Grading and Assessment with @tomschimmer

In June, I offered our intermediate teachers the opportunity to attend, with me, a one day session with Tom Schimmer on the topic  of “10 Things That Matter From Assessment to Grading” (based on his newly released book of the same name).  I have been connected with Tom for about 8 months and we have had some powerful conversations around the topics of assessment, motivation and leadership through Twitter, in person, and on the good ole telephone.  If you ever get a chance to see/hear Tom speak: do it (you can view some of his other presentation slides here).  Be sure to check out Tom’s blog and follow him on Twitter.

The way I often take notes during sessions is to Tweet out comments and info that cause me to pause and reflect.  Although this probably does not “flow” too well, here are my notes from the day (all those without reference are quotes from Tom – I may have missed some references.). Thank you, Tom, for the learning and permission to post this on my blog.

  • “We no longer need to accept the assessment legacy of our past. We know better” – Stiggins
  • “When we think about change, we must think about possibility… we cannot think about what won’t work”
  • “In our current system, how many students are penalized because they do not learn fast enough?”
  • “There is an obvious tension between depth of learning and coverage of curriculum in our schools today”


  • “It is our foible as humans to stoutly defend an established position despite overwhelming evidence against it” – Dr. Hawkins
  • “Who is putting the NO in innovation?”
  • “I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a transformer” – Covey
  • “How many people have the same phone since 2000? How many people use the same lesson plan since 2000?”
  • “Do any other professions state: it worked back then, why would I need to change?”
  • “Just because you say you don’t believe in something does not abolish its existence nor its effectiveness” (ie. I don’t believe in AFL)
  • “How often do we, as educators, make people professionally uncomfortable – by challenging each other”
  • “Think BIG, start small.”

On Assessment:

  • “It’s not good enough to give students the ‘opportunity to learn’. We must ensure that they learn!”
  • “If students become frustrated and disengage from learning – what do their grades actually represent?”
  • “For sound, accurate assessment – we need to have a clear purpose, clear targets, sound design, effective communication, student involvement”
  • “Formative assessments are designed to keep the information within the classroom”
  • “If your formative assessments involve a spreadsheet… you are missing the mark” Dylan Wiliam
  • “Should be a balance between summative and formative – the pendulum should not swing from one to the other (although formative should happen much more often that summative)”
  • “Summative assessment does not mean a multiple choice test”
  • “We have turned school into a game – all students have to do is collect enough points to win”
  • “How much better would our kids do when the threat of failure has been taken off the table?
  • “Assessment For Learning = CLASSROOM assessment for STUDENT learning”
  • “Are we OVERteaching some parts of the curriculum while UNDERteaching other areas? How do you know without formative assessment?”
  • “We often use methods of assessments that are mismatched with learning targets (ie. multiple choice for a reasoning target) – make sure your assessment methods match the targets.”
  • “To be effective, feedback needs to cause thinking. Grades don’t do that…and comments like ‘good job’ don’t either” Dylan Wiliam
  • “In elementary schools we often confuse maturity with ability.”
  • “Feedback has the smallest effect size when it is related to praise, rewards, and punishments” – Hattie
  • “Don’t just say “good job”.  Finish the sentence! Good job… because you…”
  • Feedback – what matters? Quality of feedback, focus on learning, include strengths – Black and Wiliam
  • When using Descriptive Feedback, make it: Timely, Specific, Clear and Useable
  • “For rubrics – avoid using numbers. Kids will add up the numbers to give them a score.”
  • “Differentiation: Put students in situations where they don’t know the answer often” Dr. C Morreale
  • “What role does time play in distorting the achievement level in our kids?”
  • “Myth: Differentiation is about creating individual lesson plans”
  • “Differentiation is NOT I will teach my lesson and then alter the lesson for those who ‘don’t get it'”
  • “Figure out ways that you can infuse AFL into your practice”
  • “If we say we can or can’t change the way we assess – we are right.”
  • “If we want the system to change – WE need to BE THE CHANGE. Be the example that we want to see.”
  • “For change to occur, we need to be able to take heat from our colleagues”

Some Videos Tom shared:

A student describes the power of forms of assessment beyond tests:

An example of what a class can be if we begin move away from a focus on grades, worksheets and tests and make learning more real for our students.


