Triathlon Swimming & Formative Assessment

Consultants' Corner Formative Assessment Professional Learning Research & Theory

I titled this blog post not to try and get your attention, well, all right, partly to get your attention, but really because I have been struggling with the swim leg of a triathlon. Floundering is perhaps more accurate description. At the same time, I became enthralled with the possibilities of formative assessment. Later you will see how I linked the two.

shutterstock_154806206For my first triathlon, actually my only triathlon, I swam with a snorkel. Yes, you are allowed to do so, however you can not win. Being the disciplined athlete I am I was unencumbered by this restriction as I wheezed around the course.

Another indignity; triathlons start in waves. The Elites begin first and, as field thins and the triathletes thicken, the older folk start last. You may be surprised to learn that I am neither an Elite triathlete, nor extremely youthful. Consequently I started from behind and fought to maintain this stellar ranking.

There is another indignity in a triathlon. They write your age on your leg. This does not worry me, I saw it more as an explanation of my performance. However, it is embarrassing to be passed on the run, by a pair of calves boldly emblazoned with the number 74!

To be honest I finished about midway between the Elites and the DNF’s. (Did Not Finish). I wanted to do another tri,  faster and sans snorkel. Enter formative assessment, if it works for kids, it should work for me, and hopefully before I am 74. Formative assessment could help,  it was unlikely to harm my performance, what did I have to lose?

The Theory
Let me clarify what I mean by formative assessment. From my understanding, it is a planned process where one assesses where the learner is in terms of learning (triathlon swimming in this instance). Based on the assessment/s, the instruction continues as is or is modified.

There are three questions that focus the formative assessment process:
1.Where are you going?
2. Where are you now?
3. What do you do to close the gap?

And then there is evidence that the learner (me) is making progress toward the goal.

There is also feedback. which, since I am too tight to pay for a coach, I am going to provide that feedback to myself. This brings to mind a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” A bird-walk but you may see the relevance.

The Practice
shutterstock_113167474Swimming is challenging for me. If the swim leg of a sprint triathlon was 50 yards, I would be fine, but it is not. It is 1/2 mile, which is a long, long way for me. The ride and the run are OK; note I did not say easy, or enjoyable.

Back to the swim.

I have purchased flippers, snorkel, goggles, hand paddles, and even a clicky belt thing that gives feedback (with an annoying click) when you roll your hips. (I do like my toys). I have read books, studied videos, and crawled the web for tips and insight. I have had lessons, (see I am not that tight), and I have practiced in a pool and in a lake.

I practiced body rolling, arm strokes, getting my butt up, and bi-lateral breathing. I am better than I was. (I once read a T-shirt that said, “The older I get, the better I was.” I agree with the sentiment, but digress.)

So why am I not much, much better at swimming by now?

Formative Assessment Insights
Here is what I am learning, thanks to formative assessment insights:

1. I do reflect on my swimming skills ( I use the latter term rather loosely!).
2. I found I check how I am going quite regularly. I even make a mental note of my performance. In most cases, I think I should do a little more of this, say breathing, and a little less of that, say sinking.
3. I do understand the learning progressions needed to swim that distance.
4. I have clarified my learning intentions.

However, I think I need to look more deeply (an unintended pun).

Dylan Wiliam proposed five strategies for formative assessment:

1. Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success.
2. Engineering and eliciting effective evidence of learning.
3. Providing feedback that moves learning forward.
4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another.
5. Activating learners as owners of their own learning.

OK, I’ve got #1 and #5. For me, #4 is hard ‘cause it is just me. So that leaves #2 and #3.

I do get some evidence courtesy of an expensive, and thankfully waterproof, Garmin watch. I can tell lap times, distance, and stroke rate. But … so what?

This evidence is also feedback, but it is limited and after the fact. I have to download it on the computer to get it. What I need is in the moment feedback. I know I could pay for this, but we have been here before. I am too cheap, so let’s move on. I still need feedback.

Interestingly, I just realized the pool gives me feedback, like when I swallow water instead of breathing air, which does make me think about the quality of feedback.

I am highly motivated. I have found that the possibility of drowning is great motivation, but I am hesitant to recommend it as an educational strategy.

What I am beginning to see is that if I address the three focus questions of formative assessment:
1. Where am I going?
2. Where am I now?
3. How do I close the gap?
It is evident that it is quality feedback that moves me forward, that links #1 and #2 to achieve #3. It is the ability to provide quality feedback, in the moment, based on evidence, that is most helpful.

What have I learned?
Well, I think Wiliam’s Five Strategies help me think about learning, be it for triathlons or teaching literacy. The three focus questions are pivotal to implementing the strategies.

Once the direction is known, then it is time to determine what sort of evidence is needed to ascertain progress towards the destination and when each piece of evidence is relevant. Evidence and feedback often appear related at this point.

For example, the number of strokes it takes to get to the end of the pool is useful to know. However, feedback on form while actually swimming with the form of a sunken log, is far more helpful. Effective feedback is what is needed, at that moment, to move me forward (not downward).  It is the immediacy of the adjustment which underscores a central tenet of formative assessment: formative assessment changes the learning while it is still malleable. James Popham‘s definition of formative assessment is:  “Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they’re currently doing.”

shutterstock_158438201Effective feedback, grounded in where the learner is in the moment, is critical. It would be helpful, though not always essential, to have feedback from peers and/or a more knowledgeable other. However, in the end, it is the learner’s (my) responsibility for success. Interestingly, this raises the issue of goal setting, which is something for another day.

