Category: 5. Assessment and Feedback

Let’s Get Together


‘The Conversation’ – Dominic Wade via Flickr

I spent today at a professional development session on moderation for leaders.  Initially I was apprehensive that the day would be focussed on how we measure and rank students against the Australian Curriculum standards, however it became quite apparent early in the session that I was wrong! (Phew)

Instead the objective of the session was to explore how we can encourage collaboration to reflect and question our practice to ultimately improve learning opportunities for students. YAY!

For me PD is golden when I can interact with others passionate about improving practice and learn from their expertise and experiences.  No better way to find a group of such people than to attend a session on the last Friday of the holidays on a cold winters day, when it would be rather pleasant to be tucked up under a blanket reading a book and consuming hot beverages instead!

Not to be and definitely no regrets.

It was brilliant to hear from other curriculum leaders and lead teachers as to how they work with colleagues to reflect, critique and move forward in their planning and programming. The questions raised amongst the group included;

  • how do we develop a culture of trust required to share practice?
  • how do we establish opportunities to reflect and receive feedback without making it personal?
  • how can we develop a deeper understanding of the standards to enable teachers to be designers and not deliverers?

“One of the most powerful aspects of collaborative moderation is the dialogue…when you take part in it you see people in a different light…you hear people questioning their own practice, gathering strategies for change, making sense of standards, understanding the curriculum and adjusting their teaching for improved learning” – Alan Luke

I can talk about my practice until the cows come home, I love critical feedback and thrive with people challenging my ideas and practice and have written about this before.  I know how valuable this is to my own improvement, but what I am still developing, is my ability to facilitate a collaborative processes for peers to reflect and challenge their own practice and that of others in supportive ways.

Todays session has provided an example of how this could play out with a focus on planning and assessment with the Australian Curriculum.  I really look forward to seeing how this can be facilitated this term with the curriculum areas I support.

Families as Partners

Our families are crucial to our success and the risks we take in our Unit.  Without their support we would not have the freedom to push boundaries, try new things and ultimately make mistakes. Involving our families and providing them with voice is essential to developing the trust this requires. The introduction of our Unit Blog has provided a space to connect and has been an amazing avenue for sharing our experiences in “real time”.  The truth is though that not all our families have access to the internet nor the inclination to get online to see what has been happening. It is thus important for us to connect and involve our families in multiple ways.

Connecting with our families using texts messages and sending pictures via mobile has proven to be a great way to engage them in real time. We almost use this in a similar fashion that most would use a twitter account.  We send out general reminders, updates and information.  We also share photos of what we are doing and places we go. One consideration we negotiate is having students who cannot have their images shared on social media. This means these students are never included in photographs on our blog, in our newsletters or on our YouTube channel. Sending pictures via our mobile means these students can still share these experiences with families and carers.

We engage our families in many other ways including open forums, technology workshops, student led expos, family conferences, celebrations, volunteer opportunities and invitations to participate in learning experiences.  Our reporting process (Semester Reflections) is another way we ensure that our communication to families is valuable and meaningful.  This was a priority for me when I came to my current site and I was very fortunate to be given the flexibility to start from scratch. I wanted to ensure that our families knew we were responding to their children as unique individuals. This process continues to evolve and it is through the feedback we solicit from our families that we continue to develop and grow.

Awards vs Recognition


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Patrick

Today is the day our year 12 students results come out and it has me reflecting on the value of grades and awards. Some of our students will be ecstatic, some relieved, others disappointed maybe even somewhat devastated. It is easy for me to say that it’s just a number or a letter and it doesn’t reflect who you are or how far you have come, but I know that for the next period of their lives these numbers may have an impact on their choices, their opportunities and how their peers and family respond to them.

Our school will celebrate the top scores and reflect on how the moderation impacted the end results. My thoughts are with the kids who put in great effort and focussed on their work despite the demands and challenges of life beyond the school walls. I hope these kids feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of pride in themselves. Perhaps they could have done better in different circumstances but meeting their challenges head-on and persisting will provide them with life skills that will hold them in great stead.

I know that certificates and awards can be meaningless, often demeaning, devaluing and destructive and rarely motivational. I was guilty of giving certificates and ticking off students to make sure they had all received one in my early years, even though it never sat comfortably.  I have never rejoiced my own children getting certificates at assembly or felt that it reflected their performance or effort.

