Thursday, June 14, 2007

Assessing through Narration

Every day of the conference featured keynote speakers, who provided a broad overview of the theme of the conference (assessment). The breakout session speakers delved into the details and gave practical applications of Charlotte Mason's principles.

Thinking about assessment (page 6) is challenging in a “no child left untested” world, which is much like the educational reforms Charlotte Mason faced in her day. To educate all elementary school children inexpensively, England developed six standards of education that covered reading, writing, and arithmetic. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 offered a series of grants to schools based upon student performance in tests that assessed these standards. This method of doling out money to schools became known as “payment by results” (*ahem*, does this sound familiar?). At the time, Charlotte was teaching young children at the Davison School in Worthing and was pioneering a girls’ school. She must have witnessed first hand how the precursor to standardized testing affected children and teachers.

On Wednesday night, Dr. Jack Beckman, Associate Professor of Education at Covenant College, spoke on the topic, "From Enigma to Educationalist - Assessing Charlotte". In my narration of his talk, I am going to begin at the end to remind everyone of an important point! Reality is fixed and objective, but is interpreted by subjective knowers. I, one knower, sat in a frigid auditorium (on about five hours of sleep the previous night) and heard the same presentation as other knowers. The fixed reality of the talk will be available online in the near future. Because I am subjective in my interpretation and may have made errors in my notes, I might unknowingly misrepresent his talk. Thus, this narration is my take on what was said, not an exact transcript!

Jack Beckman began his talk with a practical example of assessment. In one of his classes, he gathers a collection of items for his "Beckman Box": he puts photographs, pictures, and objects that have meaning to him. Then, he asks the students to assess his life by writing an obituary. Because he is "dead" to them, they must immerse themselves in the clues he left behind in his box. With these objects, the students try to describe him and begin to analyze the meaning of the items. When they put all of the knowledge of him gleaned through his objects into a narrative, they end up evaluating what kind of man he was.

Comparing these obituaries to fixed reality, Dr. Beckman finds them to be authentic, but not perfectly accurate. When they encounter gaps, the obituary writers rely upon imagination to make sense of the objects. The students who have prior knowledge (i.e., have attended his classes previously) are often more accurate because they fill the gaps with what they already know.

He mentions the British historian Richard Evans, author of the book In Defence of History, equating the work of a teacher assessing a student to that of a historian. The subjective knower attempts to describe a fixed reality and must become immersed until a narrative becomes clear. The knower might need to rely upon imagination to make sense of the details.

One thing any person with prior knowledge of Jack Beckman ought to expect from one of his lectures is a richer vocabulary. In this case, he chose two German words, which I imagine relates to the fact that Richard Evans specializes in German history. I made a connection to one of the words he shares, verstehen, which means to understand: my German mother dolloped us with tongue-lashings in her native tongue that always ended with an emphatic "Verstehst du das?" (Do you understand that?). The second word, erklären, needed more explaining (pardon the pun, for it means to explain). Apparently, these competing concepts of assessing history have been and still are rigorously debated.

You may be asking what history has to do with assessment. When assessing a student, a teacher must gather the student's work (narrations, nature notebooks, copywork, studied dictations, handicrafts, etc.) and become immersed in better understanding the student. With the student's work in mind, the teacher tries to describe the student and begins to analyze what the student knows, strengths, interests, and weaknesses. A student with a consistent error in math needs targeted lessons, while a student with major gaps might need a complete review (however, if all of the student's work is slipshod it could be related to attention or accuracy). In this way, assessment affects lesson planning. After gleaning enough knowledge about the student, the teacher ends up evaluating the student's abilities.

Sometimes, historians bump into gaps of knowledge. For example, not much is known about Charlotte Mason's life from 1878 to 1889. The historian must imagine what she might have done. We know that, during this period, she wrote her geography book about the forty shires of England, lectured on home education, and published the first volume of her six-volume series. She left no diary or memoirs, so we imagine she must have spent this period traveling, reading, pondering, and thinking through her philosophy of education. Likewise, we find gaps in our knowledge of our students.

When we view Charlotte Mason, we must assess the person she was, fully alive and human (susceptible to foibles like the rest of us). We assess her writings for they say much about the person she was. While we are tempted to put her on a pedestal, it is important to compare her ideas to what science has revealed about the neurology of learning.

Narration was Charlotte's greatest tool for assessment. Narration is knowledge touched with imagination. When we narrate, our mind force requires attention, assimilation, retention, and reproduction. Dr. Beckman closed with seven principles of assessment ala narration. I am sure the details here are sketchy because he flew through this point. So, beware of mental fog permeating the following list:

* Narration is holistic for it includes personal and prior knowledge. The narrator creates something new.
* Narration is open in its interpretation of knowledge. The narrator provides informed opinion.
* Narration is thinking made tangible. The narrator reveals thinking to the teacher in a concrete way.
* Narration reveals knowledge instead of ignorance (except for the occasional howler).
* Narration accounts for natural development of thinking skills. The teacher sees progressive understanding (not oppressive expectations).
* Narration shapes instruction due to diagnosis of errors.
* Narration unfolds instructional criteria to determine future curricula.

In short, teachers are historians when it comes to assessment, which requires a teacher to gather, immerse, describe, analyze, and evaluate. Narration gives teachers a more authentic and more accurate glimpse of a student's thinking than standardized testing.

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