Everything is assessment

If there is one bias that I have developed when it comes to assessment for learning it is this: As much as possible, we should not have to stop teaching in order to conduct our formative assessments.  In other words, if I were to walk into a classroom and observe, the lines between the moments of assessment, instruction, and feedback would be blurred; the chosen strategies would seamlessly lead students and teachers through a continuous assessment-instruction-feedback loop. While there are always exceptions to any rule, we should, as much as possible, strive to infuse our assessment for learning practices into our instructional strategies.

With that, formative assessment is actually easier to infuse than some might think. So many of the strategies that teachers have been using for years can – quite effortlessly – be used for formative assessment purposes. In fact, when I’m asked to provide/discuss some effective formative assessment strategies with teachers I’m often met with the fairly typical response of, “Oh, I already do that.” 

Now, I’m not doubting their responses.  The truth is that many teachers are already doing or using the strategy I describe, at least at first glance. Upon further review, however, I’ve come to realize that while many are using the strategies I outline, the strategies fall short of serving as an assessment for learning.

Everything teachers do – every strategy, activity, or process – is an assessment in waiting. Every activity students participate in – every project, assignment, or task – has information that can be used for formative purposes if we follow two simple guidelines.

TargetFirst, every activity must be linked to the intended learning. Activities are just activities unless there is a direct link between the activity and the intended learning; that’s what turns a task into a target. Even better is expressing this link in student-friendly language so that students may have intimate access to what they are expected to learn from the activity. This link is what’s often missing in far too many classrooms. Think about how often you begin a lesson by describing to students what they are going to do as opposed to what they are going to learn? The link to learning will establish far greater relevance for students and assist in their understanding of why – especially with knowledge targets – what there doing today is important and relevant for tomorrow (and beyond).

fork_in_the_road_signSecond, the results of every activity must have the potential to illicit an instructional response from the teacher. One of the core fundamentals behind formative assessment is that the collective results are used to decide what comes next in the learning. Now I use the word potential because the results of your activities (assessments) may indicate that what you had previously planned to do tomorrow is, in fact, the most appropriate decision. You’re not always going to change course, but for an activity to serve a formative assessment purpose it must have the potential to influence what you plan to do next. As long as you are willing to consider some instructional adjustments based on the results of the activity then it becomes an assessment for learning. As well, the more we can involve students in the process of self-assessment and personalized adjustments the more they become meaningful decision-makers in their own learning.

Whether it’s a class discussion, an A/B partner talk exercise, an Exit Slip, a 4 Corners Activity, a Jigsaw, or the use of exemplars, we can infuse our assessment/feedback practices into our instructional routines. When we link an activity to the intended learning and allow the results of the activity to potentially influence our instructional decisions, it moves from being just an activity to an assessment. Everything is an assessment in waiting if we use these two guideline to enhance what we’re already doing. 

…and don’t be afraid to follow

teambuildingLeadership does matter. As I wrote in my last post, it is important for leaders to not be fearful of leading. We can talk all we want about quiet leadership or leading by example, however, if you don’t have people’s attention they might miss your lead or example altogetherOne of the reasons you’re in your position of leadership is because of your experience and expertise. It would absurd to not use that experience and expertise to the benefit of your school or organization.

That said, leadership is not about always being the leader either; sometimes it’s just as important to follow. Sometimes you are the expert and sometimes you’re not; sometimes it is important to allow others with more expertise to take the lead or at least build the capacity of others so that they may eventually do so.

So what stops us from doing this? So many of us understand and can talk about the importance of shared leadership, so why don’t more of us do it? What gets in the way of leaders being able to step back and allow an implementation process to unfold without having to be the center of attention? For me, it’s all about ego.

First, let me say that there is always some level of ego involved with any leadership role. Every effective leader has a fundamental belief in their ability to make a positive difference within the context in which they are leading. I see a healthy level of ego more as confidence, which can be defined as the sweet spot between arrogance and despair (Rosabeth Moss Kanter). It’s in the arrogance or despair where our ego loses balance and negatively affects our ability to follow. Although most of us think of ego as a kind of inflated sense of self-importance, ego also drives the leader at the opposite end of the continuum. Let’s look at each separately.

