A New School Year is Starting…

If you’re not in planning mode yet, you soon will be. And this year your planning will be impacted by thoughts of the past 18 months, a rollercoaster of pivots from in-school to online or hybrid learning situations.

“He doesn’t have the skills.”

“They’re not ready for this grade.”

“There are gaps in her learning.”

If you haven’t been thinking this yourself, you’ve probably heard or read some version of these statements. In the group of 25 or so students that you will have in front of you on the first day of school, there will be students who have had, to put it mildly, a variety of learning experiences, and varying amounts of growth (or lack of growth) in that time.  How might we possibly meet their needs?

The answer of course is … assessment*. In order to determine what actions need to be taken to move learning forward, we need information, and that is done through the assessment process. Notice we said ‘process’. 

The assessment process happens over time, not as a single event. It involves designing open, deep learning experiences and tasks that simultaneously promote learning and allow the learner to demonstrate their current level of understanding and skill. The learning is observed and discussed, and in that process, both the learner and the teacher become aware of the learner’s strengths, and directions for next steps in learning.

It would be tempting to give a battery of tests to determine what learners don’t know, and what they can’t do, but this is a very ‘deficit’ focussed view of learning. So is conversation about ‘gaps’ in learning. Why not just determine what they do know, and what they are able to do at the beginning of this school year, and pick up from there?

The benefits of this approach are immense. Rather than focusing on what the learner can’t do, this approach supports the development of a growth mindset – the idea that “I am a capable learner, and with effort on my part, and help from my teacher, I’m going to grow my knowledge and skills”.

It is true that you’ll have students who are not at ‘grade level’ – those that don’t have, for whatever reason, the requisite knowledge and skills so that the curriculum expectations for the grade they are starting in September don’t align with their current level of understanding. 

One last thought, and a call to action:

The Ontario curriculum is written to identify a progression of knowledge and skills over the course of learning from Kindergarten to Grade 12. While most students will follow that progression relatively closely aligned with the timing identified over that period, some will learn faster, and others, for a variety of reasons, will lag behind at times. Let’s meet students where they are currently, and help them move forward. We have heard teachers express fear of ‘dumbing down the curriculum’, but we whole-heartedly disagree with that view. What we are doing is providing learners, wherever they are in the learning progression, with the instruction and experiences to move forward and make gains. When given the chance, and with appropriate challenge, learners demonstrate amazing resiliency in their capacity to learn!

In our next posts, we’ll provide some examples of alternatives to testing … stay tuned.

*We use the word assessment as defined in Ontario policy: to gather information about a learner’s achievement of the curriculum expectations for the purposes of providing feedback to the learner and making decisions about instruction. We are not talking about evaluation: the process of looking at evidence of learning, making a judgement about the quality of learning and assigning a grade or mark.

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