Wrong but not Crazy

pexels-photo-207756.jpegI’ve been reading a lot about formative assessment lately and one recurring theme that stands out to me is the importance of wrong answers. From multiple choice questions to class discussions, finding students’ misconceptions, incomplete understandings, over-simplifications and over-generalizations is so much more valuable than seeing how many questions students can answer correctly.

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Helping with homework

Last spring, I had a conversation with a parent that has stuck with me ever since. She initiated a meeting with me because she wanted a textbook (or similar resource) so that she could study the same math content as her child in order to be able to help with homework. At first, the request sounded totally reasonable, and even admirable. I love the idea of a parent modeling life-long learning by learning along with her child; however, I felt uneasy about the request and couldn’t put my finger on why.

Stalling for a bit of time to figure out my own confusing reaction to the request, I asked the parent why she felt responsible for helping with homework (again, a weird question since I’m totally in favour of families supporting learning at home). She explained that both  her parents were teachers and were very helpful to her as a student, especially when a teacher had covered content too quickly, or when she didn’t understand the way a teacher had explained something.

That’s when the penny dropped. As a teacher, one of the reasons I assign homework is to gauge whether students understand the content and whether they’re ready to move on. When parents help with homework, the product that I see gives the impression that everything is going well… even when it isn’t. As much as this parent appreciated the help of her parents, her teachers never found out that they weren’t meeting her needs: the homework was complete and correct, indicating (perhaps incorrectly) that the pace and approach were fully effective.

In contexts where there are marks to be earned from homework, there is an incentive in helping children earn as many of those marks as they can; however, if homework is really going to be about learning  – the student learning the content and the teacher learning about students’ progress – then that kind of incentive needs to be removed (as I have argued before). Students must be able to present their skills honestly so that teachers can give helpful feedback and adjust their instruction.

So, how can parents help more helpfully? Here are some ideas that come to mind…

  • instead of correcting work, prompt your child to check their own work using appropriate resources and strategies (like an answer key, spell-check)
  • if your child is unsure whether something is correct, or why something is correct, prompt them to follow-up with their teacher before school or during class (ideally before the assignment is due)
  • remind children to use the feedback that they have received… this could mean doing corrections (just for the sake of learning, not for extra credit), or perhaps they can use the feedback to improve subsequent work

If you have additional suggestions, please post them in the comments.

Making “not knowing” useful

I recently came across this quote from Erica McWilliam’s 2008 article entitled, Unlearning how to teach.

Our highest educational achievers may well be aligned with their teachers in knowing what to do if and when they have the script. But as indicated earlier, this sort of certain and tidy knowing is out of alignment with a scriptless and fluid social world. Our best learners will be those who can make ‘not knowing’ useful, who do not need the blue- print, the template, the map, to make a new kind of sense.

What does it say about our current approach to teaching and assessment if our highest-achieving  students are not equipped for the future?

How do we teach our students to thrive in unfamiliar situations?

Some ideas that spring to my mind are…

  • making sure that students practice transferring knowledge and skills into new situations (I’ve written about this here and here).
  • making sure that assessment is more about monitoring progress than measuring performance (I’ve written about this here and here).

What ideas come to your mind?

Progress vs. Performance

I am increasingly aware of the distinction between progress and performance when it comes to assessment. While assessment is about evaluating a students performance in relation to a specific set of standards, I think it is important that teachers, students and parents focus more on the progress that they demonstrate through assessment.


When we focus on performance, students can be afraid to show their work for fear that it won’t meet expectations but when we focus on progress, all student work is an opportunity to improve and demonstrate growth.

When we focus on performance, students are extrinsically motivated by grades but when we focus on progress, students develop intrinsic motivation.

When we focus on performance, we measure all students from the same starting point, but when we focus on progress, student growth is measured from each individual’s starting point.

When we focus on performance, we are tempted to lower standards so that all students can feel successful, but when we focus on progress, we are more likely to raise the standards, so that all students can continue to improve.

Inquiring into Income Equality

As I was mulling over ideas for my grade 8 unit on percents, I stumbled across this graphic from the Centre for Policy Alternatives. It became the hook  for my whole unit. Throughout the unit, each student worked with a unique (randomly-generated) income to calculate their taxes and produce a budget. Having entered their budget in a spreadsheet, students classified their expenses as needs and wants and then generated pie charts to compare the portion of their income devoted to each. Students were able to see right away that some had very little to spend on their wants, while others had a lot of discretionary income, despite their higher tax rates.

Students then modified their income based on one of the statistics in the graphic above and revised their budgets and pie charts to determine the effect of income inequality on women, aboriginal people and those who are visible minorities. It was interesting to see the observations that emerged. Students who had a higher income to begin with generally concluded that income inequality leaves women, aboriginal people and people from visible minority groups with enough to meet their needs but less to spend on their wants; however, some were able to predict what their classmates with lower incomes experienced first-hand: that income inequality affects low-income Canadians most, making it very difficult to meet their basic needs.

Are you interested in trying this with your class? Here are some resources…

  • I used this random number generator to produce a unique income for each student
  • After having students try their hand at calculating their federal and provincial tax liabilities, I let them use this short-cut from Simple Tax.
  • Students created their budget in this Google Sheets template.
  • Guided by this task sheet, students worked through the income inequality exercise. The rubrics in the task sheet are from the IB MYP framework, but could be adapted for use in other schools.

100% won’t be enough

I have written about using qualitative assessment, rather than quantitative assessment before. Since giving up numerical scores, I have become increasingly critical of percentage grades. This post is adapted from an article I wrote for my school’s newsletter last fall about.

The purpose of school has traditionally been to ensure that students gather a certain set of knowledge and skills, but the rapid expansion of human knowledge is changing what students need from their education. In a world in which information is growing (and changing) quickly, a conceptual understanding, supported with specific facts and details, will last longer than the facts and details themselves. Moreover, the ability to organize and synthesize information at a conceptual level will help students to make sense of the plethora of facts and details that are readily available to them. Continue reading