Feeding My Illusion – Rethinking Assessment

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.” – Daniel J. Boorstin.

I have to confess that I never really understood what other teachers meant when they said: “My students taught me more than I taught them.” I just wrote it off as a nicety. I mean, what’s going on in your classroom if you are learning more than your students? This year I found out. I got schooled.

My students helped me take the first steps towards becoming the teacher I genuinely want to be. I’ve been performing the role of teacher for a dozen years, but it wasn’t me, it was the part I thought I was supposed to play. I was the most important person in the room. Hard but fair. The dispenser of knowledge and the gate-keeper of grades. Setting high standards and strict deadlines. Collecting rich data and comprehensive evidence of learning from which to measure on all of the young learners that passed through our classroom.

Early this year, I set a new record, even for me. During a meeting with a parent of a new student, I asserted, entirely off the cuff, that we should probably ignore grading and focus on growth because this student was unlikely to pass many subjects. Nine months before a final grade needed to be reported, I was confidently predicting the outcomes of a learner I scarcely knew beyond previous reports and standardised testing results. Judge, jury, executioner.

That comment slowly ate away at me for weeks.

Over the previous few years, I had slowly isolated myself within the confines of my practice, safe in the illusion that after ten years of teaching, I finally knew what I was doing, and that I knew my students. I fed that illusion on a healthy diet of summative assessments and standardised test results. I sought to frequently measure learning and held tight to the data and subjective grading that confirmed my judgements.

The sad thing is, I wasn’t wrong. In fact, I was entirely accurate. Every grade that was “earned” was a fair and thorough reflection of that student’s achievement in that environment. The problem was, I didn’t create a level playing field. I didn’t create conditions where every student could succeed. It was fine for most kids, but every year there was a couple of students who “failed”. The kid who missed huge chunks of school because they were secretly helping to raise younger siblings. The undiagnosed ASD student. The learner who put up a brave front, but whose home life was an utter mess. But the failure was mine. I failed to understand the depth of their struggles. I asked them to bend to fit a system that couldn’t accommodate their needs. I let them down, and it hangs on my conscience. I remember these failures because it drives me towards my new better. They serve as fuel. A deep-seated desire to create an environment where every single child can succeed. Ideological? Maybe. But I’m all in.

This leads me to Lynton, a year six student who joined our class this year from another school. His accompanying file labelled him as lazy and often distracted. He is neither. What he is, however, is a powerful learner. This week, the last of our school year, I challenged students to share a reflection that might impact another person: a teacher, parent, classmate, friend etc. Even on the last day, when most of his mates were rightfully goofing around, Lynton was chipping away at this piece of writing.

Dear Report Cards,

I’m just a few days away from moving into year 7. I’m writing this because I have something to tell you: You suck. You have been lying to me for at least the last three years. You’ve told me over and over again that I’m a D student in English. But you’re wrong; I’m not.
This year, I’m a B student.

I’ve made a B because I have a teacher that understands me. He didn’t concentrate on testing. This is good because I don’t do well on tests, and I think they are unfair for some children. I don’t know why, but sometimes when I start a test, I forget everything. I know other kids that do the same.

I earned a B because my teacher focused on the bottom of my iceberg. All the work that I did across the year, the revisions I completed, and all the progress that I made. The most important part of my iceberg is the time and effort I put into it. You need to find time to make the bottom because without a strong base; you can’t have success at the top.

Now, I know for a fact that I can’t spell. The only reason you can easily read this is because of my best friend, spell check. My spelling difficulties make my hand-writing hard to read. In the past, I’ve done most of my writing in a textbook without revisions. So, of course I was going to get a D.

Having access to technology has changed my world. Being able to type my work and click on a red line to fix a wrong word has suddenly made my work correct. Feedback is another extremely helpful tool. When I was stuck or when I’m just finished, I used feedback to fix the things that were wrong or to add things that I may not have thought of. Feedback is an awesome tool!

