Does summative assessment drive Units of Inquiry?

During a planning meeting for every Unit of Inquiry,  there’s a question that’s always pops up

“What are we going to do for the summative task?”

The minute this question is asked, I often find my mind thinking more about what the kids are going to do to ‘show what they know’ then the how they are going to develop their understanding.

It’s like the summative assessment task is the monster that ate inquiry.


It can be easy to blame this state of affairs on the nature of summative assessment. It’s a final, set in stone, and we’ve got to have one because it’s in there in the PYP planner.

Yet summative assessment has purpose:

  • To show growth during the unit for teachers, children and parents
  • To evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching in the unit
  • To communicate reliably a child’s level of understanding of a concept

Which leads me to wonder – what actions am I taking (or not taking) as a teacher that feeds the summative assessment monster?

Planning the task too soon – If we’re serious about inquiry, then we need to spend time gauging the children’s own understanding and their interests before thinking about how the children will demonstrate a growth in their understanding.

Not using formative data- Often summative tasks are drawn up without any reference by children and teachers to the learning and checks for understanding that are regularly happening in classrooms.

Trying to assess too much – in planning to assess all five elements of the PYP in one task, there’s a tendency to plan more elaborate tasks that end up not assessing much at all.

A focus on doing – ‘Finishing the poster/presentation/writing/movie’ becomes the destination of the unit, rather than a tool for measuring growth of understanding during the unit.

One size fits all task– Often summative tasks ends up with everyone ‘doing’ the same thing. I’ll never forget taking a quick glance at a child’s poster and thinking he had a limited understanding.  As I listened to his Doodlecast, he showed so much more.

Assessing the wrong thing – a presentation is going to demonstrate a child’s ability to present not their understanding of push and pull factors of migration.  A written task, shows off their writing capability not their understanding of how energy is transformed and transferred.

Some things I need to mindful of

Document, document, document – if children and teachers are looking for shifts in understanding, then there should be a comparison from the beginning to the end.

Use the documentation – The different between a check for understanding and activity comes down to how the data is used. The difference between a pretty wall display and a performance of understanding comes down to how the data is used. 

Understanding might be shown in different ways – the kid playing with the science equipment might actually be showing off an understanding of scientific process – meanwhile the poster might be showing off procedural writing.

Simplify the task  in the current unit of inquiry into how humans use fashion to express their beliefs – it was easy to dream up a task where kids made elaborate wearable art and have a fashion show.  Yet the better task would be for the children to contrast their decision making of their ‘free choice’ fashion day at the start of the task with their decision making at their mufti day at the end of the unit.

Change the task to fit the learning, not the learning to fit the task – the task at the end of the unit might look very different from the one you had in mind at the beginning.


If schools really value the learning process, why do we showcase product to parents?

Tomorrow my Year is holding a mini-exhibition – it’s an end of unit session where the children share what they’ve learned during this Unit of Inquiry.

Often in schools this is usually in the form of a finished product to show parents, a nice science fair exhibit, a poster, a presentation.

The child will talk through the finished product, all the steps they took, their thinking behind what their actions.

But there is nothing to improve on.

The project is done.

There might be a reflection but then it’s time to move on to a new unit.

This time I’m experimenting with something different.

Instead of the children in my class showing their parents finished products, they will make and create with their families.

It’s nerve-wracking not having big posters, presentations. There will be no big speeches.

The children did need to get their materials together.

Some of them thought about writing down their instructions.

Some of them have a rough plan drawn.

But the product will come together on the day.

Why not flip our whole process of showcasing learning – why not parents and children learn together?

The power of voice…

One of the unintended consequences of re-thinking rubrics  has been uncovering the power of voice.

All too often in assessment we look to the power of written and drawn reflection to gauge students understanding and misconceptions.

Yet voice is just as powerful tool for uncovering hidden attitudes not just in terms of what the children say but also how they say it.

During  a mid-unit reflection, I was disappointed to hear one of my students  had not taken the task seriously. I wondered how much learning had gone on in the unit. Although the words that came out said the right things, how the child was speaking was telling another story.

As the class listened to his reflection, several of the other children pointed out that the child hadn’t shown respect, which was one of the attitudes we were looking to develop during the unit. We agreed that the voice element enabled us to identify a learning need that otherwise would have been hidden.

Perviously this child was quick to finish, not one to give much effort –  he’d mastered the art of the ‘game of school.’ Yet the change of medium had  shaken up his pre-conceptions. At the end of the unit he did something I hadn’t seen all term – he asked for help.

All too often we overlook the learning needs of our ‘high fliers.’ Yet by changing up the medium – powerful learning could occur.

Are e-portfolios past their educational used by date?


Photo by author

This post is perhaps a tad hypocritical.

I have not one but two e-portfolios. I’ve used e-portfolios in class for the last few years.

They’ve been around in education since back when I was coding html sites in the 1990s. However over the last few months I’ve been wondering if e-portfolios have been mean meeting the learning needs in my class.

Is it time for education to move on from its love affair with portfolios?

My first problem with e-portfolios is right there in the name – we’re using technology to replace what was done on paper. The inclusion of video and audio moves e-portfolios perhaps into the augmentation level but really they aren’t all that transformative.

