I teach in a small school, with seventy students and about twelve full time teachers. The teachers run the school and create curricula as a cooperative venture. One of the important decisions we have taken is that we will not have any tests or examinations till the students appear for their recognized certificate at the end of Class 10 or Class 12. No class tests, no surprise quizzes, no midterm exams, no final exams, nothing! What exactly does this mean? Our students do class work and homework assignments which are corrected and for which feedback is given, and we do use tick marks and crosses, and red pens like in any other school. But the important difference is that no qualitative or quantitative ranking system is used. We do not give the students any convenient handle with which to compare themselves with each other.
This central aspect of our educational philosophy raises many questions, and in this article I will try to address them to the best of my ability. However, there is one valid question that I always find difficult to answer, and I will mention it at the start. The reader could always say, well, yours is a small, alternative school and what you do is not replicable in my classroom or in my school. True enough. But the insights into learning that form the basis of our decisions are also real and true. In fact, over the years, people have often told us that understanding our reasons for doing things in a particular way helps them clarify their own thinking about education. And who knows where that may lead?
The dangers in comparative evaluation
From a very young age, adults try to use comparison as a tool to manipulate behavior. Can you eat faster than her let’s see who can finish first, why can’t you be like him and so on. It certainly seems to have immediate success, but if you look closely and over a longer period of time, this approach is doing more damage than you realize. In a school where comparative evaluation is commonly used, children soon acquire a particular mindset when it comes to learning, called ‘performance orientation’. Functioning from this mindset, they come to any learning task thinking about how they will perform and appear relative to others. This leaves no room for thoughts about whether they have understood material and mastered it, or for what is called a ‘mastery orientation’. Unfortunately, research is telling us that these two orientations do not usually co-exist in the student’s mind; it is either one or the other. But does the mindset matter? In other words, if my goal is to get the student to learn something, does it really matter why he or she is learning it?
The answer is it does matter. A student’s mindset determines his ideas about what successful learning is. Success to one who has developed a performance orientation involves doing better than the others, and this success will come easily to the rare student who has superior abilities, and is very confident about himself. But if he is not so fortunate, and he wants to avoid failure, a few possible paths are open to him:
He may avoid challenging tasks, taking up only those where he can be sure that he will do as well as or better than others.
- He may slack off, not work hard, and make it obvious that he did not work. Then when he does not perform well, it can always be explained away as “I never worked anyway”. This interesting phenomenon is called ‘self-handicapping’ and it is surprisingly common among bright students who don’t want to appear to be losers. They fear that even if they work hard, they may not come out ‘on top’. So the best strategy to save face is to slack off.
- He might even resort to cheating or copying answers.
These three outcomes are clearly undesirable. But at an even more basic level, as we all know, tests create anxiety in students. Not only is anxiety completely superfluous to the learning process, it can actually cause damage to those parts of the brain which are concerned with memory and learning. In most school systems in India, performance testing is almost a constant factor of the school year. Psychological research has clearly shown that chronic stress has permanent effects on our ability to learn new things.
At CFL, we looked at our educational intentions, and we realized that we wanted our students to love learning and enjoy it because it is inherently rewarding. We did not want them to develop a blinkered focus on performance and outcomes, and we certainly did not want to make anxiety the dominant emotion in their lives. So we made a conscious decision that we would not subject them to comparative evaluation…and several challenges immediately arose. How would we evaluate students’ understanding, for the purposes of feedback? How would we report a student’s grasp and level of mastery of a subject, to the parents or to other teachers? How would we motivate students to work hard, if not to aim for high marks or avoid low marks?
Seeking opportunities for meaningful feedback
Our greatest advantage is, of course, our small average class size. With around six to ten students in a class, it is a simple matter to be closely in contact with each individual student’s level of understanding or mastery. In fact, we can literally see each child’s notebook! Most perceptions of student understanding are acted on almost at once, in an ongoing, continuous fashion. If I ask my class a question in fractions and one student makes a mistake, I try to identify the misunderstanding right away and clear it up. We may fear that this kind of classroom feedback is ‘wasting the time’ of the students who have ‘understood’.
