Heavy On Feedback, Light On Marks

In my teaching I try to stick to an assessment/evaluation mantra:

Heavy on feedback, light on marks.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, even the best evaluation is a little flawed.  In the elementary grades we’re really lucky to have an evaluation process that is based on grades and not numbers.  This kind of evaluation offers up a range, instead of an exact numeric grade, and  it’s connected to the most recent and consistent results possible.  In that range we, teachers, get to say “some days you’re like this, other days you’re like that, but overall, you’re kinda in this zone”.

Second, feedback (the good kind) pushes learning forward.  It’s invitation to grow.  “Try to add more of this.”  “What if you did a little less of that?”  “Consider this alternative approach.”

Third, feedback humanizes learning.  Evaluation, while an efficient manner of reporting to others, kind of dehumanizes and judges learning. Someone saying “let’s make this better” is a whole lot different than someone saying “you’re 72% right.”

So what does this kind of feedback look like in class?

My grade fives have been learning to write biographies.  Their learning cycle has looked like this:

1. Students read 2 biographies, and identified some elements that they thought might be important.


Students wrote a biography based on a timeline of Viola Desmond.

We added to our list of elements that might be important.  


Based on those elements, we interviewed a teacher at our school, Mme Bahsous. 

Students wrote a free write biography based on the answers to their interview questions.

They combined free writes to write a more formal biography of Mme Bahsous.

They gave each other feedback.  They also discussed which feedback was the most helpful and the least helpful.


And that’s where we’re at now.  Next they will:

1. Fix their second drafts (based on the feedback that they received), and rewrite and pass on our work to our audience (Mme Bahsous).

2. Finally, each student will go through a version of this cycle one last time, alone, to show her/his learning.

If each of these steps was evaluated, then I doubt the process would work.  Feedback, on the other hand, has pushed student learning forward.  Each piece of writing has been better.  Students have grown as writers.  

Marks shouldn’t start to appear until the lion’s share of the growth has happened.  Otherwise, we shut that learning down.


Hacking The Diamante

In my early years of teaching a colleague insisted that I “had to” teach diamante poems  in writing.  I remember her insisting that they were “easy to use.” “Kids get it.”  ”It’s an easy poetry mark.”

So I cringed and did it.  They were easy.  They offered no chance for children to think.

This was a perfect example of “doing poetry” instead of writing.


I vowed never to use them again.  

… until today.

I was thinking about empathy and the opportunities that we have at school to encourage our students to explore tensions between differing perspectives.  The diamante, when used properly, is  a wonderful tool to expose these tensions. Moreover, writing these poems encourages students to think about perspectives that might challenge their own.

So, I’m going to hack the diamante to try to make it something of value.

I’ll also use it for a writing mark 😉

Tweets like these have started to appear more frequently in my feed:


They’ve got me going back to a post that I wrote about a year ago advocating for more teachers to show kids how to lie convincingly.  The need for this kind of learning gets stronger every day.  Our kids need to be equipped with strategies and skills to help them figure out when someone is deceiving them.  They also need a safe place to practice this kind of thinking and they need safe people with whom to discuss these ideas.

Over the last two weeks my students and I have begun to wade into this complex thinking.  I’d like to share our progress so far.

Step 1: Introduce the idea with a little help from Phil Shapiro.

I wanted to see what my students already new.  What ideas were already floating around in their minds?  I showed them this clip by Phil Shapiro and asked them what they thought.

“Start with a real problem.”

“Stick close to the truth.”

“Support with maps and charts that are also close to the truth.”

And my personal favourite: “make the audience feel sad/guilty so that they won’t ask questions.”

*More here.

Step 2: Work on vocabulary.

I found that a lot of my students were able to point out things that were fishy with Phil’s video; however, they didn’t have the words to describe and explain their thoughts.  In an attempt to empower them with language, I showed them this poster.  Together, we translated the terms into language that was accessible for all of the students in class.


*pdf version.

Click here to take a look at our class definitions.

We then used these terms to describe some pretty silly examples of fake science:


Step 3: Start thinking about how we might use these tricks.

Next I shared a rule from the school’s code of conduct that I knew the students hated:

At lunch time students are expected to sit at their desks.

We brainstormed out a few ways that we might provide some alternative facts that might help to get this rule changed:


Step 4: Start writing in a safe and friendly environment.

I knew that thinking about/reading alternative facts was different than writing using alternative facts.  So I modeled the process for my class.  I created this example for my students to use when taking their first steps into writing convincing lies.  I used many of the ideas that they brainstormed in in the previous lesson.  (Yes there are some spelling mistakes.  Yes I have scratched some things out. Kids need to see our drafts and revisions too.)


