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Feedback Focussed Assessment - A New Hope

So, semester one has come to an end and it is time to reflect on my practice. It’s like cleaning off the make-up and seeing the real person underneath. It means that I have to face myself - the smile, the wrinkles, and the blemishes.

Starting with the ugly. This was a messy process. Anyone that says that going gradeless is easy is a gigantic LIAR. The process was a lot of work, more work than I have put into teaching in awhile - like rookie teacher starting from scratch kind of hard work. It meant rethinking why I used a lesson or activity, and what information and skills student’s needed to demonstrate their learning. Redesigning assignments, tweaking rubrics, adding layers of scaffolding, and helping students self reflect was time consuming - actually it grew into somewhat of a black hole. The constant conferencing interspersed with compact lessons and marking to provide better feedback created stress and tears for me. Frustration mounted and feelings of defeat grew until final assessment presentations began. Then the students renewed my faith in the feedback focussed process - they produced amazing, mind-blowing, and in-depth masterpieces. The strong students showed insightful analysis of the content and themselves, and the weaker students were still able to showcase what they had learned and how they had developed their skills over the semester. Part of the joy I gain from teaching is the interactions that I have with students and the intrinsic reward of seeing student success; so, I will continue this journey - no matter how arduous and bow down to all assessment gods that the force is with me.

The bad. Where to start? Adapting teaching practices and changing mindsets - both my own, those of my students and their parents, and my colleagues - has been a struggle. From engaging in negotiations for marks to panelled discussions, the negative stigma of assessment without marks has been burdensome. The need to modify, refine, and reduce redundancies in my practice to save my sanity is paramount, but this will still take time. But, over the first semester, students have resisted their past ritualistic need to see a mark as validation of their learning; they have shifted their thinking from numbers and marks to valuing skill development, personalized conferences, and individualized attention to their products; and I know that they are spreading the message that gradeless isn’t bad. On the colleague front, the barrage of critical comments and silently judging eyes persists, but I also notice that these are slowly being replaced with sparks of interest with the revelation that a feedback-rich environment is working, in real life, as those invested in this process have now demonstrated with concrete proof. Student responses indicate their pleasure at being given voice, choice, and opportunities to prove their learning - yes, students are enjoying learning! Despite the added complexity of multi component assignments or in-class process work, the students overwhelmingly would not change back to the old format with grades. Though the students do not see the behind-the-scenes labour of love work that extra feedback takes, they appreciate the outcomes for their learning. Perhaps, teachers unified in the gradeless endeavour will gain pride in being a rebel against the Republic of Grades.

Oh, the good parts of feedback focussed assessment - the kids, the kids, and the kids. The joy of learning returns to your classroom because students are no longer afraid of taking a risk to show off their knowledge in innovative ways. Why? Because they are not being judged and labelled with an arbitrary number. If they exceed expectations, their confidence builds and, if they do not, they take the feedback, consider it, use it, and modify their future work based on it. Isn’t this what we want of modern learners? No more nit picking, whining or mark grubbing, but instead focussing on skills and having passion to grow their personal knowledge base. The “Do. Or do not. There is no try” attitude is outdated and feedback allows students to try AND do, AND learn something in the process.

As I put on my battle gear and prepare for the new semester of reluctant troops, I do so armed with evidence, experience, and earnestness. Into the mass of fellow Grade-Tossing Rebel teachers out there, I shout a warning that once you start down the path of focussing on feedback, know that it will forever dominate your destiny as an educator as you will free your students from the negativity of marks and give them a new hope in themselves as learners.

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