Blog series – Back to school assessment plan

Part 4: Consider the whole child: part four of an assessment plan for back-to-school 2020

This is the fourth in a series of blogs outlining an assessment plan for back-to-school 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to close their buildings and administer teaching remotely instead.

One of our Renaissance colleagues has an eight-year-old granddaughter named Lillian. After fourteen weeks of learning from home, Lillian engaged in her final live class of the 2019–2020 school year as they wind down for the summer holidays.

As Lillian’s teachers moved to the final item on the class meeting agenda — asking what the children had liked most about Year 3 — the meeting became more than academic. Students mentioned their teachers and friends. They talked about class events and reading time. Overwhelmingly, they talked about the STEM unit that required multiple tasks involving toilet paper. They seemed genuinely proud of their learning. After the giggles and goodbyes, the Zoom window closed.

“I don’t know why, but I’m sad,” Lillian reflected. “Is school over? Am I in Year 4 now?”

Why school is more than academics

Academic attainment is clearly at the heart of education, but school involves much more than academics. There are physical, social, and academic routines inherent in school that students, families, and the community embrace. Working within these routines, students develop independence, learn to manage a schedule, discover favourite writers, engage in debates, conduct experiments, solve problems, and help one another.

These routines are bookended by two significant rites of passage — the first day of school, which marks the start of schooling, and sitting their final exams which marks the conclusion. Perhaps closing the 2019–2020 school year without typical routines and traditional rites of passage seems, to some students, families, and communities, incomplete.

Yet, Reception children did experience their first day of school in 2019, Year 11s will receive their GCSE grades, and Year 6s will have transition day activities — some in very creative ways. For example, in this blog, one school plans to share a visual map on Google Maps, provide pictures of the classrooms as well as a virtual tour of the school. Another school has asked Year 7 peer mentors to record videos about what is good about starting at secondary school as well as welcoming them to their school house.

Reason and the whole child

School leaders are preparing for multiple scenarios for back-to-school (BTS) 2020, as well as for the potential for significant gaps in student learning. There will certainly be a strong focus on screening students to determine where they are academically, and to identify the best ways to accelerate their learning. Additionally, we’ll need to take a reasoned approach to assessment and learning expectations as we consider where students are affectively as well as academically.

What do we mean by ‘affect’? 

affective, adj: relating to moods, feelings, and attitudes.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) describes social and emotional learning  (SEL) interventions as ‘aim[ing] to improve pupils’ interaction with others and self-management of emotions, as opposed to focusing directly on academic or cognitive skills and knowledge. However, SEL focuses on both academic and social and emotional growth as it ‘seek[s] to improve participation and engagement.’ (The full text can be found here.)

The relationship between the academic and the affective is, of course, not at all new. Euclid famously lectured Ptolemy about the emotional strength necessary to withstand the rigors of geometry, and Plato charged the community with taking an active role in education to bring up students of good character. A couple of millennia later, James Comer and his colleagues developed the  Comer Process, focused on improving educational experiences of poor, minority youth via a positive school climate. The Comer Process established the foundation for present-day approaches to academic, emotional, and social growth.

Research on SEL has shown that specific attention to social and emotional competencies has a positive impact on students’ academic growth — especially when SEL is embedded in the curriculum and linked to content (Sparks, 2015; O’Conner et al., 2017). A helpful review of this research — along with questions to consider as you implement — is available on the  Educational Endowment Foundation website. This has since been expanded with a blog from the Co-author of the Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools guidance report:

“It need not be a huge extra task for teachers already feeling overwhelmed. What the EEF guidance recommends are simple ways of building SEL practices into everyday teaching.”

Familiar instructional practices and routines — such as maths challenges, science experiments, humanities discussions, a focus on creativity across the arts, opportunities for building up the physical body, and dedicated time for independent reading — all embed SEL competencies across the curriculum.

