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Formative Assessment (by Matthew Spira)

I was thirty-two years old the first time I stepped into a kindergarten classroom as an English instructor. Because I previously had fairly extensive leadership experience as a military officer, the general manager of a multi-million dollar software company, and as an operations manager within a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, I just didn’t think teaching children was going to present all that much of a challenge. How hard could it really be?

As you are probably guessing, those were indeed famous last words.

What do you mean children don’t instantly do what you tell them to do? What do you mean they don’t sit still? What do you mean they don’t want to do the “fun” activity I meticulously planned? What do you mean they have “accidents?” What do you mean they cry… all of them at the exact same time?

My first month as a functionally untrained and unprepared “teacher” was as disorienting as the first few days of military basic training had been, which was the only other time in my life I’d felt so lost. However, something I’ve always understood is even when you don’t know what to do, you still have to do something. So I did what made the most sense to me: I researched. I sought out advice. I observed other teachers. I experimented with different combinations of methods and materials, and I tried to pay attention to what did and didn’t seem to be working. After a teaching session, I reflected on what had happened and worked to understand why. I continued to voraciously research, prepare, apply, assess and try to improve.

Once I got out of absolute survival mode I started to realize that I was, in fact, applying skills and techniques I had picked up in my previous professional lives. My approach to lesson planning was essentially the Army’s “operations order” and “after action review” combined together. It might be surprising to hear, but once I adjusted to the frame of reference of their concerns and needs, I found the dynamics of classroom management of children in a number of respects to not be all that different from what it takes to lead a platoon in the military or supervise teams of technical support agents and customer service representatives in a call center. It’s still leadership, which has many different styles but a fairly universal set of key characteristics. How I was defining and measuring what I was observing in my classroom, and then the effort to create a coherent narrative from the data to understand performance was for all intents and purposes what my job description had been as a manager of workforce planning, forecasting and analysis.

Six months later, just as I feeling like I was settling into the role of teacher, and even enjoying it, (but at the same time looking forward to the summer break scheduled to start the following week,) we were called into the academic director’s office and informed that the school was closed, effective immediately. So instead of being on vacation that next Monday I was in a new environment and starting the process of mapping what I thought I knew about teaching to an entirely new set of students… only to discover what I thought were my key hard-won “lessons learned” didn’t completely translate from one school to another.

Fast forward another eight years, and while I don’t by any stretch of the imagination feel like I’m an “expert” teacher, I now have around 12,000 classroom/teaching hours under my belt. I’ve taught kindergarten to adult, from 1:1 tutoring sessions to class sizes ranging up to 70 students. While I haven’t taught every type of English class, or every kind of student, I have covered a fair chunk of the ELT territory. I do feel like I have my proverbial legs under me. At the same time, I often get the sense I’m still just scratching the surface, and it’s absolutely a case of “the more I learn, the less I know.” Consequently, in many respects I’m pushing myself harder now then when I first got started.

It is that last point which is really the key to my theme. Recently, the professional basketball player Ron Artest had one of the biggest moments of his life: he made the winning basket in a crucial, hard fought game. What did he do to celebrate? He went to the gym and exercised. He prepared for the next game.

You can do internet searches for “formative assessment techniques” or “informal assessment,” “continuous process improvement, “principles of leadership,” or any number of relevant topics to what I’ve discussed. However, without the personal desire to try and get better on consistent basis it just doesn’t mean very much. It is a truism about leadership that it has to be demonstrated by example. Applied to EFL, this means we teachers need to genuinely model the behaviors we expect from our students.

I am going to finish this post by offering one specific formative assessment technique I find to be extraordinarily useful. If you have a young learner who isn’t a true beginner, but is consistently struggling with comprehension, simply ask him or her to write the entire alphabet from A to Z, big and small letters, and observe as he or she does it.

I’ll let you discover for yourself what you can learn about your young learners from this task.

My intention when I started writing this post was to discuss and make specific suggestions about “formative” assessment techniques for use with young learners in the classroom or other educational context. Formative assessment covers the range of diagnostic things a teacher, tutor, mentor or parent can do to assist and improve the process of learning by his or her young learners on an ongoing basis. As I kept thinking about my topic, and about my personal approach to continuous process improvement–which is what formative assessment essentially is–what I started to realize and come to strongly believe to be something “all EFL teachers should know” is that analysis–the steps taken to understand something–is more of a mindset and attitude, and not just a collection of techniques.

Matthew Spira has been an EFYL instructor for the last eight years. He currently lives in South Korea with his wife, an English teacher from South Africa, and their two young children.

Before deciding on a whim that he wanted to try something different, Matt was the workforce planning, forecasting and analysis manager for a large multi-site high-volume customer care organization in San Francisco.

He’s never regretted the career change.

His blog is http://blog.immersionquest.net.

The main focus of the blog is on a project he’s recently started to create an open source standards-based ESL/EFL curriculum for young learners. The content repository is (or will be) http://immersionquest.org.

His Twitter handle is @immersionquest but he won’t be all that active on it until he has more content on the curriculum repository.

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3 Comments

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks, Matthew!

    I like your way of thinking of assessment as an ongoing process rather than a destination. I agree that teachers need to model the same desire for improvement that we want our students to adopt.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how your open source curriculum develops!

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Berni Wall, Barbara Sakamoto, Sali Alvarez, FEED THE TEACHER, Deborah Cochran and others. Deborah Cochran said: RT @barbsaka: Formative Assessment by Matthew Spira (part of Stuff All EFL Teachers Should Know) http://ow.ly/1T3mh #efl #esl #tesol #ja … [...]

  3. [...] Hoskins Sakamoto graciously allowed me to do a guest post about formative assessment on her excellent Teaching Village website. I appreciate the opportunity to contribute the genuinely [...]

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