Choreographing Communication of Student Learning

As mentioned in my Teachers Going Gradeless post, communication of student learning is vital for gradeless and standards based grading to be successful. By communication, I mean communication of pivotal learning points in a student’s learning journey:where they are at now and how to get to the next level. Communication should highlight the growth and be clear about why. Like a dance, communication of student learning should be carefully choreographed.

When my kids were in elementary school, I received approximately five reports of their learning per year. There were one or two parent-teacher conferences and three report cards. At all these times, the report on learning was personal, individualized, and focused on strengths and weaknesses. On the report cards, a number was assigned to each outcome (4 meaning Exceeding Expectations, 3 meaning Meeting Expectations, etc.). In addition to the numerical explanations on the report card, there was always a short, written summary of specific strengths, areas to work on, and how I can support my child at home.

Nowhere on these reports of learning were long lists of specific, daily assignments, tests, quizzes, and worksheets. Sometimes, tests and projects were brought home for me to examine and sign (showing my acknowledgment that I had seen it), but daily or weekly updates were definitely not a normal feature of the reporting process. And now that I think about it, I really didn’t care to see any extra progress reports. What I wanted and what I received was a snapshot of my child’s learning at pivotal points in the school year. What I wanted and what I received was not an inundation of numbers and scores that mean little in the grand scheme of things. I always thought to myself, the teacher will let me know when it’s important, and if they or I am at all concerned, we’ll communicate with each other.

So why, then, are we, especially at the high school level, insistent on keeping parents in the loop so much more often? And even if we don’t communicate learning that often, why must we flood our grade books with so much — everything that is handed in, every quiz done, and every check for understanding? Do parents want to track their child’s progress to this extent? Yes, I know, there are helicopter parents who hold teachers ruthlessly accountable for their child’s progress, but those parents are few and far between. Communication with parents is a vital component of communicating student progress, but reflecting on why we are assessing what we are assessing should dictate what we are communicating to parents.

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While communicating student learning is a very important service, teachers should communicate with parents in a justifiable way. By simply communicating learning of pivotal learning points to parents and leaving out all the different hoops their child had to jump through, parents will remain engaged in the process, but aren’t held so accountable for every worksheet to get handed in on time. To be fair, in high school, I didn’t want to wait until report card time to find out my child was not putting in the effort they could be. When work habits are the reason for learning weaknesses, we are obligated to communicate this with parents in a timely manner so that they can take action at home — No more Fortnite for you! When it comes to assessment of progress, I think it’s totally fine to wait until it is significant to communicate with parents.

Leaving out routine assessments and leaving in useful assessments in the grade book, gives students the opportunity to show both accountability for their own learning and time for the teacher to make crucial decisions as to next steps in the learning process. When a child doesn’t meet our expectations, I would rather give them another shot at doing better and when they do, put that in FreshGrade with accolades of improvement noted. If my learning progression expectss several attempts at a curricular competency skill until students attain proficiency, why publish each step in the progression for all to see? Putting a lousy first attempt may have been just as much my fault as theirs (because an assessment often shows my flaws in teaching the skill especially if several students floundered) and as such would be futile for the student and parent to see. When a significant pattern develops that shows an obvious problem or success, that is when I want to communicate student learning.

I’m been no angel when it comes to over assessing. I’ve been known to fire up my grade book every day because I thought that was what parents wanted. It’s fifteen minutes into the block, little Johnny didn’t turn in their project at the bell as I asked so I better punch the button on my keyboard that shows the red dot of doom on FreshGrade — NOT HANDED IN (cue eery dum dum dum music). What I have realized is that building the habit of over assessing for parents is like building Frankenstein’s monster. Parents come to expect it every day if I do it every day. And when I don’t do it, I could potentially by hounded for immediate feedback. Seriously! It is not out of the ordinary to be notified half way through a block…Has Johnny handed this in yet? Egad! I was feeding the monster I had a part in creating. I felt to blame for satiating parents and over communicating with them was the culprit.

Reproduced with permission

When the ding of the grade book goes off, student’s, parent’s, and teacher’s anxiety increases. A student wonders, “What did I get?” A parent wonders, “How did they did they do?” A teacher wonders, “Will the parent be impressed? Will the student be okay?” That’s a lot to think about. What we communicate via our grade book has a direct impact on subsequent behavior and achievement of our students. I’m not going to coddle my students by withholding assessments that are the truth, but I will decide if communicating achievement at this particular time will hamper or hinder their progress.

We also should not assume that all parents will hold their children accountable to the same extent. Stricter parents may be more quick to react negatively, forcing the teacher to backpedal and explain that there is really nothing to get so alarmed about and that there will be more opportunities for growth in the future, while for other parents, the teacher cannot use enough language or tools to emphasize that the issue is of paramount importance than they are investing energy in. Even in a gradeless system, using a standards based approach to communicate a system using a learning scale or rubric, as I do, providing assessment of the first attempt of a skill or applying a yes/no if the assignment was handed in on time, can fuel all those anxieties. These are anxiety fueling behaviors we can avoid.

Of course, it is important, that we keep track and carefully track progress, but I think there needs to be more analysis of what is necessary to communicate, what can be kept between teacher and student, and when we should communicate student learning. I’m not talking about deviously hiding important assessments from parents. In a completely gradeless, standards based, or traditional system of assessment, teachers should make an effort to provide anecdotal information that explains weaknesses, strengths and next steps. A list of three attempts at the same curricular competency (or standard) shows a important pattern for sure (IE: Paragraph 1 – Beginning, Paragraph 2 – Developing, Paragraph 3 – Developing), but descriptive feedback like, “After three attempts at paragraph writing, I am noticing that Sam is making progress in defending their argument by using implicit explanations. They should now work on using explicit citations from the reading to support their argument” does a better (and more accurate) job of explaining why, and also because the learning scale headings simply don’t have the same impact, or after a while those words are simply viewed no differently than mark or percentage. Descriptive feedback thoughtfully used in the classroom between teacher and student, supports and justifies a teacher’s assessment of a student’s learning. Then, let’s do that when we communicate student learning.

Shameless plug…it’s this descriptive feedback that is the lure of a gradeless system and it’s time more teachers bought in. When we focus on timely, descriptive feedback and bring parents into the folds of this communication of student learning, student learning improves. When parents become active participants in this type of assessment, there is a better understanding that our focus is on growth and learning, not fixed mindset marks. Assessments are more thoughtful and genuine, while marks feel so finite and judgmental. But our intentions as gradeless teachers as much as those assessments of student learning, need to be clearly communicated to parents. We cannot expect parents to understand our intentions unless we explain our intentions. Sell it to parents. Parents are open to gradeless assessments because when it is sold as having their child’s best interests at heart and that assessments will explain more than a “B” ever could, they will jump with excitement…okay maybe they won’t exactly leap for joy, but they will appreciate it. They love their child and they want them to have the best possible opportunity for learning.

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Parents want teachers to communicate learning with them but they do not need to be inundated with too much information. If you have a helicopter parent who insists on daily updates, for example, then give them their daily updates (however, I would argue that an appropriately worded email that this is not a reasonable request is in order, but I digress). Develop a new pattern of communicating student learning. Write more and leave the numbers out.


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