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Re-evaluating Assessment & Growth

What does it mean to make progress and how can a learner self-assess?

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It is human nature that different people find different things exciting. For some the ability to solve mathematical equations may excite them. For others, it may be composing a poem or song, while for others still it may be cooking. Often we can find many skills exciting. These skills or tasks have a natural pull, by the virtue of us wanting to do them. We recognize them as an area we want to grow in. How much we grow depends on many factors such as our starting point and prior acquisition of related skills. What we often fail to recognize is that in order to grow in the skills or tasks that we find exciting, we may also be required to grow in a number of other supporting skills or tasks that we find less exciting. For example, in order to bake a cake I need the skills of measuring, timing, patience, following instructions, creativity and tasting to name a few. The more I grow in these supporting skills the more I will grow in my overall skill of baking. 

Similarly, to actualise our potential in life we need to acquire both the push and pull skills. In the Five Areas of Development, a wholistic education model we practice at the Royal Academy, we emphasise how we assess growth in our different areas of development.  Growth is a vital component of learning. Learning without growth may merely refer to an accumulation of information. How we use the information or knowledge we have gained, or how we relate to the experiences we have had demonstrates how, or if, we have grown. It can, however, be difficult to recognize growth in nuanced skills and processes, especially in an area we are not excited by or focused on. 

In education, assessments have often been a tool used to gauge the growth of learners in a particular domain or skill. These assessments are usually designed by teachers or external exam boards to determine how much of what we expect learners to know or to be able to do. The learner has very little, if any, agency in being able to demonstrate their growth. Herein lies a problem. Growth is a process, not a one size fits all test. And sometimes learners have grown in skills and tasks that we are not assessing. How can we see growth across all Five Areas of Development? Growth in emotional development will look very different from growth in physical development. But all are equally important to recognize and celebrate. 

Photo by Brandon Green & Bruce Hong on Unsplash

Think of an image of a fruit tree. What our attention is drawn to are the fruits because they excite us; they are our ‘pull’ skills. What we might also see is the strength of the trunk supporting the branches that the fruit grows on. This trunk is the core skill we need to bear our fruit. What we can’t see however, but are equally important, are the stems, the roots, the process of photosynthesis that sustain not just the tree but other living organisms in its ecology. We are not excited by them and may not give them much thought initially, but without growth in them we may never develop the fruits we desire. 

How can one know the intricacies of these different types of skills and the interconnectedness among them? How can a learner assess their own growth? It is not necessarily the outcome that needs to be assessed but the processes the learner has gone through, and may still be going through, that need to be recognized and reflected upon. And let’s be honest and fair – most of the time no one can better assess these often intangible struggles and processes one goes through than the learners themselves. These processes could result in crucial lifelong skills that will serve them well and need to be identified and reflected upon.

But this is not an easy task, especially without a solid foundation of how assessment relates to learning and the learner’s crucial role in the process. Hence, it is important to create a guiding framework to help assist learners in the assessment of their growth. How the learner chooses to do the assessment is up to the learner, and this may look very different from how you or I would have chosen to assess the learner’s growth. But that is okay. What’s important is that the learners have a framework which supports their assessment and allows them to recognize which skills are their push and pull skills and to recognize the interconnectedness among them. It is equally important to ensure that the learners play an active role in designing the specific processes of assessments that are unique to them and their trajectory of learning. The idea should be to help them demonstrate what they have learned not to constantly probe for what they do not know.

At the Royal Academy, each year we create roadmaps. This is a requisite for everyone on campus and it is updated as the year progresses. In the roadmaps we talk about indicators of success. We create a framework to support the identification of indicators of growth for different skills, processes and watermarks across the Five Areas of Development. It must be the learner, ably supported by her mentor, who identifies these indicators of growth as they are the ones who truly know how, and how much,  they have grown. This framework must also support learners in identifying the root ‘push’ skills and to celebrate their growth. The learners are the primary drivers of their roadmap and when provided with the agency and environment, along with a guiding hand, they fire on the required cylinders because they know what works best for them. They have to raise the bar for themselves. In the process they might end up raising the bar for others too. She could then take on the role of a peer-mentor, further strengthening her push and pull skills.

We need to be in active learning mode and regularly  self-assessing ourselves. Assessment is the engine that drives progress. However, if that engine is situated and controlled externally we will not be able to gauge the level and nature of progress accurately. Another practice at the Royal Academy is we ask learners to generate the test questions they would like answered. In doing so we are able to better fathom which areas the students are confident in and which areas they are unclear about. We also do different variants of this exercise by asking them to demonstrate their learning through a medium of their choice – writing, art, poetry, Math, dance and so on. This gives students the much-needed agency to craft their learning than constantly being told what to do. In doing so we have borrowed some principles of andragogy – how adult learners learn. Andragogy makes the following assumptions about the design of learning: (1) Adults need to know why they need to learn something (2) Adults need to learn experientially, (3) Adults approach learning as problem-solving, and (4) Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value. Why is it that these principles are reserved solely for the adult domain? I would argue that many of these would not only apply to young learners, but also be incredibly helpful to propel their learning to new heights when coupled with cross pollination across domains and experiences. Of course there are going to be areas and avenues where they need scaffolding but that should be the exception instead of the norm. The need for external tests in certain circumstances is valid – for example applying for higher education. And yes, it should be carried out by schools or the concerned organisations. Unfortunately, we are often solely focused on that ‘examination’ exception – so much so that from grade 1 we begin making the exception the rule.

When we are thinking of how best students learn, we should also look at how best to facilitate learning – what practices are we modelling? Are we inadvertently telling our learners from a very early age that we don’t believe they have the capacity to influence their own learning? As opposed to believing that students are passive respondents to stimuli, we need to acknowledge that they are in fact the drivers and the stimuli. Or rather they can be the best drivers if we facilitate the right learning environment. We need to recognize and encourage the importance of students’ active engagement in the learning process, as individuals as well as in their social & peer groups. In moving away from a top down approach we are creating a network of learners – individuals, groups, peers and mentors – who then learn new processes of learning which will serve them throughout life.

There are many spaces that enrich a learning environment – cerebral, physical, emotional, social and spiritual. It is our responsibility as teachers and mentors to help students tap into each one of these spaces and use them optimally rather than create artificial systems that constrain them. Once we allow cross pollination of domains, ideas and experiences we will begin discovering new areas, things that were right in front of us but we did not notice up until now. And as we make these connections we will notice that we are now naturally in active learning mode because it has become a habit. And if there comes a time when too many things compete for your attention, employ the skill of being selective by listening to your inner guru. After all, to actualise our potential is not a single choice but a series of choices we make over the course of our lives.

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