Homework Why’s and Homework-Wise

stressed student

“…the more we learn about learning, the more willing we may be to challenge the idea that homework has to be part of schooling”

Alfie Kohn

I remember my days  in school when the bell would ring and the teacher would blurt out the homework for the next day.  This work did very little to increase my learning and it often left me arguing with my mother, who happened to be a teacher, at the kitchen table about how to do the work correctly.

Lately I have seen a few blogs, newspaper articles, and journal articles (see below for links) questioning the purpose and practice of homework: Why do some teachers give homework and others do not? Why is homework given as a blanket assignment in which each child is given the same homework? What is effective homework? How much homework?

These questions, along with many others, led our staff (K-6) to discuss this topic at our last staff meeting.  Here is a summary of our dialogue on the issue of homework:

  1. The teaching and learning of the specific outcomes should happen at school – with students, teachers, and staff to support. According to the research by Kohn, “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.”  Students should not be sent home with homework that relies on parents, family members or tutors to provide instruction.  If the student is not learning this at school, who do we expect to teach it? We also need to keep in mind that not all students have someone that can help them at home – how does homework benefit these students?
  2. Homework should be meaningful, relevant, and engaging.  Students need to feel like they will benefit from the learning and feel they have ownership of the assignment.  Student input about assignments can lead to a view that this is their learning, rather than the teacher’s assigned work to be done. Provide CHOICE; there are many ways that students can practice and/or demonstrate learning.
  3. Homework should be differentiated. We all agreed that the time per day rules/policies (ie. 20 minutes/day for grade 2, 30 min/day for grade 3, etc) do very little to support the individual students.  A learning activity that takes one student 10 minutes may take another student 30 minutes.  Each student requires learning that is catered to their needs – homework should be differentiated just as it is done during school.
  4. Homework should be flexible. Family time and play time are so important for students at any age!  If a child is involved in activities on certain days and only has a small amount of time with the family that day, maybe homework can be given on a different day.  Again, the learning activities need to keep the individual student in mind and we must respect students’ time. Is homework even necessary that day/week?
  5. Homework should not be part of the grade. Although grades are a topic for another post, one of the worst things we can do to a students is grade them on their learning at home (or worse, give them zeros for not completing homework).  Reflect on how much parent involvement there is and how this impacts the homework and learning.  Is a student going home to an environment that supports homework or is the student leaving school to look after his/her younger siblings or go to a part-time job to help support their family?  Homework must be designed to support learning; the assessment OF learning needs to take place in class when the teacher is there to support.
  6. Reflect on the purpose of homework. If the students understands the learning outcomes, why do they need to spend more time on material they already understand; if the student does not understand the learning outcomes, how do we expect them to learn it at home?  Is the homework “busy work” (ie. worksheets with 40 math questions, argh!) or is it going to actually enhance their learning?  Is the particular assignment the BEST way to help the student learn? Is it necessary? Is this homework more important than being active and spending time with the family?

In addition, we often hear teachers and parents say that homework helps students to understand that in order to get ahead in the “real world”, you must do more and take responsibility for more.  If we are relying on homework as the main way to teach responsibility, we are in trouble.  Again, if a student goes home and has a parent that ensures their homework gets done, is the homework teaching them responsibility? What about the responsibility to spend time with and help friends and family or serve a purpose in the community? I agree that students should be responsible for their learning but in order to do this, we have to give them responsibility through voice and ownership; this can happen throughout the day and not just with homework.

So what can we, as parents and educators, do about the idea of homework? I think Kohn sums it up nicely,

It strikes me as curious on the face of it that children are given additional assignments to be completed at home after they’ve spent most of the day in school – and even more curious that almost everyone takes this fact for granted.  Even those who witness the unpleasant effects of homework on children and families rarely question it.

I believe it is time that we all begin to question it.


