Tom Schimmer joins Justin Baeder to discuss formative assessment and instructional agility.
Interview Notes, Resources, & Links
- Real-time Formative Assessment: Identify and Respond to Students’ Learning Needs While You Teach—Tom’s webinar with Education Research Newsletter (you can order one copy for your entire staff)
- Visit Tom’s website TomSchimmer.com
- Follow Tom on Twitter @TomSchimmer
About Tom Schimmer
Tom Schimmer is an international speaker, author, and assessment expert. He lives in Vancouver, BC.
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Announcer: Welcome to Principal Center Radio, bringing you the best in professional practice. Here’s your host, director of the Principal Center, and champion of high performance constructional leadership, Justin Baeder.
Justin Baeder: Welcome to Principal Center Radio. I’m your host, Justin Baeder, and I’m joined today by Tom Schimmer.
Tom is an independent education consultant from Vancouver, British Columbia, beautiful Vancouver, and he is an internationally recognized leader and expert in formative assessment, and educational leadership and several other things that are of great interest to us at the Principal Center.
Announcer: And now our feature presentation.
Justin: So Tom, welcome to Principal Center Radio.
Tom Schimmer: Thank you, Justin. I appreciate being here, Thanks for having me.
Justin: So tell us Tom, how did you get into formative assessment as a particular area of concentration?
Tom: This area of formative assessment, for me, really was born out of necessity in a classroom that I was teaching at the time.
This is going back probably about 12 years when I was an assistant principal in a middle school, and I was teaching 50 percent of the day, and meeting with some frustration with what I was not being able to do with my students, and some of the frustrations of my students becoming disengaged from the learning.
So at the time, I started to reflect on my practice, and started to think about what I was doing and things that I wasn’t doing, and the ways that I could improve the learning experience for the kids in my class. So out of that frustration as a teacher, I began searching for what was current, what was new, what people were doing.
I started to search out online articles, I started to attend conferences and out of that, in some respects, a desperate search for how I could become a much more effective teacher, I found the work that obviously was already under way in the area of formative assessment.
So it was search of desperation, trying to figure out how I could reshape my classroom so that I wouldn’t eventually lose some of these kids that were on the fence as to whether, or not they were going to be successful in my math class. At the time, I was teaching eighth grade math.
So it’s one of those things where my interest in assessment was really born out of an experience in the classroom. It really wasn’t this grand scheme to become a presenter, or consultant in the area of assessment, it was really just about working with the kids in my classroom.
Justin: Absolutely. We think of formative assessment on a couple of fronts. One, to help inform adjustments to the lesson for everyone, but also to identify individual students who may need more attention throughout the course of that lesson. You mentioned that you were particularly concerned about your struggling students?
Tom: Right. What I was noticing was kids becoming disengaged from the learning. Certainly, early in my career, I had more of a tendency to look at those students’ and say, “Too bad for you.” I presented you the opportunity to learn; it’s your responsibility to learn.
For some reason, later in my career, I started to be more reflective about that and think about what I could do. Certainly, assessment, for me, I think assessment is the most efficient professional investment a teacher, or an administrator can make because assessment sits at the center of almost everything we do at the school level.
So if we’re talking about trying to determine the next steps in the learning for our entire classroom, we do that through our formative assessment work. If we’re looking at benchmarks, and thinking about common assessments, and using that through a PLC process, assessment sits at the core of that.
If you’re thinking along the lines of trying to determine a level of intervention, or the level of intensity of an intervention, say in an RTI model, that’s going to come from assessment information. So, assessment really does sit at the center of all that we do in schools.
So that investment allows us to do multiple things with what we might refer to as our assessment literacy. Understanding assessment allows us to not only make big picture decisions about benchmarks in common assessments, and places we want students to be at a certain point in time, but we can get very granular with our look at individual students, and what comes next in their particular learning.
Justin: I appreciate the point about centrality, because I think if we go with just what any given the curriculum publisher tells us, we might think that a formative assessment is just the thing that you give. But you have a different view of formative assessment, as referred to already.
So tell us, Tom, how did you get into the idea of instructional agility that you focus on in your work, and how formative assessment ties into that?
Tom: Absolutely. Just as a quick sort of background on where this led to. One of the things that we noticed, at least what I noticed and I think what a lot of assessment consultants and speakers, etc., and experts have noticed, is that as the formative assessment work emerged in the late ’90s, and early 2000s, and this wasn’t that it was brand new, but the new incarnation of the assessment work. we started to see a tangent, which became somewhat concerning.
