Category Archives: Standard 5

Assess, provide feedback and report on student learning

I’m not here for the ‘A’ count

So it’s a while since I’ve written anything here… you could say things have been busy. I’ve been working on ways to allow students to personalise the pace of their learning in my language classroom – using techniques from the ‘flipped’ approach and combining it with other digital things like cloud storage, QR codes and the like so that students access the materials as they are ready for the next step. Having had students work this way for the past 9 months, I am now at the stage where I’m looking at what the implications have been…

I know from student feedback that for the most part they like working at their own pace – especially the boys. They like that if they need to move slowly through something they’re not holding others back, and that if they already understand something they don’t have to wait for others before moving on. The girls like that they can work with others who are at the same point and that they have had choice in how they practise language and demonstrate their learning.

I also have a group who have done the work but when asked for feedback they’ve been unhappy and they’ve asked “Can’t we just go back to the other way where you tell us what to do and we all do it?!”, complete with a stereotypical 14 year old whine. This one surprised me somewhat as they’d not complained until I asked upfront. But then I looked at the group and the nature of the students falling into it. They were students who in primary school and their first year of high school language lessons had always been the high flyers – the ‘A’ students. Looking back over my time with them last year and this, they were students who last year hadn’t found language difficult and who had generally been on task and completed the work quickly. This year, their marks had fallen (we’ve had less A grades than with our previous version of the course) and they had needed some reminders about what they were supposed to be doing. They were also generally girls. This I found interesting.

Chatting with them further, it became apparent that they weren’t happy with the lower grades and they said it was harder because I wasn’t telling them what to do anymore.

I had made varied resources available, said each lesson that they could ask questions, watch explanations as often as they needed and draft their work before submitting or recording it, and was constantly moving around the room. And this was the difference – I wasn’t spoon feeding anymore and they weren’t as quick to do any of those things as the students who were thriving under the new delivery mode. They found it more difficult to take responsibility for their learning and to do some self-evaluation as part of their learning process. Others checked in with me constantly, checked pronunciation and recognised that not being first finished didn’t mean they weren’t doing well. It meant they were doing properly. On the other hand, a number of times I’d asked the girls whether they wanted to alter and resubmit some work, and each time they made the choice not to.

Due in large part to the structure of senior secondary studies where I am, the majority of students do not continue their language studies after Year 9. When we started heading down this route of personalised pace in their learning, we had aimed to improve student engagement and have students finish their compulsory stint of Language with a positive mindset. I think we’ve done that for most. But our assessment data is showing less ‘A’ grades than before. So have we done the right thing or should we switch back to the old course? Switching back is very tempting – ‘A’s look good for the students and they make us look good as teachers. After all, being successful means getting good grades, and in a language has always been defined as knowing lots of words and using them correctly. And if I saw myself as just a language teacher, I would be switching back tomorrow!

But I believe as a teacher I am responsible for teaching more than language. I can’t define myself soley by the language aspect of my position. I’m a teacher – that means I want my students to be life-long learlners. Which means I want to help them learn how to think, analyse, draft, refine, face challenges – all the things we have to do throughout our lives if we are to keep growing and learning. So while the course we’ve developed this year isn’t perfect, I think it is doing more for the students than our old course when we followed a textbook page by page and I spent a lot of time at the board keeping everyone moving along together all the time. Instead of switching back in the hope of more ‘A’s in the class data, I think it’s time I look at ways to improve the process for those students who find taking responsibility more challenging than I had expected. I’m not here for the ‘A’ count, I’m here for life-long learning.


Time to go down a different stream?

Have you ever noticed how the water in a stream doesn’t all take the same path around rocks and trees in its way, but it is all still heading in roughly the same direction, towards a bigger body of water further down the stream? Or how rain drops on a window wind their way down, some picking up others and becoming bigger drops along the way but all ultimately ending up at the bottom of the window?

CC licensed (BY SA) flickr photo shared by Velo Steve

CC licensed (BY SA) flickr photo shared by Velo Steve

I think the students in my language classes are much the same. It really got going when I was pondering over how we can improve the transition from primary school language learning to secondary school language learning in my school.