Homework Lady C. Vatterott
Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples A. Kohn
The Truth About Homework A. Kohn
Rethinking Homework A. Kohn
Homework is killing our kids’ joy in education J. Ferry
More Teachers Flexing Around Homework E. Anderssen

Rethinking Homework J. Spencer
The Great Homework Debate: Does It Ever End? R. Collins
What Homework Should Be B. Kuhn
The Destructive Forces of Homework J. Bower
The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework C. Vatterott
Show Us What Homework’s For K. Cushman
Homework Done Right J. Alleman, et al.
The Case Against Homework S. Bennett/N. Kalish

Homework Lady –  by Cathy Vatterott
Homework is killing our kids’ joy in education – by John Ferry (Vancouver Province Newspaper)
More Teachers Flexing Around Homework – by Erin Anderssen (Globe and Mail)
Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples – by Alfie Kohn
The Truth About Homework – by Alfie Kohn

Rethinking Homework – by Alfie Kohn

Rethinking Homework – by John Spencer
The Great Homework Debate: Does It Ever End? – by Remi Collins
What Homework Should Be – by Brian Kuhn
The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework – by Cathy Vatterott (Educational Leadership Journal)
Show Us What Homework’s For – by Kathleen Cushman (Educational Leadership Journal)
Homework Done Right – by Janet Alleman, et al.
The Case Against Homework – by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish


Reforming Through Our Strengths

Our Strengths

In the recent past, I have been reading endless blogs and seeing news headlines (and Oprah shows) that focus on all the problems with the current education system (much of these focus on the US system but there is a relation to the Canadian system).  We are bombarded with examples of educators that have been fired, test scores that are too low, and students who cannot read.

We often look at our students in this same way – through deficit thinking, the idea to try to bring up the weaknesses. Lately, a lot of schools and teachers are doing not only this but focusing more on the opposite; instead of bringing up the weaknesses, they are focusing on the strengths.

After reading Pernille Ripp’s post today, I thought: what if, instead of focusing on the weaknesses and problems with our current system, if we started to highlight the great things that are happening in schools every day throughout Canada and the world?

By walking through our school, being on Twitter and reading blogs from some fantastic educators, I see and read about amazing things that happen in schools every day – blogs that don’t focus on test scores, data, violence, or punishments.  These educators are writing about Identity Days, encouraging students to be proud of who they are, amazing things grade 1 students do in their first week, seeing students for who they truly are, and tapping into the leadership of our students.  What would happen if stories like this dominated the media?  Would we see a more positive education reform by showcasing examples of deeper learning and strength-based education?

I realize that we cannot ignore the problems that are embedded in the education systems of Canada and the US but we cannot forget the endless wonderful things that happen each and every day in our schools.  Many students ARE learning and participating in engaging lessons that focus on the learner.  Many teachers ARE looking beyond the external behaviours and forming relationship to show how much they deeply care for their students.  Schools ARE transforming from factory-models to learner-centred environments that put the students first.

So instead of slamming the deficits, why not reform through focusing on our strengths?


Our future is in good hands

Today I had the privilege of being invited to attend presentations from students in the teacher education program (TEP) at the University of Fraser Valley (Chilliwack).  Being from a relatively small district, our administrators are often involved in interviewing and hiring; today was an opportunity to see and hear what some of our future teachers believe is important in the world of education.

We were to listen to a very short presentation from each student and then provide some feedback.  One would think that after 18 presentations, I would be tired, hungry, and unfocused.  In actuality, at no point during the day did I feel this way; I felt quite the opposite, I felt energized and excited to see such passionate and motivated people ready to teach and learn in our schools.  Listening to these students made me want to be teaching more in the classroom; I felt like wanted to be teaching in the classroom  next to them and then collaborate with them on how we can better the current system of education.

Following the presentations, I had a chance to write down some common themes that the students from the TEP program highlighted:

