Schrodinger’s Kid, or, Why Formative Assessment Matters

Shrodinger’s cat is a paradox that I cannot claim to totally understand, but for the purposes of this post, it’s a thought experiment/paradox that says that a cat in a box with poison, which could be either alive or dead, is simultaneously both alive and dead until you check, when it becomes one or the other.  Something like that.  It involves quantum mechanics.  And you can go ahead and try to explain it better in the comments if you like!

No, I do not want you to put any of your students in a box with a flask of poison.  But I do want you to look in the box.  As I explained in Nobody’s Teaching if Nobody’s Learning, you can’t stand up in front of your students talking, or give them things to do that keep them occupied, and claim it’s teaching.  It doesn’t count if being in your class that day didn’t somehow change their skills or knowledge or academic dispositions.  But how do you know if they’re learning?  Until you check, it’s Shrodinger’s kid: you have to assume they’re all learning and not learning until you check.  And you don’t want to wait too long to look in the box, or you might find out they haven’t been learning at all.

This is the essence of formative assessment.  People often contrast summative and formative assessment by saying one is assessment of learning while the other is assessment for learning.  Honestly, it’s kind of misleading to even call them the same noun.  Summative assessment is basically testing; formative assessment might be more transparently called checking for understanding, and it should be completely woven in with the daily work of teaching and learning.

In her classic article “Formative Assessment: An Enabler of Learning,” Margaret Heritage explains the key traits of formative assessment:

  • It’s related to a learning objective.  You’re checking kids’ understanding of what they’re supposed to be learning, and trying to uncover the root of any problems you see.
  • It’s on-going.  You should be doing it all the time.  That doesn’t mean you’re giving quizzes–it means you’re trying to listen to your kids and understand their thinking at least as much as you’re making them listen to you.
  • It informs instruction.  You need to take the information about your kids’ learning and use it to change your instruction–to reteach a point (to everyone or just a few people), to find a new way to explain, to cut out something that’s too easy, to know when to move on.

Formative instruction should also involve the kids.  Ideally, they’re self-assessing along the way.  Kids need to learn how to notice when they do or do not understand, and when to ask questions.  Kids can also give feedback to their peers, though they have to be trained on how to do it tactfully and usefully (a topic for another post).  Finally, and this is most important: as you are checking kids’ understanding, you need to give them feedback that includes guidance about what and how to improve.  Just as you need to know how your kids are doing, they need to know how they’re doing, so they can be involved in making sure they master the learning goals.

How do you formatively assess students?  Here are just a handful of ways:

  • Have one kid read to you and think about if the book is a good match for the kid.  If there’s a problem, what is it?
  • Ask a kid to show you where in his writing he applied a lesson you taught–e.g. “Show me where you used transition words to help your reader follow your argument.  How did you know to put one there?”
  • Give kids a discussion topic–ideally, something without a fixed answer, or at least not a clear one–and then listen in to who says what.  Take notes on any misunderstandings you’re seeing.
  • For short-answer kinds of questions (e.g. “What’s an antonym for ‘clever’?”, “Who was the main character of this book?”), have all your kids write their answers on personal white boards and hold them up at once.  Then you can quickly see who knows what antonym or main character mean, and who still needs help.

Here’s one example: A first-grade teacher is working with a small group on the a_e spelling.  After giving a blending lesson, where all the students read a set of words chorally, the teacher has each student come up to the board and choose two words to read and erase.  Before they can erase, they must look at their peers for approval of their reading.  Karina comes up and reads “name” correctly, eliciting thumbs-up from all her peers.  She then reads “cap” for “cape.”  Three students give the sign for disagreement, but Keonte shows a thumbs up.  Ms. March can see that three of the students seem (so far) to be solid on a_e, but that both Karina and Keonte need a reminder.  “Karina, you said cap.  You made the short a sound.  Who can give a letter hint?”  Michael offers, “a_e says ay” and Luz says, “the e makes the a say its name.”  Karina then reads “cape” and everyone, including Keonte, gives a thumbs up.