I know I don’t need to show you the Curriculum because you’ve seen it. But I’m looking at it right now and spelling only appears in one box out of about 20 (phonics and word knowledge). Is it fair to say that a child’s writing is D worthy when the main problem with it is the spelling? When you get past that, it could be really good. So don’t judge a book by its cover. Unlike you, report cards, this year my teacher took that one box for what it is. Small.

The grade game is a big thing. Throughout the year every teacher and student will play it. This year we changed the game, and we changed our classroom. I was able to get feedback all the time. I was able to use technology. I learned to self-assess. I had time to revise and check my work which made my writing better. Because I showed evidence of growth and learning, I became a B student.

One of my biggest takeaway from working with Lynton is that he didn’t need to change, the system did. The potential to succeed and impact others existed within him; he just wasn’t provided with the opportunity to express it. I’m reminded of the quote, accredited to Albert Einstein, that regularly circulates social media:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

As we sifted through some of his old report cards, we laughed at some truths that remain, but also got a little fired up at other comments about ‘trying harder’ and ‘finishing homework’, as though these things alone would help the fish up the tree. But I had a confession to make. I also would’ve given Lynton a D grade for English in every other year but this one.

In the past, I’ve tested in isolation from authentic context. I often only provided feedback after learning had ended, so it mostly went ignored. Students rarely re-submitted assignments to improve their grade because, by the time I had returned their work, we had already moved on. I didn’t create enough opportunities for students to reflect on learning and provided little in the way of authentic voice or choice. We chewed through the curriculum at break-neck speed. If students didn’t get something, too bad, maybe next time. I gave zeroes for missed work. I valued what I assessed when I should’ve been assessing what I valued. I am embarrassed by my ignorance but happy that I have since moved on from these practices.

In these conditions, Lynton is a “D” level learner. He will continue to find high-stakes standardised tests like NAPLAN challenging, but when provided with time, feedback, opportunities to revise, and support via technology (he likes Google Docs and Grammarly), Lynton has proven just how influential his voice is. And he has plenty of friends. For the first time in my career, every student passed English. Every. Single. Student. I can attribute most of this success to my digital PLN on Twitter who have invariably challenged my thinking and been a constant source of support and resources.

Previously, I had mostly participated in sporadic, often irrelevant, drip-fed professional development which merely served to maintain the status quo. I had little agency over my own learning and honestly, did little to remedy this. Discovering a community of incredible educators online was a watershed moment. Isolated no more, the floodgates opened. The previous drip of professional development turned to a flood of ideas, information and inspiration. I have been able to surround myself with a group of educators who are far better at my job that I am. I will be forever grateful for their impact on my teaching.

One of the biggest changes I made this year was “going gradeless”. Getting rid of grades was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made in the classroom. It just made sense to me. Replacing those grades with genuine student voice, authentic assessment, quality feedback etc. has been the biggest challenge of my career. In lieu of grades, we co-designed learning, developed real collaboration skills, began to self and peer-assess, and experimented with various types of technology and processes aimed at increasing workflow and feedback.

For the final three terms, I didn’t give a single grade. We assessed learning constantly, but grades just weren’t part of our equation. However, our school is mandated to report an A-E letter grade twice a year, so on our final report cards, students self-reported their grade and effort rating in a range of subjects based on portfolios of evidence they had assembled during the semester. In English, Lynton only spent about 30 minutes compiling his work samples, because his proof of growth and achievement was undeniable.

Lynton gave himself a B, and he earned it. He used every bit of feedback. Revised. Re-submitted. Over and over. He sought feedback when his work was 30%, and 60% completed, not after he finished He also taught some higher-achieving peers a powerful lesson. A few classmates, who were perennial A and B level achievers, were left scrambling to evidence their grades because, at times, they had phoned-in their learning. These students fed their illusion with the knowledge that, after seven years of playing the game of school, they knew the rules and knew how to succeed. When the game changed, guess who they turned to for help. Yep, Lynton.

It became clear as Lynton was writing that this was a compelling story. A lesson that I wish I had learned far earlier in my career. Judging from the reaction online, his writing has also resonated with many others. Pretty good for a kid who is bad at English. Thanks for reading.

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