Thursday, April 7, 2011

Integrating Understanding by Design and Differentiated Instruction: focusing on the learning

The only way we can truly know what our students have learned, what they have understood, and what they still need to understand is with formative and summative assessment.  As teachers this should inform our teaching too, so that we can effectively differentiate.  Tomlinson and McTighe refer to effective assessment as a photo album, not just a snapshot of where a particular student is at a set time.  Reliable evidence of learning will involve using more than one assessment, more than just an end of unit test, and because our students vary in the way they prefer to show their learning and understanding it's important to assess in a variety of ways.

While it's easy to assess knowledge, it's harder to assess understanding.  Knowledge of basic facts is something you either know or you don't.  Assessing understanding is more a matter of seeing where a student is on a continuum and will often involve a student being able to apply the knowledge to a new situation.  This is where choice is very important:  some students may prefer to show this understanding by doing or making something, some may prefer to give an oral or written report, others may like to use something more visual.  To really assess understanding the student will need to make a choice of which way best shows their learning.  Tomlinson and McTighe state:  A totally standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to classroom assessment may be efficient, but it is not "fair" because any chosen format will favor some students and penalize others.  Recently when our Grade 3s were designing energy efficient buildings as part of their summative assessment for Sharing the Planet, they had the choice of making a model of a building and then photographing the model or designing it using Sketch Up.  There was also a booklet where students could write about the energy sources used to power their building, the materials they would use for building and tips for making their houses more energy efficient.

I've often thought that formative assessment is more important than summative assessment as it allows for feedback and the students can then adjust what they are doing and improve.  For the Grade 3 summative assessment students worked on the house design throughout the week.  They could get help and advice from their homeroom teacher as well as from me from an IT or design technology perspective.  We could ask them questions which would prompt them to think further about what they were doing.

The approach to this unit of inquiry and its focus was completely different from last year.  I think both the teachers and the students were all learners in this unit.

Photo Credit:  Selection 1 by Jim Manka-Taylor

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