However, I have found that understanding deepens and strengthens over a much longer period than one might think. Even after so many years as a teacher, I feel I understand the concepts better or differently each time I teach them! So the other students in class, even those who seem to have understood it all, also benefit from the clarification, especially if the teacher is making the effort to explain in different ways. This is also done when the mistake appears in a homework assignment: the teacher can clear it up in the next class, or write somewhat detailed feedback in the notebook, or find time to sit with the student for a few minutes outside class.
At the end of a term or a year, however, it becomes necessary to stand back and generate an overall assessment. The challenge is how to integrate all the myriad nonverbal impressions and feelings that constitute our in-depth assessment of each student. And how to articulate this ‘gut feel’ in clear, simple sentences so that the student can benefit from the feedback.
One tool that we are currently working on is the assessment rubric. This is a matrix whose rows are specified skills or knowledge areas, and whose columns are specified levels of mastery. We begin by listing skill or knowledge areas in a subject for a particular age group. Then for each skill, we identify a few levels (three to five perhaps). Good rubrics have levels that are more informative than, for example, ‘poor, average, good, excellent’, than a number between 1 and 100, or than a letter between A and F.
A teacher can make his own rubric, and the exercise of doing so will help clarify to himself his educational goals for his students. Meanwhile, the student gets a clear idea of her strengths and weaknesses from the completed rubric. There is an additional creative use of a rubric: students can fill them in as self-assessment before receiving one from their teacher. Also, when appropriate, students can fill them out for each other in pairs (peer assessment), for instance if the rubric applies to a single piece of writing.
Once in our school year, we also write detailed descriptive reports for each student. Nearly all teachers who have worked with the student will write a short essay on their perceptions. This essay covers a wide range of areas of growth: emotional, physical, social and academic. Some extracts are shown here, with the names removed for confidentiality.
“…has been organized and bright in math classes – he is very thorough and regular at work. He has a good way of explaining steps out loud which really helps his classmates. He also loves puzzles and I have seen that an unsolved one will sit in his head for a long time before he gives up on it. There is a quietening down in terms of the rude comments which I used to hear from him so often – nowadays he appears more mature both in class and outside. I hope my observations reflect the reality…”
“…is quick and somewhat hasty in math class. He understands very fast and plunges into the work immediately after I give the green signal, and does. Sometimes it does feel as though he is rushing to catch a train – even though there are no prizes offered for finishing first! Since he is completely responsible about his homework, I can focus my energy on making sure he has understood the material. Neatness is an issue however, and that could be because of haste…In class, he can be extremely talkative and on a ‘high’ – it takes many reminders sometimes to get him to settle down and stop the constant cross talk. Although he always takes these reminders in good spirit, I wish he could learn to click into appropriate classroom behaviour on his own as soon as he enters class…he has always been an easy child to talk to – he quickly accepts his patterns when they are pointed out to him. I hope the next stage would be that he can follow this by a change in his behaviour…”
Obtaining the data on which to base a report
Rubrics and descriptive reports of this kind can be filled out only when a teacher is closely in touch with the student’s learning. Agreed, this is more difficult when there are many students in a class. Yet I feel that this kind of awareness is a fundamental aspect of teaching, and if we sacrifice it, we seriously diminish our work as teachers. So, when there are many students in a class, you have to come up with creative ways to assess them. Well-designed worksheets, challenging open-book assignments with plenty of time to complete (as homework for example), individual or group projects where the quality of work reveals the effort and achievement of the student—these are all exciting possibilities. If you look at traditional tests or exams, they are the opposite of all this. Poorly designed, emphasizing memory over understanding and application, closed-book, testing performance with severe time restrictions…Examinations conducted by external boards have to be all these things (except poorly designed!) due to the constraints of large systems, but classroom tests made by the teacher or the school can be free of these limitations.
