The Cycle of Learning: How Formative Assessment Created Beautiful Music

Submitted by: Bruce Mellesmoen

“I thought my heart was going to come right out of my chest!”

These were the words my 12-year-old son, Bobby, whispered to me. He had just finished playing The Little Drummer Boy for a room full of people he had never met before, and in his words, he “nailed it”. Bobby had been preparing tirelessly for his piano recital, and the hours of practice had paid off with an excellent performance. We both relaxed in our seats and enjoyed the remaining students share their pieces for the Christmas celebration. It was a beautiful way to spend some time with my son, celebrating the learning that had occurred.

I recall how I felt when I learned the title of the piece he would be performing. I was so excited because this was his mother’s favorite Christmas carol, and I knew it would warm her heart to hear her first born play for her. With dogged determination, he practiced over and over, and as the days passed we both began to hear the improvement. I recall the day when he went mistake- free, start to finish, because all he did when he was done was let out a quiet, “Yes!” with a subtle fist pump. He did not stop there; he knew that one perfect performance did not guarantee he would replicate this at his recital. For days I listened to The Little Drummer Boy; sometimes it was perfect, other times there were flaws. What we both noticed was that there were more flawless performances each day. All of that work led up to his performance, a solo that barely lasted one minute from start to finish, including his shy bow before heading back to my side. He did a great job, and I could not have been more proud. As I watched and listened to the kids playing their pieces at the Christmas celebration, I could not help but think about how I was seeing the results of authentic learning in its purest form.

His learning started early.

In our work, we often talk about learning and assessment in terms designed to help us wrap our head around what is considered best practice. We talk about practice time and game day when discussing formative and summative assessments. This was game day for those kids, their guests, and their teachers. The students were given a piece to practice over a period of time, coming back to their teacher on a weekly basis to demonstrate their progress. It was during these lessons that feedback was given to the students and next steps were set up, based on where they were at that moment. The students then went away and practiced some more, continuing the learning cycle.

During this entire learning journey there was not one mark given, only feedback. Some of that feedback occurred in the moment beside the teacher; some of it was in written form in their journal. It was a straight-forward process:

Summative assessment should be a snapshot in time; it should not mean finished and forgotten. Katie White writes, “Summative assessment is the way we verify learning and determine proficiency. It is an essential part of the learning cycle” (p. 153). Note how she says it is part of the cycle, not the end of the cycle. Bobby’s recital was a verification of what he had learned and was an opportunity to show his teacher he is ready for the next challenge.Bobby and I both viewed the recital as his summative assessment, a culmination of his hard work where he had one shot in front of the crowd to demonstrate his proficiency. Of course this does not mean that he is done playing the piano, nor will he stop playing The Little Drummer Boy. He has already talked about how he will be playing this for his relatives this Christmas, and we’ve discussed the possibility of creating a performance tying the songs he knows together in a longer performance.

As the principal of Waldheim School I get to see teachers working with students on a daily basis. It is through the art and science of teaching that our teachers are making this happen. I’ve seen the creative ways teachers are carving out time in the day to listen to students read, to sit beside students as they wrestle with concepts, or to simply stand back and watch them work together to deepen their understanding. I saw a prime example of this while watching students in home economics earlier this year. The students were busy creating fondant for their final project in their cake decorating unit.  During this unit I had seen the kids experiment, collaborate, and then seek feedback from their teachers. It was through this formative assessment that the students readied themselves for their final, summative assessment. I really enjoyed watching this unfold, and I also secretly hoped for a slice of cake when they were done!

Assessment is not easy, and when I reflect on how I used to teach, particularly my math classes, I am embarrassed by the steps I failed to take. Here was the normal learning cycle when I taught:

  1. Tell the kids what they’d be learning (I’d post my objectives by writing, today you will learn…..)
  2. Have them copy notes off the board
  3. Demonstrate two or three examples from their upcoming assigned work
  4. With about 25% of the class time remaining, I’d assign several questions for homework
  5. Get frustrated the following day when the kids hadn’t figured it out on their own
  6. Move on with the next lesson because I felt we didn’t have time to stop
  7. Get more frustrated when the kids failed their tests
  8. Repeat…

There were so many opportunities for me to do a better job with my teaching, and looking back now I have to pause, understand that I was doing what I thought was best in the moment, forgive myself, and move on.

I wonder how well Bobby would have done had he learned how to play piano the way I taught math. Imagine if he had shown up for lessons only to sit and listen to his teacher play The Little Drummer Boy so he would know how it should sound, but not getting to touch the keys for 75% of the lesson. Imagine the frustration he, my wife, and I would have when he came home to practice, only to have us fail to know how to help him. Imagine him returning for lessons having experienced little or no growth. Now imagine how he would have felt in that church getting ready for his summative assessment.  I’m glad Bobby learned how to play The Little Drummer Boy the way he did. I’m glad he ‘nailed it’.


