Thursday, May 30, 2013

Where should we look?

It is morel mushroom season in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Finding these elusive, tasty morsels can be as challenging as it is rewarding. Mushroomers are secretive about where they hunt, but even if you know where to look, they can be hard to find among the leaf litter.

On a recent walk through the woods, I began to contrast the difficulty in finding morels to assessment (finding learning). I did not want to lose my thoughts, so I tried to place them in a mnemonic: ASSESS. Such an approach can be useful for memory but it has limitations (e.g. a set number of words that sometimes requires synonyms that don’t quite match the meaning of the original words).  Still, this blog is intended to share my thinking and I hope that you will challenge it and extend it in the comments.

Learning happens in authentic settings (notice I did not say it had to be real-life), therefore, that is where we need to look for it. You will not find mushrooms where they do not grow. A test can be a learning experience but these can be difficult to write; that is why a prefer projects and portfolios as ways to demonstrate learning.

We need to know what we are and are not looking for when it comes to learning. When it comes to mushrooms, not knowing what you are looking for can be deadly. Metaphorically speaking, the same can be said about learning. Focusing on memorized facts can “kill” a person’s interest in learning.
It is difficult to observe learning under unreasonable time constraints. Trying to identify learning using 10 questions on a 60-minute test is akin to trying to spot mushrooms on a fast-moving motorcycle. Someone might be able to do it, but I cannot. It takes time and patience to assess learning.

With experience, it becomes easier to know where to look, when to look, and what to look for; this is true whether you are talking about mushrooms or learning. Lacking experience we tend to rely on tales or traditions.  We get stuck using the same types of tests that we encountered as students without considering other places we might find learning.

Until we gain the experience we need to accurately assess learning, we ought to seek out others with more experience for support. It takes a trained eye to find mushrooms and a skilled teacher to help others find them for themselves. A teacher who has used effective assessments for identifying learning cannot simply pass these along to other teachers. The mentor teacher must share the process as well as the product. Without the appropriate support, the apprentice teacher can fall into the old rut of using the product to assess what is easy instead of what is meaningful.

One never knows when learning might be demonstrated, so teachers must always be on the lookout. If we only look where we have always looked, we may be missing the morels in our own backyard. Teachers who use observational assessments often are able to identify learning that might not show up on a test. Furthermore, if teachers inform students of what learning is expected, the students can help to demonstrate that learning occurred even if it happened in ways the teachers did not anticipate.

This is what I thought about as I hunted mushrooms and considered the parallels to assessing learning. I certainly refined some of my thinking as I wrote this post, but the key point remains: we need to rethink our assessment practices if we are to find true learning. Hopefully, ASSESS will remind me of what this shift might entail for me.

In what ways do you think assessment might need to change and how will you remember to make these changes when the new school year begins?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

What are your thoughts?

The following is an adaptation of the workshop I planned for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Academy. It represents an activity I do with teachers that helps them to make their thinking visible as they are problem solving. The activity is intended to prepare the way for the problem solvers to write metacognitive memoirs (which I wrote about here).

Metacognitive Memoirs: Making Thinking Visible

Schema Activation: Making Your Thinking Visible [10 minutes]
Why are you here? What do you hope to get out of this presentation (blog post)? Please write your thinking down in order to make it public and permanent.

Focus: Metacognition [5 minutes]
Schoenfeld found that one of the major issues novice problem solvers face when they encounter non-routine problems is an inability to monitor, and therefore regulate, their thinking. It’s what I call flat-lining. Einstein called it insanity.

Not surprisingly, the National Resource Council (2005) wrote in How Students Learn that one of the primary principles associated with learning is The Importance of Self Monitoring. They write:
“Meta” is a prefix that can mean after, along with, or beyond. In the psychological literature, “metacognition” is used to refer to people’s knowledge about themselves as information processors. This includes knowledge about what we need to do in order to learn and remember information (e.g., most adults know that they need to rehearse an unfamiliar phone number to keep it active in short-term memory while they walk across the room to dial the phone). And it includes the ability to monitor our current understanding to make sure we understand. Other examples include monitoring the degree to which we have been helpful to a group working on a project. (p. 10)

The focus of this workshop is to help us to be intentional about our thinking so that we can examine it, share it, and improve it.

Actions: Sowing Seeds [30 minutes]
As you work through this problem, try to be aware of your thinking as you make decisions about how to proceed. You will want to write as much of your thinking down as you can so that it will be available later as you work on your memoir. Also, keep track of choices you decided against and why. Were these possible pitfalls you avoided or just different approaches? What would have happened if you followed these paths instead?

This is a lot to keep track of, which means you probably will not arrive at a solution in the time provided. That is to be expected. In fact, if you can complete a task quickly, it was probably not a problem but an exercise. Only the problems found on sitcoms get rapped up in under twenty minutes.

After about ten minutes stop and on a separate piece of paper write a reasoning recount. What steps have you taken so far, and why did you take them? Don’t forget to include things you chose not to do and the rationale behind those decisions.

Reflection: Where did you ...? [15 minutes]
As you review your reasoning recount, try to identify where you are:
  • Assessing (gathering data about your thinking and your progress);
  • Analyzing (evaluating what was working and what was not);
  • Adjusting (changing course because what you were doing was not making sufficient progress toward your goal); and
  • Acting (putting your plan into action).
It is typical that this first attempt might result in your own sort of flat-line – a lot of action without much thinking. Only 16% of my students are able to develop a clear, correct, complete, and coherent metacognitive memoir the first time through. However, with practice and feedback they are better able to monitor their thinking and communicate it to others.

Thus far, most of the memoirs have been written as narratives. A few problem solvers layer their thinking on using sticky notes or the comment function of Word. We have also been experimenting with using two columns – putting the thinking in the left-hand side in order to recognize its importance in the process. Recently, some problem solvers have been using technology to record their thinking as they solve problems (a la this post).


So what are your thoughts about this approach to making thinking visible?