Goal 2: Re-evaluate Value

I’ll start by quoting the terms of Goal Number 2…

“Short-term- Change the way you assess one assignment or project and try to assess in a way that doesn’t add a numerical value but has the student seek value in the progress made, the learning achieved, or the work put into it. For the teachers on holiday, like in Argentina, just reflect on how you will change the assessment process of a project. Alternatively, think about a way to help students re-evaluate how they value themselves. Is it only through a number?

Long-term- In what ways can we help our students re-evaluate the way they value themselves? What changes to assessment can we make to have students reflect more on the learning journey instead of being programmed to place value only on the score?”

Now, before I launch into interpretation (of the goal), narration (of my attempt) and reflection (of both), first let me give a little background on my current working situation, so as to put all the above into context.

I work at a little language centre, that is part of a large franchise, in a minor city. I will refer to my school as LC (Language Centre!). LC is very entrenched in traditional methods of disseminating and testing knowledge, despite the supposed modern and communicative aims of the franchise as a whole (which seem to be belied by the materials they provide to attain these!). LC is very resistant to change. Staff at LC don’t get a lot of exposure to the teaching world outside of LC, as training and professional development do not seem to be a high priority. The general structure of courses at LC is this: Student buys course book and pays for tuition. Student attends sixteen two-hour meetings. Only twelve of these are used for studying. Of the remaining four, one is used for watching a movie, one is used for handing out certificates or progress reports and two are used for testing. There is one written test and one oral test. The written test consists of several pages of grammar/listening/reading exercises (gap fill etc) and the spoken test is an interview where the student is asked questions about the content of the course book or a presentation.

So, back to discussing Goal two, then. “Change the way you assess” moving the emphasis away from the score. I tend to think that if a student can do more in English at the end of the lesson than he or she could at the beginning of the lesson, then that is progress, regardless of the score he or she might attain on any one assignment or test. I think one of the problems with testing is that students all have different speeds at which they become able to recognise, manipulate and eventually internalise a piece of language. If a student is tested too soon in this process, and the score is low, the student may become demotivated and not persevere; deciding instead that this area of language, whatever it may be, is too difficult for them. Of course, we need to “test” students regularly to see what they have and haven’t understood. There are plenty of ways to achieve this without individual scores being given. Team games for vocabulary and structure testing, for example. Even concept checking for understanding is part of tracking students’ progress in a lesson or over a course of lessons. We, as teachers, need to build up a bank of these methods of assessing progress and understanding without fixating the students’ minds on scores and the success or failure element that naturally attaches to these.

Yesterday, one of my classes (a group of young teenagers) was due for their speaking tests, this cycle of classes being nearly at an end. Traditionally, in this programme, students’ speaking is tested by the teacher taking a student aside and asking them a list of questions (photocopied from a book of these tests) about course book content. The students get very worked up, anxious, about these tests and the scores they will get from them. I decided to take a different approach yesterday. Although I didn’t consciously link it to this goal, subconsciously, I’m sure, my reflection on it will have had something to do with my decision! I turned the traditional individual interview into a team game show. First I divided the students up into teams. Then I had each team look through the course book and between them come up with four questions from each unit. Once they had completed this, the students, in their teams, took turns to ask and answer questions and score points for their team. It seems “succeeding” or “failing” as a team is a lot less daunting and difficult for them to handle than individually. The end result was: They had a bit of fun, they reviewed the work we’ve done this cycle and I got to see them handling both sides of the conversation, questions as well as answers. The best thing was, none of them asked about scores at the end of the lesson! They all left, instead, with a sense of achievement at preparing and participating in a game show and having done a lot more speaking, both in preparation and during the quiz, than they would have done if I’d used the more traditional method as generally prescribed.

Why the ” ” marks around succeeding and failing, in the above paragraph? Because these two less-than-useful polar opposites were not relevant to this activity but are lodged in the students’ minds alongside “speaking test” and “final test”. The students achieved something with the language that they would not have been able to at the beginning of the course of lessons, showing an ability to use a range of the vocabulary and grammar structures (they made questions about both without being prompted! I wanted them to have autonomy in making the questions so I didn’t enforce any parameters) that we have met in the duration of the course. I consider that to be a great achievement on their part, even if it isn’t an achievement out of 100.

Traditional school exams are very score-driven, success and failure cut and dried. For teachers to prepare students for these exams, they inevitably have to score students work according to the parameters laid out by these exams, in order to train the students to face these exams. I wonder when we will see a trend away from exams being the purpose of learning rather than learning itself. Perhaps if we can begin to put students and learning at the centre rather than exams and final tests, students will stop worrying about succeeding or failing and be able to focus on the value of learning itself rather than the value of their scores. In terms of ELT, it would be nice if the goal of learning language was using that language, exploring it and the culture around it, and using it to connect with the world at large rather than getting x out of 20 or x % in a test at the end of the course.

In conclusion, then, I feel that re-evaluating value is something that a teacher needs to keep doing, in order to avoid becoming entrenched in the score-driven success vs failure ideology that currently dominates testing and assessment. Hopefully this will lead to a more learning-focussed rather than exam-focussed way of teaching, which for ELT would put using and exploring the language above being able to get 10/10 on a gap-fill grammar exercise. Perhaps this should be Goal 2.2!!

Thank you for reading and I look forward to seeing your comments. Knowledge can’t exist in a vacuum AND neither can teachers!! 🙂

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