Friday, January 31, 2020

What is the best way to assess holistic teaching programs?

Today our team will meet with a Massachusetts Department of Education cohort to explore ways to best assess teaching and learning programs. We applied to be apart of this initiative so that we could explore how to assess holistic teaching efforts. Specifically we are looking deeply at assessing a holistic, interdisciplinary environmental science unit that we promote at fifth grade. The unit involves reading, writing, social studies, math, and science standards and learning experiences that focus on the SUASCO watershed including numerous varied learning opportunities.

To accurately assess such a broad, inclusive learning event is not easy, yet important. It is easy to assess a simple lesson, standard, or unit of study, but not so easy to assess an interdisciplinary unit of study. However, if we only teach what's easy to assess, we will deny our students rich learning experiences. But if we don't find ways to accurately assess these rich learning events, we may build interdisciplinary units that do not result in positive learning in the long run.

Years ago I was a new proponent of hands-on learning and science education. In school, I learned science from mostly reading texts. I found it boring and difficult to understand, but as a student of education, I learned about all the wonderful ways to teach and learn science with hands-on activities, field studies, and investigations. That experience inspired me to enjoy science and learn more. I wanted to replicate that with my students, but needed more information. I expressed that interest to system leaders at that time, and they responded by providing a hands-on science learning class at a local university. We were all invited to investigate in the lab. Yet, the learning was too open ended. I didn't know where to start, and the experience resulted in little to no learning for me. While it was a holistic, interdisciplinary learning event meant to inspire and educate, the results were terrible since we learned little and our programming for students did not benefit much.

What I did learn, however, from the experience was that holistic, interdisciplinary units need to be well designed in order to result in positive learning and inspiration. There's lots of room for these units to fail, and without reliable assessments, it's difficult to understand where the units worked and where they failed. So that's why we signed up to be apart of this state-wide initiative.

Today, we'll meet with the cohort for the second time. During the first meeting, we identified three ways to measure some of our main goals for the unit of study including content goals and social-emotional learning goals. Today we'll look deeply at the assessments we chose and the goals we want to assess. In many ways, we are navigating uncharted waters here which makes our work challenging. Yet, we have the benefit of working with many talented people as well as experts related to assessment.

As I begin today's effort, I want to be mindful of the following information and questions:
  1. I want to revisit the unit goals we identified as important to assess.
  2. I want to review the assessments we chose with my colleagues to make sure we've chosen the right tools and questions.
  3. I want to review with colleagues the process for assessment we'll use and create a good timeline for that process.
Beyond today, I want to think about and learn more about ways to design and assess interdisciplinary units of study--what is the best way to determine if we are reaching the goals we want to reach in meaningful and beneficial ways with big, broad units like this? I welcome any ideas or feedback you may have.