Thursday, May 30, 2013

Where should we look?

It is morel mushroom season in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Finding these elusive, tasty morsels can be as challenging as it is rewarding. Mushroomers are secretive about where they hunt, but even if you know where to look, they can be hard to find among the leaf litter.

On a recent walk through the woods, I began to contrast the difficulty in finding morels to assessment (finding learning). I did not want to lose my thoughts, so I tried to place them in a mnemonic: ASSESS. Such an approach can be useful for memory but it has limitations (e.g. a set number of words that sometimes requires synonyms that don’t quite match the meaning of the original words).  Still, this blog is intended to share my thinking and I hope that you will challenge it and extend it in the comments.

Learning happens in authentic settings (notice I did not say it had to be real-life), therefore, that is where we need to look for it. You will not find mushrooms where they do not grow. A test can be a learning experience but these can be difficult to write; that is why a prefer projects and portfolios as ways to demonstrate learning.

We need to know what we are and are not looking for when it comes to learning. When it comes to mushrooms, not knowing what you are looking for can be deadly. Metaphorically speaking, the same can be said about learning. Focusing on memorized facts can “kill” a person’s interest in learning.
It is difficult to observe learning under unreasonable time constraints. Trying to identify learning using 10 questions on a 60-minute test is akin to trying to spot mushrooms on a fast-moving motorcycle. Someone might be able to do it, but I cannot. It takes time and patience to assess learning.

With experience, it becomes easier to know where to look, when to look, and what to look for; this is true whether you are talking about mushrooms or learning. Lacking experience we tend to rely on tales or traditions.  We get stuck using the same types of tests that we encountered as students without considering other places we might find learning.

Until we gain the experience we need to accurately assess learning, we ought to seek out others with more experience for support. It takes a trained eye to find mushrooms and a skilled teacher to help others find them for themselves. A teacher who has used effective assessments for identifying learning cannot simply pass these along to other teachers. The mentor teacher must share the process as well as the product. Without the appropriate support, the apprentice teacher can fall into the old rut of using the product to assess what is easy instead of what is meaningful.

One never knows when learning might be demonstrated, so teachers must always be on the lookout. If we only look where we have always looked, we may be missing the morels in our own backyard. Teachers who use observational assessments often are able to identify learning that might not show up on a test. Furthermore, if teachers inform students of what learning is expected, the students can help to demonstrate that learning occurred even if it happened in ways the teachers did not anticipate.

This is what I thought about as I hunted mushrooms and considered the parallels to assessing learning. I certainly refined some of my thinking as I wrote this post, but the key point remains: we need to rethink our assessment practices if we are to find true learning. Hopefully, ASSESS will remind me of what this shift might entail for me.

In what ways do you think assessment might need to change and how will you remember to make these changes when the new school year begins?


  1. I picked morels just once. Somewhere near Gladwin, Michigan. It was marvelous. I couldn't see any for the longest. And then, there was one. Try, try to see. Ahh, another! And then they were popping up left and right. Yes, I had the support of a wonderful expert morel picker.

    I will put that on my hope-to-do-at-least-once-more list, but getting back to Michigan at the right season is hard.

    Lovely analogies. I think they work well.

    1. For me, morel hunting is an example of "if it was easy, I'm not sure it would be any fun." The same applies to assessing learning; I can get frustrated by how difficult it can be at times but I relish the challenge. If you're ever in West Michigan during late April or early May let me know and we'll go to some of our favorite spots.

  2. Lovely blog, thanks for taking the time to share this