White, K. (2017). Softening the edges: Assessment practices that honor K – 12 teachers and learners. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

About the Author

Bruce Mellesmoen is the principal of Waldheim School, a K – 12 facility in central Saskatchewan, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @brucemellesmoen

When the Bubble Bursts

Submitted by Grant Page

I spent most of my teaching career in one school, a school where, from the beginning, I was challenged to develop and defend my pedagogy and philosophy of learning. I was given the opportunity to explore alternatives, take risks and fail miserably, so long as I kept moving forward. It was exhilarating and exhausting. In Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, he writes about being able to clearly articulate your “why” or the thing that inspires you. During this time, I found my “why” – everyone needs an opportunity to grow.

Prior to teaching at this school, my experience with assessment had been mainly with marks, numbers, percentages or letters that were used to communicate how one was “doing in school” on a report card a few times a year. It was percentage based, and number oriented with only short generic comments used from a pre-determined list. Through my post-secondary education, I took one class dealing with evaluation. My one-and-only memory was that of an assignment where I had to create a five-question multiple choice test. I received a mark for my efforts – mine was 100%, but no written feedback! The word “assessment” was never used or discussed in this class only “evaluation”.

A few years into my career, in 1992, I had the opportunity to be part of creating the culture in a new school and help shape the vision of what the staff believed to be the purpose of school. We talked about engagement and student voice and assessment. We spent time thinking about what engagement meant and how we could provide our students with voice. We were also given time to explore alternative ways of assessing students. For a while, we had no report cards and tried to institute a portfolio model of assessment that included student self-reflection, written teacher reflection of growth in skill and understanding for all students, and student-led portfolio discussions instead of the more traditional parent-teacher conferences. As I said before it was often exhausting to create this culture from scratch.

In my classroom I developed an assessment philosophy that focussed on growth and problem-solving. There were no numbers on assignments. There was self and peer assessment, descriptive feedback, as well as discussions about strengths and challenges we all had in our learning. Yes – students learned from me… but I also was learning from them… through interactive conversations and observations. It took the better part of fifteen years before I was comfortable with what I had created. I don’t know how many times I changed an assessment or incorporated a new protocol into a lesson only to realize I needed to tweak the latest version just as I was using it with my students. Change became a norm. Learning and growth were always the goals.

The foundation of my assessment philosophy was a four-point rubric with these words – beginning, developing, strengthening and secure. I had these words placed on the wall in the back of my classroom as a constant reminder of the process of learning. Students had helped me create criteria for each level of the rubric and those words were used to describe the place each of us was at in our learning. During instruction we often talked about revising your thinking and refining your skills. I asked students to make their thinking visible and I celebrated their mistakes with the same joy as their successes using both to create a safe place to learn and grow.  As our school website evolved, I added a section on the page describing my program that outlined what skills and understanding would be learned and how students would be assessed. It was my “why” and the intent was to inform parents and the broader community about how assessment can move learning forward.

I retired at the end of the last school year. I did my best to leave my successor with everything that they would need to continue the work I had done. Some say I went beyond what is normally expected but I had a reason… my “why”. I wanted the students I worked with over the past year or two to continue their opportunities to grow through that assessment model and I thought that by handing over everything I had collected over the twenty-six years I was at the school, growth would continue.

In late October, I went online to remove my files and personal information from the school server. I was checking the school’s website to make sure that my contact information was no longer available when I came across that page that used to be my “why” – a page of information that explained the goals of my program and how students would be assessed while working to achieve those goals. Something had changed.

One word stood out – one single word – that completely changed the focus of everything on that page. A word that I spent most of my teaching career trying to understand had been replaced with a different word that contradicted my beliefs. It was the pin prick that burst the bubble. The carefully crafted bubble that was the result of years of investigation, experimentation and risk-taking into how students are assessed had burst and like the child that delights in the growth of a bubble only to see it disappear before his/her eyes, I was disappointed and I was angry. I felt a loss and grieved over it.

It has been a few weeks since the bubble burst and as my anger subsided and I accepted the fact it is time to move on, something hit me. When a bubble bursts, the child simply starts another bubble. Why not me! I have realized that it is important to keep making bubbles, to breathe life into the reasons I do what I do. So I have started some new bubbles continuing with the idea that everyone needs an opportunity to grow, that same “why” that I found as a teacher. Instead of providing my students with an opportunity to grow through assessment, I want to turn my attention to helping educators connect with each other and share their experiences with assessment. To encourage them to be risk-takers and explorers. To watch and listen and talk with them to find out where they are in their learning journey and help them keep their own learning moving forward. To provide them with an opportunity to grow.

