Joanna (my wife and principal of New Covenant School in Arlington, MA) and I had the privilege of facilitating two institutes this summer on Deeper Learning in Christian Schools. The first was a week with 30 teachers and school leaders at a beautiful retreat center in North Andover, MA. The second was a three-day institute with teachers and administrators from the Niagara Association of Christian Schools at John Knox Christian School in Stoney Creek, Ontario.
We learn as much at these institutes as the participants. We are always looking for new ways to magnify God through every dimension of school life. Christian schools’ allegiance to the King is front and center in their mission statements, the traditions and rituals they employ, and in the beliefs they profess. The character of Jesus is their focus in chapel, bible class, and in the love teachers minister to students and one another. But worshipping God is not as explicit in the curriculum they study, in the instructional practices they apply, and in what and how they assess progress. Exploring what it means to worship God in everything we do as teachers and schools is the guiding question of our institutes – for us and our participants.
During one of the sessions I was leading this year on the difference between assessment for learning and assessment of learning, Joanna stepped forward and asked if she could speak. I’ve learned over the years whenever she asks to speak it’s a good idea to listen. She was wondering what we were teaching about the character of God in the way we assess our students. Not what we choose to assess (which is a whole other story) but how we assess it. What are the differences between assessment for learning and assessment of learning in inspiring and equipping our students to be disciples of Jesus?
Assessment for learning (AFL) begins with providing a clear description of the learning target so that students will know exactly what they are aiming for. The Bible provides that description in the life of Jesus. He is our learning target. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” (Eph. 5:1)
Once the learning target is clear, teachers provide explicit criteria that describe the journey from beginning to mastery. The teacher does not influence student behavior or performance with the rewards or punishments of grades, but rather equips them to know where they are in the journey and what they have to do to reach the target. Teachers trust students to take ownership of their own learning. Isn’t this how Jesus teaches? Through stories and metaphors he helps us see where we are in regard to the Kingdom of Heaven, and what we need to do to enter it. Think of how he responded to the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27). He never manipulates us. He doesn’t bribe or coerce us into doing the right thing. He knows that we will respond according to the “ears we have to hear.” We are always free to choose to follow Jesus or not. We do the same for our students when we trust them to take responsibility for their own development. The journey involves risks. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be the adventure Jesus invites us to walk in with him.
In AFL teachers adjust instruction based on where each student is at, just as God instructs us according to our individual needs and encourages and affirms that we can grow and change by His grace. Rather than just grade a test and then move on to the next topic, the AFL teacher allows students to reflect on their performance, figure out where they were careless, what concepts they didn’t understand, and then gives them another opportunity to demonstrate their understanding. Isn’t that a truer representation of the grace of God, who wants all children to succeed? AFL works more like the Holy Spirit, who convicts us of specific sins with laser-like clarity, but then rather than condemn us, encourages us to receive the grace that Jesus offers and reminds us that with God, all things are possible. The foundation of AFL is the belief that every child can learn. The teacher believes every student can succeed, and her belief in them inspires their own belief that anything is possible, with God’s help, in all things – even acing that math test.
Assessment of learning (without assessment for learning) invites students into a different story. It takes place after learning has occurred and measures a particular point in time for purposes of sorting and reporting. A low grade carries with it the threat of punishment, a high grade the promise of reward. It often is reported in a single score with no specific feedback or opportunity to correct a misunderstanding. Instead of the clarity of conviction and the possibility of redemption, it communicates either condemnation (I’m a lousy student) or pride (I’m so smart). What does this kind of assessment communicate to our students about the character of God? How does it promote the character of Christ in them?”
“He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” (Col. 1:28) Yes, we will stand before him in judgment one day, just as our students will take the final exam. But if they have been prepared with the mind set of “all things are possible with God” and with the character that is formed through taking responsibility for their own learning, they are better equipped to be presented more “fully mature” in Christ.