Contention 1 for @newtechnetwork #echoAV | Value of “talk” in feedback and assessment

In my quest for generating more authentic feedback in writing, I often find myself drawn to conversations, whether they are synchronous or asynchronous.  We know our pedagogy is strengthened by feedback that helps students grow, understand and better communicate their thoughts or work products.  When we hold writing conferences, we realize a truth that we may miss when our classrooms get too loud: kids value talk…even as a way to guide their learning.

Can conversations be part of any assessed work? 

In a New Tech model, content literacy is assessed in a number of ways.  At my school, our assessments can be some sort of written or visual product; a presentation; a multimedia package, etc.  Yet, for all of our attempts at structuring class time to “visit” each student, this is a seemingly impossible task given class size, disruptions, calls to the office, changes in schedule, etc..  And, especially for a struggling student in group presentation, wouldn’t it be nice to have personalized coaching on your contribution?  For two reasons, I propose that New Tech Network investigate an Echo plugin that would allow teacher/facilitators to “record to” or “upload back” to an Echo activity — any Echo activity — for the purpose of providing audio/video (“A/V”) feedback (#echoAV) to student work:

  • Contention 1: Personalization in a classroom that actively uses writing rubrics and technologies must still value talk as a means to encourage student growth.
  • Contention 2: Authentic assessment should also be matched with accessible authentic feedback and assessment. [To be continued.]

Contention 1: Personalization in a classroom that actively uses writing rubrics and technologies must still value talk as a means to encourage student growth.

“Writing happens on a sea of talk” ~Jimmy Britton

Current views of technology personalization

Jobs For the Future, a nonprofit focusing on college readiness and career advancement for underprivileged populations, states in their report on Teaching and Learning in the Era of CommonCore: “Increasing personalization must become the sustained goal of a widespread organizational effort in order to significantly improve student achievement and emotional well-being.”

In a New Tech school — and in any school across the United States — a student really should be known.  At my school, the focus on student relationships is tantamount to any effort.  Closing the distance between us even shows in the preferred way of how teachers refer to ourselves — as facilitators and not teachers — in order to reflect that we are guides along learning rather than deliverers or lecturers.  We nurture their emotional well-being by providing them the structures, tools and experience for collaboration.  In a PBL environment, group visits are essential to making sure that collaboration is happening and students are not falling to the five dysfunctions of a team.  When all is said and done, students in New Tech schools often use “coach” as a synonym for facilitator because of the bonds we build and the focus on some of the “soft skills” that get brushed under the rug in other schools nowadays.

When it comes to how learning is personalization looks on the laptop/computer screens in the classroom, the “easyways” are quite simple, according to one professor using an online platform in higher-ed — invite quirky/personal stories to build bonding, upload pictures, invite introductions from all, be informal in some communications, etc..  Over the past decade, Blackboard and Moodle have learned a lot from social networks like Facebook, etc. just in terms of messaging, chat or sharing features.  When I went to undergrad, the early versions of Moodle were very Web 1.9 (so close, but not quite there).  And, as social networks evolve to make experiences more personal, more school-friendly online services (Edmodo or Schoology, for example) will continue to study and re-create personalized/social experiences in learning delivery platforms.

But these interfaces are meant for ways to communicate feedback and facilitate evaluation of student work, too.  Personalization has also taken another tone, as Suzanne Sandlerwrites for Education Week,  while we watch technology collect and analyze more data on student progress.  Sandler writes that the technology camp or “2.0 interpretations of the word take their cue from the ways that technology has enabled dramatic customization for consumers.”  Specifically, the customization comes in how students are gradually guided through learning with formative checks along the way, all monitored and reported back through technology.  She cites work done by School of One, and I think Kahn Academy has also earned acclaim for the power of personalized pace, etc.  Arguably, this “customization” raises concerns about evaluating students down to strict digits.  But technology only makes numbers of students when its purpose is not aligned to more humanistic goals.

Leveraging our relationships to aid sophisticated uses of assessment

My call for A/V feedback options deviates slightly when Sandler’s article calls for “Personalization 3.0: an approach that responds to the relational dimensions of learning while embracing sophisticated uses of data that may help inform us about students in ways never imagined” [emphasis added].  I don’t think this is a far-off vision for how I could upgrade personalization in my New Tech classroom and how I evaluate writing in particular.  My slight modification, however, comes in changing the word “data” to “feedback”.  Across New Tech Network, we use sophisticated means to evaluate students, but what I see my students lack is an understanding of the sophistication with which they are evaluated by rubrics in our PBL environment.  As part of the PBL environment, I have the sophisticated evaluation tools (rubrics) and the learning outcomes that track student growth, but only talk (more later) will bring in the relational dimension. By leveraging the strength of our relational dimensions (to borrow from Sandler’s call), we can better communicate the sophistication of our evaluations to students’ levels, particularly on higher-order tasks in writing.

With A/V feedback, we can provide personalized feedback without writing out the individualized translations to our rubrics.  As we teach or develop the standards with students, it’s easy to help absorb students’ words or translations of lessons/activities as they guide us in teaching skills or content.  Their tone, their questions, jokes, laughs, etc. all lead to an understanding that they are trying to recall when they ask questions; these are relational dimensions of learning, too.  (Remember all those times that students “got” the question on the test as soon as you read it to them?  What part of that do you think is just in how your tone affected the delivery of the query?)  Yet, none of these small bits and pieces could ever be captured by the way we write rubrics… it would take constant and tedious revision!  We can quickly tap into that implicit knowledge with A/V feedback.  Additionally, we can recall conversations about goals, struggles or strengths with the tones that we use when we cultivate relationships before class, during other one-on-one time, or in the hallways.  The speed with which we can speak far outweighs the time it would take for us to type out all of these particulars that meet students at their level.

