Towards an inclusive classroom

I recently completed a unit with Grade 9 Humanities on the European Union. To assess what student already knew about the topic, we completed the following pre-assessment using Google Forms on day one of the unit:

EU pre-assessment

The challenge for me, and I assume many teachers struggle with the same challenge, is how to follow up on the feedback provided by these pre-assessments. One area I’m working on is how to differentiate in a way that does not stigmatise students as ‘special,’ or even the more innocuous labels like ‘less-advanced.’ A label is a label, and it doesn’t feel good to have one with negative connotations attached to you. The following chart illustrates my attempt at overcoming this challenge.

The following class the room was arranged according to three stations, identified as “interested,” “activist,” and “policy wonk.” It was explained that each station addressed a different approach to learning about the EU. “Interested” was for students who had not learned much about the EU before but were interested in finding our more. Wearing headphones, they watched a five-minute introduction video. After the video we discussed as a group some of the main ideas, while they all took notes.

The second station was for the “activist,” or the student with some knowledge of the EU, but in need of organising this knowledge into something a bit more systematic. Students at this stations were given the option of the using the online collaborative application Popplet to create a mindmap, or to draw one the old-fashioned way on paper that was provided. The “policy wonk” station was for the student that had studied the EU before, or had learned about it on their own. The policy wonks were tasked with identifying three key issues facing the EU today, and creating a Google Slide presentation to share these issues with other students.

To assess the students development across the unit, a discussion forum was created using Google Classroom. Each week we discussed a specific challenge facing the EU. Students were assigned roles, such as the researcher–tasked with provided resources; the instigator–tasked with igniting dialogue; the inquisitor–tasked with asking questions; and the responder–tasked with answering question. Each of these responsibilities required different levels of skills and knowledge, and tapped into different areas of student interests. While effective differentiation is a work in progress, the station idea holds a lot of promise:

3-tiered strategy

High-Stakes Assessment

 

Since No Child Left Behind became federal law in the US, states have been required to test every child in every year from grade 3 through 8. The US is not alone in this high-stakes strategy. PISA test results have secured East Asia’s reputation is an educational juggernaut, while the rising suicide rate amongst teens has been a tragic consequence of the proliferation of high-stakes testing in India. In what follows I’ll briefly compare a school that does not engage in high-stakes testing, with one that does, with a focus on the uses and implications for students and teachers.

Since its founding in 2004, a secondary school located in northeastern China, and part of the IBO community, has not required students in grades 6 – 10 to take part in high-stakes testing. Instead, student progress has been determined by regularly structured formative and summative assessments throughout the school year. In addition, interim reports that indicate a students’ social and emotional progress are issued once per academic term. Failure, in the sense of repeating a grade, is not an option. The implications of this approach are mixed across the spectrum of stake-holders. Most students like the fact that an exam will not determine if they continue on to the next grade. Teachers like the flexibility of not “teaching to the test,” but ┬árather tailoring instruction to meet the needs of a diverse student body. This results in a curriculum that is not typically, or exclusively content-driven. It also has resulted in a curriculum that sometimes uses standards to guide instructional decisions, but in no case do standards drive the learning process. While most parents appreciate a learning environment that validates the experience of childhood, there are some that would like to know where their child stands in relation to other students within the school, and across the globe. Next year they will find out.

Next year all grade 10 students will take part in an ‘e-Assessment’ designed to evaluate their learning across all subjects in comparison with grade 10 students across the globe. The exam is externally moderated by the IBO. In preparation for these changes, several innovations are currently ┬ábeing introduced. Most significant are changes to the curriculum. All teachers from grades 6-10 were required to take the ‘e-Assessment.’ They did this in groups, while taking note of the content and skills required to succeed. These notes will be compiled into a grade 10 learning outcome document. The curriculum for grades 6-10 will then be “backward mapped” to align with these grade 10 objectives. To ensure coherency of the skills progression, the Common Core standards will be used by all teachers to formulate learning objectives for each year, across all subjects. Teachers have already voiced concerns about “teaching to the test.” Based on the current changes, this seems to be an accurate assessment.

The important question is are the changes currently being introduced by the school a step in the right direction? To my mind, and this applies to high-stakes assessment more generally understood, a lot depends on the nature of the assessment. From what I gather, the e-Assessment targets skills over content, with an emphasis on problem-solving and real-world scenarios. If so, perhaps teaching towards these objectives is not such a bad thing. Moreover, in the case of the specific school being discussed, perhaps the introduction of skills and content standards will provide students and parents with clear expectations, which has been shown to improve learning. At the same time there is a philosophical problem with the use of a high-stakes assessment in a context that promotes process and multiple means to express understanding. The e-Assessment is a one-shot, one-size-fits-all model of evaluation. Perhaps one solution to this conundrum could be the use of portfolio assessments, as these would demonstrate the attainment of specific objectives, while also validating the process involved.