Submitted by Denine Laberge
Years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Damian Cooper speak in Winnipeg. He said, “If you want to see real learning in action, give a kid a video game he’s never played before.” He went on to describe the process of a child who discovers, engages and invests in a game that stimulates his curiosity, pushes him out of his comfort zone and finally challenges him to excel. When he reaches the point of frustration, he does not read the instruction manual, ask his parents for help or give up. That’s when he gets on the phone and calls his friend over and cooperative learning takes over.
I wanted more than anything to bring that video game into my classroom. How could I get my students to get that excited and passionate about math and problem solving? Math is math, and it just doesn’t work like that.
Then, I had an unexpected experience at the beginning of the 5th annual CAfLN conference in Nova Scotia when 35 musicians and their director entered the room. We’ve all been to conferences that begin with some student entertainment and although it was entertaining, their mission was far more strategic. I soon realized that they were literally the instruments of Lorna Earl’s brilliant keynote address. They were there to teach us about formative assessment.
What could I possibly learn about formative assessment in math through a group of young musicians? Their process was nothing like what was needed in a math class.
As their director, Nathan Beeler, introduced a new piece of music to his students, we watched him masterfully illustrate the five strategies of formative assessment to improve student learning as outlined by Dylan Wiliam. The relationship Beeler shared with his students was evident in the back and forth banter that demonstrated evidence of a safe environment of trust. Mistakes were valued as springboards for conversation and learning, in which all had a voice. He made the learning of a new piece of music relevant and relatable to his group of young musicians. He reviewed and verified prior knowledge, helping them to confirm they already had a skill set for much of what was expected of them, introducing new parts or challenges, highlighting their learning goals.
Constant, immediate feedback kept them engaged in the process of learning. Seeing it in action clearly demonstrated the transferability of these principles in all subjects.
Students were then distributed to tables where teachers analyzed and identified the assessment strategies they had witnessed, with the critically important element of student voice to affirm the learning they were experiencing on a daily basis.
My math students need to know where they are going. They need to feel safe when making mistakes and trying again and again to get it right. They need to know that they already possess much of the knowledge and skill that is required to move their learning forward. They need to see the relevance of what they are learning. These truths are certainly not unique to music.
What can a group of musicians teach me about formative assessment in math? A lot more than I expected!