Legos instead of an IKEA bookshelf

The great thing about Legos is that you can make them into whatever you want…just like words.

Let’s be clear: there are a lot of days during which virtual learning sucks. Quite possibly, the days when it sucks outnumber the days when it doesn’t suck.

But I woke up on the right side of the bed today, and the sun is shining, and my coffee was deliciously strong, so I feel empowered and determined to find a silver lining to the Gigantic Clouds of Suckiness.

I’ve had a lot of conversations about assessment over the last few weeks: how it doesn’t work under the current conditions, how hard it is to keep students from cheating, and how much teachers don’t really know what to assess because of the constraints. All of this is true. I think something else is also true: this period of extended virtual learning can help us get really clear on what kinds of assessment are worth our students’ time.

I want my students to see language as legos, rather than parts of an IKEA bookshelf. With Legos, there is no correct answer. (Well, there are some kits that you can put together, but we’re not talking about that right now.) They use their language as blocks to accomplish a task that they set.

My assessment strategy at present does not in any way resemble my strategy from when I started teaching. My first year as a teacher, I gave assessments because I was told to; I rarely prepared my students well, and I mistook that lack of preparation for rigor; my assessments didn’t accurately reflect what my students could do with the language, because they filled in a lot of blanks and circled a lot of correct answers.

Now, my assessments are often “original” (aka slightly off-the-wall), but they paint a more accurate picture of my students’ abilities. My assessments require the manipulation and activation of knowledge to accomplish tasks. Most importantly, perhaps, my students know *exactly* what those tasks will be before they encounter the assessment, and we’ve practiced repeatedly. No tricks, no surprises. Just this question: here is the thing you need to do. Can you do it?

So, assuming we’re all on board with that idea, how can we make it happen?

Well, I’m wondering if virtual learning isn’t a really good opportunity for us to make sure our assessments aren’t IKEA bookshelves.

When I started teaching, my assessments had correct answers. like, obviously, fill-in-this-blank correct answers. This type of assessment almost *guarantees* cheating in a virtual scenario. If you know where the correct answer is, and that’s all that’s being asked of you, why not write it down? We haven’t convinced our students that task mastery is important, so the only goal they see is a high grade, and they’re going to use the resources at their disposal to get there. (Sure, there’s an ethical argument to be made, but I don’t want to tank the grades of my students with a moral compass because they refuse to cheat.) But here’s the thing: when I got to France for my semester abroad, I needed to buy a pan that was compatible with an induction cooktop. I planned my trip to the store–got my money together, dressed for the weather, and looked up and practiced the words and phrases I thought I would need. I prepared for the task ahead of me. Why would I encourage my students not to do that? If preparation and use of resources compromises my assessment, then that’s a problem with the assessment, not with my students.

Now, my assessments are open-ended and rubric-based. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t still sometimes have a correct answer floating around in my head. I wrote about this a few weeks ago in my book review of Creative Confidence, and it’s been taking up real estate in my brain ever since. My current goal is to eliminate the correct answer and assess the task completion of each student as impartially as possible. This allows me to give them credit for what they can do, point out areas for growth and improvement, and be prepared to adjust my yardstick of expectations if I was way off the mark.

There are still times when I ask them to build a bookshelf. On super bad days, I forget to give them half of the pieces they need. But the Lego days are getting more and more common, so I’m optimistic. May we all embrace the Lego possibilities of virtual learning.

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