Teaching Opinion

Learning Can’t and Shouldn’t Be Quantified

By Starr Sackstein — May 21, 2017 3 min read
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With the boundless intricacies of life to learn about, and the variety of ways and depth in which we can truly know them, is it fair, necessary or even meaningful to quantify the new or deepened learning we share with students at school?

Right now the grading systems that exist inside of most traditional schools are antiquated and ineffective.

As the year wraps up and we are trying to determine how much students know and can do, teachers and administrators often sit in silos examining what they know about the whole child.

Or do they?

Many times, I’ve been a fly on the wall hearing the discussions about learning that occurs and what is most striking is the blatant absence of student voice in the conversation and the stark imbalance of actual student learning or mastery being addressed.

Too often, compliance measures determine the grading success of a student. Whether a child is absent too often or doesn’t turn in assignments becomes the focal point of the grading discussion.

But what if we consider the fact that some kids come to us knowing more than others? Or some are more independent and can do different kinds of learning to show what they know and can do?

Here are some things we need to consider when we are trying to label what kids know and can do:

  • Are the standards clear and transparent to the teacher and the students? How do we know?
  • What has the student done to demonstrate understanding?
  • Were there multiple opportunities for a student to learn, practice and master a particular skill or content?
  • How does the content or skill connect to the child’s life and can it be shown in more than one way?
  • Have the words and/or vocabulary been explicitly taught to students around how to communicate what they know and can do?
  • What are we doing all year round to foster a growth mindset so we aren’t missing any of the learning that is happening?

Too often what we see in class is only a small tidbit of what students are learning. Educators unfortunately are often forced to make assumptions based on what they see in class (verbal, non-verbal and/or written) and make those determinations on that one sided data. Students must be a part of this equation and not just through their products, throughout the process.

Here are some ways we can include students in their own assessment to make the labels (if we must give them) more meaningful:

  • Ensure students are getting formative feedback throughout a learning process
  • Offer students reflection opportunities throughout the process where their voices are being taken into consideration
  • Explicitly teach students to reflect with standards to show their own level of learning and to defend it
  • Allow them to practice reflection and/or receive feedback on it to deepen the way they see themselves
  • Ask them to help peer assess to both deepen what they see and how they communicate to each other and themselves
  • Talk to students on a regular basis about their learning. Truly listen when they share. Allow what they say to be a part of how you assess the whole child and not just the one you see on paper
  • Use portfolios as a means of assessment that house formative work and allow students to confer with you about what is in them and why
  • Allow students to tell us what they feel they have earned and why - let them use their work to support their learning even if it is a recollection of a class discussion with a show of depth of understanding.

Assessing students is a nuanced business and recognizing what a child brings to the table is essential to truly understanding what they know and can do. Penalizing them or crediting them extra for work that doesn’t show real learning or thinking, but any number of other compliance measures that make us as educators feel powerful in the name of preparing kids “for life”.

It is definitely appropriate and necessary for us to foster a culture that values effort and promotes work ethic as those are essential elements of becoming a productive member of society, but those values and ideals are separate from what kids know and can do it; they have more to do with how they do them and the pride they take in the learning they accomplish.

As we continue to model what having pride in our work looks like as well as the different ways of learning and showing, students can adapt to the style that best works for them and we can continue to be flexible in how we assess from there.

How do you ensure that the way you communicate learning truly encompasses the depth of what a child knows and can do and NOT how much they have turned in? Please share

Watch a Facebook Live with Starr on the best practices for moving beyond grades to assess student learning in a meaningful way.

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