The point is, your checks for understanding should relate to your learning goals, inform your instruction, and give information to kids on how they’re doing and how to improve.  Open that box and see what they know!


P.S. Check out this great video of Margaret Heritage talking about the importance of getting to know your ELLs in order to teach them properly.  It’s just 2 minutes!

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Nobody’s Teaching if Nobody’s Learning

Man #1: I taught my dog to whistle.

Man #2: Really!?  Can I hear her?

Man #1: Well, I taught it, but she didn’t learn it.


Of course, Man #1 in that joke is very silly.  If his dog can’t whistle, then he didn’t teach her to whistle.  But sometimes we forget this simple truth in our own classrooms.  If nobody’s learning anything, then you didn’t really teach anything (just like in the picture at the top, if no one’s in the room you can’t really claim you taught a lesson.)

Scenario #1: “I taught it, they just didn’t learn it.”

Sometimes you’ve explained an objective every way you can think of, and your kids are still totally confused.  This can be incredibly frustrating, because it can cause you to start to question your own competence or your kids’ capabilities, both of which are dangerous paths to go down.  They can learn, and you can learn how to teach them.  If something isn’t sticking or making sense, you might need to take a step back so you can think it over, study the curriculum materials, or talk about it with a colleague, but don’t give up.  You haven’t taught it until your kids have learned it.

Scenario #2: “We’re drawing Pilgrims”

As elementary teachers (heck, this is probably true of all teachers), we need to incorporate some FUN into our day.  We have to make sure kids get to do things, talk to each other, and move around.  We have to make sure that what we offer kids is engaging, or they will direct their boundless energy elsewhere.  Plus, with huge number of minutes we must put toward literacy and math each day, we have to find ways to sneak social studies, science, art, music and P.E. in during the day.  However, we have to avoid scheduling activities just for the sake of activities.  Activities must be in service to learning objectives that are aligned to standards.  Maybe instead of having kids “just draw Pilgrims,” you’re having them practice an art standard about color and shading.  Maybe it’s a social studies standard related to learning about life long ago vs. life today.  Maybe they have to read for details and then draw to show they’ve understood the text.  In any case, whatever you’re doing has to have a learning verb attached to it.

Scenario #3: “We’re doing worksheets”

Just as teachers can go a little too carried away with “creative” activities, we can sometimes lose sight of our real goals for kids as we focus on covering the material.  Our job is not simply to finish the math workbook before June, or to have kids fill out the cause-and-effect graphic organizer correctly (“It’s EFFECT because CAUSE, not CAUSE because EFFECT!!”–me).  Our job is to ensure they master the core concepts of the grade-level curriculum, that they advance significantly in their reading and writing.  They need to use cause-and-effect understanding to make sense of text; filling out a worksheet correctly may or may not mean they have the fundamental understanding.  That’s why we need to step out of our comfort zones as educators and become more adept with practices that promote critical thinking: open-ended questions, peer-to-peer discussions to build knowledge, having kids speak and write to argue from evidence, giving kids real books to read and write about.

Next time I’ll talk about how to tell if your kids are learning anything.  For now, remember: talking to kids, giving kids fun things to do, or giving kids worksheets are not the same thing as learning.  Your teaching is successful when your kids understand or are able to do something that they could not before your teaching.

Near Year: It really is new (even for teachers!) (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this January-is-back-to-school series, I talked about checking your kids’ progress against your year-long goals and laying out the plans for dramatic academic success.  In Part 2, I talked about resetting your overall classroom norms, expectations, and consequences.  In Part 3, I’ll address those daily moments that can, taken together, make or break your year: routines and procedures.

As I’ve mentioned before, kids are like aliens: they are new to the planet, and they don’t really know how anything works yet.  They don’t know how to do anything you haven’t taught them how to do.  If you want them to line up, sharpen pencils, take out their folders, answer questions, read a book, or have a discussion, you have to show them how to do it and help them practice.  When your kids understand your expectations for day-to-day routines, everything runs smoothly.  When they are not on the same page as you, every event, from sitting on the rug to turning in papers, is going to be a constant, frustrating battle.