Here are two of my students flexing their media literacy muscles while reading my work:

Finally I let the kids partner up and write their own version of this piece of work.  I encouraged them to borrow and remix from the sample that I had provided.

Their work is wonderful, but it’s still in draft form.  While I’m comfortable sharing my drafts, I want to honour their learning and not share their work until they give me the green light.

(I’m sure I’ll have some great examples to share soon.)

Next steps: hand this over to my students.  We will be working on at least one more shared draft.  We’ll be using this graphic organizer and new writing topics.  We’ll also be looking more and more for alternative fact stories in the news.

In the words of my friend Luke McPherson, “our students need critical media literacy skills more now than ever!”  These are not skills that they will need in the future; they are skills that they need now.


Earlier this week I read a great post from Forbes Magazine titled The Lie Of Perfection.  It’s an opinion piece.  There’s no mention of mindsets, grit or stick-to-it-ness.  Instead, it’s a simple post that exposes some dangers associated with being perfect.

“Perfection is a cruel, unreachable goal.”

“It’s a refusal to accept complexity and reality. There are no perfect mothers, bosses, workers, victims, athletes, thinkers, or leaders. There are no perfect people.”

As I read the post, I wondered about so many people in my life.  I also wondered about assessment/evaluation in our schools and how our current system perpetuates some pretty gross “cruelty” and doesn’t make space for “complexity”.

(I’m not only talking about grades; I’m talking about the judgement that’s so embedded in the way that we teach and learn in schools.  At some point, someone will judge how close to “perfect” all students (and teachers) have come.)

Maybe we ought to look to cooking as a way of learning?

If you type “perfect chicken noodle soup” into a search engine, here’s what you’ll get:


Each chef will have a different version of perfection.

Many will defend the merits of their recipes.

Some will read all of the recipes and try to sort it out for themselves.

A very small group will play with recipes and see how much better they can make their soup the next time.

I’m trying, imperfectly, to teach the last type of thinking to my students.

Hacking The Textbook

About a year ago I wrote about how we might inject our textbooks with a little wonder.  Today I played with the idea some more with my grade 6 students.

I took a page from a dusty textbook:


I snapped a photo of some key information:


Then asked my students to think through some questions that they might have:


We thought about the questions,  and we thinned out the list.  Which questions might you be able to answer with the information in the table?


We took our refined list and got to work.


To consolidate learning we took a look at the textbook page as a whole and compared it to our learning goals:

I can collect and organize discrete or continuous primary data and secondary data and display the data using charts and graphs, including continuous line graphs. (DMP)

I can read, describe, and interpret data, and explain relationships between sets of data. (DMP)

The textbook questions were definitely worth answering.  They contained valuable learning and deep curriculum questions; however, a problem is a problem when we see it as a problem.  Students will always care more about questions that they own.

The Real World

I smile when I think about the good work that teachers do to connect their students (and classroom learning) to the outside world.  Learning that only lives in a classroom can get a little stale.

I wonder though about the way that we name this kind of learning.  Specifically the term “real world problem solving”.  At the risk of fixating on semantics , I do think we need to scrap the term.

When we, educators (and administrators, and board staff), start telling kids what a “real world problem” is and isn’t we risk doing 2 things:

1) We don’t build their learning by using their prior knowledge of the world.

2) We devalue their experience of the world. Ours is the real version.

When we connect students’ learning to their world, it becomes even more real.

For that reason, maybe we need to start thinking about how we might “see the world differently” instead of presenting our students with problems that are real.

Here are a couple of examples for your consideration.

How might we see and measure the angles that surround us at school?


How might we conserve more energy at our school?

Varied Experiences

Boxing day 2016 was the first time in 40 years that my father had picked up his violin in order to play a duet with my sister’s boyfriend. It was truly a special moment.  Each of us absorbed the moment in different ways.  Here’s how my little nephew took it in:

My whole family giggled while watching this clip. Everyone loved how both moments happened simultaneously, interwoven yet independent.

Since Boxing Day, I haven’t been able to stop wondering about how many of these moments happen every single day.  I also wonder about the learning in my classroom.  Maybe true universal design and differentiated instruction are rooted in a deep understanding of this very human aspect of school.  While proximity (the same room-ness of instruction) might fool us into thinking that students are experiencing the same lessons, we should never forget how varied the experiences of the same thing can be.