We’ve never really understood the reasoning behind asking students to produce a title page at the beginning of a unit. Even more curious, a grade is often assigned to this work. From an assessment perspective, this strategy seems unfair. Judging work done at the beginning of a unit where information and skills are likely brand new seems counterintuitive to establishing a learning environment based on a growth mindset. Who does well? Usually a student who already has background knowledge will be able to produce a satisfactory representation; a student who needs the learning experiences may be stumped!
Returning to school this year will be different than any other year. More than ever before, educators need to devise strategies that provide information about what a student already knows in order to move learning forward.
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. (New School Year is Starting: Harnessing the Power of Assessment, 2021)
If not a traditional title page to signal the beginning of a learning period, then what? How might a similar task be introduced to reveal what a student already knows about specific content? Consider introducing a ‘concept map’ that will be reviewed throughout the learning sequence. This is a task that can show growth over time and will support both students and educators through a metacognitive assessment process.
At the beginning of a learning sequence (i.e unit), respectfully acknowledging that students have prior learning related to a wide variety of topics and experiences, an educator may ask students, “What do you already think you know about [insert concept or introduce the learning goal]? Use a large piece of paper or a digital tool to chart ideas using words, sketches or images. Think of this task as ‘an entrance card’ so we can dive into learning together.”
Rather than grading this representation, an educator examines this work to inform their instructional decision-making (i.e. assessment for learning). Does this one student (or perhaps all students) already possess considerable knowledge or very little background knowledge? Do students have the content vocabulary to express ideas? Are there misconceptions or biases being uncovered?
With this starting point established the educator designs learning experiences to build shared understanding of the learning goals. Periodically students are asked to revisit their concept map and to review their initial thinking. “What would you add, revise or delete based on your understanding at this point of time? Use a different colour to show your thinking changing over time.” This map can be reviewed close to the end of a period of learning to allow students to reflect on their learning (i.e. assessment as learning).
Better learning will not come from finding better ways for the teacher to instruct but giving the learner better opportunity to construct. (Mary Lee Barton, workshop notes, 2002)
An Example: Ontario Grade 10 History
How might the strategy of a concept map work as an effective tool to gather information about what learners know and can do? Consider this example from the Ontario Grade 10 History course where the four concepts of historical thinking (i.e. historical significance, cause and consequence, continuity and change, and historical perspective) are foundational principles:
The educator shows four primary source photos (e.g. women working in a munitions factory, soldiers on the battlefield during WWI, Indigenous students at a residential school, a family watching a black and white television screen). The educator asks, “What do you notice? What do you already know about this event or period of time?” Completed individually or in partnership, this strategy kindles interest in the learning goals as well as providing relevant information related to students’ prior knowledge.
Possible learning goals may include:
- We are learning to use the historical inquiry process and the concepts of historical thinking when investigating aspects of Canadian history since 1914.
- We are learning to investigate how the lives and struggles of different individuals, groups, and communities helped shape Canada between 1914 to 1929.
- We are learning to assess the short- and long-term consequences of Canadians’ participation in WWI.
- We are learning how policies and practices of the federal government over time impacted Indigenous families and children with the implementation of residential schools.
- We are learning to identify and assess the significance of major developments in science and/or technology in Canada during 1945-1980.
As the learning continues over several days or weeks, the educator uses the concept map as an artefact, asking “What are we learning? Add, remove or edit information as needed to reveal your thinking and demonstrate the connections you are making.” As the educator and learners consider the answer to this question (what are we learning), success criteria will surface and can be recorded. Closer to the end of the unit or course, the concept map may be used to review and reflect on fundamental concepts or can be used to support a culminating task.
In effect, while we have framed this example as one related to secondary history, this fundamental task can be used in the same way with any curriculum, in any grade.
One last thought, and a call to action:
A concept map is one way to assess the prior learning of students but it is so much more than that. We feel it is a powerful tool to build relational trust and confidence between the students, classmates and the educator. When students are confident that this artefact, which was edited, refined and augmented over time, represents their evolving thinking and will not be used for judgment or evaluation, then these meaning-making learning experiences become precious and valued by students. More than ever before, students returning to school this year need to regain a sense of control and certainty that they can draw meaningful connections to their own lives and to the community – past, present and future.
In the comment box below, share a strategy or tool you have used in the past or will try for the first time this fall that empowers students to reveal their thinking.
Flewelling, G. , Higginson, W. (2002). Realizing a Vision of Tomorrow’s Classroom: A Handbook on Rich Learning Tasks: Queen’s University, Kingston.
Billmeyer, R. & Barton, ML. (1998). Teaching Reading in the Content Areas: If not me, then who? McREL, Colorado.