How to Assess or Not to Assess

We are currently reviewing our assessment and reporting schedule, asking ourselves if we assess the right things, at the right time, using the right tool.

We recognise we assess for different purposes; for the learner, for the teacher, for the parents, board, Ministry… there are no arguments there. We also acknowledge very clearly that students should be integral to the assessment process and as much as possible direct it and ultimately have the agency to know/request/use for their own learning.

This post is not about that side of things (or maybe it is and I haven’t made the link yet), instead an emerging theme is entering into our discussions related to the mechanics of completing some of the assessments. Let me try and explain this theme with a fictitious example…

Teacher A: Teacher A knows that that by the end week 8 they should have completed a JAM of all their students. As the assessment is required by week 8 they hold off completing any until the start of week 6, then go for it, intensely over a 2 week period to get them done. There is some disruption to classroom programme in order to make it happen.

Teacher B: Teacher B also has the same deadline in week 8. They have a different approach. Right from the beginning of the term, they start their JAMs, completing as required, usually 2-3 a week, starting with those learners who are a priority and the next steps for them are needed right now. There is minimal disruption to the normal classroom programme.

What is best? Does it matter? Perhaps if I try and explore the assumed beliefs that drive their learning, it may shed more light on it.

Teacher A: Teacher A believes that it is important that assessments are completed close together. This way they are more reliable and bring greater accuracy to teaching especially when making comparisons between learners for purposes such as grouping students in your classroom. They are driven by a do-more-less-often approach and the disruption to the classroom programme is outweighed by the value of the assessment information.

Teacher B: Teacher B understands the need for deadlines but does not necessarily agree with them, but they are a professional and do what is required. They look at each student as an individual and as much as possible want to personalise their learning. They are driven by a do-little-and-often approach that responds to the individual needs of the learners. They value the information the assessment provides for them and the learner.

I am more like teacher B than A. As a new entrant teacher I used to have my folder with a section for each student where there was an alphabet name/sound recognition, basic word lists and current running record for each student. Every day, during silent reading or pack up, or if there was a moment during the literacy programme I would call the next learner on the list up or the one I needed to assess. I did this because I needed this information to inform my teaching, I couldn’t wait for it. Students progressed at different speeds, so an ongoing, needs based assessment appraoch was required and the most effective. Even when I taught Year 7/8s for a term a couple of years ago, I used the same approach with my Probes and GloSS.

As I reflect on this now I have noted why I did it this way, and why I would continue to do so if I were be be back in the classroom…

  1. completing little assessments often made it manageable and easy to meet those assessment checkpoints/expectations
  2. it gave me the flexibility to assess my learners when they needed it most, especially those who you are monitoring more closely or those that you get that hunch about
  3. it allowed the assessment to be a normalised part of the classroom programme, rather than something that was compartmentalised a fitted into a particular time slot
  4. I it meant that the individual needs of the learner drove the assessment process first and foremost
  5. it reinforced that assessment tools have value but there is greater value on the day-to-day learning conversations and observations taking place every moment of every day… and with minimal to no disruption caused by doing a little bit often, it made more time for the real stuff.

As my thoughts wander I am thinking that maybe we should introduce a 3rd teacher too.

Teacher C has the same deadlines described above however they work in a flexible learning space with 2 others teachers. As part of the way they organise their timetable, assessment time is built into each day’s timetable so at least 1 teacher has the time to complete any required assessments while the other 2 manage the learning of the students. Teacher C also happens to lead the maths learning in this collaborative team so she assumes responsibility for all maths assessments, undertaking testing, sharing outcomes both individually with teachers and collectively to analyse any trends. Teacher C beliefs that assessment is a collaborative exercise, that responds to students need and uses the collective expertise of the teachers to analyse data and plan next steps.

There are so many different teaching/assessment scenarios that you could illustrate to add to the dialogue around this theme. I do not expect my teachers to be clones of one another and I acknowledge that there is no right approach, but I do think there are ways you can work that are smarter and that keep learners and learning at the centre. So what do I really want though? Ideally I want to rip up/delete our schedule because:

  1. teachers have the knowledge, skills and understanding (confidence?) to use the right assessment tool at the right time to best meet the needs of their learners
  2. I have the professional trust to give teachers that agency
  3. assessment should be meaningful, timely, and driven by the needs of the learners, not driven by a document or standard
  4. as teachers naturally inquire into their practice, they need data to check the effectiveness of their actions.

Thoughts of adaptive expertise are coming into my head now, and one particular slide (#17) from a presentation called Schooling Improvement: What do we know? Perhaps Teacher A is caught in parts of routine expertise, Teacher A is beginning on the adapting pathway?

Schooling Improvement: What do we know? Helen Timperley Professor of Education The University of Auckland New Zealand.

I guess that as I ponder what this all means, if anything at all, I will continue to review what we do for or assessment. It is part of our ongoing review, changes have already been made in terms of teacher feedback, and now as we compare what we do alongside what others school do, it will only bring more clarity to the process of finding out what works best for us, in our school with our students. But, changing a few mindsets along the way will not be a bad thing…

#adaptiveexpertise #assessment #mindsets #routineexpertise

Curriculum Development and the MLE

Our school is currently in the process of developing a localised school curriculum. Strategically this is recognised in our goal, “To ensure the diversity of our school and community is reflected in our curriculum” and will also capture and clearly outline our collectives beliefs around teaching and learning for our students.