The ego of arrogance is the leader that believes that nothing can be accomplished without them, or at least without their input. The leader whose ego is out of balance in this direction believes they are the smartest person in the room and that their experience is more credible and relevant than anyone else’s. They are the leader who is not afraid to lead on steroids. Not only are they not afraid to lead, they have to lead and take credit (or at least partial credit) for everything.

The ego of despair is the leader who leads from a desperate feeling of insecurity and believes that nothing should be accomplished without their input. This leader believes that they must continually prove why they have been put in a position of leadership; they see all successes and failures as a direct reflection of their ability as a leader.  This is why these seemingly polar opposite positions of ego are more similar than we might think. Insecurity leads to control-based leadership where the leader works to make sure they are the smartest person in the room (again, other overlap between the two extremes). This characteristic is much more difficult to spot since it often appears as arrogance.

The arrogant and desperate leader has difficulty following; the confident leader doesn’t. The confident leader knows they are the leader but has no burning desire to continually prove it. The confident leader has just enough arrogance to believe they can make a positive difference, but just enough despair to admit they don’t know, to seek the input and guidance from others, and allow some to emerge as leaders themselves.

Don’t be afraid to lead…

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Leadership matters! We all know it – some may not want to admit it – but leadership does matter, especially when we experience ineffective leadership or worse, when we are the ineffective leader.

As a leader, sometimes you have to articulate a vision and set the direction. Sometimes you have to share your perspective. Sometimes you have to be the leader and let others learn from your experience. As the late Stephen Covey once wrote:

It doesn’t matter how hard you climb the ladder of success if your ladder is up against the wrong wall.

That’s leadership – making sure our educational ladders are up against the right wall.

While much has been written about shared leadership and the advantages of shared responsibility, leaders can’t allow themselves to be marginalized; shared leadership doesn’t mean no leadership. Sometimes leaders lead by example, but there are times when leaders must lead through purposeful articulation. Leading by example only works when you have people’s attention; without their attention the lessons in the example go unlearned. As John Kotter, author of Buy-In, writes:

The single biggest challenge people face when they need to gain buy-in for a good idea is simply getting people’s attention.

Sometimes…

  • …you have to directly address practices you know are far from ideal.
  • …you have to push back against practices that are punitive, unreasonable, or unfair.
  • …you have to make it clear what you can and can’t support.
  • …you have to be comfortable with others’ professional discomfort.

The real question is when; when can a leader be the leader and lead? It really comes down to two things: trust and credibility.

If those you work with trust you and believe you have their best interest in mind they will be more open to being led. Without that trust, people are cautious about following and can’t be sure that you fully support them. So first, leaders must earn trust by proving they are trustworthy. Trust is critical, however, it’s incomplete.

The second component is credibility. Credibility is established when you have shown that you know what you’re talking about. It doesn’t mean that you must have done something; often great leaders have not served in every role within a school or organization. However, it does mean that you have a level of expertise, have done your due diligence, have considered the most favorable course of action, and have the experience to navigate the inevitable bumps and challenges.

Credibility and trust are both earned. Leaders can’t be afraid to lead, but without the necessary levels of trust and credibility, the potential influence of that leadership could be compromised. With high levels of trust and credibility, others are less likely to take challenges to the status quo personally, resist the clearly articulated vision, or feel unsupported.

Real strength…

…means being able to admit you were wrong.

…means being as happy for others’ successes as you are for your own.

…is allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

…means giving more credit than you take.

…means saying more with your actions than you do with your words.

…is liking yourself despite all of your imperfections.

…is never allowing others to determine what’s possible for your life.

…is choosing happiness instead of waiting for it.

…is believing you can when others say you can’t.

…means using every experience as an opportunity to learn & grow.

…is not needing to be the loudest voice in the room.

…means respecting the disrespectful.

…is recognizing when your ego is taking over.

…means trusting people’s intentions.

…means believing in your greatness without needing to prove it to others.

…is about being grateful for what you are instead of desperate for what you are not.

