Worcester’s premier college-preparatory co-ed day school serving students from Central MA and MetroWest, Pre-K–Grade 12

MS Head's Blog

Mr. O in his 2nd floor office on a dress-down day

In the Middle of It All

Middle School Musings by Trevor O’Driscoll, Bancroft's Head of Middle School

Most weeks, MS Head Trevor O’Driscoll writes a short note to parents and faculty about middle school, education, parenting, and other topics relevant to our community. We share these Middle School Musings here for the benefit and enjoyment of all who are interested. Read recent entries, browse the archives, and delight in Mr. O’Driscoll’s take on our Middle School and the amazing people who inhabit it.


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Authentic Learning Through Make-Believe

Last week my new Communications Intern, sixth grader Nora G., finished this video titled “A Day in the Life of a 6th Grader.” What’s a sixth grade "Communications Intern” you ask? The short answer is I made up the position because I realized I’d be a fool not to capitalize on the multimedia talents of Nora to help share stories from Middle School. And I’m not alone in my pursuit of creating opportunities for students through make-believe.

It may surprise you to learn that the best teachers, in an effort to meaningfully prepare their students for the real world, often play versions of make-believe. This may seem like a counterintuitive way to prepare kids, particularly those who have moved on from Lower School, for what they will encounter beyond Bancroft. But employing the art of make-believe, particularly in the form of authentic assessment, a term coined in the late ’80s by folks at the Coalition for Essential Schools, is a powerful way to engage kids in meaningful and sticky learning.

Authentic vs. Traditional Assessment

You may have previously heard the term authentic assessment in connection with teaching and learning and wondered what it really meant. Authors and educational leaders Grant Wiggins and Jay McTyghe, in their impactful book Understanding by Design, describe authentic assessment as being based upon “engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively.” The authors assert that such assessments should mirror the kinds of problems faced by adults in their work and lives. The road test that’s part of a driver’s exam is an authentic assessment.

Traditional assessments, a term used to describe the kinds of content-driven tests and quizzes that likely are very familiar to anyone reading this, evaluate a student’s knowledge base and potential gaps in understanding that need to be remedied in the march to mastery. Mastery, in turn, is most engagingly evidenced by an authentic application of the knowledge or skill learned. With traditional assessments, like a multiple choice test, knowledge and skills can be demonstrated by a student within a context that oftentimes is detached from the real-world application of the knowledge or skill being measured. The written portion of a driving exam is a traditional assessment.

While there is no doubt that well-designed authentic assessment opportunities must be a prominent and increasingly dominant driver of what happens in our classrooms, there is very much a place for traditional assessments in our modern curricula. Talented teachers use a mix of both, relying on authentic assessment not only to engage students, but also to drive curriculum. Designed well, an authentic assessment should be the thing that propels what students learn. When Bancroft middle schoolers were designing our still under-construction outdoor classroom, which is carved into a hill, they needed to understand the principles behind and formulas that can determine the slope of the hill’s incline. A quiz about slope can tell a teacher which students know the formula for slope, and this knowledge is a key ingredient in the work. Ultimately it’s the actual building of a usable classroom — and how it is judged by the public via its functionality, aesthetic qualities, rate of use, and more — that are the true, real-world stakes that drive the learning. In this example the understanding of slope serves a larger, real-world purpose.

Next time you see a student preparing for a criminal trial in English, solving the budgetary woes of a fictional city in math, or collecting and analyzing DNA as a scientific researcher, imagine all the learning that led up to the authentic assessment. And consider how the art of make-believe often can create the most valuable learning experiences for our kids.

Posted by in Assessments on Thursday January 11, 2018 at 07:46PM
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