At the same time, there is no doubt that a champion holds up a trophy, a medal or a flag and the accumulation of hard work and effort is realised in that moment or often later in reflection when staring at that symbol. I love watching a medal ceremony, a championship team celebrating their win, a graduation ceremony or a student who has presented their work and received a rousing applause! Watching anyone who has put in their heart and soul to achieving something, realising their efforts have been rewarded, is magic.

I am all for recognising hard work and promoting a growth mindset by acknowledging the effort and persistence shown in any challenge our kids face.  I do not support blanket certificate/award giving across the school and I know that any selection process regardless of it’s merits is rife with judgement and bias. This is something I will continue to try and find a balance with and in the meantime, though I choose not to nominate my students for whole school certificates, I will continue to showcase their work, provide continual feedback on their learnings and actions and celebrate their successes in meaningful ways.

As for our graduates and their results? I hope that they know, that the score they receive today will not be how they are remembered, that what counts is how we treat each other and whatever we choose to do, if we always work for ‘great’ it will lead to success.

Creating Culture

We're a Team

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by Alessandro Prada

My leadership journey in schools is only in it’s infancy, however my experience leading people started long before I came into education. I have always tried to lead by example; working towards developing trust and credibility.  I do not expect anyone in my team to do something I am not doing, have not done, or are not prepared to do myself.

When taking on my current role, I thought about what sort of culture I wanted to be a part of. How I could articulate this to the people I would work with and how I would demonstrate it in my actions.   I started by developing a purpose for our work, always asking of myself “why” and asking my peers to ask the same question of themselves.

Next I set some expectations, priorities and goals.

I set an expectation that we would continuously move towards more authentic learning experiences and create more opportunities to showcase our learning to real audiences. I developed some immediate opportunities and some long term scenarios.

I established reporting and assessment guidelines that focussed on growth and identified ways we would support students to continually develop skills, understanding and personal relationships. We continue to evolve this process.

I promoted an attitude of risk taking and high expectations by focussing on what we need to do to make something possible, rather than repeating what has already been done.

Within our team we have genuine champions of change.  They each have very different strengths and interests, but we all share a desire to support the success of the young people we work with.  Keeping this at the forefront of my mind, I know it is through recognising the work they each do, the risks they take whether successful or not and the effort they contribute each day, that we will work towards growing and sustaining our champion team.

Developing a Community of Thinkers

Milla Heart Building Blocks

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Tobias Mikkelsen

I honestly believe that if we support our students to develop into a “community of thinkers”, we have provided them with a skill that will work for them beyond tests, exams and school.

I also believe that if we foster these same skills in staff, we will have a group of lead learners with developing growth mindsets at the centre, which will have a beneficial impact on student achievement.

In a previous post Will the Grade Make a Difference? I explored the idea that through feedback and providing opportunities for students to improve their work we can foster a growth mindset. Now I want to look at how we can develop skills in students to provide feedback to others. We know that students value each other’s opinions and ideas. In most cases, they enjoy working with one another.

If we guide students to develop skills to give and receive suggestions, valuable ideas and compliments from peers, it will encourage continual improvement. It also moves some responsibility for learning and improvement from the teacher (all wise and knowledgeable) back onto the student and their peers.

To do this we need to provide opportunities for students to critique each others work throughout the learning process. For this to succeed, we need to establish some guidelines and modelling to ensure feedback is constructive not destructive.

Professor Garfield Gini-Newman identifies three factors for feedback to be constructive:

1. respectful and never condescending or insulting

2. must be warranted, not petty and trivial and they must be specific

3. advancing, must provide opportunities to move the work forward

Ron Berger simplifies these same ideas:

Be kind:  All comments should focus on the work not the person. There should never be sarcasm or put downs.  The comments can be challenging but the recipient should feel that the feedback is about the work and how it can be better.  Hard on content, soft on people.
Be specific: Comments should identify exactly what needs to be worked on (like a set of instructions) which the student can simply take away and use or do.
Be helpful: If the comments don’t benefit the work, the learning, the learners or the class, don’t share it.  Every piece of feedback is there to help improve the work.

Giving critique should not just be a learning opportunity for the student whose work is in question, it should also be a chance for others to learn from the strategies or skills that have been utilised.

