Last year, I spent much time figuring out the intricacies of applying project based learning in my grade 12 biology class. I shifted to teaching grade 11 biology this year and quickly realized upon reflecting from my experience last year, that I needed to iron out my approach to feedback and assessment in order to deepen student learning while also having them practice the skills they need for 21st-century life in education. At my school, I have found that there seems to be a significant gap in the conversation surrounding assessment. I began to approach a few people that I knew could help, both with my classroom dilemma and with a desire to start conversations around assessment in the wider community.
Joe McCrae, who recently moved to our community and join the LCS faculty, had spent quite some time working with protocols designed by The National School Reform Faculty who’s mission is to “empower educators to create meaningful learning experiences for all, by collaborating effectively in reflective democratic communities that foster educational equity and social justice.” He suggested that we offer up an opportunity to present my dilemmas surrounding assessment to the greater faculty. @ddoucet, Joe, and I sent out an invite and were pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming response by people who wanted to talk more about assessment (approximately 40% of our faculty responded and wanted to be involved), and I was happy to see that people were interested in working as a team to approach the dilemma I was having in my grade 11 biology class; perhaps a dilemma they were also having.
The NSRF is a not-for-profit organization and offers several free protocols that allow for collaborative approaches to a variety of situations in your school and class. (Protocols from A-Z). There are many so depending on what your goal is for the collaborative time with staff or students, will depend on which protocol fits. As I was looking for consultation and feedback from my colleagues, we decided the Consultancy Protocol would offer the best structure for me to get as much feedback on my Cohort 21 action plan and assessment dilemmas as possible.
How does this look?
First of all, I presented a PBL activity that I had given to my students and explained the process of daily goal setting and reflective practice (using docAppender). I also presented my self-assessment piece that the students had to complete and the rubric that I used to evaluate.
Afterward, I presented my dilemmas:
- Dilemma #1 – How can I use assessment in my Biology course to deepen student understanding and improve the quality of student work.
- Dilemma #2 – How can I clearly communicate my expectations of student work.
Once I completed this presentation (to approximately 8 other colleagues), it was time for them to start asking questions – Joe led the group through the protocol which includes a set of timed activities:
- clarifying questions to set the context
- probing questions to dig deeper
- a group discussion where I metaphorically stepped out of the conversation and they discussed my dilemmas and presentation, allowing me to listen and take notes, thereby receiving the feedback that I needed.
- Reflection time allowing me to reflect and respond to the discussion
Having colleagues from a diverse set of backgrounds in the room, allowed for some very provoking questions, some of which I had already thought about and others which I had not:
What was the reflection – Did they every get feedback on what they actually wrote?
How you’ve practiced integrating vocabulary before the project?
When you are marking, how do you anchor levels from the rubric. How do you maintain consistency between students or marking times?
How many nailed it out of the park?
Plagiarism and references? How did you handle this?
I am often the person that says this is my fault if this tanked. Have you thought of other reasons, beyond the scope of your project? Have you considered other factors?
If more teachers did PBL, would kids have an easier time with this type of work?
How much do you think their abilities in reading and writing affected their results?
How were you evaluating their ability to take what they know and apply it to the new topic.
Why do you think they were misjudging their work, and how could you change this?
Discussion: My notes while they discussed my dilemma
- Project is clearly laid out – almost like a checklist but with questions (some kids will always miss the expectations)
- Rubric seems clear
- Do it more – a project base course – they will learn how to approach big questions and projects over the time spent in the course
- Use daily reflections and include a paragraph to practice scientific writing
- Cross-curricular. Many opportunities to approach other teacher and collaborate.
- Involve students with exemplars and breaking down the rubric. Feedback at the start – what does excellent work look like?
- Less emphasis on the goal and what they accomplished – explicit feedback so they can work to overall expectations.
- Research versus PBL – what is the difference really?
- Struggles with time – Project Based Learning
- Be more intentional about metacognitive factor – have the reflections change (provide a paragraph of your writing today – reflections with practice)
- Are my expectations too high or not well enough explained
- create intention and be explicit
What has this done for me and my colleagues?
This process made me think, question, and evaluate my teaching and assessment. The ideas, discussion and feedback will help me approach my dilemma and contextualize the problem as seen through the eyes of others. This process was collaborative and improved communication across departments, it allowed for a respectful and organized approach to collaboration where everyone felt valued. Based on feedback, my colleagues enjoyed the process and they remarked on how it made them also think about their own assessment practice; a powerful result from a 50-minute process. I am grateful for this experience with my colleagues and for the feedback that they could offer. One of the best comments from a colleague as we rushed off to class, “Can we do this every week!?”
Warm / Cool Feedback about the structure of this conversation.
- Kept it focused and within the timeframe available
- I liked the structure of clarifying questions, probing, and then discussion. I think it encouraged us to refrain from jumping to conclusions or making assumptions. We had to really listen and think deeply.
Do you feel like you were able to take something away from this conversation for your own practice?
- Yes – a more critical eye to rubrics and framing/preparing students for an assignment – lots of transferrable issues
- Yes- I’d like to use the protocol itself somehow in the classroom. I also was encouraged to hear teachers wrestling with the same challenges I face.
- Yes – I was interested to learn about the parallels of skill between the sciences and humanities (ie, my assumption was that science was less skill-based and more content based); going through this process highlighted the importance of focusing on student skill, rather than product
- Yes – I liked how the protocols demanded engagement. For 50 minutes, we needed to be there and nowhere else but I got more from that 50 minutes than I have from all other meetings combined this year. Makes me realise that i shouldn’t be giving my students the option of disengaging.
- Made me excited about PBL – something I think I often take for granted – and reflective about my own assessment practices.
Imagine the power of integrating these protocols with the Design Thinking process. The results would be powerful for approaching dilemmas, both in the class and in the school.