Moving Assessment Forward in Strong and Wise Ways

Submitted by Brooke Moore and Neil Stephenson

Teachers who spend time crafting thoughtful comments on student work are wasting their time if they also give a score (Dylan Wiliam, 2015). But taking away the mark won’t do any good either unless you replace it with something worthwhile. The worthwhile strategies are clear and the news is not new: beyond almost any other strategy or improvement action, effective teaching and learning uses the following strategies as outlined in his 2015 book Embedding Formative Assessment.

  • Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
  • Engineering effective classroom discussions, activities, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning
  • Providing feedback that moves learning forward
  • Activating learners as instructional resources for one another
  • Activating learners as owners of their own learning

At this point we can conclude that there is no mystery about the “what”. However, many of us struggle with the “how”.

  • How do you get kids to give one another good feedback?
  • What does good feedback even look like?
  • How can I manage to give kids feedback when I don’t have extra time in a day.

In May 2019 the 6th CAfLN Conference and Symposium in Delta, BC will do a deep dive into the “how” of assessment for learning. Our pre-conference day on Thursday May 2nd will start with school tours. Here's the plan: you and your colleagues from across the country get on either a secondary or elementary focused bus and, after some coffee, muffins, and a little intention setting, head out to visit three schools where teachers have shifted to using assessment for learning in their classrooms and are actively using collaborative inquiry to support and develop this shift. Along the way, you'll enjoy a lunch at one of the school sites. The tour will end at Farm Roots  where we will debrief, enjoy the farm and beach location, and then transition to a relaxing evening with refreshments, dinner and a cash bar while enjoying ignite-styled talks to open the conference.

Whether or not you join the fun on the school tour, all registrants are welcome to the Barbeque and Ignite event. The talks will be high energy, provocative and feature diverse perspectives. There will be time to network and enjoy the gorgeous setting.

Friday May 3rd will kick off with a welcome and a lively keynote from Dr. Linda Kaser and Dr. Judy Halbert, founders of the Network of Inquiry and Innovation. The Network, once called the Network of Performance Based Schools, was originally designed to provide a place for teachers to engage in action research around British Columbia’s Performance Standards. The action research eventually distinguished itself as collaborative teacher inquiry, a process Kaser and Halbert capture in their writing: The Spiral Playbook (2017), System Transformation for Equity and Quality (2016), Spirals of Inquiry (2013), Leadership Mindsets: Innovation and Learning in the Transformation of Schools (2009), and, with Helen Timperley, A Framework for Transforming Learning in Schools: Innovation and the Spiral of Inquiry (2014). They have stories from around the globe about teachers changing their assessment practice through collaborative inquiry and also about the formal leaders who supported them in doing so.

Following the keynote, colleagues from across the country will offer a variety of breakout sessions from which you can choose. The day will be packed with learning from experts, researchers, and practitioners. Whether you are a formal or informal leader at a systems or classroom scope, you’ll walk away with concrete ideas backed by solid research.

The theme of "Moving Assessment Forward in Strong and Wise Ways" focuses on the processes of change and how assessment for learning can move us closer to achieving quality and equity education for ALL learners. The change in question may be small in scope such as a teacher who designs learning where students feature as resources for one another, or a cross-grade group of teachers who use clear criteria to help students learn or it may be large in scope such as a system that has moved from a sorting to a learning system by using assessment for learning principles. The pairing of the concepts "strong and wise" means our learning will be focused on both the content of the change and the process of the change, whether at the classroom, school, district or provincial level.
So please join us in May 2019 at the 6th CAfLN Conference and Symposium, where the mighty Fraser River meets the great Pacific Ocean, for an action-oriented, hard look at the strong and wise ways of assessment for learning.

Stumbling Toward Collective Efficacy

Submitted by: Steve Kitchen, Jesse Reis, Shantel Strasky, Brenda Wilton

If you were to visit our school in Waldheim, Saskatchewan (a K-12 school of almost 400 students that is part of Prairie Spirit School Division) you would not hear one grade 3 student say to another: “Hey, have you noticed how the collective efficacy of our school staff really accelerated exponentially once they established a collaborative culture?“ Nor would you be likely to hear the second student reply, “Yah, and my parallel perception that every adult at Waldheim School has a deep and thorough understanding of me as a learner cannot be attributed to coincidence, although I know you’ll say that correlation does not equal causation.” You probably wouldn’t hear these conversations until at least grade 5…kidding.

When we say that we have stumbled toward collective efficacy there is some truth in that. Our successive administrative teams have purposefully invited our school to create a collaborative culture; as we became aware of the concept of collective efficacy it dawned on us that we had fortuitously collected many of the puzzle pieces. We already identified with the statement that “in schools, when educators believe in their combined ability to influence student outcomes, there are significantly higher levels of academic achievement” (Bandura, 1993), but then what? What do we do when we encounter a challenging 1000-piece puzzle that is partially assembled? First, let’s examine the invaluable puzzle pieces that we had “stumbled upon” at our school.