Being specific about what makes the work “good” or “great” can model how others can improve their own work, or adapt their approach.  If we don’t identify what is “good” about the work or the strategy, then kids may associate the student with the “goodness” not the effort or the process. “Sally is just good at math”, “Ben is just a really good writer” or “Connor is just a great artist”. Sally may have a strategy for problem solving that others are yet to use, Ben may regularly draft his writing and seek feedback and Connor may use a specific strategy he learnt for shading that he could explain to others.

Let me give you another example.

Recently we completed passion projects and each student had an opportunity to present their learning. One of our students made an iMovie. After each student presented we spent some time giving feedback. The students noticed how the music faded gradually each time he used his own recorded voice in the movie. If we did not distinguish why this made his movie quality better and how he achieved this, most would continue to ignore the benefits of “ducking” when developing their own iMovies.

1. opportunity to identify positive/negative aspects “it was good how the music faded when you started talking”

2. identify how was this achieved/what was missing “this was done using ducking in iMovie on the Mac”

3. Clarify the strategy or process that was used or neglected “You go into the audio settings and click the ducking box and drag the volume to where you want it. You might have to do it a few times until you get it right”

What this does for others, is allow them to see what it was that made this student successful, and not just assume that he is just “good” at making iMovies.

It would be naive to believe that we could provide extensive critique for each piece of work, however once we skill students to give constructive feedback we hope that it eventually permeates the class culture and students increasingly seek opportunities to receive and provide ways to improve.

Wouldn’t it be great if we heard students asking things like…..

Am I on the right track?

What am I doing well?

What improvements can I make?

I truly value this process and went to my amazing team and suggested we could devote time to developing these practices. As of next week, we are committing time each day to develop this critical feedback in small groups. I am also in the process of developing some clear visual aids/infographics to support both teachers and students remember the key aspects.  If anyone has anything they currently use or refer to, please let me know!

Will the Grade Make a Difference?

Grades mean nothing

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Rhoni McFarlane

As I prepare to work with staff in developing ways to utilise strategies and tools to enhance evaluation, feedback and provide opportunities for students to reflect upon their learning, I have been thinking and reading about how we stifle the critical thinking process.

Part of this inquiry led me to think about the way we respond to student work. I watched Eduardo Briceño’s TEDx talk titled “The Power of Belief – Mindset and Success” where he explores the research into growth mindset initiated by Carol Dweck. He explains the crucial role we play in developing growth or fixed mindsets through our responses to student work.

Eduardo goes on to explore how we can provide feedback to students that promotes learning as the priority.

So this led me to think about how we give students feedback and what effect this has on their learning. I considered the following two typical models.

We hand work back to students with a grade.

We hand work back to students with a grade and a comment.

What tends to happen in the first scenario, is that students look at the grade and that is that! The focus is purely on the end mark and not on the process to achieve the grade. If the mark is good, that equates to being successful.  If the mark is poor, it means they were unsuccessful. There is no opportunity to reflect upon the effort, the process or opportunities to grow.

In the second scenario, students will look at the grade and perhaps read the comment. The student may or may not agree or understand the comment, but I would suggest that very few would ask or respond to the teacher to instigate a process of reflection.

So what if……

We handed work back to students with only a comment, then what?

Would this engage students in thinking deeper about their work? Would it promote a dialogue between teacher and student about what they did well and what they could do to improve next time?


What if we hand work back to students with comments and then asked that they respond to the comment by improving their work?

Would that focus the attention on the learning process. Would it promote a dialogue and understanding of where the student is at  and where they should be heading?

Here is Garfield Gini-Newman from the University of Toronto explaining this last concept in regards to the value of feedback in for students at university.

I think providing these sorts of opportunities would go a long way to developing students and teachers to have learning as the focus, a growth mindset and assessment that informs learning.

This of course is assuming that the comments provided by the teacher are fair, constructive and specific (that’s for another post).

A Critical Friend In Need

Pobel - Watering Can

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by John Goodridge

I believe that developing a culture of growth requires being able to reflect, make changes or adjustments, even completely disband and move on. Part of that reflection is acknowledging things that aren’t working. To avoid criticism of our actions would mean doing nothing. Personally  I would rather be criticised for trying to be better than continuing to do the same or nothing  “just because”. This is where we need critical friends.

