Outside education, everyone assumes that it must be easy for teachers to measure our students’ learning. Just give them a test, right? As insiders, we know it isn’t this straightforward. Like @bnichols has pointed out in her recent posts, choosing a suitable assessment isn’t so easy, because tests don’t necessarily measure learning – they measure a very narrow skill set.
Exactly one year ago I embarked on some self-directed PD in a quest to find new ways to run my grade 11-12 math classes. I was interested in finding out what “inquiry” meant at this level of math education, and whether changing my classroom routine away from direct instruction could help improve student learning. I started by visiting the team behind Discovering the Art of Mathematics at Westfield State University.
Inspired by their collaborative, discussion-based approach, I returned to class and immediately changed my grade 11 math course. We switched to a small-group format where students worked together on the content without my instruction. They thought and reasoned together as they developed their own understanding of concepts. I was exhilarated and scared at the same time: were they really able to construct enough meaning without me telling them what to do? These students take external 2-year comprehensive exams in grade 12 – would I put their exam performance in jeopardy?
Nothing like a little risk to keep you on your toes, right? I gathered input from them during the unit as they adjusted to the new style (they loved it!), I had my principal come and observe and give feedback, and I started tracking the data on that oh-so-important measure of student learning: test scores.
While I enjoy the flexibility I have to assess in multiple ways in grades 9-10, and I make efforts to get students learning through projects in grade 11, I am aware that at the end of grade 12, their IB Diploma scores are 80% test-based. So their test-taking abilities are key to measuring up on the Diploma. And I’ve always wondered… wouldn’t they be fine on tests if they really understood the material?
One year in to this experiment, I am measuring its success. I have recently submitted a report to school leadership with the results of my attempts to shift into something more experiential for students: Experiencing active learning, but also experiencing the discussion and reasoning that leads to problem solving. This is the work of mathematicians. In the report I am pleased to note that in my grade 11 class, average test scores have increased by 20% on all tests. I haven’t changed the format or the style of questions – I have only changed the student experience in class.
My class was recently recorded and I watched the video, hoping to find things to reflect on. I hate watching myself on film, but I was interested in seeing how the class played out from a different perspective. I saw some things I overlooked during class, and I wondered whether all the students were learning and thinking all the time. But then I asked myself: do I really believe that students who are quietly listening to a lecture are always actively thinking?
If I don’t believe that tests are the sole way to measure student learning, I can’t judge my own teaching by test results either. So test scores have increased by 20% on average. Is that enough to call my experiment in collaborative, discussion-based learning a success? Watching this video has helped me find another measure: student engagement. I watched as my students actively participated, supported, questioned, and reasoned with each other. In the video I saw these things in my classroom: respect, discussion, teenage distraction, patience, courage, and comfort. Was it a perfect lesson? No, but it was a typical one. If this video is a good indicator of how my classes are functioning one year into this experiment, I think I am ready to call it a success.