Our adult learning journey included the following elements:

  1. We participated in peer visits to our colleagues’ classrooms to observe their teaching and engaged in mutual coaching conversations.
  2. We implemented staff book clubs where we selected professional reading and shared how the reading impacted our instructional practices.
  3. Our EAs also participated in a Zones of Regulation book club and are excited to attend a “Zones of Regulation” conference in Vancouver in November.
  4. Our division has each school team do a Learning for Life presentation in the spring; we have included EAs, our caretaker, and administrative assistant in these presentations.
  5. During staff meetings, each teacher has presented their learning that emerged from their professional goal for that year.
  6. Many staff took control of their own professional development by participating in or hosting division sponsored Inspired Learning Opportunities (ILOs).
  7. We had focused on the creation of learning spaces that reflect the values contained in the My Prairie Spirit Classroom (MPSC): Big Ideas, Choice, Side-by-Side, Next Steps, Collaborate, Construct, and All Learners.

In addition to the deliberately planned practices outlined above, we cannot deny the value of the incidental collaborations that occur daily in the staffroom and after school at the informal Pop and Chips Club hosted by Mrs. Wilton. The question became, what can we do to capitalize on this momentum and take next steps toward having a deep and thorough understanding of every learner that we work with (part of our school goal)?

For this school year we have committed to collecting the following assessment related puzzle pieces:

  1. To explore and refine our thinking around assessing the whole student, we are involved in an all staff book club; Katie White’s Softening the Edges has already provoked a great deal of constructive discussion about how our assessment practices impact our students.
  2. Our Director of Education posed the question “How do you know?” which challenged our assumptions about beliefs that influence practices. She has tweaked the question this year to “How are you doing…?, which is both an encouragement to care for one another as well as an invitation to fill in the blank (ex. How are you doing assessment?)

We have accepted this invitation and begun to share our “sacred” assessment tools with one another; this could not happen authentically without the atmosphere of vulnerability, transparency, and risk-taking that has been nurtured in our school as we stumbled toward collective efficacy.

About the authors:

Steve Kitchen is a teacher and learning facilitator at Waldheim School. Follow him at @stevekitch1

Jesse Reis is the vice-principal and a classroom teacher at Waldheim School. Follow him at @mrjreis

Shantel Strasky is a grade 1/2 teacher and learning facilitator at Waldheim School. Follow her at @SStrasky

Brenda Wilton is a Special Education Resource Teacher at Waldheim School. Follow her at @bmgwteach

A Conference Chair’s Reflection

Submitted by Bernie Van Doninck


It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost six months since the CAFLN conference in Dartmouth and that there is still so much energy here as a result of this event.  On a personal note I want to extend my deepest gratitude to everyone who attended. Equally so, I humbly thank the members of the CAFLN executive for inviting me to be a part of this great organization.  As conference chair, I am so grateful for having had the opportunity to see the conference to fruition – especially since, due to circumstances beyond our control, it was almost the conference-that-wasn’t! However with patience, flexibility, perseverance, and a committed planning committee, a great event came to pass. Whew!!

I still can’t stop talking about the keynote; it was simply superb! But I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that the initial idea was more than a little risky. The implementation had to be just right.  If I may digress for a moment, Mike Rutherford, formerly of Genesis and Mike and the Mechanics, talks about “locale memory” being one of the talents of the “Artisan Teacher”.  Simply put it’s that innate ability, intentional and unintentional, of a teacher to maximize the use of space to support the retention of learning. I mention this because I can still remember every detail of the night the keynote was born, over dinner at The Bicycle Thief restaurant, with critical friends, Geoff Cainen and Lorna Earl. I know with certainty that somewhere in a drawer in my house there is still a napkin on which I wrote down notes and details.

Our goal was to illustrate how a performance task – in this case, a musical performance – can provide the most concrete example of the explicit practice/feedback cycle that is foundational to assessment for learning.  All too often, I hear that performance assessment cannot be replicated in academic subjects. I couldn’t disagree more. And so a call to action at this year’s conference was to invite delegates to apply performance assessments to all subjects. This began as a challenge, issued to delegates through the keynote, to apply all elements of assessment for learning to their own, individual contexts. The breakout sessions extended this challenge throughout the day.


So what did we actually witness during the unique “keynote” session?  We witnessed a master teacher demonstrating both content knowledge and exemplary instructional skills; we witnessed the use of clearly articulated learning goals and performance criteria; we witnessed a teacher setting the highest of expectations for his students; we witnessed those students demonstrating critical evidence of their knowledge and skills; we witnessed the exemplary use of feedback to improve students’ performance; and we witnessed a deep, respectful relationship between teacher and students.  And the result?  Total student engagement in learning, as well as high levels of achievement.