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. – Winston Churchill

I believe organisations, teams and individuals need to hear the bad stuff! I recall a time at a school when we were asked to survey students about their experience at school and a leader suggested there were some whom could be missed (those being students who would respond in a likely negative manner).  I asked what would the point of the survey be then? If we don’t get an honest response, how do we know what needs to improve?

Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them. – Francois de La Rochefoucauld

I don’t know if it is my background in sport that helped me develop a “thick skin” (coaches can be quite blunt) or something else, but I have always sought feedback and critique for how to improve. That is not to say that some times its extremely hard to hear. There are times I have felt that overwhelming urge to defend myself and not truly listen to what is being said. What I have learnt to appreciate over my time working with much more experienced and smarter people than I, is we can never have all the answers and more often than not, someone else has a solution to a problem or a perspective that is just as valid if not more so!

Within my own team I value transparency and communication and hope by providing opportunities to openly discuss and reflect on our practice, it fashions an atmosphere where the criticism is not personal but focussed on how we can make learning better for our kids, thus fostering honesty.

Google Docs has been one way in which we achieve this. Each time we implement/introduce a new strategy, unit of work or change in our schedule, we share a document for reflection. We have simple headings including: ‘positives’, ‘negatives’ and ‘suggestions for the future’.

Here is an example from our first Identity Day Project and here is one that we are still working on for our recently completed Passion Projects.

When it is an innovation or strategy that I have instigated I am sure to be the first to reflect critically upon myself. I think this triggers other staff feeling comfortable in giving honest feedback. By modelling honest critical reflection, I establish the focus upon constant improvement with learning at the centre.

We also hold professional conversations that prompt opportunities to have deeper discussions about our roles and how I can improve my support and leadership within our faculty.

Granting opportunities for others to judge, respond or reflect on decisions or actions we have made makes us vulnerable. I always focus my energies on how this will help our students and this ensures I can move beyond any personal angst I might feel.

Why I Don’t “Like” Blogs

Like - Thumb Up

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by SalFalko

I use blogging as an opportunity to develop my ideas, reflect on my practice and question my assumptions.  This can mean I write about things that I am learning, things that frustrate me, things that have impacted on me as a person, either recently or in the past and things I strive for in the future.

“Having an audience can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, you have to be truly convincing.”

– Clive Thomson from How Successful Networks Nurture Good Ideas Thinking Out Loud

I have previously written about this process for me and how I see writing in this online space.

Recently someone commented to me “You will get plenty of “likes” on that post!”

That honestly threw me for a moment. Really “likes”? Yes people have “liked” my posts and the little star in my WordPress bar shines bright orange to let me know, but for me this has no impression on me, not even a warm fuzzy, I just click the star to make it go back to grey.

I have never “liked” (to my knowledge) any blog post. I have definitely “liked” on FaceBook and “favourited” on twitter.  I “like” on FaceBook because I only connect with my friends (people I have actually met) and it is a quick way of acknowledging something funny or endearing that they have shared. I “favourite” on twitter to record an idea, or a point of view that I want to return to.

If I read a post that challenges my thinking, evokes emotion or speaks passionately about an area I am interested in, then I won’t “like” it, I will share it and most likely I will comment on it.

Personally, I would rather a comment that disagrees with my writing, challenges my approach or makes suggestions rather than just get a star.

I feel the same about giving stickers to kids! What does a sticker actually achieve for student development without any feedback? It shows you “liked” it, but what did you actually like about it, what could they do to make it even better?

I realise people use “likes” in different ways and social media is amass with ways to acknowledge approval or disapproval, I would just encourage to continue the dialogue to push the thinking further when reading work online or off, whether they be a teacher, student or other!

To Report or To Reflect….

With my first year at Wirreanda High School complete and a few days to take a breath, I now take the opportunity to reflect.

As a teacher of students with disabilities, report writing tends to be a frustrating time for me. Ticking boxing and giving numbers or letters to students for whom the most minor improvements are actually great gains is difficult to say the least. In previous years I have handed the report to parents with an apologetic shrug, knowing that it by no means reflects how I would like to indicate their learning.  Report time for parents of students with disabilities are often just reminders of the things their child cannot do, what they haven’t achieved and for many, no different from last years report! Horrible. I always try to imagine what it must be like to be reminded each day that you have a child with needs you never expected, the challenges and the impact this has on every ‘today’.

The following clip embodies much of what I try to remember about my families when it comes to reporting on their child.

