Whatcha thinking about?
What’s on your mind?
I hate it when these questions are tossed in my direction. Literally, hate it. Why do people ask these questions? Sure, some people ask in an attempt to be polite without any real concern for the answers that could follow, but they may also be an attempt to make sense of what we don’t understand. We can’t see into the heads of others so we ask about what we don’t know. We may see a look that is characterized by upturned lips, staring eyes, or flushed cheeks and we infer these physical signs demonstrate concern, confusion, or loss, so we ask to seek confirmation. We believe we know what the physical expressions are demonstrating, but we ask to seek clarity.
Have you heard of the term “Resting %itch Face? You know what it is. It’s that passive look of disgust and judgement that is present on a person’s face even when they are totally at peace. Have you seen dated images of some of our Founding Fathers? Benjamin Franklin had jowls that made him appear anxious and despondent even in the best of times. For me, I often carry a smile, share a witty joke, even when battling dark, lonely thoughts on the inside. Humans are complex beings. All too often, what we feel, what we think, what we believe on the inside, is not what we present on the outside.
A scowl is not always madness.
Crying may be joy or despair.
Laughter may be happiness or a lack of comfort.
When we see outward expressions, we are assessing the situation and drawing inferences about inward feelings. Sometimes, those outward expressions cause us to make immediate inferences, sometimes they leave doubt and room for more questioning.
The same is true in our classrooms.
Assessment in its purest sense is using external evidence to make inferences about internal understandings. It is an art of measuring inner thoughts by outward behaviors. It is not an exact science, but instead a practice in inferential thinking.
Assessment is a practice in translation. It is an interpretive art form. It is a task that requires an observer to create a tool that will collect external evidence meant to demonstrate internal thoughts, processes, and understandings.
As educators, our jobs are to create neural pathways inside the minds of our students. We are asked to spark new understandings, to ignite innovative thoughts, and to encourage creativity. As educators, we are asked to spend our day creating engaging instruction that will literally change the biological makeup of our students’ brains. We are brain surgeons in the purest sense. Yet, because we lack the tools or technology to visually inspect the changes in brain chemistry that are occurring internally as a result of our instruction and pedagogy, we resort to creating external devices to allow our students to perform new skills and demonstrate new competencies that provide us with evidence of what is happening on the inside.
“Whatcha thinking?” is literally the question we are asking students all day long. We want to know what they know. We want to know what they are processing. We want to know what is happening on the inside. But, just like my own desire to put on a fake smile, a fake laugh, and even some fake swagger, we have to be careful to assume that what we always see on the outside is an exact reaction to what is happening on the inside.
Those who know me, those who really know me, know that when I smile while sitting alone, it is often not a sign of contentment, but a cover for feeling lonely. Those who know me, know that sometimes when I talk too much, it is not a sign of arrogance, but actually a cover for insecurity. In order for any of our external assessments of others, including our students, to more accurately demonstrate internal thoughts, we must get to really know them. We must know what their behaviors, what their answers, what their reactions really mean. We can’t always take what is given to us at face value.
When I am asked “Whatcha thinking about?”, I almost always say, “Nothing, I’m fine.” but the reality is I am often not. When we ask students in our class, “Does anyone have any questions?” we cannot assume that a lack of response is proof of total comprehension. The best assessments do not allow educators, parents, or any of us to simply analyze external responses as RIGHT or WRONG. They help us determine what is really going on, on the inside .
Take a look at the images below, that you may have seen on Facebook or Instagram in the past:
If two students were asked the question “What is the capital of Michigan?” and one student answered “M” while the other student answered “Detroit”, who knows more?
Some would argue that both of these students are wrong. The capital city of Michigan is Lansing, and that is correct, but who knows more? When we use assessment to determine what students do know as opposed to what they don’t know, we can do so much more.
The first student may have inferred this was a question about grammar. He identified the capital letter in the word Michigan, and in this case, identified it correctly. The second student may have recently been studying Michigan history and knew that Detroit was the capital of Michigan until 1847. Although both of these students got the question “wrong” by our standards, they also both may have gotten something right. The only way to know more is to ask more.
In the example above, what do we know about these students? Neither student accurately defined “hypothesis” but what does the first student know? Perhaps he knows the Greek prefix hypo but doesn’t know the root thesis. Perhaps the second student knows the definition of the word “hypothesis” when presented with it orally, but in written form, struggles with phonics and incorrectly assumes the word is hippopotamus. The only way to know more is to ask more.
The moral of the story is assessements should not be designed to culminate learning. Assessment does not end the instruction. Assessment is the gateway to more. Assessment helps us plan our next steps. Assessment is not the end of the journey.
Want to know more? Stay tuned. Later this spring, my next book Making Assessment Work: A Guide for Educators Who Hate Data but Love Students will be available everywhere.
On the 15th of each month, I will send out my 2 Cents to The Lasting Learners e-mail group. Sign up today and get my latest thoughts on leadership and assessment…and honest, it’s only ONE e-mail a month: http://eepurl.com/cQwHA1