As my time teaching in Queensland draws to a close, I can’t help but weigh up the positives and negatives of the system from my very limited experience of teaching in one school in Cairns over the last 5 academic years. On the one hand, children are allowed to be children: they have fun at school, they make friends, they are not over-worked. On the other, we are assessing kids to death. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying about other areas of school life, the tail is wagging the dog, when it comes to assessment.
And by assessment, I’m not talking about ongoing formative assessment, with a small ‘a’, which was the norm in my teaching in the UK. I’m talking about “Assessment” in the form of task sheets with lengthy contexts, glossaries, scaffolding, grades, folios, etc.
An extreme example from when I arrived in Cairns will serve to illustrate the point. Of a 10 week term, the first 5 were dedicated to teaching the content. Then an assessment task was handed out and the next 3 weeks were dedicated to that. And for the final two weeks, I kid you not, classes would watch videos because they couldn’t possibly learn something they had to retain over the two week holiday. The look on the faces of my Year 9 class when, 4 weeks after I arrived, I asked them to do a 10-20 minute reading task over the holiday is something I will never forget! And the look on the faces of the staff when I tried to get them to introduce methods of formative assessment such as mini quizzes, kahoots, writing tasks, into their classes, and, God forbid, use that to help them teach…
Not only are we giving over huge amounts of lesson time to Assessment, which is valuable teaching time, but, by making a mountain out of a molehill, we are limiting assessment (small ‘a’ – as in formative) which comes with more valuable feedback, one of the most important factors in learning.
Even more importantly, we are not nurturing a love of learning for the sake of learning. When I gave my Year 10 class a task this week to creatively convey – through music, literature, art or film – the meaning of a piece of scripture for today’s world, the first words that came out of their mouths were “Is this an assessment?” “Well,” says I, “in the sense that I will judge your understanding, see how much effort you put in to the task, and evaluate your application of the skills we have learnt, let you know how you have done, and it will contribute to what I put in your report, yes it is an assessment…. But am I going to write a grade on it, put said grade in a markbook, and file it in your folio, no it is not an Assessment. So be creative with it, take a risk, and throw yourself into it.” Students are unnerved by this because we have conditioned them to care so much about one piece of work per term, to the detriment of all other work.
In fact, if we are doing formative assessment properly, continuously, and using it to give feedback often, then I would argue that – except for exam practice especially for older year levels – there is very little need for summative Assessment.