This year though a shining light.  I have been given the flexibility (thanks to a great supportive leadership – @CFishpool @LunnisTony) to report against each student’s individual goals in the manner I choose.  This allowed me to represent student growth in multiple ways.  A much more valuable reflection on the improvement each student has made and also an opportunity for students, families and myself to celebrate their learning.  Next year I hope to include audio and video as part of their learning record via student blogging which will provide even richer sources to showcase each student’s growth.

Along with each “Semester Reflection” – as opposed to “Report Card” I wrote a letter to each student.  I tried to reflect how they had each  impacted in the classroom, on their peers and on myself.  I expressed times where I thought they showed courage (generally through risk-taking/trying new things),  thoughtfulness and persistence – all things we encourage in class. Whilst I have always penned my students a Christmas card each with a paragraph or two about my year with them, I had never attempted a letter before.  As I wrote to each student I found myself connecting at a deeper level as I acknowledge the impact each has had.

The following include some of my writing:

I remember one of the first times we met way back when you were a year 7. It was upstairs in the Learning Centre when you came to visit from your primary school.  You helped me get the paints and tables ready and I knew right then we were going to be good friends. 

This year was hard for both of us at first, as we got to learn about our new school and where everything belongs.  We had to meet lots of new people and do things we had not done before. 

you have worked so hard on talking… more and more people can hear all you have to say.  You should be very proud of this (student name) and I know you will keep trying to improve even when it gets tough. (see this previous post)

it would be hard to pick even a handful of memories that stand out from your year because there have been so many times that you have done something new.  The big things like camp, rock climbing and bike riding are easy to choose as they were big events that left us on a high. I find myself smiling at the thought of you half way up the wall with Mr (teacher) yelling “go (student name)!” (he is so loud) and you squealing with delight as you sped around the carpark on the tricycle. The times I will remember always though, are our everyday times to have a chat and catch up as you always have “lots to say”.

Wow the year is already over and soon you will officially be a year 8 high school boy at Wirreanda! It was so wonderful you could come and join us in the Unit and I have had so much fun learning about you and your family.  You have taught me a lot about Holdens and I always enjoy hearing about Ninny and your Pop. 

Writing these letters gave me an opportunity to value all the things that each of these young adults brings to our school community. I truly believe that this process has made me a better teacher.  Even as I write this now I feel an excitement about starting the new year and being part of their learning once again.

The Missing Link…

After reading  ‘The “Why” of Writing’ by George Couros I was inspired to tell my own classroom story of how the “Why” of writing has impacted on one of my students in particular.  Teaching special education, especially students with speech and language difficulties means that communication can be a challenge. Imagine struggling for 14 years to be heard, understood or even have the opportunity to contribute.  Imagine people turning away because they can’t understand you, the frustration of wanting to tell, explain or ask but your ability to move your tongue means you cannot make the right sounds and your words become distorted and unclear.  Imagine struggling to write, sitting in a class where you practice basic sentences that are functional but not expressive or meaningful over and over again. See the student disengage with learning, with people, with ambition.

George stated..

If we really want to improve the literacy of our students, we need to look just as much (if not more) at the purpose, at why they are writing, as to simply the strategies and process.  I have seen the evidence within my own family, that the why of writing means more than anything.

I too have seen the powerful impact that purpose can have.

Enter a dynamic, resourced classroom with people who take time to listen, to figure out your language, who share experiences and take time to ask for help to understand.  The language barrier becomes their challenge to overcome not hers.  Enter the iPad and laptop.  Enter edmodo and email. Welcome to the world of immediate response! Welcome to the “why” for writing.

I have seen this young person blossom, become engaged with her world, make new friends and contact old ones.  She enters the classroom desperate to talk about our conversation on edmodo from the night before and never leaves before being reassured that I will check for a message or remind a colleague to check for theirs.  Within 5 minutes of entering the classroom, she can be “logged on” and sending messages to peers, to me, to other staff. She constructs meaningful sentences and is motivated to “get it right” because she is desperate to be understood. Responses and replies reinforce and motivate her to keep going.

Having the “why” has engaged her in literacy, increased her self confidence and enabled her voice to be heard.  It drives her learning and the improvement follows!  I am excited to see in the near future, how blogging will impact her and her peers as we start connecting with people all over the globe!

Aren’t we responsible to find the “why” for all our students?