First, identify 1-3 times of day that things seem to fall apart–when do your kids get off task?  Do they just stop listening to you after recess?  When does all productivity seem to grind to a halt?  Name these events, and define their beginning and end: this is the event for which you will be developing a procedure.

Second, imagine exactly how you’d like this time of day to unfold.  What would kids be doing?  Where would they physically be standing?  What materials would they need?  Where should they be looking?  How loud would they be?  It’s helpful to write this down for at least one procedure, using the mnemonic: bodies, hands, eyes, mouths.  Remember that this is in service to your academic and social goals for your kids.  I once went on a power trip where I wanted my kids to be silent basically ALL THE TIME.  Mistake.  They hated it, and even though I could get them to do it, we were all miserable.  Letting your kids talk quietly as they come into the room might make it easier for them to be quiet during your math lesson.  Allow them as much freedom as they can handle, but clearly define what the correct behavior looks like.

Third, teach the routine to your kids and practice it!  Name the procedure, demonstrate it and describe what you’re doing, and coach kids to perform it.  (A poster helps too–see the featured image for this post.)  You might have a small group model how to transition back to their desks, while others check their performance against the procedure as explained.  Then have everyone try.  Narrate what you are seeing, making explicit reference to the criteria.  If kids don’t do it correctly, have them repeat it.  Make sure you keep it very positive!  You don’t want to fall into fuming, “WE WON’T GO TO LUNCH UNTIL WE LEARN HOW TO CONTROL OURSELVES IN LINE!!!”  This makes everyone unhappy.  Instead, make it a positive challenge.  They’ll buy it if you sell it!  “Wow, scholars, that was great!  You followed step 1, stand up and step 2, push in your chair perfectly.  We need to work on step 3: walk right to the line.  Let’s try one more time!  Who can remind us how to do it the right way?”

Fourth, follow through!  Sometimes it can seem silly to spend this much time working on these bits and pieces of classroom life, but it pays off.  If you focus on the purpose of the routines–to create the environment for learning and growth to occur productively–you’ll see that they buy you so much time in the long run.  Be careful with consequences: kids who are outright defying your expectations are breaking the class norms and need to have a conversation with you and a parent.  But mostly, kids are either unsure of the correct routine or unsure whether you really mean it.  They need practice, consistency, and positivity from you.  I’ve seen wonderful things happen by using a timer to keep track of how quickly kids accomplish transitions, and celebrating their progress!

Remember, to eliminate headaches around daily classroom events: define trouble spots, describe the ideal, teach & practice the new routine, and follow through.  You don’t have to wait for September to start over–you can start tomorrow!

New Year: It really is new (even for teachers!) – Part 2

In my last post, I focused on readdressing your goals for the year and tightening your plans to make sure your kids are on track to make great academic progress before June.  In this post, I’m going to talk about resetting your classroom management and culture.  January is not too late to build a great social world for you and your kids!

You can treat the first day back from break like it’s the first day of school.  In fact, you probably have to.  Remember that elementary kiddos are kind of like aliens: they are pretty new to this planet, and they’re still learning the ropes.  They’ve probably forgotten a lot about what you expect from them.  So here’s what you do:

First: Set class norms.  These can be done somewhat in collaboration with your kids, depending on their age.  Most people will recommend that you have kids generate lots of rules and then group them together under a few (3-5) overall norms.  I’ve found the kids under third grade have a hard time arriving at these “main idea rules.”  Sometimes I just tell kids flat-out that there are three rules: work hard, be nice, follow directions.  This covers all manner of sins!  Write down the norms, and explicitly talk about what they mean.  Here’s a picture of the norms my kids and I set, with everyone’s signatures:

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It says: Rules of Room 10: 1. Work hard 2. Be nice 3. Keep everything beautiful 4. Have fun generated with kids, circa 2009