In the end, Wiliam’s Five Formative Assessment Strategies embedded in the three Formative Assessment Questions, provide an effective learning framework that works as well for triathlons as literacy.

So to put this in a growth mindset, which is pivotal to formative assessment, I can’t swim 1/2 a mile comfortably, YET.

Les HowardPrior to coming to Oakland Schools in 2004, Les Howard worked as an independent consultant across the United States based in San Francisco. Les came to California in 1994 to help establish Reading Recovery in California. He has been an educator for almost 40 years, almost 20 years in Australia. During this time he has been an elementary teacher, assistant principal, and literacy consultant and district literacy coordinator. Les is also a trained Ontological Coach.  He believes coaching is a powerful process that empowers educators. He loves being outdoors and loves bicycling hiking, paddling, triathlons and adventure races, and trying to tire out his border collie. He and his wife enjoy traveling and camping. 



A Dinner Conversation with James Popham on Formative Assessment

Consultants' Corner Oakland Writing Project

dinner2A few months ago, I had the opportunity to share dinner and conversation with James Popham. As an avid fan of his work on learning progressions, I was excited to finally meet him. Three years prior, in the midst of a statewide collaboration to build a Common Core Standards-aligned model 6-12 ELA curriculum, I had hit upon Popham’s research.

To build a model curriculum meant we had the blessing and the challenge of vertically aligning across a K-12 grade span. Vertical alignment meant sequencing not only content knowledge, but also conceptual understanding and application of content. Dealing with content, in some ways, is the easier part of sequencing a learning progression. As teachers, a content approach is ingrained in our practice, district pacing guides, and state standards. The much harder task is to theorize a learner’s learning progression of conceptual understanding and application. As we developed the K-12 curriculum we had to consider:

● what tasks to scaffold across a progression in terms of complexity,
● what embedded instructional practices best support students into increasingly more complex content, understanding, and application, and
● what evidence we should focus our attention on when studying student work to determine growth.

So I now sat across the table from the James Popham with my mind spinning. What would I say to or ask a scholar who has been such an influential voice in education for decades? After the perfunctory jokes about bad Michigan weather, ordering our meals, and performing introductions of our small group of colleagues, the conversation shifted to formative assessment. Why the continued struggle to build system-wide effective formative assessment practices? Popham’s theory: educators are paying attention to the wrong things. Leaning in, we waited to hear what these wrong things are. He went on to share that in his experience and research, teachers focus more on instructional procedures than what happens to students as a result of those procedures. My initial reaction was to push back. Was he saying that instructional practices were not important enough to focus professional learning around? He politely engaged in a back and forth volley with me, but it was clear that the exchange didn’t change either of our minds.

Weeks later, I engaged further with Popham’s theory by reading his book Unlearned Lessons: Six Stumbling Blocks to Our Schools’ Success. If you’re wondering, the six stumbling blocks Popham presents as holding school systems back from maximizing student achievement are:
● Too many curricular targets
● Underutilization of classroom assessment
● Preoccupation with instructional process
● Absence of affective assessment
● Instructionally insensitive accountability tests
● Abysmal assessment literacy

In my second “hearing” of Popham’s argument, I found some common ground. His claim was not that no attention should be paid to instructional procedures but rather, that as teachers and administrators, we can easily fall prey to focusing solely on procedures and lose sight of what happens to students as a consequence of instruction. Now pair this preoccupation with instructional procedures to the underutilizing of classroom assessment and voila`–formative assessment becomes misinterpreted as studying summative student data long after its collection.

I had to admit–I could now see where Popham was coming from. The question remains though: how do we better balance attention between instructional practices and formatively assessing student learning? Over the next few weeks, I will share a story of a statewide collaborative of writing teachers and university researchers who have been working in this particular problem space. Their inquiry: what instructional practices produce effective student peer to peer feedback and what learning does peer feedback make visible? In the meantime, if learning progressions and their relationship to effective formative assessment interests you, the following resources may be useful.

Formative Assessment in Practice: A Process of Inquiry and Action, Margaret Heritage (2013)
Transformative Assessment, W. James Popham (2008)
Transformative Assessment in Action, W. James Popham (2011)

Assessment Literacy in Today’s Classroom
Creating Learning Progressions

Learning Progression to Support Self-Assessment and Writing about Themes in Literature: Small Group

Using a Learning Progression to Help Students Work Towards Clear Goals (K-2)

Susan GolabSusan Wilson-Golab
joined Oakland Schools in 2010 following 22 years of in the field 6-12 experience across two different states and rural, suburban, and urban contexts. Her research and practice focus heavily on the evolving definition of literacy, developmental learning progressions, and formative assessment. At the district level, Susan has served as classroom teacher, Literacy Specialist, and ELA Curriculum Coordinator. These experiences and study helped Susan in her role as Project Leader for developing a model 6-12 ELA curriculum for the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA)— a curriculum resource now globally available. More recently, Susan launched Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative (MiTRC). The mission: to build collaborative participatory research between university and secondary teachers from around the state interested in exploring and developing the teaching and assessing of writing. In 2000, she joined the National Writing Project through the satellite Oakland Writing Project site based out of University of Michigan. She now serves as Site Director for the Oakland Writing Project.