Category Archives: Assessment

Differentiation vs. the Time Villain

I am going through a cycle in my own learning where I am taking in lots of information and trying to process it as I construct meaning and make connections across a few different related concepts. My mind is sifting and sorting as I try to learn and ultimately, grow both personally and professionally. As I try to inquire into each, I can’t help but make big connections as I explore these concepts individually and in tandem. I have lots of notes on all three and loads of ideas…but my understanding is still growing even though I’ve been at it for months. My inquiry, ideas and thinking are in process, but they are not at the point where I could possibly articulate the new understandings that I am building.

So, my current state has got me pondering and wondering about meaningful learning and the timing of summative assessments. What of the learner who is still making connections and processing their understanding and somehow they are supposed to complete a summative assessment because it’s “the end” of a unit? I was very provoked and inspired by the extremely reflective and insightful blog post recently shared by Sam Sharrett on summative assessments. Recently, I also participated in a webinar hosted by Rick Wormelli. Wormelli got me wondering when he questioned the mixed signals we are sending in the “rush to quantify learning”. I am wondering this: if differentiation is integral to teaching and learning, why is it typical practise to give the summative assessment to all learners at the same time? Even if we are differentiating the task, what if the timing isn’t right for some or all learners? How do we differentiate time in a system where time is often portrayed as the finite villain? It bothers me that the program of inquiry can become like a series of Amazing Race episodes, with learners racing from one line of inquiry to the next with the hopes of making it the big conceptual aha/final destination– except in this case, there is no million dollar prize at the end – just teachers scratching their heads and students lining up to start the race all over again when the next unit begins. And furthermore, how many of our students are eliminated during the race because they run out of time?

I must say that one of the big frustrations that I felt when I was in in the classroom full time, and one that has been shared with me countless times by colleagues and other educators I’ve worked with as a PYP workshop leader is the constraints that 6 transdisciplinary themes in one school year puts on learning. Is the requirement for learners to experience all 6 transdisciplinary themes REALLY about the learner? Six linear units with fairly firm start and end dates on the curricular clock doesn’t give the learner who isn’t ready to move on yet the time they may need to let their learning percolate. What about the learner who can’t process all that rich conceptual information within a 4-6 time-frame? Units of inquiry have a way of marching forward, one unit wrapping up as the other is ready to begin…the relentless calendar reminding us that a school year is finite and that learners must move on, ready or not.

I hope that as the IB revisits the PYP over the coming months that serious consideration will be given to making learning more flexible within the PYP curricular framework. The framework needs some refreshing – it’s been 15 years with no change – except some minor tweaks to a couple of theme names. While I appreciate the value of each unique transdisciplinary theme, I do believe that “coverage” of all six themes across one school year is not always learner centred and can actually be counter-productive to the heart of the best-practise inquiry based pedagogy that the PYP is built on. Schools should be able to make more flexible choices about the ebb and flow of units and which themes are best suited to learners at different developmental stages. Instead of a rigid matrix, perhaps some clear guidelines about minimum criteria around planning curriculum within the framework might help alleviate some of the crunch I know many teachers, and as a result, learners feel. This might give learners who need time to truly explore and inquire into and across transdisciplinary concepts the time they need to process, consolidate, apply and maybe even really have the time to take meaningful action for and from their learning.

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Taking the Time to Learn From Mistakes

We’ve recently returned from our winter holiday and things are back in full swing after a couple of very low-key and low-tech weeks off. Over the holiday I took up a hobby I tried years ago and abandoned – knitting. Just before the holiday my husband asked me to knit him a very particular style of scarf. I think in hindsight that his motivation was two fold- he wants a scarf, and he wanted me to have something to do that would force me to relax/sit still over the holiday. It’s been about three years since I’ve knit anything so I was very reluctant to take it up again. I do not consider myself a skilled knitter, even though I had completed some “challenging to me” projects at the height of my prior foray into knitting. What on earth does knitting have to do with learning or teaching? Well, quite a lot. Stick with me!
The scarf my husband asked me to knit required that I not only reacquaint myself with basic knitting technique (preparing), but that I also learn a stitch I’d never done before and learn how to join two different colours to make stripes . So, knitting needles and yarn in hand, I hopped onto YouTube and started watching how to videos until I found some that appealed to my learning style (exploring).
In “retroflection” I can now admit that the main reason why I gave up knitting 3 years ago was because I couldn’t handle making mistakes and having to undo my work or start again. What a colossal waste of time and how very frustrating! As I began this new project, I also began making those dreaded mistakes again. But this time, I am not giving up. Thanks in part to the influence of the work of Carol Dueck and Brene Brown on both my professional and personal mindsets over this past year, and because of the fact that I am motivated to complete this project for my husband. To date, I’ve restarted the scarf 8 times! I’ve put at least 5 hours just into making mistakes and learning from them as I start over, yet again (processing). I am finally at the point where I am making steady progress and can see the results of taking the time needed to learn from my mistakes and start over. This has taken a lot of commitment and perseverance, and positive self-talk as I assess my progress and plan next steps (transferring).
Knitting is a quiet activity, and so my mind has wandered and wondered with each stitch and row. I am 67 rows in, and although I have over 900 rows left, I know what the end looks like (backwards design!) and that keeps me motivated. I know I will make lots more mistakes. I might have to undo a row, or let a mistake slip, or even (gasp!) start over again. That’s okay, because I am giving myself the space to learn because I actually WANT to improve and finish what I started. It may take a while. That’s okay too. My husband husband knows he might not wear this scarf until next winter. (He’s okay with that – I warned him this will take time!)
So now I’m wondering:

  • How often do we stop to ensure that the experiences we plan for will allow learners (that includes ourselves!) the time they need to make mistakes and have the space for do-overs, if needed?
  • What supports/safe guards do we put in place in the planning process to ensure learners have the time to work through frustrations and come out the other side where they can look back and truly reflect on their growth and progress over time?
  • How often are we giving meaningful feedback that is relevant to teachable moments in the inquiry cycle?

In my role as a curriculum coordinator, the number one frustration I hear again and again is that there is just never enough time to get it all done.

  • How often do we pull back so that we can go deeper? (or are we running in the endless race against “never enough time”?

When I was a child, I never really understood what the teacher meant when he or she said “it’s about depth not breadth, and quality is more important than quality.” Now more than ever I do – it really is the less is more principle  being put into practice. Dueck asserts that real growth and progress takes effort. Brown asserts that growth takes vulnerability – having the courage to show up and be seen. Effort + vulnerability = growth, one mistake or do-over at a time. Now that’s good math!

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My knitting project…to date!