Let’s Focus on Thinking Instead

Let’s Focus on Thinking Instead

After returning from a long, relaxing and thoughtful winter break, our staff spent a lively hour discussing our school wide goal for this year.  I know, a little late, but we’ve been waiting on PARCC data.  For the last three years, our building focus has been writing.   
The challenge has been how to address and assess this goal across all of the different contents that are represented in our middle school.  We have tried using  a common acronym, RAP – Rephrase, Answer, Provide Support, but this acronym didn’t necessarily fit well with all content areas, sometimes felt contrived and overall, did not significantly impact on our student’s standardized test scores.  We also tried using common, school wide short constructed response assessments.  These assessments were cumbersome to score and due to the scoring time commitment, we were only able to give 2 or 3 over the course of the year.  Again, no one, teachers or students, were getting 
the bang for their buck.  
So what to do?

My personal philosophy on education has undergone radical changes over the last few years.  For many years of my career, I relied on traditional, summative assessments to determine what students knew.  Over the last five years, I realized that these traditional assessments more often than not gave an incomplete, and in many cases, an inaccurate, picture of student understandings.  They rewarded students who figured out what the teacher wanted and went about providing that answer and penalized students who thought outside the box.  

What is the purpose of education?  I grapple with this question frequently.   
My current belief, influenced greatly by my experiences raising 2 children and following their school experiences, is that at the end of the day, I want my own children as well as my students to be able to think.  I want them to be able to express their thoughts and opinions and support these ideas with credible, relevant and timely information.  How they express their ideas should be up to each individual.  The communication and presentation of ideas should be based on each individual child’s strengths and should involve thoughtful consideration of both audience and purpose.  For years, the primary mode of communication, at least in the formal education setting, has been text based with a heavy emphasis on formal writing.  I strongly believe we need to move away from this long-held assumption that all students must use formal writing as their primary mode of expression.  

So back to our school wide goal.  It’s so easy to default to writing – it’s what we’ve looked at for years, but is it really the most effective way to assess student growth?  Don’t get me wrong, I think being able to write is important and my students often communicate their understandings through writing.  But, I don’t think it is the only way, and certainly not always the best way, for students to demonstrate understanding and the ability to think deeply.  And I certainly don’t think it is the best way to quickly assess understanding in order to provide timely and productive feedback.  It is well past time to acknowledge that there are many ways to demonstrate the ability to think critically.  This acknowledgment is scary though.  How do you systematically assess deep thinking?  How do you standardize both assessments and assessment feedback so you can track growth? I wonder, what happens if you focus on the actual thinking, rather than the fallback measurement tool – more often than not, formal writing.  What if we acknowledge that there are many ways to show deep, complex thinking; for example, an intricate piece of art, a short video or audio recording, a bulleted list of words, a music composition, a sports formation. 
Formal writing does not need to be the end-all-be-all.  The world needs individuals who can express their ideas and thoughts, who can learn from their mistakes and move forward and who can think outside the box and confidently communicate their ideas.  Our staff began to consider this today.  
It was refreshing.  
It was exciting.  
It creates lots of unknowns.  
I’m looking forward to seeing where we end up.    

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