I've had several anguished conversations with friends in the past few weeks. These are people with young children, particularly boys, who are watching their kids disengage from school, start to feel anxious about school, begin to dislike school. Whereas backpacks and shoes used to fly on in the morning, now they have to coax and cajole to get their kids out the door. They feel powerless to change the classroom environment and they are desperate for their kids to feel successful and happy at school. They are at their wits' end.
What's happening? I have one word: assessment. Assessment is happening to these kids. Assessment is the reason that teachers have all kids sitting at desks doing the same task at the same time in the same way. Their success on that task is assessed based on whether they're doing it the 'right' way. This is the way assessment gets done in many classrooms.
So let's talk about assessment for a few minutes.
How do you assess student learning? What tools do you use? What data do you consider relevant and what data do you exclude? Does assessment information only count when it comes nicely packaged on a piece of paper?
Here's an example:
I was in a kindergarten class earlier this week. I noticed a little girl lining up dominoes on a cookie sheet.
As she finished, I approached her and said:
"I like the way you've arranged those dominoes."
She replied: "They're not dominoes, they're cookies."
"Oh", I responded, "can I have one?"
She nodded and I took the cookie at the top of the left-hand row.
I pretended to eat it and asked if I could have another. Pointing at the row from which I had taken my cookie, she said: "You have to eat this one first."
I asked: "I have to eat the whole row?"
She replied while pointing at each row on the cookie sheet: "Yes, this is the first row, this is the second, this is the third, this is the fourth, and this is the fifth row."
We have a curriculum expectation in Ontario related to understanding ordinal numbers in Kindergarten. It reads: "As children progress through the Full-Day Early Learning–Kindergarten program, they use ordinal numbers in a variety of everyday contexts."
Clearly, this little girl understands what ordinal numbers are and knows how to use them. For me, this photo and conversation sample is all the assessment data I would need to feel confident that she is progressing well in this regard. The idea that I would need to stop her play, sit her down, and formally assess her on this expectation using a paper and pencil task is ridiculous to me; why wouldn't information from her play be enough?
I don't have an answer to that question.
What I do know is that we are imperiling student engagement on the altar of assessment and it's a completely unnecessary sacrifice. There is lots of good data out there; children show us all the time how much they're learning, in all of their 100 languages. We just have to be open to seeing it.