Downloading Evaluative Knowledge

Cross-posted to A few years ago, I ran into an old colleague of mine at an educational conference. He was using the lunch break to catch up on his marking. His backpack, placed on the chair beside him, was full of what looked like 2- or 3-page compositions.

“Don’t you need a quiet place to focus to mark these?” I asked.

“Nah … I’ve been doing this for years. I don’t mind the noise around me, and I know very well what I’m looking for in these essays. After reading once, I already know if it’s a D or an A or somewhere in between. Then, I read again and focus on sentence structure and other details.”

Whatever your thoughts on my colleague’s approach to assessment, one thing is clear: What he was referring to when he said “I know very well what I’m looking for in these essays” is the evaluative knowledge he had acquired over the years as a teacher. Teachers tend to be very proud of this expertise. There is no question that, over time, we develop the ability, in our subject areas, to assess specific examples of student work with just a quick glance. Our understanding of good work, of specific standards, of quality, is generally tacit knowledge — it’s been called our “guild knowledge.” It’s an integral part of our profession, generated through years of practice and experience. When my colleague said that a quick glance was enough to determine the quality of each essay, I was not surprised at all. Had he given me one of those essays to look over, I probably would have taken under a minute to respond with something like, “This one is definitely a B-.”

Whenever I think about our guild knowledge and assessment, I am reminded of the following statement by D. Royce Sadler:

“… the guild knowledge of teachers should consist less in knowing how to evaluate student work and more in knowing ways to download evaluative knowledge to students” (Sadler, 1989).

In other words, teachers should help their students become competent and confident critical thinkers and evaluators of their own work and the work of others. We should be experts at ensuring that our students leave our classrooms with the kind of evaluative knowledge they will need in order to be lifelong learners who make judgments, reflect, interpret, and ask critical questions. In addition, in order to succeed in the 21st century, young people need to be skilled in exercising control over their own learning. Effective ongoing assessment can help them learn how to ask critical questions, how to monitor their own progress, and how to pay attention to how they learn and what happens when they learn and engage in what we commonly refer to as schoolwork. Effective, timely, meaningful formative assessment, delivered through a variety of means — but mostly through ongoing critical conversations with our students about their work — will help engage them in developing metacognition: knowledge about themselves as learners as well as self-regulation knowledge (planning, monitoring, self-assessment, setting goals).

We need to use classroom assessment to engage our students in interactions (with us, their peers, and their own thoughts, goals, and ideas) that help them independently define their own learning goals, monitor their progress, engage in ongoing assessment of and reflection on their work, and make adjustments to their learning trajectories and their work itself. The kind of feedback I shared in my previous post is a key ingredient in this approach because it gradually encourages the development of self-monitoring and critical thinking about one’s work.

But let’s now look at the big picture: How do we create the kind of environment where students are encouraged to be independent thinkers and critical evaluators of their own work and that of others? If it is our responsibility to “download evaluative knowledge to students,” then how do we reconfigure classroom instruction to create an inquiry-based, student-driven culture of learning where the teacher assumes the role of a more experienced peer and conversation partner, and not the omniscient evaluator and sage? How do we create environments in our classrooms that nurture the development of self-monitoring and self-regulating learners?

I can think of one example that worked quite well in my own classroom: Several years ago, I taught grade eight language arts using blogs. The students had their own blogs connected into a class community of bloggers/writers. All of their work was posted on their individual blogs and an engaging and supportive learning community emerged, mostly as a result of all the interactions inside the class blogosphere.

But I want to focus today just on how I got this community started. When I first introduced blogs to my students in September, I did more than just present blogging as something that would replace the students’ notebooks … as a mere digital portfolio, let’s say. Instead, I focused on how our blogging community had the power to reconfigure how we understood teaching and learning. There were two key explicit messages in how I introduced our reconfigured classroom to my students: First, we are a community and blogs help us learn from and with one another. Second, your blog is something you cultivate all year. It’s not just a place to post assignments; it represents you and your learning. It’s a long-term commitment.

To get them started, I handed out the following diagram and pointed out the timeline (September to June). “This is a living entity that you will grow for the next ten months,” I said. Then, we looked at the three sections of the flower in the diagram – The GoalsHabits and Commitment, and The Right Habitat – and discussed the specific questions in each section. I then gave my students plenty of time (well over a week) to formulate their answers.

How to Grow a Blog diagram

(For a high-resolution version of this diagram, please click here. For a more extensive discussion of this tool, please see my blog post, How to Grow a Blog.)

As a result of this approach, I got to know the students very well throughout the year, and learned how to best support them as individuals. Over time, they started looking at schoolwork as their work. Their blogs became sites of inquiry and engagement. In growing their blogs throughout the year, they developed their own understanding of what it means to be a writer, a reader, and a learner. They started thinking about how they learn, how they write, what they find challenging and why. They started reflecting on their own work and provided readerly critique in response to the work of their peers. They learned to self-assess, set short-term and long-term goals, and to track their own progress.

And here’s what I learned: By reconfiguring what learning looked like in my classroom, I realized that my primary responsibility was not to evaluate everything they did, but to provide ongoing support and opportunities for them to plan, talk, think, revise, make mistakes, and reflect.