Formative Assessment Like a Novice - Part 4
This is the 4th in a series of self-reflection posts about my intention to reinvent how I do formative assessment. You can find the other posts here:
Part 1: Formative Assessment Like a Novice
Part 2: Learning to Plan for Change
Part 3: Rough Draft Thinking
I spent lots of my time this year reading about formative assessment and lots of time trying to make it work in my classroom. I tried quite few new-to-me strategies. Some of them were great. Some of them… weren’t. Almost all of the major ideas I ended up trying came from either Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical Techniques for K-12 Classrooms by Wiliam and Leahy or The Formative 5: Everyday Assessment Techniques for Every Math Classroom by Fennel, Kobett, and Wray.
Most of the strategies I latched onto this year incorporate quite a bit of students talking to each other. That wasn’t on purpose. I’m guessing it has more to do with gravitating towards my strengths as a teacher than anything else. The longer I do this teaching gig the more I’m convinced that students discussing the math with each other is vital. Communication is wicked hard. Verbalizing math concepts in a way another human being can understand forces you to deal with your own misconceptions and missed connections. As the other person begins to ask you questions, you very quickly realize your understanding of the content isn’t nearly as deep as you thought it was. Almost any teacher will tell you the best way to learn a subject is to teach it--at least the ones I’ve had this conversation with.
Okay, I feel the need to take a quick detour. It took years to get to a place where I don’t always get crickets when trying to have classroom conversations. This post isn’t about that. 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions by Smith and Stein is a great place to start. Rough Draft Thinking has also been a game changer in this area. This post isn’t about how to have discussions in math class. This post is about what I, as the teacher, am supposed to do with those discussions.
One of the most freeing and empowering ideas for me around formative assessment came from chapter 1 of The Formative 5. Listening to students talk can be assessment. The authors call this “observation”.
“As you plan and then think about teaching a lesson, how would you know if what you expected to observe actually occurred? This consideration sharpens the question of what you expect students to be doing and extends it from what you anticipate or expect to the actual reality of considering responses--and that’s assessment.” (Fennell et al, 25)
“As you plan, what do you expect your students to do? That’s what will be observed” (Fennell et al, 43).
My primary difficulty with using observations of students as assessment is my own ability to recall everything that happened. Initially, I bought into the school of thought that says formative assessment is only about getting a pulse on student thinking. It’s supposed to be light and nimble--only good for a day or two. Address student misconceptions quickly and move on. At least that’s how I read the advice from Wiliam and Leahy.
However, after a few months I found myself having significant misgivings about the process. Yes, I did address individual and group misconceptions within a day or two of the lesson. But I couldn’t remember who struggled with particular concepts from previous chapters. That meant I couldn’t check up on kids who were maybe a bit shaky with a requisite skill for the new topic of the day. I don’t have a fix for this.
Standards-based grading seems like the way to go, except that I get overwhelmed when I think about creating a system to keep track of all the information. What I really want is someone else to make the system for me. I want to carry a tablet around the my room and checking off which students are progressing on a standard and which ones still need work. Basically, I want something like Bullseye for Education but a little more nimble and without the subscription fee. I’d gladly pay $20 for an app that did that.
Once students start talking sometimes they need a little help. But I need to be careful--it needs needs to be unhelpful help. I want to help a student expand on his or her response without giving hints about how to solve the problem. I want to be interested in the child’s thinking and what that says about his or her understanding (Wiliam and Leahy, 75). So, I stole a bunch of questions from Steve Leinwand.
- “Tell me what you see.”
- “Convince me.”
- "How do you know?"
- "Explain that please."
- "Can you draw a picture?"
- ”Can you show me?” (this one is from Skip Fennel)
After several weeks of prompting students to explain their thinking using the same questions every time, they begin expecting them. After a semester, I rarely needed to ask the questions anymore.
Another one of my many problems is that I want to move too fast through the content. When I ask a question to the whole class, they often don’t have enough time to process what I want them to process before I’m calling on someone to give it a go. This happens even when I give them wait-time. Think-pair-share slows down the call-and-response cycle and allows more people to have their voices heard. I ask a question. Students have some time to think about the question by themselves with no one talking into their ears. Then, students share their rough-draft-thinking with each other. They aren’t sharing complete solution processes; they’re sharing what they’ve noticed about the problem and how they might attack it. This part is key, every student gets a chance to verbalize his or her thinking. Does every student talk every time? Not even close. But it’s a step in the right direction.
During the ‘share’ time, if I have the time, I walk around the room to listen in on conversations. It’s a great way to get a feel for how well the students understand the new material.
After the conversations simmer down I chose a group to present (share). Sometimes I do this based on the types of strategies I heard students using. Sometimes I use randomized cards with students’ names on them. Either way, one or more students go up to the front of the room and present their initial solution strategies for the problem. The class gets a rough draft or a starting place to begin revision process. I get to hear students’ thinking and evaluate their understanding based on my objectives for the day.
Interviews and Show Me
In the The Formative 5, Fennel, Kobett, and Wray introduce a couple more ideas that, in my first read through, seem like natural progressions of the Observation. By asking good questions, a teacher can dig deeper into what a student or group of students are thinking. Not particularly earth-shattering but I appreciate someone smarter than me making explicit why dialogue in the classroom is so important. Students learn from each other and I get insight into how they think. Here are some short quotes to explain the basic premise of each of these tools.
‘’The interview can be thought of as an informal conversation between teacher and student, or perhaps a small group of students. Interview questions may be as informal as “How did you do that?” “Why did you do it that way?” or “Can you explain how you solved that?” (Fennell et al, 47)
“The Show Me prompt requires a student or group of students to demonstrate their thinking and orally explain their response” (Fennel et al, 63).
I think this is where the importance of community comes in. I was the only teacher in my building making this particular push last year. Yes, I had wonderful colleagues to bounce ideas off of. Somehow it’s different when you don’t have people who take the same risks as you. It’s like jumping off the dock into cold water. You’re more likely to do it with a friend by your side.