Deeper Assessment: Why don’t we practice what we know we should do?

As part of my work as an innovation coach with the Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network, I collaborated with Julie Foss to present a four-part series on Deeper Assessment. This post is cross-posted with Advanced Learning Partnerships (ALP), a partner in the Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network who has graciously asked me to participate as a coach.

Driving Questions: What do we really want students to know and be able to do? How do we determine what’s important? To them? To us? To our subject areas? To our communities?

The four-part series on Deeper Assessment began with a high-level overview of using backwards design to decide what we really want students to know and do. Prioritizing learning outcomes is a common first step in designing a guaranteed and viable curriculum that prepares students beyond “the test.” Prioritizing standards helps determine vertical scope to prepare students for future courses in their sequence as well as to develop transferable skills across courses and subject areas. Ultimately, the highest priority standards help prepare students for “life,” whatever that may look like now, a month from now, or years from now.

The session started with a short clip from Ted Dintersmith’s Most Likely to Succeed of Linda Darling-Hammond sharing research on how fleeting inert knowledge is. Inert knowledge is information we memorize and repeat but never really use, and we lose about 90% of all inert knowledge we are exposed to. The clip from Dintersmith’s Innovation Playlist reports findings from a study conducted at the Lawrenceville Academy in New Jersey, where over two years, students were re-tested in the fall on their final science exams. Average scores went from a B+ to an F. Most students failed their exams after just three months. Moderator Julie Foss asked the 20+ participants in the session whether they might expect these same outcomes in their own divisions.

  • Justin Roerink, principal of the Hanover Center for Trades & Technology speculated that the trend might be found in a lot of classrooms. He queried, “How important is the material we are asking students to learn?” He further questioned the value of material we present to students if they don’t remember it a day, a week, or a month later. He encouraged increased use of hands-on assessments.
  • Stephanie Haskins from Staunton City Schools, noted that for a long time teachers have been caught up in the details of what needs to be taught rather than the big ideas of, “what is the important concept here?” She suggested that now is a good time to back up and forget about “all the details and all the bullets” and focus on the big ideas we really want students to understand. These big ideas will be far more memorable.
Priority Standards: You get what you aim for.

Moderator John Ross shared an overview of a backwards design process, one that many educators hear about but few use in practice, at least according to his experience. In that process, prioritized standards lead to those big ideas Stephanie Haskins references. Then assessments are developed first, based on those big ideas, and prior to considering any instructional materials or activities. That’s the crux of backwards design: design the assessment first. Using a “Fist to Five” formative protocol, participants were asked “How does this backwards design process resonate with current practice in your division?” The most common responses were 2s and 3s. 

  • Stephen Castle from Hanover County acknowledged “4 in theory…2 or 3 in practice” further noting that it’s important to dedicate time to build a truly collaborative PLC structure where teachers can do the work of prioritizing standards and determining a systematic and structured approach to addressing them. He acknowledged that despite these efforts, some teachers may still be reluctant to trust that taking a mastery-based approach is going to yield the results they want on “the test” at the end of the year. He suggested many teachers pull back from more authentic instruction prior to testing and rely on “drill-and-kill” to get information pushed into students’ inert knowledge, which we know from Linda Darling-Hammond, doesn’t stick.
  • Andrea Hand from Fairfax County Public Schools concurred with Castle and shared the idea of the tension between “have to have versus nice to have syndrome.” Some educators believe that one thing they “have to have” is good test scores at the end of the year, so they focus on that. Once they feel comfortable that will happen they can then work on the more authentic learning and others which, to them, fall under the category of “nice to have.” She suggests that the more we can advocate and align the “have to haves” with our collective beliefs around authentic learning it would guarantee students more of those experiences. 

This tension is real, but many of the participants felt that our unique circumstances have given us reason to get back to what we know works to provide more authentic instruction that prioritizes learning outcomes to the needs of students, not just trying to cram in inert knowledge students will likely soon forget. Many of the participants continued through the rest of the week with additional sessions on designing performance-based tasks, creating learning progressions that lead to standards-based rubrics, and exploring portfolios and other resources to capture evidence of student learning.

Check out the conversation at this YouTube link, as well as the agenda with downloadable resources, a link to the slide deck, and links to resources from the other three sessions.

Teaching Teachers: Considerations for Design

When I was in college, I couldn’t wait to get into my own classroom. The learning and camaraderie was fun, but I just wanted to be in charge and put all those things I was learning into action. Theory is one thing, but I wanted to see it in practice. I wanted to be in charge. For that reason, I know I developed some of the same behaviors antithetical to learning in my own classroom that I now struggle with when I work with teachers. One of my goals is to design instruction that helps my own students, most of whom are teachers, to overcome some of my own poor behaviors.

Teaching can be a lot of fun. One of my favorite parts of teaching is seeing kids learn something new. There’s no audible “click,” but often it seems like you can actually see that change when a kid processes something new and develops a new understanding or adds something new to their repertoire. It happened a lot with my middle school students, but I could still experience it with my high schoolers. That’s not always the case with adults, though, who tend to be more resistant. Typical of adults, it shouldn’t be surprising that with so much learning going on in my own classroom, that the one that was most resistant to learning was…me.

It’s not like I shut out the possibility altogether, but there’s a strange switch that occurs with many people when they move from student to teacher. I know I went through it, and I run into it time and again with the teachers with whom I work. I’m not sure how it happens. It may be an artifact of our school culture, but happen it does, at least in many cases.

