Sunday, May 15, 2011

Assessment: knowing right from the start

Last weekend I went to a baby shower.  It's definitely baby time - at the party there were 9 women there who have either had a baby in the last year or who are expecting to have one soon!  There was a lot of talk along the lines of "do you know if you are having a boy or a girl?"  When I had my children many years ago it wasn't possible to know this before the birth just from having a scan.  The scan I had of my son was just a static picture of a grey blob.  By the time I had my daughter there were moving pictures - but still of grey blobs and at times I would see something fuzzy and be told "that's the heart" or some such thing.  Since there was never any possibility of me knowing whether I was having a boy or a girl, I never even thought to ask.  Now I don't know what I'd do.  Would I want to know right from the start, or not?

When I started using the Backward by Design process I also found it hard to understand how we could plan the assessment at the start of the unit of inquiry.  After all, if we were inquiring, how would we know where we were going at the beginning of a unit?  And surely telling the students what the assessment would be in advance would be a bit like cheating, wouldn't it?  Now of course I've come to reject that way of thinking totally.    If students know right at the start of the unit what they are going to be assessed on, it puts the responsibility for learning onto them and lets them set their own learning goals and work towards them at their own pace and in their own way.  It does not tie down the inquiry, it gives the inquiry a real direction.

Recently in a unit about energy we wanted students to think about their responsibility for conserving energy.  We therefore decided the summative assessment would be to have the students design an energy efficient house.  Students knew upfront what the task would be, but they still had many choices.  For example we gave them the choice of where this house would be located - they could decide to have it in Denmark, in Australia or here in Switzerland.  This led to the students inquiring into what types of renewable energy would be best suited to these places - sunny places might be great for solar energy, places with lots of water and mountains might be able to generate hydro-electricity, other places might be more suited to wind energy.  Once students had made a choice of location they could then start their inquiries into what type of energy and what design of house would be best.  They could think about things like the orientation of the house, the slope of the roof, where the windows would be, what materials the house could be made of - all of these were very authentic inquiries into how best to conserve energy.

When I was at my last school in Thailand I went to a workshop organised by the Bangkok Teachers Network with Grant Wiggins.  This workshop looked at authentic assessment and I thought it would be interesting to see whether or not the assessment for the energy unit met these criteria:

  • Realistic, problem-based tasks related to what we do in the world - our assessment certainly seems to fit this as conserving energy is definitely a "hot topic" in many countries
  • Requires judgement, innovation, knowledge and skills - all of these were part of the assessment
  • Asks students to "do" the subject - students worked as "architects" on the computer using SketchUp and/or as "builders" to actually make models of the houses using a variety of different materials
  • Allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources and get feedback on their performances or products - students all practiced using SketchUp, had an opportunity to meet an architect and had a tour of a new building
Throughout the unit the class teachers made it clear to the students what an excellent project would look like.  Students knew upfront the criteria that would be used to judge whether or not their work was outstanding and that what we were looking for was knowledge, skills and creativity, not just that everyone would end up with something that looked similar.

At the end of this assessment a number of students actually said they would like to become architects.  Of course many of them may change their minds, but once again if they know now, right from the start, what they want to do in the future then they can start working towards that goal.

Photo Credit:  Finish/Start by Anne  AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

1 comment:

  1. This was an authentic performance assessment BUT we all felt, the teachers of the unit, that the kids recounted much of what they had picked up from their tour of the new school building with the architect when designing their houses. This was evident upon further probing and discussions with the kdis.

    In looking at the unit next year we will definitely look at the central idea again as it did not address conservation of energy and we may have to inquire more into building design and construction.

    This, has its own considerations; it narrows the unit down and so we may have to look at how we can address the idea of conservation of energy so the kids can APPLY what they learned to a new or unfamiliar setting not regurgitate learned facts.

    One possibility is to have more specific formative assessments and scientific inquiry - eg. design a model to conserve heat - where might this be applied/how might this be applied in a house/building etc?

    A few thoughts for next year.