The exemplary teaching demonstrated that morning in Dartmouth reflected the constant cycle of modelling, practice and feedback.  As CAfLN founding member Damian Cooper teaches us, “plan, teach, assess” and repeat.


Not Your Average Membership

Submitted by Katie White

As I was preparing to attend the Canadian Assessment for Learning Conference and Symposium in Dartmouth this year, I was asked more than once by colleagues why I work so hard to attend. I certainly have enough “stuff” to fill my days and Nova Scotia is awfully far away from Saskatchewan, so why the commitment to make it happen? I started to think about what makes CAfLN different; what makes it worth it…and I recalled when I figured out the importance of this network for the first time.

I had been a member for a full year before I attended my first conference. I knew about the huge resource of the CAfLN website and I was interested in their mission, dedicated to the role of assessment for learning in education.  However, it was not until I attended the 2017 conference and symposium in Saskatoon that I truly felt the benefit of the network. I emphasize the word “felt” because that is what makes this membership so different.

During this first conference and symposium experience, I came to feel how powerful this network is in feeding my own need to connect, to relate, and to feel a part of something bigger than myself, my school division, or even my province. I had a visceral sense of belonging that I have come to realize is so important when exploring complexities like assessment and educational change. After that initial experience, I knew I had a network with whom I could safely talk, wonder, and explore. I could be vulnerable and empowered at the same time.

This membership is about a Canadian context, and like our country itself, the diversity of this context is exactly what makes it so rich. I met educators from across Canada and we shared our own unique perspectives and worldviews, while searching for commonalities and relationships that nurture a feeling of shared experience. I remember leaving that initial gathering absolutely sure in my heart that CAfLN was something I wanted to be a part of. I knew that my time spent with these people would enrich my work in education. I developed friendships in very short order and these friendships continued throughout the year that followed my first conference and symposium. I stayed connected through social media and these conversations helped me to understand layers of assessment for learning in various Canadian contexts. By networking with others, I was able to see how AfL “lives” in British Columbia, how it manifests in Ontario, and how it has developed in my own province of Saskatchewan.

Thinking back now on the second conference and symposium in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, I continue to feel the powerful pull of this network. In Dartmouth, friendships and professional relationships deepened, more difficult questions were asked, and different perspectives were shared. I learned more about the eastern Canadian perspective, which added depth to my personal search for ways to make learning increasingly powerful for both teacher and students.

The power of a CAfLN membership can be found in both what it is and what it is not. This network is not about business. It is not about “presentations” or “knowers.” It is not about the “right answers” and the “certain solutions.” Rather, it is about seeking, about discovering, about connecting. Whatever perspective and knowledge a participant brings to the conversation is important. Every person has a voice and every voice matters. The conference and symposium are safe places to ask questions and seek personally meaningful answers.

Canadian Assessment for Learning Network is not your average network. It is committed to a powerful purpose and how it achieves this purpose is unique. The conference and symposium are committed to bringing many voices into the learning space, including those of students. Participants are invited to share their stories and ideas and harvest them for meaning. The keynotes are innovative and the sessions are highly engaging. When you leave the conference and symposium, you feel part of something powerful; something that really matters. So, I have begun my preparations for the next event in Delta in 2019. I know it will be more than worth it and hope you will join me there.

A Reflection on the 5th CAfLN Conference Keynote

Submitted by Denine Laberge

Years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Damian Cooper speak in Winnipeg. He said, “If you want to see real learning in action, give a kid a video game he’s never played before.” He went on to describe the process of a child who discovers, engages and invests in a game that stimulates his curiosity, pushes him out of his comfort zone and finally challenges him to excel. When he reaches the point of frustration, he does not read the instruction manual, ask his parents for help or give up. That’s when he gets on the phone and calls his friend over and cooperative learning takes over.

I wanted more than anything to bring that video game into my classroom. How could I get my students to get that excited and passionate about math and problem solving? Math is math, and it just doesn’t work like that.

Then, I had an unexpected experience at the beginning of the 5th annual CAfLN conference in Nova Scotia when 35 musicians and their director entered the room. We’ve all been to conferences that begin with some student entertainment and although it was entertaining, their mission was far more strategic. I soon realized that they were literally the instruments of Lorna Earl’s brilliant keynote address. They were there to teach us about formative assessment.

What could I possibly learn about formative assessment in math through a group of young musicians? Their process was nothing like what was needed in a math class.

As their director, Nathan Beeler, introduced a new piece of music to his students, we watched him masterfully illustrate the five strategies of formative assessment to improve student learning as outlined by Dylan Wiliam. The relationship Beeler shared with his students was evident in the back and forth banter that demonstrated evidence of a safe environment of trust. Mistakes were valued as springboards for conversation and learning, in which all had a voice. He made the learning of a new piece of music relevant and relatable to his group of young musicians. He reviewed and verified prior knowledge, helping them to confirm they already had a skill set for much of what was expected of them, introducing new parts or challenges, highlighting their learning goals.

