Thursday, December 17, 2015

Assessment and measurement are not the same thing

Too many people confuse measurement with assessment as if they were the same thing.

They are not.

Some things are made to be measured. For example, I'm 6'1''. Height is a one-dimensional thing that can be reduced to a measurement in standard units. We need standard units for height or we would have all kinds of mass confusion.

Some things in life, however, are not made to be measured. While my height can be accurately described as 6'1'' without debate, my personality, character, intelligence, athleticism and learning can not be meaningfully reduced to a symbol. When we reduce something as magnificently messy as learning to a number, we always conceal far more than we ever reveal.

The most important things that children learn in school are not easily measured. The most meaningful things in life may, in fact, be immeasurable. The good news, however, is that the most important and meaningful things that we want children to learn and do in school can always be observed and described. This is precisely why it is so important to remember that the root word for assessment is assidere which literally means 'to sit beside.' Assessment is not a spreadsheet -- it's a conversation.

Testsandgrades should be replaced with projects and performances collected in portfolios.

When student learning is made visible to parents through portfolios, blogs, student-led conferences and parent-teacher interviews then they are not nearly so desperate for less meaningful information such as testsandgrades.

This is my 16th year of teaching in public schools. I threw my gradebook away in 2006. For those who are interested in learning more about what school and learning looks like without testsandgrades, you can read my chapter from my book for free here. And you can read all of my blog posts about abolishing grading here.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Refusing to help is an act of terror

"In everyday thought about especially complex and emotionally charged situations oversimplified generalizations are apt to be actively treasured."

- Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur

Terrorism and atrocities against humanity is not new. How it will end will have a lot to do with how we respond to hatred, terror, cruelty and murder.

John Spencer, a teacher in Arizona, posted on Facebook:
After a tragedy, I get why some people will feel angry. Others will feel sad. Still others will feel scared. Many will feel all of the above. But my hope is that, in the midst of all those feelings, we choose love instead of xenophobia.
Xenophobia [zen-uh-foe-be-uh]

In his book The Alphabet of the Human Heart, Matthew Johnstone reminds us:
From Matthew Johnstone's Alphabet of the Human Heart
Xenophobia is an ugly word. Xeno means foreigner. Phobia is fear. 
Together they mean racism, bigotry, intolerance, injustice. 
Yet, if we embrace the differences in this world, the world looks different. 
More interesting, more rewarding, more colourful.

While its true that terror is scary and can induce panic, we must remind ourselves that this is what terrorists want. We must resist the natural urge of fearing fear itself. Paul Krugman writes:
The point is not to minimize the horror. It is, instead, to emphasize that the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire. And it’s crucial to realize that there are multiple ways the response can go wrong.
When horrific things happen, it's tempting to focus on who to hate and who to be scared of -- the real challenge, however, is to figure out who to love and who to help. Those of us who are following the news of terror from the safety of our devices need to spend less time pondering policies that further isolate and ignore refugees who are fleeing for their family's lives and more time figuring out how we can help.

Constructing xenophobic walls to keep people out of our privileged paradise will teach the next generation of children that we could have helped but chose not to. This is precisely what terrorists want.

"It is not the refugee outflows that cause terrorism; it is terrorism, tyranny and war that create refugees," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gueterres.

Refusing to help those who need it the most is an act of terror.

We must refuse to give in to fear.

We must reject xenophobia.

Antoine Leiris lost his wife Helene in the Bactaclan theatre in Paris. In his Facebook tribute to his wife and challenge to her killers, Antoine writes:
I will not give you the gift of hating you. You have obviously sought it, but responding to it with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that has made you what your are. 
You want me to be afraid? To cast a mistrustful eye on my fellow citizens? To sacrifice my freedom for security?  
You lost. Same player. Same game.
A dead baby becomes the most tragic symbol
yet of the Mediterranean refugee crisis.
Refugees are people. 

People who are trying to save their families from the terror and cruelty that we would all run from. We have a responsibility and moral obligation to help refugees because refusing to help is an act of terror.

And we must be better than that.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

4 Great Board Games I play with students and family

There are lots of ways to get to know someone -- my two favourite ways are going for a walk & talk and playing a game. Board games are a wonderful way of developing a relationship with someone, and also a great way of assessing a child's skills including their creativity, collaboration, adaptability, resiliency, critical thinking, problem solving, patience, literacy and numeracy. Board games often require a broad range of knowledge, skills and abilities so they are a great way of assessing what someone knows and what they can do with what they know.

