You don’t know what they know until you know they know.
Yes, that’s a mouthful, but it’s true. A lot of times, we make assumptions about what students know, but we don’t really have any evidence to prove it. So how do we go about proving it? How do we find out what they know in an unobtrusive and open-ended way?
Oftentimes, the typical pre-assessment doesn’t cut it. It is just the opposite: obtrusive and closed-minded. Yes, you can tailor an assessment to be aligned to standards, and you can even choose a reliable number of assessment items that align with those standards; however, we are remiss as educators if we limit our pre-assessments to that. A lot of times, our pre-assessments turn up showing little knowledge, simply because they have no exposure to the vocabulary that we use to build our assessments. Let’s face it, those assessments are somewhat of a time-suck. They don’t actually prove too much to us, and they rob us of precious time to learn.
If you think more critically about it, the point of a pre-assessment is to showcase student background knowledge, not always to provide an understanding of achievement. In most cases, regardless of achievement, we’re going to deepen their knowledge of a topic, and in science and social studies especially, this understanding of achievement is much more vague. It’s hard to categorize a knowledge of social studies concepts into a step-by-step framework or progression of skills. Instead, it is more about the communication and application of those skills, and less about how much information a student amasses. Likewise, students don’t need a deep knowledge in every content area, and forcing this only creates discomfort for children and more laborious work for teachers–most of the time in vain.
I find pre-assessments to be much more valuable and more conducive to learning when done in a way that allows students to drive the knowledge they show on a pre-assessment, but also in a way that allows them to be critical and question through the process of “being assessed.” Your typical pre-assessment will not allow for this.
What is a community?
Today, we began our official introduction to our year-long theme of communities, and before starting, there was an inherent need to figure out what our students already knew. Instead of a typical pre-assessment, we chose a series of circle organizers, intended for defining concepts and brainstorming. In these organizers, children were able to draw pictures, write words, and build upon each other’s knowledge to develop a class-wide understanding of the term “community.”
Sure, we could have done a KWL chart, but I find that those do not always meet the needs of all the kids in the classroom. Frequently, when the teacher holds the pen and the children contribute to a KWL chart, it’s not always reminiscent of everyone’s knowledge. Instead, it’s reminiscent of the children who possess the most knowledge on the topic. By putting the pen in student’s hands, children can advocate for their knowledge and communicate it in their own language, meanwhile applying “checkmarks” to knowledge they share with other students. It allows all to contribute, all to feel valued, and all to showcase their unique ways of thinking.
But my favorite part is the questions that come after.
“I want all of you to now look around at all of our thoughts,” I told the children. “Look for the most unique idea you can find.”
“What does unique mean?” one student queried.
“It means the most different–the one idea you didn’t expect to see.”
Hands immediately shot up, and students recounted ideas like solar systems, planets or even the “Roomba” which seemed to signify some sort of vacuum cleaner I had certainly never heard of.
“It helps keep the floors clean in a community,” one student replied.
This sporadic amalgamation of unique ideas then spawned all of these fabulous questions. Check out some of the samples below.
Assessment should be informative and focused, but neither constricting or confining. By allowing students to chart their own path with pre-assessments, we do them a hugely empowering service, meanwhile providing ourselves with worthwhile information to drive the trajectory of our instruction–a trajectory we thought we knew a ton about… but soon realize we knew all too little about.