Constant, immediate feedback kept them engaged in the process of learning. Seeing it in action clearly demonstrated the transferability of these principles in all subjects.

Students were then distributed to tables where teachers analyzed and identified the assessment strategies they had witnessed, with the critically important element of student voice to affirm the learning they were experiencing on a daily basis.

My math students need to know where they are going. They need to feel safe when making mistakes and trying again and again to get it right. They need to know that they already possess much of the knowledge and skill that is required to move their learning forward. They need to see the relevance of what they are learning. These truths are certainly not unique to music.

What can a group of musicians teach me about formative assessment in math? A lot more than I expected!

Understandings of Assessment Must Be Formative

Submitted by Jimmy Pai – Secondary Teacher in Ottawa, Ontario

What does assessment mean to you?

Is it a test? A quiz? An interaction? A response? A student’s glare in a particular direction as she’s working on a problem? Or perhaps a teacher’s noticings of this glare and many moments?

This word, ‘assessment,’ can be a contentious one, depending on what our experiences have been with the word, and how we continue to define it.

For some of my colleagues, it doesn’t matter what colours we add to the word ‘assessment.’ Their negative experiences overshadow everything, rendering all terrain around the word infertile – an area of professional reflection where nothing grows.

For some of my colleagues, somehow the tone completely changes depending on what words or phrases we attach to this word ‘assessment’ – Formative assessment;  Summative assessment; Assessment of learning; Assessment for learning;  Assessment as learning – as if the qualifiers are puppet masters, and we are their strings that clutch onto completely segregated limbs of the same concept.

In a way, it’s kind of like water.  Our experiences may differ depending on what containers we see it in, what creatures lurk within, or whether it had drowned or sustained us in the past.  And so, what is the shape of your water?  Is it a book? An award winning film?  Or perhaps something that powers your coffee?

So what am I getting at?

Assessment is understood in different ways.  This is true for us teachers on the front lines, as well as in literature.

And that is fine.  Just like our learning journey, we are all at different places.  Just like our journey, there may not be a single destination that everyone is headed toward, but there may be more helpful and beautiful areas to explore (but then again, beauty is subjective as well).  Just like how we facilitate learning, we need to appreciate the fact that people are at different places.

And that’s really it.

We are standing on different roads and we are painted with different scenery: perhaps a forest, a city, or a beach.  Some of us may have recently stepped foot onto a meadow.  We may have been chased here by a pledge of wasps.  Or maybe we just woke up from a mid-autumn dream.  Or maybe we came specifically to claim the colours of the flowers as our own.

Appreciating the diversity of where we’re at is important.  But not nearly as important as recognizing that, like sharks, we will suffocate unless we swim.  However we have come to understand assessment, there is no moving our craft forward, unless we move with it.

In other words: our understandings of assessment must be formative.

No, I am not talking about the field of formative assessment that has exploded ever since Black and Wiliam (1998a, or 1998b) wrote about the insides of a black box.  I am referring to the idea that our understandings of assessment, if we were to maintain a position of learning, need to be malleable.

For example, within the past four years or so, I have been working on creating a thinking classroom (e.g. Liljedahl 2016).  In many ways, this completely shifted my interactions with the students, and students’ interactions with each other.  While I have always facilitated group activities and conversations in order to create a helpful learning environment, the elements of the thinking classroom has been transformative for my practice.  Some have misunderstood and reduced the tenets of Liljedahl’s work to simply having kids stand around and working on whiteboards, there’s truly many aspects to explore and consider within the framework.

Shifting my practice in this way was also consequential for my assessment practices.  And since definitions are only useful to me if they are functional, my definitions of assessment have also changed.

And this is what I mean.  As we learn more about learning and more about teaching, our assessments necessarily change.  As we respond to our students in different ways for their different needs, our assessments necessarily change.  As we converse and learn from colleagues about different tasks, activities, and ways of implementing tasks and activities, our assessments necessarily change.  And as we modify and fuel our assessments, our definitions are also evolving.

For me, assessment is not bound by paper.  It is not shackled by desks sorted neatly in rows and columns.  It is not defined by percentages or single letters.

For me, assessment lives and breathes through the conversations between students.  It powers and informs my decisions in the classroom.  It brings my attention to why one of my students have been quiet for days, and that the silence had less to do with the activities in my class, and more to do with the happenings at home.  It prompts me to support students with all the knowledge and experience I can muster.

My understandings of assessment are constantly evolving because I am constantly learning more about my students.  As I learn more about my students, I am constantly challenged to try different strategies of reaching out to them.  As I extend my hands, I am constantly imagining different ways of providing feedback based on what I am learning about them.

So the water flows constantly.

What is the shape of your water?

