Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Assessment: Part II

Continuing yesterday's article, with this connection sentence: "Starting with some essential principles and then moving on to the specifics of how, here’s a look at a kind of assessment that supports the feeling of joy, inclusion, risk, community and belonging that a good Orff classroom cultivates."

Assessment of Learning:
Assessment of learning means we have some criteria to determine what constitutes success in a given task. From matching pitch to keeping the beat to articulating the vowels and consonants to getting a good tone from the recorder, just about everything we do with kids in music class has specific and concrete techniques and understandings that can be observed, noticed and assessed. Assessment in the music class is not a scheduled moment in the class, but a constant ongoing conversation. It assumes the teacher has the criteria, knowledge and observation skills to correct and adjust the students’ techniques and clarify their understandings.

In music, what they know—this is a quarter note, this is called the pentatonic scale, this is a deceptive cadence—is just a part of the assessment and often less important than what they can do. What they can do is also assessable— again, technique on the conga, mastery of the melody, balance in dynamics, etc.—and is woven throughout each class.

Though more subjective, what they can create is also subject to assessment, brought out in reflective comments both from the creators and the other kids watching or listening.

“I liked the part where one group was rising in their movement and the other was falling.”

It felt like the melody of the B section could use a harmonic change.”

“This passage had two many parallel parts. Consider changing one to be more complementary.”

This is useful information. Giving each group an A or B or C is not.

Assessment for Learning.
Assessment for learning means being thoughtful about how to assess in a way that helps and encourages the student to improve and move forward. Note how specific the comments above were and without blame or shame or attaching a letter or number grade that ranks it on some artificial scale.

Here we come to the prime reason for assessment—to help the students. Much of the number/letter grade systems in school are based on competitive, harsh and often flawed judgment that aims to place children in a heartless hierarchy with no concern for their tender souls. It labels rather than guides them, fixes their efforts in what amounts to a single snapshot in time instead of attending to the flow of their growth and development.  When we assess to help children, we recognize and help them recognize that this is where they are in this particular moment of time and this is what they need to move forward and get better.

Many grading systems are based on the false notion that grades are essential for motivation. But once the grading game begins, the focus shifts from the pleasure of knowing things and finding things out to learning the rules to please the teacher. The craft and joy of the subject takes a back seat and the game of trying to figure out how to store things in short-term memory in time for the test begins.

The back story to this idea is that human beings are lazy and would sit around eating pizza and playing video games all day without a system of motivation to get them off of the couch. But in his book Drive, Daniel Pink affirms what most of us already know: that our drive to master things is every bit as strong—and perhaps stronger—than our hope to get out of work. It feels good to work hard and make progress, especially in things worthy of our attention that we care about, and tracing our journey from clueless novice to accomplished master is one of the greatest satisfactions of a human life.

I always tell the children (especially 5-year old boys!) :

“You will have more fun doing things well than doing them silly or sloppy. Any fool can do it wrong and think it’s funny, but the real satisfaction comes from showing me—and more importantly, yourself—what you can do and how you can work through the hard spots to really accomplish something. Trust me, having fun by doing things well is actually much more fun than avoiding doing them or doing them wrong on purpose. You’ll be happier, I’ll be happier and your classmates will be happier. And when we perform this in a show, your friends and family and other people in the audience will be happy. And that’s why we’re here—to be happy for the right reasons. Ready to get back to work?”

Participation and Effort
Which brings us to the main criteria I use in grading children at my school—the level of their participation and effort. This is the area in which they can choose how much and how hard and how seriously and how joyfully they will work. They can’t control the musical environment of their home, the opportunities to study of their financial or cultural situation, they can’t choose their genes. In light of that, it doesn’t make sense to grade them in relation to each other. The wealthy child brought up by machines and poorly versed in interaction with other human beings will be so heavily disadvantaged in comparison to his economically poorer but musically richer classmate who grew up singing and dancing in the home and with extended family and in the church and playing clapping games on the playground. They will come to my class with uneven skills. So all I can do is help them mark their progress from where they started at the beginning of the year to where they arrived at the end, driven by their sincere participation and effort.

Numbers That Help
At the same time I’m speaking out against labeling kids with letters and numbers, we in fact use numbers in our elementary school twice-annual report cards. As follows:  

1)   Needs significant support.
2)   Needs some support.
3)   Meets or exceeds expectations.

In the first, that means they can’t do or understand  x, y, or z—yet. (The yet is crucial.) When the group is singing G, he or she is singing a tone between Eb and E.

