Walking Stick Blogger

A Learning Space for Literacy and English Language Learners

Fundamental Shift: Assessment for Learning

I think the bigger picture involves a fundamental shift from treating students as objects to be measured or evaluated or changed or filled or improved or assimiliated, to treating students as legitimate co-participants.

I have chosen blogging for advocacy to address the needs of my adult literacy learners, most of whom of First Nations descent, who sometimes may feel that they have limited opportunity to express themselves using academic prose.

Students are often bewildered by how they are assessed, and the open confusion is etched on their faces as they struggle to cope within a classroom. They are required to work independently, ask questions, and take tests within set timeframes.

Many of these learners have either had their fathers and mothers and aunts and uncles placed in residential schools, or were there themselves. Many of these learners who return decades later are strongly opposed to control. As children and young adults, they were told what to wear, what to eat, when to wake, and when to sleep, and their songs, their chatter in their own language was punished, so they were forced to speak English only. So after decades, they return to turn over a new leaf. And the system again evaluates them as not making the grade.

Their written language is so often judged as undeveloped, and quickly evaluated based on standards not of their choosing, and found as inadequate, as unpolished, and thus, their messages are considered amateur and immature.

When I sit down across the table from these learners, share food and coffee, laugh with them, and then ask them to start the process of talking through their ideas, they open up more, become more alive, more spontaneous, more expressive. I use idea wheels and scrapbooking and a variety of other strategies to encourage them to tell the stories in their own words, and then ask them to sit down and write. Inspired by the discussion, by the pictures they have created, the urge to write emerges.

And then the system requires us as instructors to evaluate and measure these beginnings of self-expression so minutely, that for some learners, it is too much to bear given their experiences, and the beginnings of the journey towards self-experience is extinguished, squeezed out of existence.

Did you know that some cultures, such as the First Nations cultures, require a conservation of resources, so that people just don’t try to do something till they are felt to be ready to do it well? Just that cultural assumption wrecks havoc with the assumed methods for assessing and evaluating and measuring learners widely practised in Western culture.

Did you know that the adult literacy learners have completely different measures for success than their instructors, and that for most of them, grades don’t matter? What matters is that they can read to their children, they can help their children with their homework, they can strengthen their family bonds, and meet new friends. 

Many of the learners evaluate their classroom experience on the basis of how well Ba is fostered – a lack of Ba, or unity, of common purpose, leads to demotivation and disengagement. Learners judge the classroom, the instructor, the experience, as a failure, and opt out.

Credentialism, elitism, and the academy are all ideas outside the experience of these learners. The wild autodidact, or rogue node, is the opposite side of the coin, and also outside the experience of the adult literacy learners I work with. They want relationships, companionship, and seek mentors, learning partners, and instructors that accept their uniqueness, and sit down at the table with them to meet them halfway, or even more than halfway, if need be. They seek to work with learning companions, instructors or mentors willing to be present, listen actively and openly, and be genuinely interested in negotiating meaning. The conversation is a give-and-take between the co-participants, where the mentor/student roles blur, and the exchange of ideas and their negotiation provide the primary motivation. This means that the instructor and student readily hand back and forth the task of instruction.

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netizenship • May 11, 2010

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