“I could barely understand what the professor was talking about but I was very impressed… I thought teaching was a simple matter of telling the class what you knew and then testing them and giving them grades.  Now I was learning how complicated the life of a teacher could be….” (McCourt, 2005:41)

I really appreciate this excerpt from Frank McCourt’s, Teacher Man; a memoir.  I think it accurately portrays an experience which novice teachers discover early in their careers just as McCourt did; indeed as we all have.  It’s a big leap to go from telling students what to learn and having students actually LEARN.  Teachers implement a variety of strategies to engage students in the material and facilitate opportunities to practice skills designed to help them learn, but ultimately the student is the one in control.

I’m a history teacher and recently I have been thinking about how to get my students to THINK more about their writing; to be critical of their structure and word choice as they respond to a specific prompt.  There are so many variables for them to consider in this process.  The task words of the prompt, the historical content associated with the prompt and the organization of their response are just a few of the skills being engaged and of course they are expected to draw from and demonstrate their knowledge of history.  So what is the best method to facilitate learning for all of these variables for my students?  How do I help them learn the historical content, practice the writing skills and make meaning of it all?  How do I help them LEARN?

Daniel Willingham[1] states that “thinking about meaning is good for memory.”  In order for students to draw from their content knowledge, students need to LEARN the content knowledge and REMEMBER the information.  Willingham states that “whatever you think about, that’s what you remember.  Memory is the residue of thought….  The obvious implications for teachers are that they must design lessons that will ensure that students are thinking about the meaning of the material.”

So what does that mean for my students in practice?  We began with defining the expectations for the writing task.  How would it be scored?  What characteristics of their writing would be assessed?  Together we examined exemplars in advance of their writing to gain a better understanding of an original thesis, the difference of ‘description’ versus ‘analysis’ and we talked about the best way to structure the essay.  Once students felt the expectations were clear, the prompt was handed out, students created a brief outline, and then began writing their essay.

One of the most essential tenets of formative assessment practice is facilitating opportunities for student self assessment.  However, often students lack the necessary skills to judge their own work honestly and to identify ways to remedy their work.  In order to develop the skills of self assessment it is important to create a classroom environment where students work together to understand teacher comments about their work.  “In practice, peer assessment turns out to be an important complement and may even be a prior requirement for self assessment.”[2]

Given these formative assessment strategies, the next day students sat in pairs working together to read and comment-only score essays written by their peers (essays were labeled only by student ID numbers).  Prior to the scoring, we talked about the types of comments which would inform the writer.  The comments needed to be critical and specific.  The reader needed to clearly articulate suggestions for the writer which would improve the essay; clear, descriptive feedback.  During this process the students are thinking about the historical content and the writing; they are reading the work of their peers, evaluating the quality of the writing against established expectations and providing descriptive feedback.  They are thinking about the meaning of the historical content and the writing task.

The following day students receive their essays which were ‘comment-only’ scored by their peers the previous day.  The room is quiet as they read the comments and weigh the value of the feedback from their peers against their own ideas and against the established expectations for the task.  The next step in this process is for the students to make revisions based on the feedback they received from their peers and from any of the knowledge they’ve constructed through this process.  The revised essay is to be word-processed and handed in the following day along with their original essay and a brief paragraph explaining what changes they made to their work and why.  Using this formative assessment process students have engaged with the historical content as well as their critical thinking and writing skills.  They have spent a great deal of time THINKING about all of these variables and growing their understanding in the process.  This final version of the essay is what I will evaluate, score, and record in the gradebook.

This approach to facilitating LEARNING, opposed to Frank McCourt’s description of “telling the class what you [know] and testing them…” identifies a different approach for your teaching practice.  Indeed, “…it puts the focus on what is being learned and on the quality of classroom interactions and relationships.  In this approach assessment is interpreted broadly, it is about gathering evidence about where learners are, and providing feedback which helps them move on.”[3]  This practice affords students the opportunity to identify the gaps in their learning of historical content knowledge and their thinking and writing skills.  However, this practice also affords students the chance to LEARN during the process and make adjustments to their work which demonstrates that new learning.

Part I of Frank McCourt’s, Teacher Man is aptly titled: “It’s a long road to pedagogy.”  Boy is it ever.  But teachers who can create an atmosphere in their classroom which is “assessment-informed, [and who can create] a spirit of collaboration, not competitiveness will see that students view themselves as instructional partners who have a significant responsibility for making sure learning takes place.”[4]

[1] Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009) Willingham, p47

[2] Assessment for Learning; putting it into practice. (2003) Black, et. al., p50

[3] Testing Times; the uses and abuses of assessment. (2008) Stobart, p145

[4] Transformative Assessment. (2008) Popham, p96