The second means they’re on the way. They can hit that G sometimes or when singing next to this person (but not that person) or when singing alone or when singing with the group, but not all the time and not in every situation.

The third means they got it. Pretty much every time. And if they sing with an especially soulful feeling or with an extraordinary timbre or are already hearing harmony parts, we won’t give them 3+ or 4, but mention it in a comment.

Indeed, the whole game of numbers and letters is simply a shorthand to convenience the teacher. But alone it’s pretty meaningless. It robs the child and the parent of the specific comment that would actually help and all assessment is only helpful if it’s specific. So on our report cards, all numbers are followed by comments and the comments are as specific as possible. It’s best to have at least one affirmation and one challenge. “So and so had a breathtaking glockenspiel solo in one class last month and finally mastered the grapevine step. Getting a clearer tone on the high E on recorder is a goal for next semester.”

In short, assessment works best when it’s constant and specific and comes from a growth mindset. All challenges include that important phrase “not yet.”

From “Not Yet” to “Now I Have It”
Everything we know about human learning from both common sense and high-level brain research can be just about reduced to three words: “Practice makes better.” Anything we apply ourselves to with intention and attention and continue habitually to persevere through daily practice will reap its rewards. If we seem to have no talent or aptitude for something—be in basketball, bagpipe, ballet or biology—we will improve with practiced perseverance. If any of the above comes to us like a gift from the gods, we still need practiced perseverance to meet our talent. Studies show that the difference between Conservatory students who made it onto the concert stage from those who didn’t was about two thousand more hours of practice.

Knowing that we are “bad” at something because we haven’t been exposed to it enough before and didn’t have sufficient repetition to make the neural connections that embed learning in the brain is a very freeing piece of information. We don’t need to add self-loathing or judge others failures. Of course, there are many other factors of learning differences and emotional readiness to learn and genuine interest in the thing to be learned, but mostly kids just need time to get better and preferably time that’s fun, relaxed, exploratory, experimental, rigorous, disciplined and guided by an expert teacher.

We would do well to remember that for most of our adult life, we will never get a grade again. We may get a job performance rating, a review from an arts critic, a trophy from a sports competition, but nobody is telling Steph Curry or Yo Yo Ma that they got a B- in today’s practice or a C+ in the game/performance.

Without teachers hovering over our shoulder after we leave school, we would do well to develop some solid sense of self-assessment and this practice can start as young as preschool. One thing that has proved very useful to me and very friendly with its no blame/no shame structure is the following five stages of mastery: (Initially described as "Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill", the theory was developed at Gordon Training International. by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s. A Toronto teacher named Jen Hardacre passed on a version with number 3. added.)

I don’t know how to do this and I am unaware that I don’t know how to do it.

I am keenly aware that I cannot do this and it feels bad.

I am starting to get it, but I’m not quite there yet. It takes a lot of effort.
I can do it! Consistently! Though I still need to concentrate intensely.

It is so wholly a part of me that I don’t even have to think about it.

After an activity, I ask the children to tell me where they are, either by giving a number or more commonly, showing their thumb. Thumbs up means “I got it,” angled up “pretty good”, horizontal “so-so” , downward “not yet”. This is a kid-friendly version of the 5 stages list above without the long words. (Note that you can’t give a self-assessment for number 1, which is the most dangerous and difficult of all the stages. When people don’t even know that they don’t know but think they know, well then, they can become President of the United States. But it’s not a good thing.)

One problem of self-assessment arises when we don’t know how we’re doing because we don’t have enough information or criteria yet for what constitutes “good” in a particular genre. For example, when I improvise in my Ghanaian xylophone lesson, I have to look at my teacher and ask if it’s okay, because I don’t know what improvisation in that style should sound like. So even though kids mostly know how they’re doing, there’s still plenty of room and need for the teacher to assess alongside the student’s own perception.

I was hoping for a clear and understandable model of what kind of assessment makes sense in an Orff Schulwerk program. Or any program.  But nothing is ever that simple. There are so many factors in our complex choices about how to teach and learn that we must pay mind to many of them at once. But if I had to reduce it to five, I’d say this:

• Watch the children. Be aware of their triumphs and struggles.
• Constantly give specific and useful feedback to improve.
• Trust that the children are learning the most important things and relax about attaching grades every step of the way.
• Give the children the tools to self-assess.
• Create engaging, joyful, relaxed classes that allow for maximum learning. Have fun!

Now please memorize all the important points in this article. There will be a test.

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