|Do you know where you're going? Or are you just going?|
I love Agatha Christie's Poirot, but I identify more with Colombo. Poirot is so confident that his little gray cells will eventually supply the answer. I feel as surprised as Colombo appears every time he turns up the convicting evidence.
Why must it be one or the other? Because teachers are detectives. We are always hunting for evidence—evidence of understanding, of obstacles to understanding, of misunderstanding. Except this isn’t about a murder, where all we can do is convict the guilty party. We can go back into the situation and alter it—supply more of what helped understanding, remove what hindered it, and offer correction for misunderstanding. We call it assessment—formative assessment.
My new role as curriculum coordinator gives me an even broader scope for sharpening my detective skills:
- I observed a middle school class playing a game to review for a test. The question: “At what angle is the earth’s axis tilted?” A girl glanced at the globe at the back of the room and asked, “At the top or at the bottom?” I suppressed a giggle, imagining a curved axis. In retrospect, I wish I’d thought to ask her why she wanted to know. I imagine she was thinking of a geometry diagram of two parallel, vertical lines, tangential to the top and the bottom of the earth, and the earth’s axis transecting them, and wondering whether it was the acute or the obtuse angle’s measurement that was wanted. That would have shown a lot more understanding of the geometric concept of angles than just memorizing the degree given in the book. It would also have shown less understanding of the meaning the earth’s axis having an angle than would be hoped for. The correct answer—23.5—may or may not have represented understanding of any type. It may have just represented the memorization of a fact.
- An ESL teacher showed me a range of journal entries. The students had 10 minutes to write on a topic. She’s concerned about the students who wrote a half page riddled with grammar errors. I’m concerned about the students who only got out 3 lines of text in 10 minutes—grammatically perfect though it be. And suddenly it dawns on me: “There are 2 different skills here—fluency and correctness. What if you and the students knew which one was being targeted at a given time, and could work on improving each one separately?”
- Another middle school teacher was showing me her Bible curriculum, trying to separate out content and skills. Finally she said, “The students come out of elementary thinking they know all the Bible stories. I want them to apply the stories to their life.” The lights came on: “You want them to apply the thinking strategy of synthesis and extension to their reading of the Bible!” “Yes!” she replied. That’s a reading skill.
Articulating what students need to understand, know, and be able to do is important—not so I can write it in my lesson plan or unit map, or post it in my room. It’s important like having a destination is important. There may be some detours along the way, but if my GPS has the destination entered, it can always recalculate and get me there.
What did you want your students to understand, know, and be able to do last week? How did you check understanding and recalculate in order to get to the destination? What about next week?
P.S. I know I switched metaphors midstream (and now I'm adding another), but they are both important for how I think about planning and assessment. My apologies. Pick whichever works for you. Or both.