The tangent centered around the idea that formative assessment meant summative assessments that don’t count. So you have what I refer to as a noun approach, or a noun mindset where assessment meant I hand the students something tangible to fill in or create, and then they hand it back to me. That certainly is what exists in the summative paradigm.
But from a formative perspective, there is a place certainly, as I mentioned with common assessments. But formative assessment is a lot more organic than that. So what I refer to as instructional agility is this idea that formative assessment is more a verb than a noun, that we can actually use assessment as instruction and that the lines between, say, assessment instruction and feedback are blurry.
They exist, but in an instructional paradigm, you can make very seamless transitions between the moments of assessment, the moments of instruction, and the moments of feedback. And being instructionally agile, means that I can make instructional adjustments at a moment’s notice.
If you think about it, if we take a noun approach to assessment, there’s a time delay. I have to hand my students a staple package of paper. They have to fill it in under a certain amount of time, and then I have to collect it, and I have to go through each of them individually, and then collate that information.
The point about instructional agility is not to replace the noun experience with assessment, because there’s a place for that common assessments, and even at the formative assessment level.
But it’s the make room for the idea that I can glean information about student learning, and at a moment’s notice, know whether or not what I have planned for the next 10 minutes is the actual course of action I should be taking. So, being instructionally agile means being able to make instructional maneuvers at a moment’s notice.
Justin: I love it. That’s really one of the reasons that we started the formative assessment challenge at the Principal Centers, because we know that we’re supposed to do that. We know that we’re supposed to use formative assessment to adjust instruction.
I had this experience as a teacher, of learning about exit tickets. You should give an exit slip, figure out what your students took away from the lesson, and then look at them before the next class and make your next class better. If you’re teaching the same thing multiple times, you can improve for the next ,or you can improve for the next day.
But often what would happen is, I would end the day with 140 exit tickets that I hadn’t had time to look at, because there’s only three minutes between classes and the next kids are coming in, and that it’s the end of the day, and I’ve got these other things to grade, and I’ve got these slips that I just really haven’t made any good use of.
That can’t be the vision here. That can’t be what we were supposed to be trying to accomplish.
What are some ways that you’ve seen teachers be successful with maybe one, or two specific strategies that you feel work extremely well for facilitating that agility, and that kind of rapid pivoting in the classroom?
Tom: And again, just to set this up. One of the things that I often hear from people is that we should, A, move way from multiple choice, and B, you can use multiple choice formidably and both of those ideas are not true.
The type of assessment you use, whether it’s selected response, whether it’s constructed response, or whether it’s performance assessment, all three of those assessment methods are valid assessment methods, but they also have limits. So you have to know when the right time is to use those methods.
You take something like you mentioned, an exit slip. That’s a constructed response assessment format, which will require a time delay. And as you say, Justin, if you’re collecting the information but not responding to it, or not doing anything, then it’s useless activity.
Now, from a more organic perspective, being instructionally agile with what you can do is something that Dylan William often makes mention of, what he calls “Hinge point questions,” where you create a multiple choice question that, for example, would have an A, B, C and a D response.
Now, the students can use the A, B, C, D cards, they can use electronic responders, they can use whiteboards, however you have them communicate the information. And what you would do is, right in the middle of a lesson, you would have a question that would allow the students to first identify the right answer, but also in your choices…
Let’s imagine, I do a question where the correct answer is B. But if most of my students are choosing A, C or D, not only do I know that they have the incorrect answer, but each of those distracters, if you will, represents a misunderstanding about the content.
So for example, if I had a question that was asking students about equivalent fractions, I might in answer A, I should say, I might have an example of two reciprocal fractions. And so when my students choose A instead of B, I know that they are mixing up the concept of reciprocal fractions from equivalent fractions.
Therefore that’s something I should probably address in the next 5 to 10 minutes before moving on, otherwise, that’s going to continue to be a problem. So you can use A, B, C, D cards.
A lot of teachers use thumbs up, thumbs down as a way of just gauging whether, or not students understand things conceptually, and by putting the thumb in the wrong position or in the incorrect position, you would learn what the misunderstanding of it was. So there’s ways to construct questions that would allow you to do that, and allow you to get the information you’re looking at.
The key to it is to make sure that you can access that information in a short period of time, interpret that information in a short period of time, and then respond to it quite quickly, which is why in some cases, using a selected response or multiple choice question, would actually be very efficient for you as you move through a lesson.
