Dyan Branstetter | February 2017

Do We Really Assess What We Value?

A few weeks ago I shared that my school district is in the process of exploring ways to make our libraries future-ready, relevant learning commons in our schools. Early on we determined that it was necessary to define the terms Library, Makerspace, and STEAM Lab since all were being thrown around during conversations.

My committee is small, yet diverse, and while we are spearheading this project, we know it is important to hear what others think about our direction. After presenting our “big picture” of a Library of the Future, we’re asking these questions of our community and teachers at each level. If they could be of use to you, find them here: Library of the Future Questions

Changing Mindsets: Assess What We Value

During an informal chat about our committee, an administrator shared the concern that it will be very hard to change the traditional mindsets of some teachers in a few areas. One is in the area of technology and libraries. In our high school, there are many signs posted that state “Device-Free Zone”. In our elementary schools, students are “shushed” or asked to use “library voices” when they are in the library so as not to disturb others. We can’t fault teachers for this, for it is the way it has always been. It will be a shift in thinking for teachers to embrace the power of the devices that, when used strategically, can help propel our students into being 21-century learners. It may also take some time to get used to the controlled chaos of collaboration and creation that will happen in what was once a quiet area designed for students to read and study independently.

Another mindset that will be difficult to change is the idea of adding more technology and necessary 21-century skills and considering them as “one more thing” for teachers to squeeze into an already packed curriculum. Yes, integration is a great solution, however, we still need time to teach each skill explicitly before we integrate. If teachers are encouraged to teach coding to help build critical thinking or experiment with new technology in a Makerspace to build inquiry skills, innovation, and creativity, they need time. Even those who understand and appreciate the incredible benefits of these opportunities are still evaluated based on reading and math scores. Students are still required to take common assessments that are aligned to the standardized tests, which are aligned with our report cards. While our assessments require students to use a great amount of thinking, they do not assess most of the 21st-century skills, and they are not performance-based. I empathize with teachers who say they don’t have time to teach coding.

How Can We Make It Happen? 

Since I want teachers to embrace these skills and innovative practices, I pondered this for quite a while. As I tried to find a solution, I remembered the phrase “we value what we assess, and assess what we value” from a workshop with EducationCloset founder Susan Riley. She was explaining that in Arts Integration, we assess both the arts and the content standard. I believe this statement applies perfectly to a shift in mindset. Will teachers spend time and effort designing instruction for topics and skills on which students won’t be assessed? If we’re not asking teachers to assess what we value, we’re conveying the message that it is not valued. If assessment drives our instruction, maybe we should start by redesigning our assessments to make them authentic and performance-based. This way we could build the integration into the tasks. It would increase engagement, help students make connections, and meet more standards, just as Arts Integration does. In addition, it would increase achievement because students would be learning through the process, as opposed to a traditional multiple-choice test.

I shared this idea with my administrator, and while he agreed, he said that it does always come back to those standardized test scores. While it is important to use 21st-Century skills in learning experiences, students are producing authentic results only to be tested in #2 bubbles. The fear is not performing well on these tests, and the tests are not a true reflection of 21st-century skills. So it seems we can’t assess what we value, we have to assess what we’re tested on. This wasn’t the outcome I was hoping for, but I am still thrilled that we value these skills enough for us to be working on this project.

Teachers are Ready

While I understand that mindsets are hard to change, I know that there are many teachers who are ready to do so. They know that creativity and innovation have taken an educational backseat and that teachers are encouraged that we’re moving in a direction that will provide students with these opportunities. That is what will drive us forward, as teachers balance the pressure of test performance with the rewards of seeing students flourish in a creative environment. As the speaker, George Couros said, “To inspire meaningful change, you must make a connection to the heart before you can make one to the mind.”

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.