For some reason I was thinking about one of my undergraduate classes today and a question that the professor asked us. He asked, “What would every teacher love to know about their students before school began?” It is an interesting question and I will admit that no one in our class was able to give the answer that the professor was looking for. Of course, all of us in the class had never taught a day in our lives, and were just beginning to learn the ins and outs of education. Yet when the professor gave his correct answer, I don’t believe I totally understood. You see, the professor said that every teacher would love to know what each student knows and understands so that the teacher wouldn’t have to waste time going over material that the student already comprehends. At that point in my life, I truly did not understand teaching and learning and did not appreciate what a teacher does every day. Today, I feel I still don’t totally understand teaching and learning, but I attempt to increase my knowledge daily, and I am beginning to appreciate that answer that he gave years ago.
Just imagine, everyday your students come into your classroom and hand you an index card that shows what each student knows and understands, or if we are using our imaginations, before every student goes to bed, they send you an email or a text listing all of the information they know and just for kicks they also include their misconceptions. Think about the power that would come from that knowledge of your students! You could base all of your lesson plans on your students’ prior knowledge and set up activities for each individual child to ensure that everyone is growing and learning. Of course, this only happens in our wildest fantasies (man, if this is my wildest fantasy, I am a nerdy teacher), and all of our students come with different levels of understanding, different amounts of prior knowledge, and of course distinct misinformation that have created misconceptions that are harder to get rid of than herpes (ok, not my best example, but I hope you get my point). So what are teachers supposed to do? You guessed it; attempt to determine what each student knows through formative assessment.
As easy as it sounds to use formative assessments, I truly believe that this is the area where most teachers are at a loss. When I talk about formative assessment, I am thinking of the following definition: “assessment(s) carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning” (Shepard, Hammerness, Darling-Hammond, & Rust, 2005, p. 275). In my experience most educators do not truly understand what formative assessments are or how to use them. I think that this issue for teachers has occurred for a couple different reasons. For one, teachers have to collect so many grades from their students so that they can fill out a report card to send home to parents. These grades usually come from assessments that students take to show what they know. So yes, teachers use assessments all the time, but these assessments are not truly formative assessments because the information that comes from these assessments are rarely used to direct, modify, or improve teaching or learning.
Another reason that I believe teachers do not utilize formative assessments as they should, is because once teachers hear the word assessment, they instantly think of a test or a quiz, usually and unfortunately a multiple-choice assessment. Why? My guess is that this has come about in the age of high stakes testing, where most of the assessments are multiple-choice. So teachers immediately think of multiple-choice tests when the work assessment is mentioned. This is most troubling to me, as there are so many ways to assess students’ understanding than just through tests, especially multiple-choice tests. Think about how much more information you could glean from a student just by talking to them. Weird, right? We are supposed to talk to our students? YES! Talk to your students and find out what they know by asking questions, listening to their responses, and then ask follow up questions to learn even more about your students. There are many different types of formative assessment strategies or models. If you want to learn about other types of formative assessments, David Wees put together a presentation that shows 56 different types. You can find his presentation here.
Even if teachers used the different types of assessments that were in the example, they still wouldn’t be formative assessments. The reason I say this is that it really isn’t the type of assessment that the teachers uses that makes it formative, it is what the educator does with the information learned from the assessment that makes them formative. The word formative is defined as: serving to form something, especially having a profound and lasting influence on a person’s development. So what should educators “form” with the information from the assessments? Their next lesson, their next small group presentation, their next whole-group presentation, the next reading assignment, the next problem they are going to model, etc. Teachers need to use the information from the assessments to improve their teaching, which should also improve the learning occurring for each student. Also, each student will have different needs. I know that you are shocked that all of your students know different things, but why are we not using this knowledge to help all students? There are many excuses for why we as teachers don’t do this for every student, but if we all share the vision of education as being one where all students learn, we should utilize information we know about each student to modify our teaching to enhance their learning.
The teachers who I have worked with that are the best at using formative assessments to enhance their teaching have been kindergarten teachers. Yes, I said KINDERGARTEN TEACHERS. Now I hope you understand that I am not now, nor have ever been a kindergarten teacher. But when I have observed kindergarten teachers, they are the master of formative assessment, as well as some other things (How can you get a bunch of 4-5 year olds to follow directions? It’s a mystery to me). These kindergarten teachers use formative assessment out of necessity, in my opinion. They are charged with getting all of there students to a certain level by the time the school year ends, and each and every student who walked into their classroom started at a different level. They are continuously assessing their students and then using that information to determine what they will be doing, not just the next day, but what activity they will be doing in the next five minutes. I was observing a kindergarten teacher working with a small group of students. The teacher was working with the students on numbers, specifically one-to-one correspondence with numbers and objects. The teacher asked one student how many toy bears were in front of the student and then listened and observed to what the student did and said. I asked the teacher why she was doing this and she said that depending on what the student said and did, determined her next question or the next activity. This, to me, is the picture of formative assessment. The teacher assessed the student’s understanding and then used the information to enhance or guide her instruction.
If you are reading this and not a kindergarten teacher, you are probably saying, well yeah that works for kindergarten teachers, but that will never work for my classroom because [insert reason your room/students are different]. I understand that your classroom and students are probably different, but I believe that we should focus on becoming better educators and focusing on things that we can control (see my previous post called: Why so negative?). I believe that all teachers could learn from kindergarten teachers. Think about the kids that come into kindergarten classrooms, they are 4 or 5 years old, most of them have never been in a school environment before, and some of them have limited communication skills, yet kindergarten teachers are able to utilize formative assessment strategies.
I believe that educational leaders may not be utilizing the knowledge and experiences that kindergarten teachers have to offer. Educational leaders should have kindergarten teachers lead professional development sessions on formative assessments. They can share their experiences using formative assessments to guide and enhance their teaching and their students learning and then have other grade level teachers discuss how they could utilize these strategies with their students. It could also send some shockwaves through your different teams because the kindergarten teachers may be hesitant to present to upper grade level teachers and the upper grade level teachers might be stand offish to learning from kindergarten teachers. These PD sessions would send the message that we as educators can learn from others, even those who teach a different subject or grade level. I think this could be the beginning of a larger professional learning community across grade levels. Learning from other educators is a must and creating teacher leaders is vital to a strong school culture. Learning from kindergarten teachers is a small step in this direction.
Shepard, L., K. Hammernes, L. Darling-Hammond, and F. Rust (2005), “Assessment”, in L. Darling-Hammond and J. Bransford (eds.), Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be able to Do, Josse-Bass, San Francisco, CA, pp. 275-326.
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