But it isn’t always the case, because multiple choice has its limits as well. It’s not an advocacy for everything being multiple choice, but know that there are ways in which we construct questions that allow us to gain access to that information.
Justin: I love that. And I said something pretty similar early on in the formative assessment challenge, that I think that the format has to match the purpose, and too often, we’re collecting information in formative assessment that’s richer than we need to. We have this natural bias toward collecting the most open ended, and rich information about students thinking that we can.
I would always prefer to have my students write a paragraph to explain their understanding, this is a sixth grade science class. But if I get a paragraph from each of the 140 kids, I may not get any information from most kids about the specific thing that I’m trying to gather information on, and I might not know what specific misconceptions I need to address.
The longer writing passage gets multiple issues with the writing, and rather than spend so much time going through all those responses, I can take a fraction of that time, and invest it in crafting a good multiple choice question, and that question is not going to harm students.
I think one thing that we had as a reaction to standardized testing, is that we see multiple choice questions as foolish and evil. So I appreciate your recognition of the usefulness of multiple choice.
Tom: One of the things that I learned early on in my journey from Rick Stiggins, and others is that there is no assessment method that is superior to another. There’s nothing inherent in a rubric that makes it superior to a multiple choice question, or a constructed response question. It only becomes superior or inferior when it is the right or the wrong fit for what you’re assessing.
So if I’m assessing foundational knowledge and skills, if I’m assessing fundamental vocabulary, I’m probably going to lean toward a selected response multiple choice question. But if I’m assessing depth of knowledge, and I need explanation, then multiple choice wouldn’t fit the bill, and therefore would become inferior.
So every method doesn’t rank itself in and of itself, but in the vacuum, it is a superior or inferior choice when you match it to what you’re assessing. So those are timeless fundamentals around assessment that I do think get lost in some of the discourse around standardized testing, because of the format standardized testing takes on.
You look at Rick Stiggins, you look at Jan Chappuis, you look at so many of the assessment experts that are out there, and they will tell you that assessment methods are only superior when they are the superior fit for what you’re looking for.
Justin: Tom, if people are interested in going into more depth on this topic of formative assessment, and instructional agility, where can people learn more about the techniques that you teach? You have a webinar coming up, I understand?
Tom: Yeah. We have a webinar coming up called instructional agility where we will take a deeper look at not just the strategies. We will talk about hinge questions, and I’ll talk about other strategies that you can use to create that agility, and some of the things that you can do to make sure that every activity can be turned into an assessment experience.
People will ask me often in workshops, “Tom, can you give me a list of formative assessment strategies?” If I’m feeling a little punchy that day, I might say, you’re already doing them, and they’ll say what do you mean by that?
Then I’ll show them the process where how you can take any activity that you already do with your students, and turn it into an assessment experience, as long as it follows the fundamentals that we’re going to talk about in that webinar. So what you have to realize is that with just some changes. and tweaks to what we already do…for example, the hinge point question is an example.
We know that teachers ask their students questions on a daily basis, but the question about the question asking is, are you asking a question hoping that someone will give you some semblance of a correct answer, or are you assessing your students making sure that all students are involved?
So there’s ways that we can do that, and that’s what we’re going to explore in the webinar. We’re going to talk about the agility piece from a feedback perspective, about how feedback doesn’t need to be so epic every time.
It just needs to cause a re engagement with the work, and have students do more of the thinking. So the webinar on instructional agility is going to be where we will explore all of that.
Justin: Fantastic, and that’s at Education Research Newsletter, one of their webinars, right?
Tom: That’s absolutely right.
Justin: I’ve known Larry for a long time, and actually I think it was my very first webinar that I ever did was with Education Research Newsletter.
So a big fan of the content that Larry pulls together, and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes on the podcast page of Principals. One thing that I want to point out about “ERN’s webinars,” is that they are available for your whole staff.
So you buy it once and you can use it for your whole staff, you can join in a staff meeting, you can pass it around at your staff site. And it’s a very, very, efficient way to access an expert, and really bring a lot of expertise into your school in a very short amount of time and at a very affordable cost.
So it’s not a commercial, it’s just a recommendation for Tom’s webinar, and many others that you’ll find at Education Research Newsletter.
Tom, in addition to providing access to great professional development on the topic, what’s one thing that you would like to see more instructional leaders do to promote the kind of formative assessment practice we’ve been talking about today?