And, perhaps more importantly: what will you make with it?

The Landscape in Which You Live

Submitted by Lori Jeschke – Director of Education in Prairie Spirit School Division, Saskatchewan


“Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.”

Spanish Philosopher Ortega Y Gasset

What do we want to be known for in Prairie Spirit?

When I get to share about the work we are engaged as a School Division with other Divisions in our province and across Canada, I describe some of our Learning for Life stories, how they reflect our My Prairie Spirit Classroom (MPSC) document (#mpscpssd) and the learning leadership evident in our schools.

If we believe and practice the big ideas behind the statements in MPSC with adults, then I can confidently tell others that I believe our teachers, in turn, are practicing this with their students and that this cannot help but impact student achievement. Talking about this makes me reflect on our School Division’s mission: Learning without limits in a world of possibilities. Our vision is: Learners for Life.

Our work, our business, our moral imperative? LEARNING! If I’m looking for evidence to answer the question, ‘How do you know?’, then what does learning look like? Sound like? Feel like? As I get to share our MPSC document with others in more detail, a common question emerges: How do we know that this MPSC pedagogy/way of being and doing is impacting student achievement?

My first response – “Great question!” I would go on to describe that we believe in risk-taking. People are surprised when I tell them that we share “I Blew It” stories with our new teachers.

They can’t believe that we would have teachers trying something new and being terrified, yet looking forward to going back the next day to try it again because of how engaged their students were.

I tell them we believe in side by side learning. They are shocked that we would dare ask teachers and administrators to think about 80/20 in classrooms, staff meetings and PD.

I tell them that we believe in reflecting on our practice and again, they can’t believe that our principals and vice principals are willing to turn and talk about their thinking during our Administrative Leadership Team (ALT) meetings.

What do our learners look like? Sound like? In Prairie Spirit, our main response to these questions would be the tenets of My Prairie Spirit Classroom. This document is our anchor chart or learning focus and provides us with a common language and practice for all of our learning opportunities.

As a learning leader in Prairie Spirit School Division, I am always asking myself how I will approach every learning opportunity as a My Prairie Spirit Classroom?

Sandra Herbst reminds us that leading is a learning person’s job and asks the question: “What will other people learn because you were in the room?”

Einstein said: “I never teach pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” How will what you do and say at meetings, PD, interactions, provide the conditions for learning that reflect what you believe about learning or who you are as a learner? How will the landscape in which you live tell others about who you are?

“The critical skill of this century is NOT what you hold in your head, but your ability to tap into and access what other people know.” (Wiseman, 2014)

Our Learning for Life focus for this year involves a Question of Practice:

How do we know that the learning that we are focusing on—held in the statements within My Prairie Spirit Classroom—is impacting student achievement?

We are focused on three areas:

  1. Digging Deeper into our My Prairie Spirit Classroom document – to unpack, discover and reveal what lies within the statements… #relevance – what does that look/sound like? #mpscpssd, #mpsc, #allstudents, #sidebyside #relationships
  2. Feedback/Coaching – we began the work of mediative questioning with Sandra Herbst this past year. She modeled the practice of classroom visits, helped us to notice in relation to teacher set goals, and provided us with the opportunity to craft mediative questions to invite further thinking. This year, we want to dig deeper into providing feedback and enter into coaching conversations.
  3. Evidence of Learning – in order for us to answer the question of “how do we know?” we need to gather evidence to help us tell the story of what is happening in our classrooms, our schools, and in the Division. How will we be able to show what we know? In other words, if you are describing your school as a place where MPSC is actualized in everyone’s classrooms and the person you are telling responds with “show me”, what will they see, hear, experience that would help answer that question?

What evidence do we need to collect? What conversations do we need to have? What will we notice? What might be our first next steps?

I shared a TED talk called “Music is a Language” by a famous bass guitar player, Victor Wooten, with our Admin Council during our committed Learning Time at our weekly meeting. . The focus was on the importance of learning; he connected the process of learning to talk with learning to play music or an instrument.

He used the analogy that “as a baby, you were not sent to a room a few hours a week with other babies to learn how to talk… no, you were allowed to jam with professionals when you were learning to talk.” Jamming is not a performance, but it’s an interactive experience that can be deeply personal and emotional.

I had the opportunity to jam with some amazing learners at the CAfLN Conference and Symposium over the past four years. This opportunity to ‘jam’ continues via our Facebook group and also within posts on the CAfLN website.

We are looking forward to this year’s CAfLN Conference 2018 – Sailing Forward with Assessment for Learning – May 3-5 in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The opening and closing sessions of the conference will feature live rehearsals with the Halifax All City Wind Ensemble conducted by Nathan Beeler and moderated by Lorna Earl featuring a guided discussion and discovery of the key “look-fors” present in high quality Assessment for Learning. Conversations will focus on how this transparent and engaging example represents and models the best practices associated with AFL and how this can transfer into the everyday classroom.