 

What does “real strength” mean to you?

 

Are You Really Open?

Thinking aloud here…

Throughout my career I’ve heard many professionals define themselves as lifelong learners and make reference to the fact that they don’t have all of the answers. Now, I don’t doubt the sincerity of these remarks, however, I wonder sometimes how many of us are actually open to being wrong…I mean really wrong…so wrong that you’re willing to change your mind about something you’ve made definitive remarks about perviously.

Now I get that your definitive positions are research-based, however, those that hold the opposite view likely have research to support their position as well. Okay, now what? Does research actually drive our positions/opinions or do our positions/opinions lead us to giving greater credence to the research that supports our perspective? In other words, if a series of studies points to a particular practice (one which we philosophically disagree with) as being the most favorable course of action, are we truly open & willing to be swayed or will we begin to dismiss the validity of the results or question the character/hidden agenda of the researchers themselves?

It’s one thing to say, “I don’t have all of the answers” but it’s quite another to say, “I was wrong.” No one wants to be wrong, but it would seem that the more definitive we are about a position the less likely we are to admit that maybe we got it wrong, even partially wrong. When was the last time you changed your mind about an issue? I know in this era of instant-response-140-character-definitive-provocative-followers-retweets culture it is hard to admit we were wrong as it might threaten our credibility if we’ve made a definitive statement in the past only to change our minds at a later date. In politics it’s labelled a flip-flop, which is a term I’ve come to loathe. Changing our minds as a result of new information should be seen as being mature and thoughtful, rather than being wishy-washy.

If you have ever thought/said, “I’m not always right about everything” then reflect on when exactly you were wrong and changed your mind? If we say we’re not always right – but act as if we are – then others will quickly recognize our false humility and insincerity.

Being truly open means setting aside our biases and considering new information, research, or practices with a fresh perspective………………..or not………………..after-all, I could be wrong.

…just thinking aloud.

Implement THAT! (Part 7) – Take YOU off the table

Sometimes those who bring the message of a new idea inadvertently make themselves yet another challenge or roadblock that the idea may face. This podcast focuses on two of the most common ways this happens and how we can avoid creating more challenges for us as we pursue new ideas that will make the leanring exerpeince for our students much improved.

Click HERE to listen to this podcast.

Thanks for listening!

 

Implement THAT! (Part 6) – The Acceptance of a New Idea

With any implementation effort, leadership matters.  The focus here is on what leaders can do as a new idea moves through the necessary stages in order to gain full acceptance.

 

This is the first (of what I hope to be many) audio podcasts.  Click here

 

This post/podcast is a continuation of a previous post on “The Birth of A New Paradigm”

 

Thanks for listening!

Implement THAT! (Part 5) – …like Driving at Night

While having an implementation plan is important, and planning for rapid results builds the necessary confidence toward our desired outcome, the execution of the plan needs to be ongoing and allow for adjustments at every turn.  Too often, as leaders, we try to race ahead too quickly; as people are just getting comfortable and confident with the first steps of implementation we proclaim that steps 2 and 3 are long overdue.

The analogy that I’ve heard, used, and have seen work for others when it comes to the pacing of any implementation effort is that it’s a lot like driving at night.

When I get in my vehicle and decide to drive somewhere I have my destination in mind; I know where I want to go (our desired outcome) but I typically (day or night) can’t actually see my destination.  Driving around with no desired destination might take us back to our childhood and the ritual of the “Sunday Drive”, however, when it comes to getting somewhere or getting something done you have to know where you are going.

When you drive at night, despite knowing exactly where you want to go and what route you want to take (your plan) your headlights will only shine about 100-150 feet in front of your vehicle.  As the driver, the only thing within your immediate influence is the next 100 feet.  When you drive that 100 feet, the next 100 feet will emerge in front of you.  Even if you have a long drive ahead of you (even if you have a 3-5 year plan) the only way you will reach your desired destination is through a series of mini 100 foot journeys.