So, how does a consideration of SEL affect your autumn assessment plans? Even with the urgency related to identifying and addressing learning gaps at BTS 2020, it would be wise to ‘ease into’ baseline screening. Consider scheduling screening two or three weeks after the academic year begins, so students have time to absorb and become accustomed to new routines. Also, consider the potential impact of staggered school attendance and how this form of social distancing may impact screening windows. Working with smaller groups of students allows for more time to address the social and emotional needs of each child — but will also require more hands on deck!

Resources to support the whole child in learning

Whether students return to school buildings this September or continue to learn remotely, attention to students’ academic and emotional responses to assessment and learning should remain a central focus. As Stiggins (2017) points out, “A student’s emotional response to assessment results will determine what that student decides to do about those results: keep working or give up.”

After all of the COVID-19 demons that we’ve collectively conquered over the past few months, we simply cannot allow students to give up. To help ensure they remain optimistic about learning, consider the following strategies, all based on SEL principles:

1. Use developmentally appropriate challenges to build community.

One example of this is the 1, 2, 3, 4 maths problem. The setup is simple: the teacher challenges students to write mathematical expressions for each number from 0–50, using only the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. All operations are permitted, but each number must be used — and can only be used once.

Students can work independently, with partners, or in teams to write the expressions. Once verified as accurate by other students or by the teacher, students submit their answers to the teacher, who posts them publicly. The focus is on creativity in expressions, resiliency in finding multiple solutions, collaboration and sharing among peers, and celebrating achievement.

2. Ensure adequate time for independent reading.

Reading is a fantastic avenue to build social and emotional proficiency. Reading fiction improves students’ ability to walk in other people’s shoes and flex their imaginations. Experiences we read about, whether in fiction or non-fiction, activate areas of the brain as if we were physically engaged in them (Clark, 2013). Independent reading builds vocabulary, knowledge, reading confidence, reading stamina, and social and emotion competencies related to empathy.

Renaissance’s What Kids Are Reading report is a helpful resource to support daily independent reading. In addition to listing the most popular books at each year level (based on Accelerated Reader data), the report also highlights popular digital reads on myON and provides book lists for stronger and weaker readers, as well as regional variants across the UK and the globe.

3. Establish routines that promote inclusion and engagement.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, And Emotional Learning) established a CASEL CARES website, with resources to support both distance learning and planning for BTS 2020. Although American, they are considered the international authority on SEL. Their Three Signature Strategies document is particularly helpful, the strategies of which are divided into three broad groups:

  • Welcoming/inclusion activities
  • Engaging strategies, brain breaks, and transitions
  • Optimistic closures

EEF also published a toolkit of different SEL effectiveness and considerations you can take into account.

Connecting thinking and feeling

Let’s return to Lillian and her question about whether she’s really in Year 4 now.

Lillian has continued to think and talk about her Year 3 experience, and she’s shared her frustration that she couldn’t “change why the school shut down.” Of course, none of us could change why school buildings had to close for the majority of students, yet we did work diligently in the hope that teaching and learning would continue. And in Lillian’s case, it did.

Although she was engaged, she still felt that something was missing from her virtual school experience. If Lillian felt this gap, imagine how students feel who experienced limited or no access to online learning, little engagement with peers, and no support from a caring adult. It didn’t take a pandemic to demonstrate that school involves more than academics; schools also provide support that many students count on to fill gaps in their daily lives. Every educator understands that learning is both a cognitive and emotional enterprise.

So, what conclusions can we draw?

BTS 2020 will need to focus — even more strongly than in previous years — on the whole child, the whole educator, the whole parent, and the whole community. Attending to the whole person in teaching and learning comes down to two essential questions:

  • Are you OK?
  • What did you learn today?

If students are OK, they are learning. If students are learning, they will be OK. As Antonio Damasio famously remarked, “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.” As we look ahead to autumn, let’s keep these two simple questions in mind, so we stay focused on what matters the most.

In our next blog, we’ll explore the related topic of identifying your instructional focus for autumn. Specifically, we’ll discuss how to identify the most essential skills in each domain, so you can get the greatest return from every minute spent on instruction.

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