It would be fair to say that our school is catching up in this area with various documents that have unpacked certain curriculum areas but no concise, collective and aligned document giving full effect to the NZC…

Curriculum is designed and interpreted in a three-stage process: as the national curriculum, the school curriculum, and the classroom curriculum. The national curriculum provides the framework and common direction for schools, regardless of type, size, or location. It gives schools the scope, flexibility, and authority they need to design and shape their curriculum so that teaching and learning is meaningful and beneficial to their particular communities of students. In turn, the design of each school’s curriculum should allow teachers the scope to make interpretations in response to the particular needs, interests, and talents of individuals and groups of students in their classes.’ (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 37).

The process will go well beyond the 4 walls of the staffroom and involve ongoing conversations with the school community, parents and most importantly, our students. To support this process there are a wide range of other models from schools to review. While these have value and are a great reference, a local curriculum is a unique document and needs to reflect our students, community, beliefs and direction aligned to the NZC.

There are also a variety of collectively researched and documented approaches from schools, especially by ERO, through their National Reports and also by others such as in some aspects of the BES series. Additionally there are also some great stories and case studies featured on New Zealand Curriculum Online. These are all very helpful in seeing how other schools have successfully developed their curriculums i.e. through collaborative approaches from teachers, a clear focus on students and student achievement, and strategic professional leadership.

Over time the NZC Updates have also provided ongoing support for curriculum development. One of particular focus has been the NZC Update 26 – Future-oriented learning and teaching a summary of the NZCER Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective, outlining the key themes that will underpin future-oriented learning for young New Zealanders.

The 6 themes from this report are; personalising learning, new views of equity and diversity, rethinking learners’ and teachers’ roles, a culture of continuous learning for teachers and educational leaders, a curriculum that uses knowledge to develop learning capacity, and new kinds of partnerships and relationships.

It is this last theme, new kinds of partnerships and relationships, that I would like to explore a little more where schools are:

…no longer siloed from the community.

Some of the key words associated with this theme are:

resources, expertise, collaborate, community, public, learning, knowledge, innovative, partners, wider community, access…

What we want is for our students and teachers to engage with expertise from our communities and expose our learners to the “messiness” (p. 49) of real life situations and learning.

Exploring these concepts as a staff we did a quick drawing exercise. I use drawing quite a bit to explore ideas and concepts with staff (a bit of a fan of Patti Dobrowolski). Our drawing task was to draw a diagram/picture that showed the teachers beliefs and concept of a modern learning environment.

Here are a few of the outcomes from the drawing and what I noticed in these drawing of these teacher’s concept of their MLE. Note that these were drawn independently with no front-loading and while there are only three here, others had similar themes.

The student sitting on top of the big demolition wrecking ball labeled ‘breaking down classroom walls’. Students ‘learning from different people at different times’.

The concept of a school as a ‘base’ for learning. The community as a ‘resource’. Working independently, collaboratively developing social learning opportunities.

Pushing down the four walls of the classroom. Opening up learning to the real world. Using a variety of tools/people/environments.

Collectively, some strong themes emerging. Breaking down the four walls of the classroom will enable our students to engage in real life learning experiences while engaging with and creating partnerships with the people and community. Wahoo, a great starting point.

The key questions is how will we make that happen? Our developing vision and curriculum will capture this on paper and this will inform other areas of development, especially our property plan. We know, from the previously mentioned research, case studies and research that through collaborative approaches from teachers, a clear focus on students and student achievement, and strategic professional leadership will provide the platform.

But… my thoughts are still revolving around the key areas of our curriculum and property development (in particular the modern learning environment) and the need to ensure they are both future focused and aligned.

So a couple of quick of “what ifs” to prompt thinking…

  1. What if your curriculum defined a MLE quite differently from the standard flexible learning space/breakout space/outdoor learning space approach?


  1. What if your curriculum and MLE definition included a focus on real life learning situations that weren’t actually based at school?

I guess this is where my tension/internal dilemma revolves. That is… that no matter what walls are knocked down, what new furniture replaces old, increased access to breakout spaces etc. all of which sit beside the pedagogy of flexible, student directed, self-regulated and personalised approaches to learning… they are still based in a school which is, whether we like it or not, still removed and somewhat isolated from the community.

I am absolutely not knocking the pedagogy of the MLE approach, I am questioning or perhaps just prompting discussion around the real nature of what a future focused property looks likes especially when it aligns to a strong authentic real life community partnership model of learning.

If your vision and curriculum were to be built around the concept of immersion in the community, exposing our students to the “messiness” of real life learning is that really going to happen with the current MLE construct?

Perhaps this quote from Stephen Heppell from this EdTalk of “we know how to make schools that don’t waste energy, but not schools that don’t waste learning” is of a similar line of thinking.