We have a large number of feeder schools, most of which have a program and specialist teacher for one of the languages we offer. There is a smattering of students who come to us having done neither Japanese nor German. Year 8 students select which language they will study for the year and may choose to study both. The time allocation and focus of the primary school language programs vary according to local needs and circumstances, so the students walk into our language rooms every year with a wide variety of past experiences, prior knowledge, expectations and hopes for their secondary language studies.

Common practice in the past has been to start everyone at square one.  Beginning from the beginning again. Certainly this was a reflection on the language predominantly taught in primary schools until around 10 years ago, but we are seeing this change. We used to have more students who had some knowledge of German for some of their primary schooling and only a small group who had previously done any Japanese. So starting again didn’t seem a problem. But that has been in a state of change recently.

As more of our primary schools are valuing language learning right from the junior primary years and as the numbers of our feeder schools offering Japanese has increased, more students now come to us with significant experience in learning the language. In addition, some choose not to study the language from their primary schooling, looking forward to a new experience and challenge.

While as recently as a month ago I heard a colleague from another school say that ‘by the end of the first semester they’re all at the same point anyway’, I have begun challenging the idea that all students need to go back to the very beginning. Certainly keeping everyone moving together at the same pace makes planning, teaching and assessing relatively straightforward and easy. But what about learning? Notice it’s not mentioned in that statement…

If we start everyone back at the beginning, it seems there are increasing numbers of our students who are treading water, going nowhere for a semester… and where is the learning in that? Of course revision and consolidation are valuable, but 6 months feeling unchallenged and stifled is surely going to lessen their enjoyment of the language which they have perhaps chosen because their primary schooling experience of it lit a fire and excitement in them. As language teachers we yearn for that enthusiasm from our students! On the other hand, those who are new to the language also seem to feel pressured to ‘hurry up’ so that the class can move on. And that is also less than conducive to their feelings of enjoyment and success in language learning. We did not all learn our first language at the same rate…

With the Australian Curriculum’s focus on differentiated teaching and learning, the time is ripe for us to come up with some alternatives. I know other schools stream their students into classes for those who have done the language before and those who are new to it. While this means students can start from 2 different points, it doesn’t ultimately overturn the idea that the whole class moves together. Nor is it possible in all schools, for multiple reasons ranging from student numbers to timetabling issues.

What if my student ‘stream’ was allowed to flow more like a stream in nature? I am far more excited by the idea that if students understand something, they should be allowed to move on to the next thing. For others who need more time they should be allowed to take it, to have more practice and to keep refining their skills and knowledge. I have begun working this way with my Year 9 students. The digital tools we have available to us mean that students can learn about different language structures at their own rate. Today I assessed them with a quick test, they marked the answers for each other and then those who clearly understood how the grammar and vocabulary worked sat together and worked through the next thing using a YouTube clip I’d made and helping each other piece the steps together. Those who needed more time to review, question, relearn, and think differently through the material in the test sat together and did just that. Tools frequently used for the flipped classroom are coming in very handy and students can access them at their own pace. At different points I think we’ll all come back together and students will not always be in the groups the were in today. They will change direction and pace as they hit the ‘rocks’ along the way, but ultimately we’re all heading down the same watercourse.

It’s not streaming in the traditional sense, but perhaps this way of thinking about catering to multiple pathways in language subjects is more realistic and learning centred. If we follow this thinking through, can we better cater to the very mixed experiences in our Year 8 classes? Can we use podcasts, screencasts and other online tools to allow the students to begin at a number of points and thus value their prior learning and help them move forward rather than tread water for a semester? It will likely be far from straightforward or easy, but isn’t the learning the key here?

I would love to hear how others manage the transition from primary to secondary school language programs and the ‘mixed ability class’ in general!

One size doesn’t fit all – so why do we do it?

