Learning and Self-Assessment: Hoops or Authenticity?
by Greg Gerber, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊
I’d like to ask you a question. After you read it in the next paragraph, would you take a moment to pause and consider your answer before you read further?
During your academic career as a student, did you ever reach the conclusion that various engagements in school amounted to jumping through hoops or playing the game of schooling? If so, what experiences brought you to taking that perspective?
I have yet to encounter an educator, or anyone else for that matter, who does not recall some schooling phenomenon that caused them to consider aspects of their education as a game or a hoop. Most often, when this question is floated, there is no shortage of storytelling and associated outbursts about learned components of the game, jumping through hoops, or assertations of how some school experiences amounted simply to a joke. Some tell of how they learned to size up instructors so that they could produce what the teacher wanted to hear to receive good grades. Others spin yarns about how making a good impression with early assignments was the key to receiving subsequent high grades by instructors who grade by intuition, or worse, by name. And, others talk about making calculated judgements on what to hand in, or what to not bother handing in, based on arithmetic weighting and the effect it might have on their final grade.
Whatever the stories that unify people around the impression that aspects of schooling and coursework amounted to hoop jumping, I have never heard a teacher suggest that they wanted their students to come to this perspective. Most educators desire deep learning experiences for their students through authentic curricular engagements. Yet in spite of educators’ desires for authenticity, so many students come to the belief that hoop jumping is a matter-of-fact component of school. Why is this?
One way of looking at this is to consider that the notion of hoop jumping might well be the opposite of authentic learning. Activities or elements of being educated that lack connection with the learning a student considers germane quickly contribute to a negative perspective of what one might call the personal gamification of school, which breeds disconnect. Disconnect grows when learning is not authentic, when a concept or content engagement is not perceived as relevant or is incongruent with an individual’s conceptual system of understanding knowledge – of how knowledge is represented and how it is used – or when assessments do not align with learning targets.
Stating that an educator’s goal should centre on facilitating authentic student learning is nothing new and is referenced time and time again in the tomes of educational research literature written during the past 150 years. Despite this acknowledged and embraced near universal goal being held by educators, the common narrative of school presenting a series of hoops students must jump through persists. So how might we, now, do better in aligning our goal for authentic learning with classroom practice?
First, we have to acknowledge that learning is an inherently human, and unique, enterprise. New learning is entirely contingent upon one’s previous understandings and conceptual constructs for how information is related. Making connections between discrete bits of information is as unique to the individual as snowflakes are to the snow storm, and these connections necessarily affect how that individual further organizes and builds knowledge and understanding. But this is not a comforting thought for most educators. When we acknowledge the uniqueness of how students learn, we quickly realize that methods for helping students learn will not be one-size-fits-all. Orchestrating a single learning activity will not, in any way, guarantee that all students learn because we simply cannot take into account all students’ unique learning needs and personal frameworks. Instead, where authentic learning engagements are the goal, teachers must embrace the diverse ways students learn and find ways to empower students to intentionally develop and increase their personal understanding of their unique and specific learning competency strengths. Eisner says it this way, allowing students “to play to their strengths fly in the face of assumptions about uniformity . . . The good school . . . does not diminish individual differences; it increases them. It raises the mean and increases the variance.”1
The difficulty with a directive stating that teachers must embrace all learning differences is that, while trumpeting an obvious educational utopia, it does little to provide any clarity around practice; and here lies a significant strength in the requirement for student reflection and self-assessment within the modernized BC education plan.
Personal reflection and assessment within a greater context of being aware of what proficiency or competency looks like are fundamental aspects of authentic learning. To facilitate effective reflective practice in a competency domain, the teacher plays an instrumental role in helping students increase their awareness and ability to articulate what it means to be competent in the given learning area. By building a common language and conceptual understanding of what increased proficiency and the progressions toward increased proficiency look like (shared among teachers and students), students are better able to gauge their own skills and abilities within the domain of competency. Then, in turn, students are better equipped to articulate clear performance targets for themselves following accurate consideration of their current proficiency attainment.
Where the Core Competencies are concerned a teacher has no role in, nor responsibility for, assessing students. Instead, teachers should focus on encouraging students to consider what it looks like to validate a personal assessment of competency and acknowledge that students will not grow in all competency areas at the same time or rate. Consistent with how people learn, students will grow their competencies uniquely and should be encouraged to report on areas where they see and can point to evidence of growth in a Core Competency area. Schools should not assume that students will grow significantly in each area every year and as such, should not require students to self-assess and report on all of the competency areas.
Think about this. If a student does not feel that they grew significantly in a certain core competency area but is then required to report on personal growth, what might the outcome be? Most probably, the student will meet the school requirement by writing something, but the process would lack authenticity and inevitably yield another unintended academic hoop.
Educators in BC have been presented with an educational architecture that supports and encourages increased authentic learning and reflection as facilitated by the requirement for students to self-assess on their growth in the Core Competency domains. As we embrace this requirement, it is imperative that we continuously evaluate the structures and processes we put in place for how our students interact with the call to self-assess on the Core Competency areas to determine if they promote hoop jumping or authenticity.
Elliot W. Eisner in “The Uses and Limits of Performance Assessment,” 1999