jumping back into the ‘chaos’ is the first step… and a critical one I intend to do. In my own way this is the ‘desirable difficulty’ I set for myself ~ to continue to think about my own thinking regarding assessment and performance. Thank you for stretching my thinking… and my heart.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What’s So Special About Special Education?

Guest Blogger Brian Worthen is a teacher at Qualicum Beach Middle School where he teaches all general subjects at the Grade 6 and 7 level. Previously, he has taught in Vancouver and suburban districts in SLD,remedial, accelerated as well as ESL. Graduate studies centred on barriers to experimental field studies in the subject of science education.

Students in today’s classrooms reflect what is currently happening in society. Gone are the days of shaping students to be model citizens that have been instructed to uniform beliefs, manners and information. Society of today is rapid, multifarious and dynamic. Family compositions are numerous as are the challenges and stories each child possesses. We cannot even possibly predict what the future society holds for our students in a decade.

With this in mind, it is crucial that many educators consider change. This means distancing themselves from lock and step, uniform, curriculum based lessons and paying more attention to the learning needs of the child. Students of today will need many different progressive opportunities in their avenues of learning. More importantly, they will need to be exposed to a large set of learning tools that they can utilize to confidently navigate in the world that they must contribute to. Teachers may have to consider their role less as an instructor and more as a steward in preparing the youth of today.

When one enters a special education resource room, we are frequently reminded of the manipulatives, media as well as other approaches for the concepts being taught. We ponder the flexibility of evaluation and the various approaches used in order to meet the learning outcomes for the students of these resource rooms. Yet, there are barriers in offering a “regular” classroom these types of tools – large numbers of students with increasingly challenging needs. Other obstacles include the continual assignments of programs by communities and governments that address growing social problems in the community. Then there is the fundraising and the valuable time taken in order to comply with student data requests. These impairments reduce the time that a teacher could utilize in order to concentrate more time with assessment and tools that could be employed to reach more students in the classroom. If this were made possible, perhaps we would see that “special education” is really more general than we think. Perhaps it is what we should all try to achieve?

For many, distancing oneself from a comfortable fixed mindset is not simple. The hidden curriculum that teachers must consider to embrace in their quest to reach as many learners as possible should take into account many practices and systems such as formative assessments, feedback, quick checks, and strategies that reveal to students how they each learn. One should consider replacing the pressure of curriculum amounts with the availability of some degree of choice for the spectrum of learners that sit in the class. Energy directed to stagnant data collection could take meaning with its purposeful rerouting to individual student progress indicating improvement or weaknesses. Personal interviews with portfolio work and self assessment is a continued “best next practice” that can show benefits for learning. Performance vs. Learning or the dialogues over flexibility, clear goals and the balance between opportunity and capacity must be a constant topic whether in the staffroom, parking lot or at the water fountain.

A teacher is the coach in the classroom. Performance can be prefaced by the learning of the skill set. This skill set can be taught in many ways in order to reach all the players. Then, and only then, can the classroom become a place of showing students how they can flourish in the world. The principal, who cannot possibly do school reform alone, must take on the role to advocate for conditions where teachers can be distracted less from management administrivia and interruptions which would hopefully free up time for honing practices in an environment that fosters greater individual student learning needs. However, until some fixed mindsets are weakened, educators hopefully will, in small steps, help each other with the age old adage that stays constant: teachers need to teach.

Photo from Orange42's photostream

Monday, September 6, 2010

We are blessed to teach

We are blessed to teach. To stand in front of a group of people - no matter how small or tall - we need to have a clear sense of our topic. We are forced to think more deeply, ask ourselves harder questions, make our knowledge explicit enough so that our audience - no matter how young or old - can understand us.

Recently I was asked to talk about assessment with a group of teachers participating in the VIU Teacher Leadership Program. Blessings, of course, often seem like curses at first. The more I thought about assessment, the more obvious it was that I knew nothing. As Parker Palmer reminds us, it takes a lot of courage to teach. Like so many of our students we are afraid to reveal our vulnerability. Jane Tompkins writes that so often behind the "performance" of teaching lies fear: "Fear of being shown up for what you are: a fraud, stupid, ignorant, a clod, a dolt, a weakling, someone who can't cut the mustard." We are afraid that a "good teacher" is always right. But we're not.

Why do we think we need to know it all? Why do we believe that we must have the "right answer" for everything? Carol Dweck in her must-read book Mindset: the New Psychology of Success argues that there are two mindsets - the fixed mindset that sees every failure as a reflection of self (I am a failure, pitiful, useless) and the growth mindset that sees every failure as a gift, a challenge, an opportunity to learn more. It's easy to see which mindset we need to nourish in learners. Too often, however, our grading system, our focus on intelligence, our praise of talent, of product, of quickness, of easy accomplishment send the message that unless we get it right and know it all, we fail. And when we fail, we are stupid, slow or at best slothful, rather than someone who is simply still learning.

How can we refine our assessment practices to foster a growth mindset? First, I suppose, we need to begin with us. We need to know that "good teachers" know they don't know it all. We need to open our doors and our hearts to learning together because teaching is far too complex for any one of us to get "right". We are so lucky to have so many people to learn with! This month, the teacher-learners in the VIU Teacher Leadership program have promised to share what they've learned on their journey this year as guest bloggers. In listening to their stories and gathering ideas from their experiences, we can begin to shape and reshape our own learning journey. By asking each other questions, by re-examining our practices against new knowledge, new contexts, new students, by working together relentlessly, we might begin to believe that none of us can get it right or know it all. But together we have a chance. We are blessed to teach, I think, but only when we remember that teaching means we are continually learning.