Constructivist Assessment

It is well understood that assessment is an important part of education.  What is less agreed upon is what is the appropriate purpose of assessment.  In traditional education, assessment is usually linked to the social sorting purpose of education. Specific standards are created in specific subjects and students are tested and scored according to how well they demonstrate that they meet those standards.  This is philosophically consistent with the teacher-centered traditionalist approach to teaching. However, assessment must change not only its form but also its affect to match the philosophical needs of constructivist education.

Constructivist education is about the students constructing their own knowledge. Progress towards the learning goals needs to be measured generously and in support of each child’s success. This has two specific implications. First, the measures of success need to be changed. Rather than tracking performance as if education was a contest, performance needs to be tracked in terms of the student’s proximity to success. Rather than the traditional “Proficient,” “Advanced,” “Below Basic,” etc., more student centered assessment results should be used. “Not there yet,” “On Target,” and “Above and Beyond” captures the intent of the assessment more clearly. Second, constructivist education believes that every child should succeed and therefore assessment results should support that belief. Constructivist assessments are there to discover what a child has mastered and in what areas further work is needed. That is how the results should be presented and the affect they should carry. Constructivist assessments must always be in support of the child’s learning.

This all has implications for grading. It hardly makes sense to hold an expectation of each child’s success and then rank him or her on a scale of 0 to 100. A teacher standing apart, ranking her students, destroys the emotional foundation of constructivism. Like the assessments themselves, summative results should reflect broad learning outcomes like “Not Quite There,” “On the Mark,” and “Above and Beyond.” Written or verbal assessment should emphasize both the student’s successes and areas where collective effort needs to be made to achieve learning goals. It is critical that the student is seen as the creator of his or her learning and that the teacher is seen to be in complete support of that achievement. Implementing constructivism in a modern classroom is challenging and assessment policy is among the biggest challenges. On the other hand, a classroom in which assessment is fully constructionist will true the entire classroom culture to constructivism and ease that challenge.


How does metacognition support the development of problem-solving strategies in children?

Van de Walle, Karp, & Bay-Williams (2010) define metacognition as, “Conscious monitoring (being aware of how and why you are doing something) and regulation (choosing to do something or deciding to make changes) of your own thought process” (p. 46). They continue, “Good problem solvers monitor their thinking regularly and automatically” (Van de Walle et al., 2010, p. 46). They say this because, “Students can learn to monitor and regulate their own problem solving behaviors and those who do so show improvement in problem solving” (Van de Walle et al., 2010, p. 46). And this is important to us as teachers because, “There is evidence that metacognitive behavior can be learned” (Van de Walle et al., 2010, p. 46). So, to recap, metacognition is a skill that can be learned (and therefore can be taught) which improves students’ critical problem solving abilities by aiding them in monitoring their own internal mental processes.

I particularly like George Polya’s four-step problem-solving process. Van de Walle et al. (2010) describe it this way:

1. Understanding the problem. Briefly, this means figuring out what the problem is about, identifying what question or problem is being posed.
2. Devising a plan. In this phase you are thinking about how to solve the problem. Will you want to write an equation? Will you want to model the problem with a manipulative? (See the next section, “Problem-Solving Strategies,” for more on this one.)
3. Carrying out the plan. This is the implementation of your plan.
4. Looking back. This phase, arguably the most important as well as most skipped by students, is the moment you determine if your answer from step 3 answers the problem as originally understood in step 1. Does your answer make sense? (p. 42).

I like this structure and plan to teach it to my students.

However, this question echoes with the ongoing conversation in my head about constructivism versus test prep teaching. There is not an ounce of metacognition required for drill and kill. I watch students dutifully trying to copy what they’ve been taught about regrouping. They move the “1” to the ones column and reduce the ten’s column but I wonder how many they truly understand the logic. I don’t know how just knowing the procedure of regrouping will help these children as they grow up. Soon, they’ll have calculators and won’t need to regroup in this way. But I think it’s good to be able to do simple math in one’s head and that comes from being fluent in “making 10’s,” which comes from being very clear on regrouping as borrowing 10 ones from the tens.

Metacognition would allow the students to realize that they don’t know WHY they’re doing something. This would allow them to ask, “Why?” However, if we teach children to be an informed consumer of their own education, all of our lessons need to be able to withstand the scrutiny.

I continue to feel the talons of constructivism grip me. It’s not something one can embrace partially, it would appear…