If the goal of having all this expensive technology in class is to transform learning, we need to push us thinking beyond digitising what could easily be achieved on paper.

Yet so much time and energy is devoted to talking about e-portfolios and that’s before they hit the classroom.

Often the systems supporting e-portfolios are unintuitive. What should be a two click job ends up being sucked into multiple lessons showing kids how to upload content, embed files, link to content or finding fixes when systems won’t talk to each other.

The portfolio becomes the learning rather than the tool to support the documentation of learning.

The problem with e-portfolios is that they create a walled garden. Fine when you are doing something the designers have envisioned but infuriating the minute you wander from the trail.

Yet the internet by its design is divergent.

Media is created on multiple devices and shared through different content channels.

This year I used blogger as portfolio found myself frustrated at the unnecessary hurdles being put up in order to maintain e-portfolios.

  • Made a cool path on pic – that needs to be saved first to the camera roll before it can be uploaded to blogger.
  • Easy blogger junior was a quick way for students to send video content to their blogfolios until the videos were too long and it didn’t support tagging aside from the child’s name.
  • A creative animation on keynote needs to uploaded to youtube, then embedded into a post.
  • The kids made an awesome book creators. Great but they won’t upload directly to blogger.
  • A google doc with a writing assessment needs to be linked back to in blogger. There’s a whole bunch time lost publishing the doc to the web, linking to the doc and that’s before the child has had time to reflect on their writing.
  • Showing an album of photos of a school event or science project? Fantastically easily on flickr or a photo stream on iOS but then that requires a link in blogger.

All these superfluous steps translate into lost learning time and shift the focus of the learning onto the technology.

To be clear, I don’t think this is a problem specific to blogger. There are other platforms out there I could use but they would have other issues and I know my actions part of the problem.

I am very conscious of the digital tools I introduce to the children I teach. Any app or website needs to fit the purpose of the learning otherwise I don’t use it. As a result, the kids become critical of the technology they are using to support their learning.


Over the course of this past school year, I was amazed at how quickly the children were starting to make decisions about what tools to use but were able to justify why they wanted to use them. It struck me that if my year 4s are already able to articulate what applications they think best suit their learning needs now, imagine what they’ll be capable of in a few years. More importantly, the older kids are highly capable of documenting their informal learning experiences right now.

The problem is that their institutions often don’t recognise the tools they are using.

E-portfolios won’t change this.

Particularly if the tools don’t recognise that kids are going to have digital lives outside of those walled gardens.

Being able to curate and share evidence of learning is important. But for the amount of work that teachers do and the amount of learning time sucked out of maintaining e-portfolios, a big question needs to be asked.

Is the technology supporting the learning or is the technology the learning?

Because the most important e-portfolio in our students lives is the one we don’t really give that much thought to – their google search footprint.

Harkness discussion in Elementary Schools

This a classroom idea I stole from Chad Walsh and Sam Sherratt at Time Space education, the Harkness discussion.

Put simply it is a discussion where classroom discussions are tracked by a teacher (or a better yet a child). The observer draw lines between participants in a discussion and jot down interesting ideas in the conversation.

I wandered around with my camera last year to show one in action.

Some observations:

Children are noticing and naming learning behaviours and giving feedback to each other on their performance.
Quieter children are aware that they need to contribute more.
Confident children realise that they are dominating conversations and include others.
Children look for ways to include ESOL classmates by slowing down and giving wait time.

Telling comment from one of my students.

If someone needs time, you give them time.

Handing over assessment data – where is the student voice?

With the end of the year drawing closer, assessment data is handed over from one set of teachers hands to the others.

Spelling tests

Writing samples

Standardised reading assessments.

But what is missing from this list?

The kids.

This week the children in my class with select a photo from our class photo that best represents them and write a story ‘what I want my teacher to know about me…’

Instead of numbers and scores, why not make those first impressions for new kids be driven by the kids rather than their numbers?

On writing reports… There has to be a better way #rethinkreports

Today marks one of the best parts of term 4 for a teacher.

Finishing the first draft of reports.

Like most schools, the reports contain a mixture of check boxes and general statements in different subjects along with general comments and goals for the next year.

I started drafting my comments back in mid-April so to get to this point took a month. The reports then need to be proof-read, checked and the data entered into the learning management system.

That’s not counting the time in class I devote to assessing kids for the purposes of report writing and then analyzing those as sources of data.

It’s a lot of work.

And the worst part of the process?

By the time the reports are actually published in June, most of the statements will be out of date.

Each report represents months of work yet will be read for just 10-15 minutes. In an age where I can email, send pictures and videos to parents, I can’t help but wonder how effective reports are in furthering children’s learning.

The time that I could be devoting to creating interesting learning experiences and responding to needs is often swallowed up during report writing times on gathering data, analyzing it and then reporting back to parents.

There is one part of reporting I do enjoy, reflecting on how the child has progressed in the year in their learning and relationships. The problem with modern reports is that they keep getting longer as we break learning down into smaller and smaller fragments.

Are we losing more than we gain?

What if instead of pages of reporting there was just a paragraph and some examples of student learning through video, photos.

Is brief, more frequent, interaction preferable to the tomes we publish at the end of each semester?