Feeding the Baby
Turns out there’s a name for all that weird stuff I make my students do like creating games about the Odyssey or reviewing their writers’ notebooks to make observations about their own learning. It’s called formative assessment.
This is not to be confused with summative assessment, which, like a summary, occurs at the end. The very end, as in, after all the learning has taken place. It tends to look like a standardized test. There are right and wrong answers, and it is meticulously scored. Bubble tests may, in some cases, measure learning. But they certainly don’t promote it.
Formative assessment, on the other hand, means kids grow even while the teacher gains valuable information about their skills or understanding. This kind of assessment fosters a student-centered classroom, as opposed to a standards-driven classroom.
Here are some characteristics of a student-centered classroom.
1. It’s fun. Playing games, performing skits, and low-stakes competition get kids engaged. They laugh. They take ownership. They’re ambitious and creative. Time flies.
2. It’s interactive. Kids feed off one another’s energy. They collaborate. They share, revise and compromise. The give and take of the group produces something greater than what one kid alone could do.
3. It’s multimodal. Information is being delivered on all channels: verbally, visually, musically, whatever. There’s often a kinesthetic element: kids and desks move. It can get noisy.
4. It de-emphasizes grades. There are lots of chances to get it right. Big tasks are broken into smaller ones. Process is valued as well as product; every student who is productively engaged gets rewarded.
Here are some characteristics of formative assessment in a student-centered classroom.
1. It’s ongoing. Kids don’t always know it’s happening; and teachers aren’t always trying to distill it to a number.
2. It’s dialogic. Evaluation is characterized by dialogue; standards are often negotiated, rather than handed down. The discussion about value is as important as the assigning of value; and even that is a task frequently done by self- and peer-assessment.
3. There is a feedback loop. The teacher often assumes a coaching role. Low-risk practice leads to perfect.
4. It’s metacognitive. Self-reflection is cultivated so that a learner can understand how he learned, not just what was learned. Every student becomes their own teacher.
An old saw in education goes, “We should spend more time feeding the baby than weighing the baby.” This wisdom has been lost in today’s test-mad climate. To survive and thrive, babies need food, sleep, and a loving touch. Weighing is just one way for parents and doctors to monitor growth. Certainly, the weighing itself is not the goal of raising the child. Want a classroom full of happy, healthy kids? Let’s put away the scales and concentrate on their needs, not our own.