Tag Archives: Summative 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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Chaos in the world brings uneasiness, but it also allows the opportunity for creativity and growth.” Tom Barrett

Our Grade 5s are currently inquiring into the concept of sound and its environmental and technological applications. As a part of their inquiry they’ve visited some concert halls to explore how sound is used in a carefully designed space for a specific purpose. As we collaborated in the creation of this new unit in our program we wondered how much the students would really understand beyond the traditional sound basics. Exploring the applications of sound opened the possibilities up quite wide and with 10 and 11 year old learners, we wanted them not only to understand the science of sound – those aspects of sound that don’t change, but also come to appreciate that sound can be harnessed and the harnessing of sound pushes people to new limits, boundaries and change. The summative assessment involves the students planning, designing, constructing and presenting some sort of concert/presentation space. This afternoon I strolled into Grade 5 and landed in the most beautiful form of learning chaos – students spread out across the room surrounded by plans and construction materials. The chatter in the room was buoyant as they created their own masterpieces and inspired each other with their creativity and knowledge. Words like “acoustic baffling” and “resonance” were common place as they truly had become one with their task. Every material chosen had a specific purpose connecting back to enhancing the sound they hoped their space would create. Ideas ranged from traditional to downright innovative. My favorite was a dual purpose flip stage – on one side the stage was padded so that gymnasts and acrobats could perform daring feats to music; on the other side the stage floor was wood and Neil Diamond (a girl after my own heart) was perched in the center ready to belt out “Sweet Caroline.” Inquiry is a beautiful thing – and sometimes, beautiful things require chaos before they emerge.  Learning should get messy, and as educators, we need to make sure that we provide a classroom community where that happens on a regular basis. When we step back and provide a learning environment that invites problem solving, innovation, and creativity learning becomes vibrant in ways we never dreamed!