Talk (rather than written communication) respects works in progress

After students write a first draft in your class, hold individual writing conferences to help them set goals.  Have your students write reflections on the one-on-one help, and I’m sure you’ll find they appreciated it.  Try accomplishing the same with written feedback or notes, and you’ll quickly find that students are asking you to explain or tell them the directions (and we think, “Again?”).

There is an abundance of research that supports oral feedback as a means to guiding student writing improvement.  Particularly with English language learners, when students “hear” their writing, they are more able to recognize errors since oral and written language are so linked in their learning experience.  But my call for A/V feedback options is not to benefit the ELL population alone; it is to help the overall feedback and assessment process.

It may be important to consider the differences between written and oral communication before delving into why oral feedback may communicate more to students than written feedback.  Written communication, for all of its beauties in literature, etc. communicates ideas with a great deal of permanence.  Our culture values the permanence of writing in our justice system.  Outrages of what people say or how they act are shared and re-Tweeted nowadays through the permanence of the online written word.  On the other hand, the messages we communicate with our speech, volume, tone, rate and verbal fillers draw less on formality and encourage more spontaneous conversation.

Now imagine as a student that you have just received a draft of an assignment back, intrinsically –because of the way we are programmed to understand these two different types of communication — what type of feedback are you more likely to prefer?  On one hand, you may see the markings on your paper as permanent in writing.  With oral feedback, however, the teacher respects the writing that stands on the author’s page and provides a more transient sense of the product a student turned in.  (Of course, not every student will fall into these camps.  I do not fail to recognize that there are some students who are or are not motivated by any type of feedback.  Certainly students will prefer one over the other in some cases, too.) Beyond the sense of community that we establish by talking about works in progress, we would be able to queue students to consider themselves as the author who is speaking to an audience. With us teachers/facilitators acting as readers who reflect and respond to writing through talk, we can then treat students as a writer, which should be our goal of any writing activity.

Talk efficiently communicates the elements of response to writing

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Talk also better resembles the type of feedback we should be mostly giving on student writing – response.  In Alternatives to Grading Student Writing (a culminating report by the NCTE committee of the same title), editor Stephen Tchudi establishes a model for the degrees of freedom that teachers have in assessment, evaluation and grading in his introduction.  Teachers have a range of ways to communicate information on student writing — Response, Assessment, Evaluation, Grading — that fall along a spectrum between the pressures of institutionalization of education and the research that supports teachers’ practice, respectively.

Most growth in student writing comes out of response feedback rather than evaluation and grading through rubrics.  Speaking for the committee, he writes “Responses to writing, is, we believe, at the heart of the process…. Response to writing has the greatest range of freedom because it is naturalistic, growing directly from readers’ reaction to a text…The committee (supported by the new paradigm in writing) believes that assessment, along with cultivated response, is the most useful kind of information that writers can receive.” (xii, xv). The power of response is communicated through an extended metaphor in an essay, “Writing Students Need Coaches, Not Judges”, found later in the NCTE report.  Lynn Holaday writes that “Teachers are not in the classroom to judge; they are there to help children meet the standards of the outside world….Coaches are on your side; judges are not… Coaches want you to do well; judges don’t care.  Coaches believe you can do well and show you how; judges lecture you on what you should be and are not” (41)”  Response, then, is the most useful because it shows that teachers are invested in student growth and are motivating their players to keep improving toward the standards.

Alternatives to Grading Student Writing book cover

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What makes up good response and assessment, then?  As you can see in the chart above, response on a piece of student writing should be naturalistic, multidimensional, audience-centered, individualized, richly descriptive and uncalculated. And coaching students through the evolving criteria or the descriptive/analytic feedback of assessment takes a lot of time to communicate in written feedback, especially when your team (to extend the metaphor) is all turning in their 100+ performances at the same time.  Conversely, when we rely on the numbers in the box alone to communicate how students are growing, we are acting as strictly evaluation or grading judges.  So, how do “coaches” do it?  They take notes and then talk to their players.

Students from across New Tech Network attest to the fact that they see teachers in a different light when they, the students, transition into the PBL environment.  Over and over again, we hear them using “coach” (their best descriptor from their vocabulary) to describe how PBL facilitators are distinct from teachers.  So, let’s be sure we don’t fall into the traps of judging simply because we are confined to the face-time we have in class with our players.

All of the characteristics of solid response and assessment are accomplishable more efficiently in oral feedback.  Because of the conversational tone we can take with the student’s work through oral “response” feedback, we may be able to better communicate the sense that all of our work in PBL is learning in progress when we don’t have the time to meet with students one-on-one.

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3 thoughts on “Contention 1 for @newtechnetwork #echoAV | Value of “talk” in feedback and assessment

  1. Well, thanks, Christian. Famous? No, not really. But this post is actually something that keeps growing. I did some focused scaffolding this year on trying to promote conversation while using collaborative tools. I found out a few weeks ago that a co-author and I were accepted to turn some of these ideas into a book chapter.

    Thank you for your comment. I hope you find more here as time goes on.

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