In educational circles, we talk a good talk about “higher level thinking skills.” But we’re not very good at assessing them. Maybe because we still think the goal of assessment is for kids to show us that they know what we taught them. What would it look like if what we really wanted from assessment was to find out what kids know in a more global way? What they understand, infer, and feel about things? What connections they make to other things they know? What they value?
What if it was my job, as a teacher, to get inside the little minds entrusted to me and figure out how they think about things?
I teach grade one in a Catholic school, so of course the story of the Christian Nativity is a major focus in December. I read the kids dozens of different versions of it from a range of beautiful picture books, and from the Bible. Sometimes the story is told from different points of view (eg. that of one or more of the animals in the stable). Sometimes it is told in song. Sometimes it’s not a book, but a movie or a play. Sometimes it is taught and learned through puppets, nativity figures, and rituals.
At the end of it all, what do the kids understand about the Christmas story?
I asked them to draw a picture of the Jesus Christmas story (no Santa Clauses or reindeer), on the front of a Christmas card. I decided to assess their understanding simply by counting the number of characters, settings, and details in their pictures: five or more equalling full marks. It’s not the most comprehensive way of testing, but it is a quick measure of the complexity of their understanding. And it's open-ended.
More importantly than helping me quantify my student’s learning, it was a task that let me see this very old story through young and contemporary eyes. It allowed me to see how each child imagined the story, which is a measure of their reading/listening comprehension, but also of their insight.
Here is some of what I saw. (Please read the captions.)
|Two adults, one baby, one manger, one stable, one star|
(and a moon!) = full marks.
Drawing ability doesn't need to be a factor in
demonstrating or assessing learning.
|There was a long road, a big hotel, and a little stable.|
|Mary had a baby in a barn. She was not having fun!|
|Some people saw a big star.|
They were amazed and scared.
|They wore towels on their heads.|
(Different place. Different time. Different fashions.)
|The sun was out even though there were stars in the sky.|
(Because there is always a sun in the top corner of a picture.)
|People in the Bible have circles over their heads.|
|The Christmas story is a love story!|
Note: This approach to assessment could be used with fables and fairy tales too ~ any story of which there are multiple renditions in multiple media.