Professional Growth Through AfL

Submitted by Grant Page

Teacher stories are opportunities to share insights and celebrate growth. They are reflections on strengths and weaknesses we all have as professionals. Here is part of my story, originally written in 2006 for Middle Ground, the magazine of Middle Level Education published by the National Middle School Association, now the AMLE – Association of Middle Level Educators:

Examining Your Practice: Feedback as Part of Assessment

My entire notion of assessment has changed in the past dozen years. Like most teachers, I began teaching without a true understanding of assessment and the role that it plays in the learning process. I relied on numbers to report progress to students and their parents.

I was wrong.

In 1992 I began a learning journey that has changed the way I assess students’ work, evaluate their progress, and work in a classroom. I moved to a new middle school whose staff decided to throw out traditional numerical/percentage report cards as a means of reporting to parents.  We had no idea what we were getting into at the time.

Staff discussions revolved around student portfolios and statements of growth with a more anecdotal, less numerical approach. As my paradigm shifted, I realized that not only would a traditional report card need to change, but my teaching strategies would also need to reflect that change. I discovered that just as I was on a learning journey with respect to assessment, so were my students on a similar journey each and every day. Throughout the beginning of the journey, numbers were not as important as learning and growth.

As I observed the learning in my classroom, I realized that, like me, the students had been programmed into a numerical system of assessment and evaluation. In fact, they relied on numbers to tell them how they were doing. Unfortunately, any reflection on learning was shallow, often immediately dismissed after it was imparted. The system was void of those precious moments in a classroom when as a teacher you see that the students really get it! The “A-ha!” moments and the processes that led to them were not sufficiently accounted for. In my eyes these “light bulb” moments were the most important learning experiences for my students. So I decided to focus on just that, the process of learning, hoping that there would be a positive effect on the product.

I look after the cooking in our household. It is more of a hobby than a chore to me and it continues to be a lifelong learning experience. When I make a dish for the first time, I ask my wife what she thinks. I am looking for feedback so that I can make a decision about whether to keep the recipe as is, modify it based on her suggestions, or just throw it away and try again with something else. Her actions, interactions, and transactions with me while sampling the dish are very important. Over time I have realized that there are similar actions, interactions, and transactions going on in my classroom between my students and me.

Feedback after all is just that: information that we “feed” back to someone after they have performed a task. This feedback should provide further direction for improvement. It may involve some problem solving, experimentation, modification, or even a complete overhaul, but it is intended to give direction and motivation to continue, not to stop learning. Feedback takes a variety of forms and is an integral part of the observations, processes, conversations, products, and reflections that occur in my classroom. It is an exchange of information, between students and me, between students and peers, and between a student and himself or herself that results in the renewed pursuit of a goal yet to be attained. Feedback contributes to the planning of ongoing instruction by providing clues as to what students still need to know and do to achieve their goals. My goal is to provide effective and timely feedback as often as possible so that my students become better problem solvers and assessors of their own work, at the same time recognizing that feedback also influences my practice, making me a better teacher.

When is feedback effective and timely? This may sound ridiculous coming from a teacher, but I hope my students make mistakes. Mistakes are essential because they give learners feedback, bringing them close, I hope, to knowing what will work. Mistakes are like gold and become the source of feedback used to adjust what they are doing. I try to encourage my students to take “necessary risks.” When they do something the second or third time, I see that my students are learning what they know and what they need to know. They then decide what to do next based on the feedback they just received. If feedback is limited to numbers and letter grades, students are less likely to know what to change or do differently the next time they perform a task. Providing effective and informative feedback is a large part of the assessment process: a means not an end that exists to improve learning and teaching. Let me take you through some of the ways that I use feedback in my classroom.

My students are asked to demonstrate their understanding of concepts and execution of skills as a measure of success. At the beginning of an assignment, I ask my students two questions:

  • Where are you going? (These are concepts or skills.)
  • How are you going to get there? (These are steps in the learning process.)

Not only does this exercise help my students focus on the task at hand, it provides me with feedback that I can use to assess use of new vocabulary and reinforce proper process as they prepare for their demonstration. Students also revisit this goal-setting exercise to see if they are on the right track, sometimes changing their priorities or procedures.

As the students prepare for their demonstrations, I try to provide them with as many avenues for feedback as possible. I emphasize to them that they can correct, model, modify, compare, contrast, listen, describe, and observe others. Each of these actions provides feedback. I encourage them to “borrow” what works for others or to teach one of their peers what they know. A quick assessment of a peer’s work or a comparison to a model can also provide feedback.

Shortly before their demonstrations, students complete a written reflection. I typically give the students sentence starters such as:

  • The most important skill I learned was…
  • I have improved at …
  • One problem I solved was…
  • My solution was…

I am continually amazed by what my students write in these reflections. They are usually able to pinpoint key skills and concepts as well as describe their learning process. These reflections are also feedback for me as a teacher, often revealing “gaps” in learning that I must then address. They also provide me with sometimes unique and innovative solutions to problems of process. These reflections and my responses to them are fed back and forth between my students and me and provide a basis for further interaction on subsequent assignments. They are far more enlightening than a final grade, be it a number or a letter, because they make my students better learners and they make me a better teacher.

Five important points should be made here:

  1. When I give feedback or model it for students, I focus on the actions or behavior, not the person. “What can you do next? Maybe you could think about…?”
  2. I always try to provide information so that behaviors can change. “I noticed that you were doing…. I think if you tried to … you may see different results.”
  3. I look for the teachable moment when my students are ready for feedback, not when I feel I want to give it. They will tell you when they want or need it!
  4. When there is a positive change in learning, I reinforce the change as soon as it is noticed, reminding them that they are on the right track. “I like the way you just did…”
  5. If the feedback I am giving is to correct a mistake or behavior, I wait until just before a student does that behavior. I often have to focus on observing my students and look for clues as to when the mistake or behavior may occur again.

In each of the points above there is action (the process of learning), interaction (student-to-teacher, student-to-student, or student-to-self) and transaction (an exchange of information). The process of learning is being modified to produce a better product.

As Rick Stiggins states in his book Student-Involved Classroom Assessment , “I want my students to get to a place where they no longer need me to tell them whether they have done well—to a place where they know in their minds and hearts how they have performed because they know the meaning of success” (p.17). Using effective and timely feedback can take my students to this place. On their learning journeys, my students have become better problem solvers and assessors of their work. In turn, they have provided me with a wealth of information about my teaching practice. They are more engaged in their learning and I am more engaged in my teaching. After 12 years, I do not see an end to these journeys. As they continue, I hope that my students and I will look for the feedback that will nourish us along the way.

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