Because I have returned to teaching in a Children's Inpatient Psychiatric Assessment Unit, I find it helpful to play a game with a child so that we can start a casual, caring relationship before I help them with their anger, depression, self-harm, addictions and other problems. These kinds of problems are easier to work on after you've worked together to build a train, conquer Tokyo, cure a disease or bury treasure.

Here are four games I like to play with students and my family:

1. Ticket to Ride is a 5 player game where you score points by placing trains that connect cities. This is a wonderful game that is simple enough for those unfamiliar with games but challenging enough to keep everyone involved. The original game features cities in Canada and the United States, but there are many expansions and other stand-alone games that feature Europe, Nordic countries, India and Africa. This game could be played in about 60 minutes. My daughter Kayley learned to play this when she was 6. Watch a review of Ticket to Ride here.

2. King of New Tokyo is a 6 player dice game where your monster scores points by conquering Tokyo and other monsters. This game plays like Yahtzee where you roll and re-roll the dice to achieve special monster abilities. Players must balance short-term gains with long-term objectives. King of New York is another similar stand-alone game with a few more ways for monsters to destroy buildings and score points. Both are excellent games that can be played in about 30 to 45 minutes with children as young as 6. Watch a review of King of Tokyo here.

3. Pandemic is a cooperative game where players work together to fight 5 diseases from spreading across the world. Each player has unique special abilities that require them to collaborate in creative ways. The expansion Pandemic In the Lab makes for an even more enjoyable game as petri dishes are used to manipulate the diseases to find the cure. I spend a majority of my time as a teacher and a parent teaching children to collaborate with others, so I'm excited to see more and more cooperative board games being published. Pandemic is a slightly more complex game that requires more understanding for the rules than the other games on this list. Watch a review of Pandemic here and here.

4. Black Fleet is a four player game where players use their merchant ship to deliver goods around the Caribbean while using their pirate ship to steal and bury treasure to earn doubloons to purchase special abilities and win the game. This is a casual child friendly pirate game that can be played in 40 to 60 minutes. You can watch a review of Black Fleet here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Here is a collection of media that can be used to work with and engage students around a wide range of everyday problems. These videos all come from a pretty cool YouTube Channel called Watchwellcast. This is a part of a project focused on working with and engaging students in ways that help them make positive changes and/or informed choices in their lives.

I hope to add more content to this page. Please consider leaving a comment with your suggestions for more video, poetry, short stories, still images, quotes, music videos and lyrics, art and books.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Joel Westheimer's talk on citizenship and education

I had the pleasure of skipping hockey tonight to listen to Joel Westheimer talk about citizenship and education. Here is some of what I learned:

  • Students may rarely see teachers being human because they see them so often just in their classroom teaching. Students rarely get to see teachers engage with other adults and agree and disagree in a way that model citizenship.
  • In the last few decades, we have seen a narrowing of the curriculum to literacy and numeracy. We have moved away from broad goals of schooling to very narrow academic goals that can be measured on bubble tests.
  • Imagine you were visiting a school in a totalitarian nation governed by a single-party dictatorship. Would the educational experiences be markedly different from the ones experienced by children in your local school?
  • Should anything be different from schools in a totalitarian dictatorship and a school in a democracy?
  • What responsibility do schools have to be democratic so that children can grow up to be adults who are democratic?
  • Having standards is not the same as standardization
  • Census testing is an unnecessary burden. Sample testing tells what we need to know and more efficiently. 
  • There is no teacher who belongs to the group of teachers who don't care about whether children learn how to read, write or do arithmetic. Most teachers want more than the basics for every child they teach. The back to basics movement is a straw man argument that needlessly attacks teachers.
  • The Alberta Teachers' Association's A Great School for All is impressive. 
  • We don't remember teachers who successfully made their classroom more uniform or standardized with other teachers.
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) may be an unintended consequence to standardization of curriculum and assessment in schools. 
  • There is a disturbing trend among teachers' professional learning communities. Standardization is trumping quality.
  • Teacher's "subjective" grades are a better predictor of students' successes in post-secondary than the "objective scores" from standardized tests and the SAT.
  • Opt out movement from standardized testing in the United States is picking up remarkable steam.
  • Economists don't know much about the economy and yet they speak about education like they know what they are talking about.
  • Less of life is about individual accomplishments and more about collective teamwork.
  • In the workplace, people who work together are called collaborative. In school, students who help each other out are called cheaters.
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