At this stage in the Australian school year most teachers are at least thinking about, if not writing, reports. It is always a time for reflections, calculations and wondering. This year I’m wondering more than ever. My eldest child is having school visits as he makes that transition from Kindy to Primary School. At my first parent information night where I was on the receiving end rather than the delivery end of the information, we were reminded that children progress and develop at different rates, just as they have since they were babies. That some will cope well with having to be organised right from day one but that others will need more help in getting settled and managing the school routines. This, together with pondering some ‘tricky’ reports, has got me thinking…

We know that our students are all different, have individual strengths and interests, areas to work on and things they find downright overwhelming. They are human. Why then do we insist on assessing and reporting with a one size fits all (or at least most) approach? I know, government requirements mean we must give students an A-E grade. But what do those letters actually mean and what do they really say about a student? Even with a supporting comment, often limited to 400 or so characters including spaces and punctuation, what do they show about a student’s development throughout the year?

If a student has always received an ‘A’ grade, worked independently, self-motivated yada yada yada, what is my report saying that the parent and student don’t already know? Likewise, if a student struggles with the assessments that are standard for the class but scrapes together a ‘C’ grade, what am I telling them besides “you’re just on average” and what good does it do their learning? How does it show them their progress, which is generally considerable, given they entered the language classroom with little or no exposure to the language previously?

I also wonder why assessments in High School are so often standardised and made ‘common’. I used to be able to tailor tasks to my classes to suit their needs, but the whole class still had to be doing roughly the same tasks. Now, due to circumstances beyond my control, all Year 8 German students have to do exactly the same task in the same way and preferably in the same week. The students I can ‘modify’ tasks for have to have a diagnosed and documented learning difficulty. But if all my students are different and still developing at different rates and in different ways like they did as babies and in Primary School, why can’t I allow them to demonstrate their understanding and learning in a variety of ways and in their own time?

Yes, I know, they need to have a balance of the four key skills of language – Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. I would also like to add in Intercultural Understandings in it’s own right, but I do not have that ability so for now it is thrown in with the rest depending on what form the assessment took. And yes, I can ‘tweek’ the task to give students some choice about how they present it: “If you don’t want to do a poster that’s fine, just make sure you do it in a way that includes writing” for example. But why is the assessment even divided up into formative and summative? Why does only the summative ‘count’ when the formative shows learning along the way?

A question from Louiza Hebhardt on last week’s #teacherwellbeingchat on Twitter got me thinking: “If you were a parent what feedback would you consider most valuable?”  If you could rewrite assessment and reporting requirements, how would it look? As my child starts school I want to know if he is making forward progress from one term, semester or year to the next. I don’t want him compared to other students, although I know routine standardised test like NAPLAN may help pick up otherwise unrecognised delays in his learning and development. I don’t want him to get an ‘A’ if he is bored and could be challenged more and I don’t want him getting a ‘D’ if it means he should be working at a different level. So if I could redesign assessment and reporting, I’m currently favouring a continuous portfolio of work to show how a student has developed, how their learning and understanding have grown compared to where they were at the start of the year. Much like the scrap book he has brought home from Child Care with pictures and anecdotes from when he was 11 months old until now – I can distinctly see that he has made progress! Perhaps returning to a system where students are profiled against levels and outcomes they’ve demonstrated. Maybe at the start of the year they’re at Level 2 but by the end of the year they’re at 2.7 or 3… Comparing the student only to him or herself.

I can do roughly this with one of my students, a young lady with Downes Syndrome – her ‘C’ means she has met the outcomes her parents and I negotiated at the start of the year, a ‘D’ would mean she needed assistance to demonstrate the outcomes but a ‘B’ would mean she exceeded them. She has obtained her ‘C’. Her parents know exactly what it means and are proud of her because of it! We compare her only to herself and where she was at the start of the year.

On the other hand I have Mr A+, a student with Aspbergers Syndrome, who is so focussed on “learning for the test” that he refuses to complete practice activities and games. I would like to be able to not give him the ‘A+’, but under the current system he is sitting on 99% and he knows it, so I have little choice! I think he would learn more if he were compared against a description that shows that he knows a variety of words and can use them in highly rehearsed situations, and where the next description level shows students beginning to use the vocabulary and structures creatively or for his own expression. I wish I could compare him to himself and show him that despite another ‘A+’ he is yet to make any real progress in his language skills besides adding words. Thankfully, I can add something to this effect in his comment box!