Last time I talked about how our extensive Seven Strategies for Assesment PD got me thinking about what rich, open assesments should ask of students and how to guide teachers in that search. There’s a lifetime of work to be done on that topic, but I feel like I’m at a more grounded intellectual place to pursue that work now than I was before the conference.
My other realization arose out of the cantankerous faculty meeting that simmers away inside my head through any long presentation. Whenever my enthusiasm runs ahead of the pack, the phantoms of every veteran, “seen it all before” colleagues materalize to bring me back in line. They’re a cranky bunch, but they come by it honestly, burned by 20+ years of “new research” and “revolutionary practice” that didn’t improve anything but an administrator’s resume. So while I was getting excited about the potential of a real shift in our assessment practices, the Stadler and Waldorf voices were loudly asking, “so what do we really do?”
Avoid the Learning Target Trap
If you read the Seven Strategies program sequentially, the first step to clearly define learning targets. There’s a temptation to read that literally, and hand out beautiful “Today We Will Learn…” whiteboards to every classroom.
This is a horrible idea.
When I first encountered SBG, I dove headfirst into the process and tried to break my math and CS classes into beautiful atomic skills. Two years later, I worked with several MS math teachers to skill-ify Algebra 1 and would up with a list radically different than my previous design. One teacher form that batch is still teaching with explicit Learning Targets, but I know he shifts and changes them every semester.
This isn’t a bad thing! Meaningful subjects are NOT naturrally composed of cleanly distinct subtopics and skills. The process of identifying and classifying those topics will continue to be a part of every serious teacher’s planning and reflection process. As a school, focusing too much of your initial energy on creating learning targets generates work for teachers with little direct benefit for students. All other factors being equal, 7th graders see no meaningful difference between Learning Target 12 and Chapter 3-4.
Start with Feedback
Meaningful feedback is the best place to focus teacher energy and attention at the beginning of assessment reform. I know I’m late to this party, but this wasn’t clear in my head until recently.
Meaningful feedback is the lynchpin that holds the Seven Strategies process together. Let’s be clear, feedback is largely what we mean by teaching. Without personal, directed, constructive, actionable feedback on formative work, you have an edX MOOC, not a K-12 classroom. We start there because it’s what matters most.
Feedback is a skill. It can be cultivated, practiced, refined.
Feedback is also a self diagnostic. Is it hard to be specific in what a student should improve? Maybe you weren’t clear enough when defining the assessment? Students don’t use the feedback? Dedicate more classroom energy to the post-feedback revision process
Good feedback is hard work for teachers. But when it’s more than just hard, when it seems completely insurmountable, there’s likely another structural problem in the class. I have a lot of reasons why I haven’t offered great feedback on particular assignments or in certain classes, but when I poke at those reasons I uncover other weaknesses. I didn’t have a clear set of skills/LTs for the assignment, so I was wishy washy in my feedback. I didn’t have a process for students to revisit and revise their work, so I only gave superficial “great job!” feedback.
Feedback is also something that stats entirley with the teacher. For a first step, have teachers grab a peice of student work and write feedback for it, then bring both artifacts to workshop in the next faculty meeting. Now, with a collection material to read, reflect on, and draw inspiration from, we can move into the substantive conversations around students’ next steps, about classroom priorities, about everything that matters in our classrooms.