Measuring Shadows

Posted: 11th December 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

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?

  1. adunsige says:

    Kristi, I don’t know how you read my mind, but you definitely always manage to do so. I’ve been thinking a lot about evaluation and inquiry lately. Maybe it’s because report cards are coming up soon, and as hard as it was to evaluate inquiry last year in Grade 5, I’m struggling even more in Grade 1. Maybe it’s because my students don’t seem as involved in the process, and while they’re becoming more involved in the feedback piece, I wonder the role that they should play in the mark piece. All of this being said, as I continue to explore options and try, try, and try again (as you mentioned), I’m also having some wonderful conversations with peers about this. Some of these discussions are online. Some are face-to-face. And they’re good conversations because we’re asking each other hard questions. We’re engaging in real professional dialogue. We’re exchanging ideas, and have the kinds of rich discussions that make me not want them to end. They’re exciting. They’re informative. I may not have answers yet, but we’re trying new things … and we’re trying them together. That’s got to be good. So while I’d like to see marks go (and at some point hope that they will be replaced by descriptive feedback), maybe the fact that we still have them is a good thing if it’s forcing us to learn more together. Thanks for helping me see this challenge in more of a positive light!


  2. kkeerybi says:

    Thanks Aviva. I do like those good professional conversations to help us clarify our own thinking and look at other possibilities. The fact that I think we are all wrestling with how to evaluate inquiry means there is lots of room for discussion. What made me write this post now was that my son was evaluated on his first university “inquiry” exam this week and it looked so different and foreign to the exams I remember in university. It gave me some hope that we are on the right track but also made me want to ask those profs questions about how they are evaluating it. That made me think that these are the same questions I hear at school from our teachers. I think it will be exciting to see where people land. In many ways it would be much simpler to dismiss the need for grades completely but I think this is actually a richer and more complex learning opportunity for educators. Good thinking is coming. I can feel it!

  3. Jonathan so says:

    kristi, I love your posts. I quiry is so hard to evaluate the which is why so many stay away or don’t get into true inquiry. I think that as more inquiry is developed there needs to be new ways at evaluating our students. I know I for one have done more with trajectories of learning then with rubrics and checklists. I know we have curriculum but I feel that trajectories give you a better picture.

    I also think that assessment needs to change or at the very least what our view of assessment is. The world is rapidly changing and the thought that we need to memorize or be able to apply for one test or project is no longer a valid way of assessing. We need to think about the learning journey and the practical application of information. As my brother in law said, don’t teach me to fish but teach how to learn how to fish. When we master learning anything is possible.