Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

Formative-Summative Shift Break Down – A Lesson Learned In Changing My Practice


Shifting your practice is an exciting time. It’s also a great time of ‘learning’ – not only for students but for the teacher trying to put it in place. I’ve been working to provide more feedback/more formative assessment in my classes. The idea in the shift for me was to really allow time to learn/reflect/grow before having students show their skills in a summative situation. I have tried all sorts of things to improve the feedback that I give from involving students in the ‘why’ of what we are doing, to pop-check in’s, oral consultations, writing workshops (and beyond). I’ve got rubrics with checklists, I’ve talked over and over about expectations and what it means to meet them. Wow –  aren’t I just all that in making this shift? Wonderful. Until…it became clear that my shift to more formative assessment had failed to include one key piece…the student perspective/voice.

My Yr4’s participated in a summative oral that involved a ‘taste test‘ activity. As part of the evaluation I ask them to write a ‘marketing report’ about what they learn. They are given guidance in what I want to see and allowed to bring in, in English, the results of what they learned in the test. They were also allowed a ‘list’ of key structures – not in ‘how’ to do make them but a list in English of the kinds of things that we have learned how to say/use to aid in their writing. All of the new unit structures had been introduced and used in class. They had all been given feedback on how well they could use them. They had time for corrections and consultation about them. The day of the report they came, they wrote for 45-60 minutes solid. Wow.

Until…I started to read them. Holy cow. Errors all over the place – errors in what I considered basic structures that we had gone over. Errors in things that seemed so ‘easy’ to me. It was not an easy read. Not because I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to say, but because I was realizing that they were not comfortable in what they were trying to communicate. It was paper after paper of barely meeting my expectations.  There comes a time – after the ‘what is wrong with these kids? why are they not doing what we did in class in this paper?’ when you realize it might not be “them”. Maybe, just maybe, it’s “me”.

So what to do? I realized that this failure to live up to expectations was probably a lot on me. So I started the next class (I’ve taught these same kids for 4 semesters), handed out the papers and said “Let’s talk”. I talked about how the writing didn’t match my expectations and, by their faces, didn’t match theirs. Then I humbled myself (oh great ‘formative feedback’ person) and asked them what I hadn’t done for them? Was there something that we could have done in class that would have made them more confident in their language use? These are kids who are in the middle of my formative/summative push – and they told me what they needed. They wanted:

  • some direct ‘grammar’ structures work (gasp a worksheet for example) to make sure they felt good in knowing how to put things together.
  • some time in class to ‘consult’ before a write to ask questions.
  • a review video of key unit points (I have these for other classes) because they felt that this helped them personally to review.
  • a bit more guidance, ‘hand-holding’ they called it, because they were learning to make that shift from teacher driven to student driven

They also wanted to admit that they hadn’t also hadn’t done their job to a certain extent. That in making this shift from ‘everything is for marks’ to formative/summative they dropped the ball in their responsibility to prepare. And I realized then – that this shift I am making – requires time on my part for them. To help them learn to make the shift from passive learner to active controller of their learning.

In the end we called the problem ‘a bit of you/a bit of us’. I will make the shift and include things for them that they feel they need. I will listen and ask more about how they are feeling in this learning journey. So often we worry about ‘our practice’. This was a valuable lesson in learning that changes in my practice also will bring changes in their ‘learning’ and that my ability to shift my practice quickly doesn’t mean they can shift their learning at the same pace…. A humbling time of growth for me…lesson learned.



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