Saturday, December 10, 2011

Questioning by design

Last week all of the staff at my school were able to spend some valuable time with an educational consultant who specialises in all things PYP. The Team Leaders were able to discuss strategies to foster shared leadership within our teams, as an entire elementary staff we examined conceptual learning and how it looks in our classes, and in grade level groups we discussed the importance of formative assessment and how we use the information it provides in order to drive learning forward for our students.

By using formative assessment data in a timely manner, teachers can individualise and differentiate the learning that takes place in their classrooms. This means that there is no specific teaching roadmap to follow for a particular unit or lesson. The learning may start in one way and take multiple directions before it reaches it's final destination. Some students may take these paths on their own and other times teachers might find that the same path is suitable for several students. When teachers negotiate the learning with their students, provide feedback in effective ways and differentiate accordingly, meaningful understanding can result.

These things won't just happen naturally, they have to be planned for. The PYP bases their unit planning document on Wiggins and McTighes's work in Understanding By Design. Part of UbD calls on practitioners to 'begin with the end in mind'. This means that they should know what it is they want their students to know, understand and be able to do and then plan appropriately in order to allow them to achieve these goals. 

The PYP planner asks teachers to consider the particular strands of the trans-disciplinary theme that  their unit will address. They then consider the key and related conceptual lenses that they will explore their learning through and develop central idea (big understanding). In the same section of the planner, teachers are required to consider the ways that they can summatively assess students' understanding. The planner provides guiding questions, such as: What are the possible ways of assessing students' understanding of the central idea? What evidence, including student-initiated actions, will we look for?

After reflecting on my practice in regards to my own use of formative assessment, I think my team andI have sometimes been making an error during this stage of the planning. We regularly plan our entire summative assessment task at this stage - a practice that has been adopted through planning many units of inquiry at various schools. But if we are using formative assessment correctly then the direction of the learning could conceivably change from the start of the unit to the time when the summative assessment is addressed. This means that the task that was designed at the beginning of the unit may not be applicable by the time the students come around to completing it. Have you ever experienced a situation similar to this? I have. 

So at this stage of the planning, instead of designing a complete task that we hope will still be appropriate for the students by the time we reach it, I think it is more important to simply be clear on the type of understanding that we want the students to achieve. As the summarising stages of the UOI are approaching, teachers can analyse where the students are with their understanding and  design a task that will be appropriate for them. This may mean an adjustment in the method or context for showing understanding than what may have been initially thought of at the start of the unit. However, it is important to remember that the purposes of this type of assessment remain the same.

One possible method of approaching this that my grade level team will be using in our next UOI is to develop an indicator scale based around the central idea. This involves us creating a 6-step set of descriptors that indicate the level a student is operating at with their current understanding. We'll still be using the guiding questions provided on the planner, including elements of these in each descriptor wherever possible. This will help us to see how the thinking of individual students is progressing and will enable us to question, discuss and problem-pose specifically for them in order to move their learning forward. It will also provide us with an insight into how the summative assessment task might be approached for each student. We hope this will provide another opportunity to expand the scope of access to the curriculum for all of our students.

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