  • Meet student where they are: although these student-teachers had only been in a classroom for a few months, I was amazed at the examples of ways in which they engaged their students and learned from them the most effective ways to teach them.
  • How we teach is what we teach:  I mentioned the importance of modeling in my previous blog; the presenters today were not only talking the talk, but walking the walk
  • Arts ARE important: I was pleasantly surprised at how many students were passionate about the arts.  From music to drama to visual arts, the teachers discussed how important fine arts was in education.  Sir Ken Robinson would have been proud!
  • Assessment for Learning: the teachers spoke of the many ways to have students demonstrate their learning; it gave me hope that the days of a summative-assessment-dominated world may be in the past.  There are so many ways to assess that go beyond the traditional pen and paper tests and quizzes.  Assessment is NOT an event, it is ongoing.
  • Risk takers:  these new teachers are questioning the way things are done and trying new, innovative ways to encourage student learning.
  • Tapping into strengths: we often hear of teachers tapping into their students’ strengths; it appears that these teachers are not only doing this but have also tapped into their own strengths and are bringing these talents into the schools
  • Community: each presenter mentioned something about community; global citizenship, local community resources, and professional learning communities were all discussed.  These teachers understand the movement from “me to we”.
  • Connections and Relationships: there were so many examples of memorable connections that were made with a student or class.  Effective teaching and learning can only result with the care and trust that results from positive relationships.
  • ASCD: very impressive to see how many of these teachers are already involved in the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.  A great way to stay up to date with latest research on teaching and learning.
  • PASSION: I was in awe of the passion in the voices of these new teachers… enough said.

I want to thank UFV for inviting our district to attend these presentations.  I had a wonderful day and if Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, is accurate in stating that our first impressions are generally correct, then from the 10 minute conversation we had with these student-teachers, my impression is that our future students are in good hands.


As an aside,  at my school there are many experienced teachers that have this passion and caring quality about teaching and learning.  Unfortunately, experienced teachers never get to do a short presentation on what they think about education; they never get a chance to showcase their talents.  All teachers need a chance to brag a little about the amazing things that they do with kids and maybe this is something we need to do more of in schools.


How we teach IS what we teach

Larry Cuban once wrote, “How you teach becomes what you teach” and this is something that I have lived by for a number of years.  I have it written above my desk and I often use this when discussing pedagogy with parents and teachers.  Although teachers teach the formal curricula, it is the way that it is taught that truly teaches our children how to lead their lives.

Have you ever pretended to not hear a comment so that you would not have to deal with the conversation that would result from the inappropriate nature of the comment?  By doing this, you have just taught your kids that the comment has your approval.  For example, if a child is walking down the hall and states, “That is so gay…” and the child realizes that you heard him but you pretend not to hear and keep on walking, you have just told that child that it is acceptable to use that term.  Children are very aware of what teachers and adults hear and how they respond (some boys seem to have those “spidey” senses).  The small amount of time it takes to stop and have learning conversations with students can have large impacts on the way they develop character in school.

I was in one of the elementary school classrooms the other day and I was listening to students discuss why it was so important to be caring and compassionate toward each other.  I was encouraged to become part of the discussion so I asked the students how they had learned to be this way; they responded by pointing to the teacher.  I took this further to ask how it was taught to them and one student summed it up best when she said, “it’s not something she tells us it is just what she does”.  How you teach becomes what you teach.

I also had a conversation with a different teacher around promoting active, healthy lifestyles with our kids.  He discussed how this year has been so different because he has been able to model the healthy lifestyle. He spoke about how he has become so much healthier and physically fit this year and how he uses this to motivate his students.  “If we want to promote this lifestyle, we have to do this with the kids and we have to BE this lifestyle”, he commented.  How we teach becomes what we teach.

These 2 examples occurred in the school this week led me to these further reflections:

  • If we want to teach the qualities of care and respect, we must demonstrate this to our children on a regular basis.
  • If we want learning to be the key part of school, we cannot focus on grades and achievement.  By focusing on the latter, we teach students that the result is greater than the process.
  • We cannot teach democracy by running our class like a dictator.  Encourage student voice.
  • We cannot teach the importance of environmental awareness without DOING this in our class (recycle centre, natural light, conservation)
  • We cannot teach kids to do the right thing by rewarding them for doing the right thing; the focus then becomes the reward, not the feeling that one gets while doing the right thing
  • We do not teach a student that their strength or talent is important if we take this away from them as a punishment

As parents and teachers, we need to model the qualities that we want to see in our children.  We teach our children more than just the curriculum.  We have the opportunity to teach our students to become caring, compassionate, and collaborative people; the best way to do this is not through the formal curriculum but to have the lessons come from our actions.  How we teach IS what we teach.