Changing how we think about assessment – Fostering a positive learning environment for all

Look at your learning space with 21st century eyes: Does it work for what we know about learning today, or just for what we know about learning in the past?               Sir Ken Robinson

It’s late August and a charged silence of anticipation hangs in classrooms across Ontario – but not for long! As students flick the switch and energy floods into the learning spaces, how will students, from the very young to those approaching adulthood, perceive their place within this learning environment?

What matters about fostering a positive learning environment? The physical space? learning spacesYes, that matters.How we design the space will impact how teachers and learners interact within it. Learning can be a safe and welcoming experience if students see themselves reflected in the learning environment, feel that they are part of the space, and feel ownership and agency. The learning environment  “can either enhance the kind of learning that optimizes our students’ potential to respond creatively and meaningfully to future challenges or detract from it.” The Third Teacher (2012).

The Third Space: a thinking and learning space for all

How does changing the way we think about assessment impact how we think about the learning environment?  In their book, Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century, Kuhlthau, Maniotes, and Caspari conceptualize the learning environment as three ‘spaces’.

ThreeSpacesThe authors describe the ‘first space’ as the students’ world, defined as the cultural and social knowledge of each learner. The ‘second space’ is described as the curricular space and ways of knowing; the ‘third space’ is defined as the hybrid space where interactions merge between the two.

What if the third space is reconceptualized to embrace an assessment stance where both students and educators exist within a community of learners? Within the ‘first space’ we would consider each student as “competent, capable of complex thinking, curious and rich in potential.” Dalhberg, 2007. The ‘second space’ would refer to the curricular knowledge, pedagogical expertise and life experiences of the educator(s). In the third space we would become co-learners. 

Early years educators have increasingly recognized the sophisticated capabilities of young children when given opportunities to learn challenging concepts. Secondary educators have similarly witnessed the impressive capabilities of young people by opening up opportunities for them to explore issues that matter to them.   Pedagogical Documentation Revisited, 2015.

An educator, intent on fostering a positive learning environment for all, invites every student into the third space as a learner – confident that each person has the ability to contribute and a willingness to learn from each other. The educators enters into the third space understanding that they too, will likely learn from the interactions of the group!

It is this co-learning stance that is the prerequisite for both the educator and the learner together to listen deeply, share and wrestle with ideas and meaning-making.  Students are brought into the assessment process within the third space. It’s where the assessment loop exists and thrives where…

  • Learning goals and success criteria are generated and come to life,
  • Descriptive feedback energizes growth and improvement,
  • Students become resources for each other and for themselves through peer and self-assessment,,
  • Educators gain information about student thinking and learning (i.e. assessment for learning),
  • Students reflect on and monitor their own learning then set personal goals (i.e. assessment as learning)

For Secondary Educators:

‘Is this just for elementary educators?’ An emphatic,  ‘NO’ – but this is a common misconception! As a secondary educator you are passionate about the content area(s) you teach. You want students to be passionate about the learning too! You want to increase the rigour of the course you facilitate; you want ideas and concepts to ‘stick’ over time and you want to firmly place the responsibility of learning on the shoulders of students. You have a vision of preparing students for the future where the global competencies will play heavily on their success. (And, you wouldn’t mind decreasing your marking workload!).

The concept of the third space and the interconnected elements of the assessment loop will anchor the learning from Kindergarten to Secondary classrooms. Stay tuned for future posts unpacking these elements.

The use of assessment for the purpose of improving learning and helping students become independent learners requires a culture in which student and teacher learn together in a collaborative relationship, each playing an active role in setting learning goals, developing success criteria, giving and receiving feedback, monitoring progress, and adjusting learning strategies. Growing Success, p. 30

For Administrators:

How might you ensure a third space learning stance exists at your school? How will you model a co-learning stance? What would it look like and sound like if  “teachers ‘proactively learn alongside students’ and, in turn, administrators learn ‘alongside their students and teachers.’ In both contexts, all contribute ‘their own ideas, experiences and expertise to the learning process’. Fullan & Langworthy, p.12

To learn more about an administrator’s role in this kind of learning and leading, visit Principals as Co-learners: Supporting the Promise of Collaborative Inquiry (2014)

Coming Soon: Everything you ever needed (or wanted) to know about learning goals


Capacity Building Series: The Third Teacher (2012). Pedagogical Documentation Revisited (2015). Principals as Co-learners: supporting the Promise of Collaborative Inquiry (2014). Ontario Ministry of Education.

Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., & Pence, A. (2007). Beyond quality in early childhood education: Languages of evaluation. London: Routledge.

Fullan, M., & Langworthy, A. (2014). Rich seam: How new pedagogies find deep learning. Toronto: Pearson.

Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. First Edition, Covering Grades 1 to 12, 2010. 

Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L., Caspari, A. (2007). Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century. (2007). Westport: Libraries Unlimited.


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