One of the jobs I had before this one was as an early years teacher in a child care centre. One afternoon I was outside with my gaggle of 2 and 3 year old charges exploring our shadows. One little guy was particularly intent on measuring his shadow. He had chalk and a tape measure and was determined to see how big it was. Every time he moved his shadow moved too and he could never quite catch it to measure it. After some time and some tears, he allowed me to use the chalk to mark where his shadow was and then we were able to measure it together. Now I had one happy shadow hunter. Until the next morning when we went outside again so he could proudly show his big shadow to the other teacher and he discovered his shadow had shrunk due to the different time of day. Sometimes measuring shadows can be awfully difficult.
Inquiry-based learning has been a hot topic in education for the last while. I am happy that so many educators and students in our school are willing to give inquiry a try in their teaching and learning opportunities. With enthusiasm or trepidation (or both) they jump in. They tweak, they start over, they try a different approach, they dig deeper. It can go a million different ways.
And then they all come to the same screeching halt.
How do we evaluate this?
Assessment is one thing. I can observe, provide feedback, ask questions, and have students dig deeper into their learning in inquiry. I can also have students set goals, reflect on those goals and gather evidence of their process and products to support those goals. But evaluation is about me assigning a standardized value (marks or grades) using standardized criteria (curriculum expectations) on non-standardized learning that I didn’t necessarily direct nor do I understand completely.
Within this quagmire are several distinct problems.
1. I have standard expectations and my students have led their learning in directions not captured by the expectations.
2. Since students are owning their learning and not just receiving it from me, they know more about this topic/process than I do. If I don’t understand it all, how will I know how good it is?
3. Feedback helps students to further their learning whereas grades tend to bring it to a full stop. How do I assign a grade while at the same time encourage my students to keep learning?
4. What relevance does a grade have on student-led inquiry? Am I moving the impetus to learn from an internal motivation (I want to learn because this is good stuff) to an external motivation (I want to learn because I want an “A”)?
I personally think we could do with more feedback and fewer grades, whether we are engaged in inquiry-based learning or more traditional forms of learning. I think we all need to be self-motivated life-long learners because it is good for us and not because we’ll get a gold star for it. However, I do think the angst we face in grappling with evaluating inquiry learning actually has a few advantages.
1. It forces us to know – really know and understand – the foundational knowledges and skills that we want students to learn, apply and translate in a variety of situations. And (here’s the kicker) where we find those in our curriculae.
2. It forces us to really communicate what students need to learn to students (and parents). All that practice targeting learning goals and success criteria will help us here.
3. It forces us to look beyond the pretty product or the interesting factoids of learning and observe what we really see happening to change how a student thinks.
4. It forces us to rely on the expertise of our students to help us understand how much and how well they have learned. Metacognition valued beyond a quick post script on an exit card? How refreshing.
My little shadow chaser was frustrated but worked through his issue, with support, only to be foiled again by a new variable. If his shadow had co-operated like he expected it to there wouldn’t have been tears, or help needed, or surprises along the way. It wouldn’t have been HARD and it probably wouldn’t have been memorable.
Evaluating inquiry is hard. We will repeatedly need help, or be surprised, or need to cry. But I’m willing to bet that what we learn along the way will be good learning.
How are you at chasing the shadows of inquiry evaluation?