Tom: I think there’s a couple of things. First, the new era of leadership, I suppose, in instructional leadership is that we can’t stand on the sidelines. I think that one thing that all leaders need to invest in, as I said earlier in our conversation, that I think this is the most efficient professional investment anyone can make. And that is ditto for principals, and assistant principals.
We have to know what we’re talking about. Now, we don’t need to be the experts in the building, but we have to be able to engage in conversation, so that as we go in the classrooms, as we do our walk throughs, as we do our evaluations and performance assessments et cetera. We know what we’re looking for, and we can see that.
For example, when I walk into a classroom, I know that the teacher has established learning goals for the day. I see that the teacher has established clear success criteria that the students are working toward.
I can recognize the moments where self assessment is on point. I can recognize the use of rubrics, and I can recognize the use of hinge point questions or exit slips and I can see that agility taking place. So I really would encourage leaders to invest themselves in developing their own assessment literacy, and understanding the nuts and bolts of assessment.
Again, we’re not going to be the experts, because every subject is going to have a nuance to it, and every teacher is going to be an expert in their subject area. But we have to be able to sit at the table and have meaningful conversations, and be able to lead the move toward more sound assessment practices.
The other thing I would encourage leaders to do is if you’re in a position where you have not had any role in class, so some principals will think to themselves, “Please, I haven’t actually taught for 10 years or 12 years. I haven’t had any role in class. I’ve never implemented this before, how would I do that?”
I would really encourage leaders to pair up with a teacher in your school, and do some co planning with them, even maybe some co teaching from time to time. And I know the days get away from us and the days get busy, but every once in a while to just experience what it means to set clear criteria, to look at assessment results, to plan lessons et cetera, just get yourself back into that.
That’s one of the reasons you’re in your position is, because you were, at one point, recognized as a very effective educator in the classroom. That leadership piece will allow you to get back and have that credibility around the table because you are rolling up your sleeves and doing some of the work.
Again, it’s not about co teaching a class for the entire year, but it’s giving yourselves some experience, so that you can see what it is like for teachers to move down this road.
Then you can have a better sense of what’s going to be needed professionally for them as we move forward with our PD plans, and we think about the conferences we’re going go to or the events that we’re going to create at our own school.
So for leaders, it’s about raising our own assessment literacy, and then it’s about gaining as much experience as we can in the implementation of the strategies, so that we can be partners with the people we work with, and support them more effectively as they go forward.
Justin: Tom, thank you so much. We’ll include a link to your website, and the webinar. Where can people find you on Twitter?
Tom: You can find me in Twitter @Tom Schimmer. I’m on there, this is my handle, and tomschimmer.com is my blog site and certainly, I’m out and about, but I love to hear from people.
If I can be of any support to any leaders out there, please just hit me up on Twitter and message me and we can create a phone call, Skype, anything like that to talk further about formative assessment, instructional agility or any other assessment topic that you have in mind.
Justin: Thanks so much, Tom.
Tom: I really appreciate it. Thanks, Justin.
Announcer: And now, Justin Baeder on high performance instructional leadership.
Justin: So high performance instructional leaders. I hope you could tell that I had fun talking to Tom Schimmer about instructional agility, and formative assessment ,because formative assessment is one of those topics that I think comes absolutely right that our expertise matter so much.
Not that we be the chief expert in our school, but that we have the expertise, and the fluidity with the language that we need, the literacy around formative assessment to guide our staff in the right direction, and to help staff develop that same literacy.
A couple of resources that I want to mention to you, first the “Formative assessment challenge,” is a free program that we offer at principalcenter.com/formative, and you can go through that process, and learn how you can make formative assessment more of a daily reality in every classroom in your school.
Second we have a course from Illinois ASCD called Successful Assessment 101, and that walks teachers through each different type of assessment, not just formative assessments but standardized assessments, just a creative assessments and so on.
It maps out the relationships between them and takes your staff through the process of figuring out your system of assessments, and helps you identify where there are gaps and redundancies in that system. So that’s at principalcenter.com/ assessment, and just like Tom’s webinar, that is a very affordable resource for your entire staff.
I would also encourage you to check out Education Research Newsletter, and look for their webinar with Tom on instructional agility, and if you want to get in touch with Tom you can look him up at tomschimmer.com.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to Principal Center Radio. For more great episodes, subscribe on our website at principalcenter.com/radio.