What might it be like for you to jam with other learners? What might you learn that you could take with you into the classrooms you engage with? How might those interactions add to our responses to the question “How do we know?”


A Winter Message

Contributions from Lorna Earl, Kent Brewer and Grant Page


Winter is still with us, so we need to be thinking about all of the things that give us pleasure, now and in the future – skiing, snowboarding, ice fishing, book reading, wine sipping, images of sun and hiking and picnics and cottages, and of course, planning a spring trip to Halifax/Dartmouth in May for the 5th Annual CAfLN Conference and Symposium. Information can be found on the opening session as well as breakout sessions with presenters from across the country. There is also a direct link to the Double Tree by Hilton, site of this year’s event.

So once you have searched the web for “things to do” in Halifax, register for the conference and symposium and join CAfLN members from across the country as we share our wisdom and experiences using AfL as an mechanism for teaching and learning.


Like our CAfLN Facebook Page and Join our Group!

The Canadian Assessment for Learning Network has gone social! We have added another aspect of Social Media with hopes of enhancing our networks web presence with our newly created Facebook Page. Additionally, educators that have a keen interest on deepening their understanding of AfL will have the opportunity to join the CAfLN Facebook Group. The newly created group is a great place for educators to collaborate and discuss the many facets of AfL and the related issues impacting learning in our Canadian schools. As we know, Assessment for Learning is very much a journey, and by utilizing the power of this digital space, we are very excited to be able to connect educators from coast to coast.

Like our Facebook page at and join our group at

Conference and Symposium News

CAfLN allocates a portion of membership fees to travel bursaries (flights and accommodations) which assist members with limited access to professional learning funds in attending our annual events. A member may apply for up to $750 to attend our Annual Conference and Symposium. To apply for a travel bursary, please send a brief e-mail to  by Friday February 16, 2018. Successful applicants will be informed by email shortly thereafter.

Our Network’s Purpose

As you know, one of CAfLN’s main purposes is to establish relationships that act as the ‘‘connective tissue’’ of Assessment for Learning across Canada. Through these relationships, CAfLN members work together, share knowledge and challenges, create a common language and a sense of shared responsibility, and provide channels for communicating and disseminating information to one another and beyond.  Most of our work happens in cyberspace but once a year we host a conference somewhere in the country to intentionally share our learning and our struggles with AfL with local educators.  We have been to Winnipeg, Nanaimo, Kingston and Saskatoon.  This year our fifth conference is in Halifax/Dartmouth.  The occasion of the conference allows CAfLN members to spend some additional time together in a more intimate members’ symposium.   In the symposium we go deeper into key AfL issues with examples from members and forge and strengthen relationships and projects that continue throughout the year.

Why AfL?

Why have we decided to focus on a particular innovation to support and promote across Canada?  Very simply, because teachers’ assessment practices profoundly influence student learning outcomes (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Hattie, 2009; Shepard, 2000).  Over and over again, research studies have demonstrated that, if learning is the goal, AfL is very powerful.


Recent reviews of more than 4000 research investigations show clearly that when [formative assessment] is well implemented in the classroom, it can essentially double the speed of student learning … it is clear that the process works, it can produce whopping gains in students’ achievement, and it is sufficiently robust so that different teachers can use it in diverse ways, yet still get great results with their students.                                          Popham, 2011: 35


Current educational policies in Canada have widely endorsed AfL as a core instructional strategy (See Assessment for Learning in Canada). But establishing AfL in classrooms is hard work.  As Tierney (2006) pointed out, AfL represents a complex competency involving teachers’ knowledge and skills in assessment as shaped by contextual factors including teacher professional learning, teaching context, and students’ learning needs. It requires dynamic classroom practice that involves linking assessment approaches (self-, peer-, and teacher assessments) with instruction and student learning goals to enhance education for all students. It involves using feedback-rich learning opportunities, setting and monitoring learning goals, and engaging in ongoing self-assessment tasks.

In our experience, there are teachers who are making and have made AfL central to their teaching practices, and there are researchers across Canada learning about how AfL works (See Assessment for Learning Research in Canada).  CAfLN is about linking these people together and creating new knowledge by sharing with and challenging one another.  Our hope is to continue to link these “early adopters” together and provide them with forums and support for their own practice as a model for others to follow.

Come to Halifax/Dartmouth and join the conversation.


Black, P., & Wiliam, D, (1998b) Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. PHI Delta Kappan, 80(2)

Hattie, J. Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London ; New York : Routledge, 2009

Shepard, L. (2000) The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher.Volume: 29 issue: 7,:

Tierney, R. (2006) Changing practices: Influences on classroom assessment. Assessment in Education. Vol. 13, No. 3, November 2006, pp. 239–264