In most schools, teachers work alone. The bell rings, they close the doors, and it’s time to get to work. They’re in charge and what they say goes. There’s a saying in education, “don’t smile until Christmas,” and I’m not the only one guilty of perhaps embodying this philosophy a bit too strictly.

Now that I work with teachers and even teach teachers, some of these strange cultural behaviors are more readily apparent, and they really make me struggle as I try to learn from and help my teachers learn new things. Following are some behaviors I know I’ve exhibited that are now challenges I face when designing learning for teachers.

I don’t know it all. There was a time when teachers may have known it all—or at least all the content they needed to impart for a test or entry into a career. But there’s more to teaching than just the facts and figures. Many of the teachers I run into truly do know all of the facts, figures, and processes covered in their curriculum. But it astounds me that I run into many who can’t tell me why they’re important. Why study math? Science? Social studies? Some of the answers I receive are astounding, and not all that convincing.

In my first classrooms, I tried to know it all, and many of my students expected me to, but now it’s different. I’ve seen that not only that I don’t know it all but that I never really will. There’s just too much to know! And more to know day after day. So now I tackle my online instruction as an opportunity to learn rather than a requirement to teach.

I learn new things from my students and the teachers I work with every week. They share their experiences, new resources they’ve found, and we sometimes work through problems together. The process really helps me, and I believe that those who are willing to work with me in this way also benefit. I tell my students that activities are a conversation, and if I misinterpret or misunderstand something, they should let me know. We should talk about them so we both better understand each other. That said, I rarely have a student speak up or contradict what I say or comments on their work. Why? Well, they’re almost all teachers and many are still playing the know-it-all game.

One of the most powerful things I’ve learned to say, albeit reluctantly at first, is “I don’t know.” But I can’t leave it at that. I may not know, but we can figure it out together, or you can help me to learn it. That has been a great benefit. There’s been one more benefit to realizing I don’t know it all. A tremendous burden has been lifted from my shoulders because one thing I do know now is, I don’t have to know it all. Whew! Now if I could just convince a few others…

I’m not always right. This is a tough one. The stereotypical image of a teacher is of the all-knowing font of knowledge that has the final say. Being the final authority is an approach I probably did take more often than not when I first started teaching, but it’s really a trap. I know why I did it. It made me appear to be the authority that my students could trust. But if you want to wear those shoes, the first time you aren’t right, you then spend most of your time doing damage control and you never really gain that trust back.

This issue comes to the forefront when commenting on the work others have done. Outside of the classroom, this is pro forma. I remember the first paper I wrote for my new “corporate” job (I use quotations because I worked in a non-profit with a lot of other former teachers, so it was more corporate than a school, but not entirely so). I had just published my dissertation and thought I had this writing thing down. The paper I got back was covered in red pencil from an editor. I was livid! How could this be? I had a Ph.D.! I was the expert!

In the end, what happened was I learned that while I knew a few things about educational technology, our editors knew a lot more than I did about writing, especially writing for different audiences. Their comments weren’t intended to be punitive, but informative. Sometimes they were intended to make me think deeper about my topic and maybe to consider different perspectives. They were actually trying to make me sound better, perhaps smarter, and to make my writing better so people might think I was always right (well…maybe right most of the time). I began to trust them and rely on their feedback.

Giving feedback to teachers is a challenge. If a teacher works under the mindset that they are always right, even a simple question can shut down communication. At least once in every class I teach I have students tell me they are struggling with my class and feel like they’re failing. Generally, they have the highest grades in the class and are exemplary students, but I may have posed questions or even taken a point or two off an assignment. To those students, less than perfect is failure. I gave up on perfect long ago and am much happier for it.

In terms of design, I try to be very confirming with my feedback. I try to pose questions rather than make statements, pull in references or data, but even those can cause some people to raise their shackles. Very often, however, I do have students that make erroneous statements or flawed or conclusions. At this point, I’ve taken the stand that it’s better to let them know than to let it slide by. It can take its toll on communication, but communication has to take a back seat to learning.

I can’t do it alone. A former colleague of mine once said, “Collaboration is an unnatural act conducted by two nonconsenting adults.” It may seem that way, but collaboration has become one of the most necessary skills for success in the world of work—in just about any occupation. It should also be true in education, but many of the educators I work with don’t see it that way.

I have to admit that working in cooperative groups was one of the most difficult things I had to learn once I left the classroom and worked in “the corporate world.” But the truth is that since I don’t know it all and I’m not always right, having other people who knew things and could do things I couldn’t do actually made me more effective. Our skills and knowledge often complemented each other. In this case, I really believe that the sum of the parts was greater than the whole, especially since collaboration can lead to creative solutions or opportunities that I just couldn’t come up with on my own. I just didn’t have the experiences or knowledge to do so.

The 21st Century Skills movement has encouraged educators to provide students the opportunities to collaborate and build collaborative skills, but I find few teachers willing to work collaboratively themselves. At this point, I encourage but don’t require collaboration in my online courses. When collaboration is an option, I try to provide structures for collaborating, perhaps job aids or templates, and I encourage collaborators to reflect on the activity. What did each person do? What did they bring to the table? What was the benefit? Collaborating with someone new, however, seems to still be a challenge, and until the participants feel comfortable and realize they don’t know it all and aren’t always right, it can be a slippery slope to traverse.


I’m still working on these factors in my learning design and consulting work. Sometimes I think I should go in and pretend to be the all-knowing font of knowledge who can’t be wrong—I think teachers expect it of me. But it’s a loosing game in the end. I’ll keep plugging away and hope you share some ideas you have for designing better learning for teachers.