Second: Develop predictable consequences.  For the vast majority of minor misbehaviors in my class, I give kids a reminder of what I expect.  Most of the time, they just forget, and forgetfulness should not be punished.  But my kids know that if they violate our core norms–that is, if they play around during work time, if they are deliberately mean to or hurt someone, or if they deliberately disobey a clearly understood direction–there will be fallout.  Try to make the consequence fit the misbehavior.  Skipping work means skipping something fun later; deliberately disobeying means a serious discussion with me.  Being mean is even more serious: you must have a one-on-one conversation with any child who has tried to hurt another, to get at the root of what’s going on and try to prevent this behavior from ever reoccurring.  An apology cannot be a punishment (“You must say you’re sorry or you can’t go to recess!!”), but your goal is that through conversation about the hurt done, you will be able to coach the student to apology.  All of these violations mean a phone call home later.

Third: Follow Through.  At least 90% of your kids do not actively wish to misbehave or defy you (and that other 10% are usually special cases who really need love and support).  When they push back against your rules, they’re just trying to figure out if the rules are real.  Remember, they’re new humans, and if you’ve slacked off on enforcing your class norms before, they’re just trying to figure out if you’ll do so again.  Stay above the fray: remain neutral (never angry–give yourself a minute if you’re upset!) and 100% predictable when it comes to enforcing classroom norms.

Now you’ve got the foundation for a positive classroom environment.  In my next post, I’ll address how to set routines and procedures that will help eliminate some of your daily struggle to just make things run smoothly!  In the meantime, remember: set & explain clear norms, create predictable consequences, and follow through (calmly).

New Year: It really is new (even for teachers!) (Part 1)

Hi teachers!

Okay, you made it through the first trimester, and have rested up during winter break.  Even though it’s not a new school year, the advent of 2015 really is a chance to start fresh with your kids.  If you were in a rut with your teaching before break, you can start an interesting new approach.  If your kids were acting up, you can press the reset button and fix your classroom culture.  This post will deal mostly with academic issues, and my next post will talk about class culture.

The key is to set goals and make plans.  Right now, that might be the last thing you feel like doing–you’re still on vacation, forgoodnesssake!–but you will not regret it when you see those smiling faces on Monday.

To get ready for the new year, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What kind of progress have we made toward our goals for the year?  What do we still need to do?
  2. How did my kids do academically in Trimester 1?  Which kids?  How do I know?
  3. What felt great about our classroom this fall?  Why was it so great?
  4. What definitely did not work this fall?  How do you know?

If you never set year-long goals to begin with, now is your chance!  Check out your district pacing guide and whatever assessments your school uses to measure progress at the end of the year.  For mastery tests (like, usually, math), set a goal that your class will average at least 80% on the final.  For progress tests (like the DRA, Fountas & Pinnell, or other forms of running records), set individual goals based on your students’ current performance: students at or above grade level should grow at least six months between now and June; for students below grade level, set a more ambitious target–I recommend one year of growth between now and June.  Define measures of success that are meaningful, rigorous, ambitious, and feasible for you and your students.  You’ll probably need one each for reading, math, and writing, but you can include other subjects as appropriate.

Next, check your data: which kids have been making progress or scoring well so far?  Which kids are not making progress?  In which areas?  You’ll have to look carefully to diagnose the underlying problems:

  • If a kid is struggling in math, is it because he doesn’t get the new concepts?  Is he missing prerequisite skills?  Does the assessment allow him to show what he knows, or are language or literacy barriers hiding his true skill?
  • If a kid is struggling in reading, is it because of decoding, fluency, or comprehension?  If decoding, what skills is she missing?  If fluency, does she read too fast or too slow, or without expression?  If comprehension, is she missing knowledge of story structure?  Does she know that reading is supposed to make sense?  Or is she simply new to English and therefore not yet able to comprehend English text?

Then, you make a plan.  You need to write down on a calendar when you will teach what and to whom.  Some standards and skills can be addressed whole-class; others will need to be taught in small groups, to meet individual needs.

You and your kids can make a ton of progress between now and June, if you set goals, diagnose gaps, and plan instruction!  2015, here we come!

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Our language arts skills tracker! The title says “Help our garden grow,” and the flower display our class average on each language arts test.