What does learning look like?

Recently I have been involved in a number of discussion about Assessment and Evaluation.  These discussions have been informal and formal, social and professional  in nature.  Of course as we have just finished the first semester and the marks associated with those courses it not too surprising that A&E is a hot topic. Eventually the conversation turns to the issue of what learning looks like.  How do teachers know if the students have actually learned what they are supposed to learn? How do teachers know what they should be teaching? Some students have asked me how teachers know if the students actually learn anything during a course, and by learn they clearly mean beyond the information required for the test or exam.

As a teacher and department leader, I often wonder whether or not other teachers actually take the time to review curriculum documents to see if what they teacher is actually aligned with anything other than a sentimental view of how things have always been done (thereby justifying not changing anything).  In a discussion last week, one colleague was concerned that we were being asked to revise course material and rubrics because curriculum documents had changed two years ago.  I know teachers are very good at covering important and relevant material, but how good are we at feeding and nurturing our courses so that they do not get stale?  Why are some teachers afraid or hesitant to reflect on what and how they teach?  If we do not make any attempt to reflect on how we teach, we are not really able to effectively reflect on the learning of our students because there may be little alignment with what they should be learning.

Ontario’s guiding document for Assessment and Evaluation is Growing Success which provides the seven guiding principles for assessment:

To ensure that assessment, evaluation, and reporting are valid and reliable, and that they lead to the improvement of learning for all students, teachers use practices and procedures that:

• are fair, transparent, and equitable for all students;• support all students, including those with special education needs, those who are learning the language of instruction (English or French), and those who are First Nation, Métis, or Inuit;

• are carefully planned to relate to the curriculum expectations and learning goals and, as much as possible, to the interests, learning styles and preferences, needs, and experiences of all students;

• are communicated clearly to students and parents at the beginning of the school year or course and at other appropriate points throughout the school year or course;

• are ongoing, varied in nature, and administered over a period of time to provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate the full range of their learning;

• provide ongoing descriptive feedback that is clear, specific, meaningful, and timely to support improved learning and achievement;

• develop students’ self-assessment skills to enable them to assess their own learning, set specific goals, and plan next steps for their learning.

Given these principles, why are students across the province still be confronted with classrooms which do not reflect positive change and awareness of current A&E practice?  Of course it is unfair to paint all classrooms and teachers with this brush.  As witnessed by several interesting Twitter feeds, including the #otf21c feed at the end of last week, many teachers engaged in professional growth that will be reflected in their classrooms through their teaching and assessment and evaluation practices.

It has taken me a while to get through writing this post because the issues around what learning looks like keeps coming up in conversations.  I keep thinking about how I work with my students to get them to a point where they can show me they are learning something.  Some days the only assessment that really happens is personal — Did I really get the ideas across to my students in a meaningful way?  Do I need to change how I teach certain concepts?  Learning needs to occur for the student and the teacher if we want to avoid missing an opportunity for growth.