As promised, I am beginning a small series regarding what I have gleaned from the Restful Teaching workshop offered by Andrew Kern and Matt Bianco of the Circe Institute. (If you ever have a chance to attend a Circe event, do go! You will not be disappointed.) Be sure to comment with your thoughts each day of the series. Each day is an entry to win a digital copy of the Restful Teaching series. I will also grant an entry to anyone who shares this series on social media- please tag me. [Disclaimer: This series is not sponsored by The Circe Institute and I am receiving no payment from them. I just was greatly blessed by their time, and I hope you will be too! ] I hope to have these all finished by the end of January, but with our life at the moment, you never know! Thank you for your kind patience.
Of all the wonderful, lovely, helpful things to thoughtfully chew on later, the particular section of the workshop that was the most live giving to me was the restful assessment portion, so I will begin here. It was the area I was most concerned and feeling unsteady about, and it was put to rights after listening in on what they had to say.
Assessment is pretty dirty word among the educational community at the moment; with the onus of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core hanging over us all, true assessment has completely lost identifiable meaning. I have certainly felt the pressure of it while my children were attending public school, and I’ve felt the fear nipping at my heels as we’ve re-entered a home learning environment. Am I doing enough? He/she can’t do xxx skill…should I stop here, should we take a break, should we push forward? It’s clear that the current state of education in America is missing the mark, but that doesn’t let me off the hook in making sure my children are receiving a wise and useful education. So what then? Especially when you have children who have special needs, learning delays? How do we find the path?
It is important to note as we begin that the Circe Institute views education as an incarnational pursuit. You can read a lot more about that over on their blog; they do a far better job of explaining that in depth than I could ever hope to explain in a short blog post.
When it comes to assessment, Andrew pointed out that honest and beneficial assessment leads to flourishing-to well being- to healing. It is two fold: we must be sure of what our children are gazing on, educationally and in life, because we become what we behold. Secondly, we have to look at the whole person in order to holistically approach the next steps in that child’s learning.
Assessment properly used brings life.
A holistic assessment will help us see the whole student on a human level instead of reduced to numbers and quantifiers.
Whether you are just beginning to educate a child at home or you’ve been at it for a while, or especially when you and your child are both burnt out- understanding where your child is in his educational path goes a very long way to deciding the next steps on the map.
When I think of my own children and their unique challenges and gifts, I find the Circe approach to be extremely helpful. They break the pursuit of knowledge down into three areas: content, truths, and the arts. The problem with modern educational assessment ala the Common Core is that the testing focuses entirely on content. Content is the facts that make up the stuff we study. Truths, according to Andrew, are the aha moments when a little “t” truth reveals the bigger “T” Truth- the Logos. Often when those aha moments happen, learning explodes on all levels as connections are made. The arts, to the Circe mind, are the development of raw ability.
Content is easy to assess. It focuses on recall. The basic question is “what is remembered?” and is easy to test orally or in written form. As those of us who teach children with special needs know, it is also the most frustrating ‘assessment’ because our children clearly know what they know but struggle mightily to process that in oral or written form. This is the beauty of homeschooling though- when we need those kind of answers, we can test in this way but give the student plenty of time to process and establish knowledge. It also should be exceedingly rare.
I’m going to skip over truths momentarily and speak to the arts next. In the Circe mind, arts focus on seven specific strands: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music/Harmonics, and Astronomy. When teaching these things, we aren’t at the head of the room droning on like Charlie Brown’s teacher- arts can only be taught ‘by hand’- by imitation- and so we function in a coaching sort of role. The arts are fundamentally a means of expression.
When we assess the arts, we look at the skills. What step are they at? What is next? How much are they ready to do? How well can they do it? In contrast to say, a math test (testing content), when we assess our children’s progress in the scientific arts like arithmetic we’d be looking at the skills. Does the student have a firm grasp of numeracy? Does he/she understand the relationship between the operations in arithmetic? Etc. These can only be assessed in walking next to the child, knowing where the road bumps are. If they are using fingers and toes, counters, etc (perfectly acceptable for as long as needed) we can know that the student has not moved from a concrete understanding of numeracy to a more abstract one and so will struggle with more abstract concepts presented without concrete examples.
This is where Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emelia approaches are very helpful. Referring back to the assessing understanding in arithmetic- you can invite a student to play a game with you that can be as simple as placing beads or number rods in an order, or arranging them in a pattern. What you are looking for is to see if your student understands place value. The student is, essentially, playing. Perhaps they very quickly grasp the big picture of hundreds, but struggle to understand tens and ones in order. You note this, perhaps documenting on a post it note in your planner or on your phone- and then, during the next days lesson, you work more closely on the particular skill they are struggling with. This is as true for a young elementary student as it is for an older one, well into middle school and beyond. With older children, examining understanding can be as easy as asking a question and then listening to what they have to say. Using math as an example is a very concrete way of speaking, but this holds true for all of the arts; you can probably think of ways this applies in reading and writing as well.
It is this particular view of assessment that I found the most eye-opening. If you’ve constantly heard that your child has a processing delay, you really struggle in understanding how to help support that. When you think of their processing delays in terms of mastery, it makes a lot more sense. Technically, we all have “processing delays”- we all have disordered minds that need order brought to them. Some struggle more, some less.
Understanding this aspect of assessment has fundamentally changed how I am moving forward with instruction. Incidentally, it is important to note that textbooks really get in the way of a mastery-based education because they move forward whether the student is ready or not.
I came home from the workshop and began looking at where my kids were through a completely different lens. Holes become very obvious when you look at it this way- and then you can go fill in where skills may have been missed. It’s ridiculous, for example, to move a child into division if he/she hasn’t fully and completely understood how subtraction works.
The mastery comes in time and often comes in a rush as many small pieces suddenly pull together into a whole- an Aha moment. This is when a truth is being discovered.
Both Andrew and Matt were very clear that content knowledge and mastery of the arts are subservient to Truth. You can’t get to Aha moments if either side is missing. It is the synergy of the two that lead to the third. When assessing perception and understanding, the only way to really know is in contemplation- in discussion (also known as the dialectics). When a student really gets a truth, whether big “T” or little “t”- they change. They incorporate the truth that has been learned, and suddenly vast worlds open and things start clicking. They won’t ever be the student they were before. For that matter, they won’t be the human they were before. Are you? As Andrew said, when a truth “clicks”, you’ll see a lot of joy.
This is where I want to focus our learning- in the joy. In healing. Given all we face medically, this is so important. Our learning times need to be place of rest, refreshment, and renewal, enlarging their minds and their hearts.
This post is second in the Wonder and Inquiry Series.