Two pressing questions facing educators right now are: How do we keep students from using ChatGPT and other AI tools to cheat on tests and other assignments? And how do we engage students in learning when they have access to so much distracting technology?
The answer to both questions, according to Michael Hernandez, who teaches broadcast journalism, cinematic arts, and photography at Manhattan Beach High School in Los Angeles: Ditch traditional assessments and get kids engaged in critical thinking and storytelling that has a clear purpose behind it.
“If we’re gonna ask our kids to put blood, sweat, and tears into our assignments and stress out, shouldn’t it be for something good and worthwhile?” Hernandez said at a June 25 session at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference here.
“What happens to those tests and essays and worksheets” teachers assign students? “They end up in the trash,” he told the audience. “That’s a strong message that says your work doesn’t matter. This is all a game. It’s all for pretend. Stories aren’t for pretending. They aren’t fake, right? We do it for real.”
Storytelling isn’t as literal as asking students to create their own short documentaries, though that’s a valid approach, Hernandez said. It can be digital books. Data visualization. Infographics. Editorial illustrations. Podcast production. Asking students to use their interviewing skills.
“All of these things are activating deep thinking and critical thinking, and learning across disciplines,” Hernandez said. “I want to move towards a system of assessment where it’s not just about what you know, but how can you apply this [knowledge] and use it? That’s the true test of anything, right?”
Hernandez shared examples from real-life classrooms:
- A science teacher in Texas had students examine pictures of the insides of bones and add their own customized labels to explain the different parts. In that assignment, “the information is going to be similar across students, but they have to do it in their own unique way,” Hernandez explained. “So, it’s original, including the handwriting. There’s a personal connection because they can decide how they’re going to design their graphic. And they know that there’s a purpose for it because it’s going to be shared with other people.”
- An AP chemistry teacher at Hernandez’s school has her class create explainer videos for younger students. That gives students a reason to engage with the concepts they are learning, Hernandez said.
- Another science teacher at Hernandez’s school had students create infographics explaining scientific concepts to a nonscientific audience. (The example Hernandez shared had to do with belly button bacteria.) “Think about all the things people wonder about in the world. This is a great way for kids to show or explain something to other people,” Hernandez said.
When it comes to assessing these projects, a traditional letter grade from a teacher doesn’t need to be the end all and be all, he added.
“I want the kids evaluating each other and giving feedback,” Hernandez said. That can mean having students ‘workshop’ their classmates’ efforts through critical class discussions, or offer feedback to one another one-on-one. “We don’t want the learning to be private. We don’t want to work in a silo. Kids can learn from each other.”
Factors that discourage educators from offering these types of assessments
Hernandez works in an affluent, mostly white community. Does that make it easier for him to offer this kind of richer assessment, an Education Week reporter asked during the panel.
No, Hernandez said. In fact, the opposite might be true.
“I would say that I have more barriers,” Hernandez said. “I find speaking to colleagues around the country—this isn’t a scientific analysis at all—but I find that schools that are from lower resource neighborhoods typically take more risks. The kids that are wealthy and rich are good at playing the game of school and they don’t want to mess anything up.”
But Jim Phillips, a middle school math teacher in Fairfax County, Va., who has worked in both affluent and higher-poverty schools, disagreed.
Schools that serve more children from low-income families typically work harder than schools with wealthier populations to improve student growth, as measured by standardized tests, Phillips, who was in the audience for the panel, said in an interview after the session. And the kind of questions Hernandez focused on like “is a student finding ways to explore and give voice to their own uniqueness?” are not usually explored on those assessments, Phillips argued.
Luis Hernandez, the chief information officer for the Vista Charter public schools in Santa Ana, Calif., who was also in the audience for the session, said when it comes to whether a school can offer richer assessments like the ones that Michael Hernandez described, leadership matters more than the socioeconomic status of the school community.
It makes all the difference to have a principal who says: “I know what value you bring to the kids [through creative projects] versus leadership who’s like, ‘No, we have to meet the standards. Or we have to prepare for testing,’” Luis Hernandez said.