Finally however, the last word goes to Mark Osbourne from the team at CORE Education who summarises the relationship between a vision for learning and the environment for learning quite succinctly:

What is your vision for learning, what’s your school’s vision for learning, and what kinds of environments, what kinds of strategies, teaching processes, learning activities, do your students need in order to achieve that kind of learning.

Student Agency

Our writing PLD for this year is based on the underlying principal of student agency driving an improvement in student achievement. At the beginning of this development when Brian Annan was discussing the approach I was familiar with the term but not conversant nor had a deep understanding. So I needed to connect some of the dots and clarify what it was all about.

Isn’t it funny too that when an idea is emphasised like student agency, that it seems to appear everywhere now that your awareness of it is heightened. e.g.

  1. Last month listening to Mark Osbourne at the L@S Roadshow, Personalising Learning in Future-Focused Schools where agency was a key theme.
  2. The Term 2 edition of School News, where Russell Burt discusses agency as part of an article named ReTooling School [a Maniakalani story].

So what is student agency? Some quick definitions:

Russell Burt:

Agency – the power to act – informed/empowered/enabled learners

Mark Osbourne refers to the Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES):

In summary, sustained higher achievement is possible when teachers use pedagogical approaches that enable students to take charge of their own learning. Such approaches do not leave the students ‘to discover’ in an unstructured environment. Rather, they are highly structured in supporting student agency and sustained and thoughtful engagement. For example, they foster students’ abilities to define their own learning goals, ask questions, anticipate the structure of curriculum experiences, use metacognitive strategies when engaging with curriculum, and self-monitor. Pedagogies that emphasise, embed and enable metacognitive strategy-use throughout curriculum engagement for class groupings, are associated with much higher achievement and enable marked improvements for low achievers.

Raikes Foundation:

Student agency is a cluster of academic mindsets and learning strategies that have been demonstrated to advance learning and achievement. Academic mindsets are more evident in students who feel a sense of belonging in a certain subject, class or school; believe that they have the capacity to learn, and see value in their participation. Learning strategies include study skills, meta-cognition and goal-setting, competencies that help individuals persist when learning becomes challenging.

Values Centered Schools:

Student agency refers to empowering students through curriculum approaches that; engage them, are respectful of and seek their opinions, give them opportunities to feel connected to school life, promote positive and caring relationships between all members of the school community, promote wellbeing and focus on the whole student, relate to real-life experiences, are safe and supportive.

These definitions illustrate to me that agency is about student learning and teacher teaching. It is about the teacher providing the right environment, support and approaches to learning that enable learners to develop the skills and attitudes for agency to occur, and about the student being engaged in, and empowered by assuming responsibility of their learning through reflection, goal setting and a range of other self-monitoring behaviours.

Some of the key words that describe student agency for me are therefore; enabling, empowering, self-monitoring, goals, feedback, meta-cognition, active, responsive, self-directed and meaningful.

A further look at some student agency research unpacked the following Approaches to Learning Model. You can clearly see the relationship between the approaches and agency. These are further supported by additional definitions of student agency:

  1. the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices
  2. since meaning-based tasks fail to proscribe the use of particular structures, learners have to take an active role in sorting out exactly what they are learning

Student Agency and Language-Learning Processes and Outcomes in International Online Environments Olga Basharina University of New Mexico

What strikes me about this model though is that it does not take in the role of the teacher in to the equation (or maybe it does… I would need to read the full explanation from Entwistle himself). As I have stated above student agency isn’t just the responsibility of the student, the teacher and school must provide the conditions and support/model/teach in an way that provides all students with the ability to learn and demonstrate agency.

So bringing it back to where this post started, with our writing PLD. Our facilitator Rita Plamer has introduced us to Ralph Fletcher’s work and she dug out this reference to agency from the text  A Writer’s Notebook – Unlocking the Writer Within You. Being in control of their own development, i.e. their own learning – great! This surely is the core of what student agency is.

 So what does all this mean? A couple of reflective wonderings…

  1. Deliberate vs accidental… A few of you may be saying that this is what happens in your classroom all the time. Yes my students set goals, yes they are reflective. But how much of that agency is a deliberate approach i.e. If I looked at your planning and a see how you have deliberately structured your teaching to ensure the conditions and strategies are student agency productive?
  2. If student agency is a way of empowering our students, then teacher agency is just as important (through the principal leading and providing the support/conditions/opportunities) which makes principal agency equally as important (with the Board providing the support/conditions/opportunities). Is this being overly simplistic? Seems to make sense to me.
  3. One aspect that has surprised me was that there was little to no reference to student voice in the information read to date. I would have thought they go hand in hand.
  4. Most of the definitions/examples are about the individual learners, but like the excerpt above from Ralph Fletcher’s book, the social learning aspect is really important. Meaningful action could just as well be the outcome of collaboration and teamwork. If the action is a result of feedback, then that is a partnership in learning too, or does agency count when the thinking and action is done as an individual – not the process leading up to it?

Much to ponder… and more reading required.


#empowering #metacognition #Goal #meaningful #feedback #selfmonitoring #responsive #studentagency #enabling #goals #active