Another simple way of getting to know your students better is to allow for discussion and dialogue in class, even a short time each day. The discussion can be an offshoot of what is being covered in the class that week. (It is not meant as an oral test; if it turns into that it will become a source of stress for students!) Keep it as an open-ended discussion around the main topic, allowing for every student to have a valid response, even if all do not get the opportunity to express it. Over the year, make an effort to encourage silent ones, throw specific questions to one or another. Soon, you will develop a sense of where each child is, and this will add to a rich descriptive report.
The point is, there are several abilities and aspects to your students other than just getting the answers right, and you as a teacher have to find ways of discovering these. Examples can be seen in the quoted excerpts above: enjoyment of a subject, self perception of ability, oral expression, ability to explain to others, perseverance with hard problems, neatness, classroom behaviour…reporting on these adds so much richness to the picture of the student.
As you can see, in our rubrics or descriptive reports there is no need to make comparative evaluations; however, there is always a ‘standard’ in mind when you are assessing something. This is the difference between so-called ‘norm referenced’ and ‘criterion referenced’ tests. Can we develop a criterion against which to evaluate our students, so that we do not have to say, “She is better than 54% of her class at mathematics,” since that is not a very useful statement? Certainly we can. Several bodies in the world have published National Standards in different subjects, for different ages. A great deal of thought and care has gone into these documents, and many are freely available on the web. Nowadays with the increasing access to the internet, a teacher could read through and research some of these documents. In fact, an experienced teacher will have developed a sense for what a student of a given age, from a given background, can be expected to accomplish. Added to this, there is the individual student whom you have got to know over the year(s). How hard he works, how much he is capable of when he really applies himself, and whether a given piece of work was casual and hurried, or carefully and meticulously done. These observations are an important part of assessment.
Personal communication as feedback
Along with rubrics and written reports, at CFL we also spend a lot of time meeting with students and parents to give evaluative feedback. This happens both informally (outside class) as well as once a year in a formal report meeting with the parents. At this meeting, all the teachers who have interacted with the student that year sit together with the parents and we have a focused discussion on several aspects of the student’s learning, both academic and non-academic. The benefit of this dialogue is immense, as a joint picture of the student emerges, and suggestions and decisions can be made jointly. In the senior school, the student can also be a part of such a meeting (much to his or her discomfort—imagine being surrounded by your parents and teachers in a room all discussing only you!). It is important to note that the tone of such meetings is friendly, constructive and frank, rather than a one-way communication of judgments or observations leaving no room for questions. At such meetings, the partnership between parents and teachers in raising a child is reinforced and strengthened.
The question of motivation
When the school system stops using tests and exams as a motivator, some students will inevitably lose interest in working or learning. To the extent that their only source of motivation was the need to outperform others, removing the competitive context reduces their ‘edge’. The solution to this is not to reintroduce tests! At CFL we would like to invite students to understand their own motivations for learning and working. Some of the most important things in life have to be done for their own sake, fueled by a strong inner motivation. By using the crutches of comparison and competition in school, we are robbing our students the power of this inner motivation. So if tests are removed, what is left? Students at CFL produce a lot of work which teachers look over and give feedback on. When appropriate, we appreciate our students’ efforts and the quality of their work. Where we see areas needing improvement, we communicate this also. We demand a high level of engagement with learning and work. If a student has been sloppy, casual or hasty, the teacher points this out clearly. All this helps to build an understanding of what constitutes an excellent piece of work. After all, one of the strong motivators in life is the satisfaction of having accomplished something and done it well.
In general, a sound principle of assessment is that we actually want to measure competence, not performance. The only way to get better measures of competence is to sample performance of different skills, over time, in different contexts. No single testing episode should assume supreme importance. While this translates to a lot of work for the teacher and the educational system as a whole, if we see that there is no alternative, then we will not grudge our young people the extra effort.
Read, Learn & Flourish!
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