Friday, October 15, 2010

PLENK2010 Self-Assessment, a Story

#PLENK2010 One topic on the agenda today was self-assessment.  Let me tell you a story.
    Alice came to me with a report card that said she got an A in Grade 4.  Now, I happened to talk to her Grade 4 teacher about that A and this is what she told me: Children really know how they stand in comparison with the other children so I told them that they could choose their final mark for their report card.  Alice had given herself an A.
   In my class, Alice was restless and acted out, and the other children liked to tattle on her.  "Don't tell me, " I finally had to say.  "Unless Alice is standing on the window sill ready to jump three floors down, I don't want to know."  She was, as I had suspected, hiding in the cupboard again.  Alice came with a record and a label: childhood schizophrenia.  Not one teacher had liked her, and they had all moved her on as soon as possible.  Alice was a handful, but she really did want to please me.  Every assignment she started with zeal.  But Alice never finished.  Not anything, not even Art.
   At the end of the year, before I began writing the final reports, I had a private chat with Alice.  I told her that I knew how she had got that A last year.  I told her, though, that now that she was a Big Girl, she had to finish her seatwork to get an A.  And, I pointed out, she had never finished anything.  She would have to repeat Grade 5.  Alice cried, but I was firm.  She was not going to get a good mark on her report card.
   The next September Alice was surprised to find that I was her new teacher.  It had never occurred to me not to take her on again.  I knew her well.  We had an understanding that some seatwork had to be completed.  We were going to have another go at it together.  That year, the Board psychologist shared a bit more with me about Alice.  She was the only one of her family of normal intelligence.  Both her parents and her older siblings were intellectually challenged.  When Alice went home, she cared for her baby brother and slept with him in his crib at night or else he'd cry and cry.  Alice confided in me that she often worried about her older brother who was in jail.  At the end of the year, Alice passed Grade 5, just.
   Then I took that Grade 5 class forward into Grade 6.  Alice and I were together for three years.  Then they all disappeared, graduated to the Big School for Grade 7 and 8.  In June, Alice visited me during an Open House night when parents were invited to meet the teachers and explore the classrooms.  She thanked me for teaching her, and told me she was doing well in Grade 7.  She was not getting into trouble, "And I'm getting all Ds!"  That was good for Alice.  She was doing her best under a heavy burden.  Although she had been diagnosed by the Board psychologist, that diagnosis did not result in any help for Alice.  No Special Ed classes, no teacher's aide.  I was advised to be "understanding".
   So, can the student assess his own learning?  Self-assessment was not on the curriculum in those days.  But I tried to be explicit in what I taught so that the students would know what they had learned and that they had learned.  (And that's another story.)  Given the opportunity to grade herself, Alice leaped for that A.  Why not?
   In the real world, that is, where adults work together, teams collaborate on goals and assessment as well as on tasks.  If the students are to learn to self-assess, they need explicit lessons in team-work, in team planning and goal-setting and in team-assessment.  In school, they need to know the curriculum, that is the prescribed goals or deliverables and the permitted formats.  They need to learn how to set and achieve deadlines (very difficult for some).   They need to help determine where credit is due.  If the objective is to produce the independent  self-directed learner, they have to have explicit lessons and practice in this and to know that this is the primary purpose of the course, whatever the "product" or "final deliverable" might be.  It's not an impossible task to design such a course.  There is only the requirement that such a course be desired.  And then, whatever the final assessment of the learning has to be agreed upon by the learner.  If self-assessment is the objective, self-assessment it must be.
   Watch out for those Snakes in Suits, though.  (Robert Hare and Paul Babiak)  They're everywhere.

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