While it is true that every so often you’ll hear a road report or see flashing lights ahead that will provide you with ample time to adjust your route, avoid any delays, and get you back on track, what’s more likely is that issues will only become apparent once they come within the 100-150 foot range of your headlights (which is why your plan was written with a short pencil) which means you have adjust on the fly.

When we become impatient we try to rush the natural evolution of a new paradigm and push too hard which will more likely lead to others’ frustration.  The difference between where we are and where we want to be can be vast and leaders are well served if they are mindful that the journey is as important as the destination, especially when it comes to long-term sustainability. After all, if we are at ‘A’, we can’t get to ‘D’ without passing through ‘B’ and ‘C’ first.

Whether it comes to using social media for ongoing professional learning, project-based learning, standards-based grading, no letter grades, authentic assessment, or any other new practice, there is a process that is unavoidable; no matter how fast or slow you drive you will still have to physically pass through each little town before you arrive in the big city!

When you focus on the next 100 feet you’ll know what to do, how to support, and what challenges are in your immediate view that need to be addressed. Once you go that 100 feet, the next 100 feet will emerge and you’ll once again know exactly what your team needs, what you need to do, and what challenges need to be overcome in order reach your ultimate destination.

Implement THAT! (Part 4) – Plan for Rapid Results

With the implementation of anything, getting off to a “good start” is essential.  While we know it takes time for most implementation efforts to go to scale and become the new routine, having some early success can be a major factor in determining whether you (or your team) stick with the new practice. It’s no different from a new fitness routine. We want to experience some results quickly to determine whether our going to the gym and changing our eating habits is going to lead to our eventual desired result.

In her book Confidence, Rosabeth Moss Kanter identifies the need for people to be successful before they believe they can be successful.  While that might sound counterintuitive, she writes that true confidence is more than just a mindset:

Positive expectations by leaders make people want to rise to the occasion, but people need proof that there is some reality to the expectations. Pep talks without convincing content are devoid of credibility. People see right through them. “Irrational exuberance” based on nothing but fantasy and hype don’t last long. That’s why winning – or its close approximation – is often necessary before people believe they can win. (pg. 40)

Winning in our case is more about the eventual acceptance of a new paradigm or routine within our schools or classrooms.  The confidence to successfully implement anything is what Kanter calls grounded optimism – optimism that is based in some evidence of success.

Planning for rapid results is most helpful when you’re working with people who are capable of implementing the new idea but not necessarily willing; they are reluctant to make major changes since it is likely that they have had success with the previous paradigm. Planning for rapid results is made easier when it is guided by the following question:

What is the least I can do to bring about the greatest effect?

By focusing on the little things that make a big impact, those reluctant to change will be permitted to make a minimal effort while experiencing a much larger effect on their day-to-day work.

I can recall working in a school a number of years ago that was very purposeful about improving the school climate and the quality of the adult-student relationships (as well as student-student). We had spent an entire professional development day working on our plan.  We had developed both short- and long-term goals, however, we knew we wanted to see some immediate changes so we focused on the question of rapid results.  As it was a Friday, we asked ourselves, “What can we do on Monday that might have an immediate impact on our school’s culture?”

What we came up with was an agreement that all teachers would be in their classrooms (lights on and doors open) at least 10 minutes before the start of the day to greet students as they arrived (some teachers were already doing this). As well, the school administration would greet students as they entered the school (we were already doing that, but not consistently) and counselors would “check-in” with their “top 10.”  Ten minutes…that’s all that was required.  The results for our school were dramatic.  Within a week we noticed a significant shift in the “tone” of our school.

For those that weren’t sure that we should be devoting that much energy to “school climate”, the rapid results of our efforts convinced them that our efforts were worth it. After all, if big results came from little effort, imagine what big effort would yield.

It is absolutely not rocket science. While rapid results are definitely not enough to sustain a major shift, they do provide a glimpse as to what is possible with any purposeful effort.  Sometimes people need proof that the change is going to produce an improved situation, and while some people use the desire for perfect proof as an excuse for inactivity, it is fair that people see how the change might eventually makes things better before they commit themselves.

To paraphrase the Kanter quote above, having some success is often a precursor to the belief that one can be successful.