by Phil Olson
I am only eight days into the new school year, but I have already experienced several unpleasant moments in which my vision has shifted and forced me to recognize “blind spots.”
One day, after several spirited classes, in which school was starting to feel pre-pandemic normal, in part because I could see smiles in student’s eyes above their masks. I was congratulating myself for a great morning as I headed to the restroom where a quick check in the mirror necessitated a double take: right in the back of my carefully parted hair there was a Alfalfa spike, and it took some water to tame, so it had been there advertising my silliness all day, like the inflatable “air dancers” at car lots. I swallowed my pride and obsessively checked to be sure my buttons and zippers held the rest of me in place.
Another blindspot! I’ve taught that story a dozen times, and I still missed something, not because I hadn't looked, but because I had--again and again; I’d looked so often that my view had become fixed, despite the fact that it was incomplete.
I continue to discover blinds spots in many areas of my teaching, but none more important than my assessment practices. A powerful, timely driver of my work is Myron Dueck’s new book, Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage.
Dueck’s new book, like Grading Smarter, Not Harder before it, offers a wealth of research and classroom tested strategies for engaging students where they’re at and honoring their perspectives. Here are a few quotes from the book to chew on before we get into specifics:
Each of these quotes points to common blindspots in the arena of assessment, and collectively they shape Dueck’s thesis: assessment is an essential element of the learning process, so students should be invited into an ongoing discussion about their own learning.
Dueck persuasively argues that the first step in giving students a say is to empower them with learning targets that are clear and understandable, which is often not true of local, state, or national standards. He suggests teachers break their courses down into understandable units and then share with students concise overviews of the knowledge and skills they will be held accountable for. Here’s an example from Giving Students a Say (also available for download on Dueck’s website):
And here is a version of a similarly-styled unit plan I am using with my Grade 9 English classes this fall. When I implemented the tool last week, I immediately received positive feedback. Freshpeople are anxious about their school--the fact that, in high school, grades and transcripts really matter is not lost on them. So they find it comforting to preview expectations and to discover that the learning targets are extensions of previous work they’ve done. They also find it meaningful to identify their own goals and to anticipate checking the boxes when the targets are satisfied.
For teachers, these targets ensure we don’t make assumptions about what students know; instead they establish clear pictures of success in our classes.
For students, these communication tools proactively circumvent embarrassing and deflating blind spots, and they provide empowering information to help students track their progress toward targets.
Dueck explains how, once learning goals are clearly established and reinforced, student engagement in assessment builds with continuity; it benefits from practices that track learning over time like a live-action reel of information, as opposed to drawing conclusions from snapshots of episodic performance . Along the way, he arrives at several provocative conclusions--provocative because they evidence blind spots in our practice.
Some of his findings, summarized:
Yes, there are challenges there, and Dueck backs them with logic, personal experience, and recent, compelling research. Most importantly, he explains how to improve assessment practices: he includes classroom-ready materials for both elementary and secondary settings; he offers a detailed amplification of how to create and employ rubrics that function as learning tools by focusing on communication, as opposed to evaluation; and he makes and a persuasive argument for why and how we must revise grading practices to include student self-reporting and to escape from the imprecision. The tools he offers are substantial, timely, and actionable.
At points in the book, Dueck (and I, by extension) take a hard, not-very-flattering look at our earlier assessment practices, which included ill-defined learning goals, performative tasks that didn’t necessarily align with course objectives, and worse: sometimes our practices were inflexible and punitive. There is no joy for teachers or students in this dynamic. But change is happening, and Giving Students a Say offers a clear prescription for improvement: we need to meet students where they are, sit beside them as they learn, and make feedback a two-way conversation that empowers them to move confidently toward their futures.
Giving Students a Say
with Myron Dueck & Phil Olson | 9.14.21
Dueck triumphantly returns to Third Eye, this time joined by teacher Phil Olson, to discuss his new book and giving students voice.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.