Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Assessing is Sharing

In response to last week’s post, @Carloper posed some great questions: what “mastery” are we measuring? If kids are learning in a more open environment, why do we insist on assessing them in a closed, traditional way?

I hated giving tests. It didn’t seem natural to have a room full of silent teenagers, and I spent my evenings squinting at their chicken-scratch handwriting in a classroom cluttered with papier-mâché mummies left over from the Ancient Egypt unit. I cherished any opportunity for student presentations, both to get them comfortable with public speaking and to experience being informative to peers – it also meant peer evaluations and drastically reducing my grading load. Science fairs and research expos were my favorite; students explored each other’s creations and asked questions about processes. Although my school was extremely conservative (teachers and students wore uniforms, and “inspectors” monitored student behavior and reported to the “general inspector,” the school disciplinarian, by whom I was constantly berated for taking my biology class outside), I probably could have incorporated more creative methods of assessment.

Turning again to Aaron Sams, we see that recent iterations of flipped learning incorporate process oriented guided inquiry based learning (POGIL) and promote a meta-cognitive element of “learning about learning.” POGIL’s roots are in chemistry, but it can be applied to other subjects because it focuses on process skills like collaboration (learning with others) and expressive writing. Since “whole education” is a major focus these days practicing the scientific method in history class would be fantastic. POGIL starts with a piece of information and some guiding questions, and has students use the scientific method to reach a conclusion. The more general the initial piece of information and the more open the guiding questions, the greater breadth and depth the students explore. And remember, this doesn’t have to start in the classroom!

Now, if we’re asking students to learn in groups and generate questions they then answer, it’s only fair to assess them in the same way. This is where the meta-cognitive aspect comes into play: students become more aware of what they know and what they don’t know when they have to share. We need a paradigm-shift here, as it would no longer be teachers assessing students, but rather students sharing what they’ve learned; we should call assessment “sharing.” Sams gives his students a choice in sharing their learning; they can take a test that he designs, or they can create their own way of showing their understanding and applying what they’ve learned. He’s had students make computer games and design art projects; as long as they can show that they’ve reached proficiency of a standard, Sams doesn’t mind what form the sharing takes.

You see, flipping isn’t another method to deliver content; it’s about empowering students in their learning – it’s about having students learn from each other and be curious about the world around them. Teachers provide a framework, and have students practice skills like deconstructing complex problems and applying smaller units of information to other problems. As a science teacher, Sams has students use programs like PhET (research-based interactive computer simulations), and Wolfram|Alpha (an online answer engine for computations), and even gives tests where students have open access to the Internet – just knowing how to Google isn’t enough; one must be able to filter the answers to find what best serves them. It’s the skill of knowing to access information when you need it.

Assessment Expression
What I find more interesting than types of assessment is how teachers express assessment. Most teachers grade on a scale of points, usually 10 or 100, and we express these with corresponding letters (A-F), sometimes with plusses and minuses to give even more wiggle room. We say our grading is uniform because an A means excellent and a B is satisfactory, after which come differing levels of unsatisfactory until you hit failure. What does this mean when we’re talking about proficiency in standards? Using these flipped tools allows for standards based grading (SBG) where it’s not about points, but rather about whether or not the student has proficiently met the standard. The culture around grading would have to change, since the goal would be to get all students in the A or B range. 

I think more teachers should take on the role of researcher, and try out new methods; after all, flipped learning started in a classroom. The learning about learning element should become part of teaching culture; you don’t know what you don’t know until you question. Of course, this always brings in the argument that students shouldn’t be guinea pigs, and that just 2 years of exposure to ineffective teaching can heavily affect student achievement. As researchers, teachers would have the responsibility to evaluate and change their methods as rigorously as they expect change and growth from their students. Seems fair.

As part of the Digital Education team, I'm looking at the philosophy, practice, and technology behind 'flipped classrooms'. Future posts will touch on evaluating existing products, implementation experiments, and other topics. Over the course of my flipped journey, I invite commentary and discussion on this practice. Please comment below or email me at Melissa.Romaine@nesta.org.uk.

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