Last but not least: The role of communication in assessment empowerment

What does it mean to communicate with learners and their families? When I first started teaching, I thought it just meant providing information; in retrospect, I can see that I was talking at them. I eventually learned the critical difference: communicating with students and caregivers means making sure exchanges are learner- and learning-centered, that is, inclusive, accessible, and meaningful.

This change from communication actions directed at learners and caregivers to communication actions exchanged with learners and caregivers is another component of the shift from being a learner manager to being a learner empowerer. And that makes communication the fifth—and last—principle of  assessment empowerment.

The difference talking with, not at, students makes

As a secondary teacher, I was trained to be a content specialist, an omniscient being who (supposedly!) knew all the learning information, steps, and results that needed to be communicated out to students and their caregivers. I was also magically supposed to know how to communicate all of this effectively.

I did not know until well into my career that learner success, well-being, and self-efficacy are far more likely if there is an exchange of communication with all the members of the learning team. Instead of working by myself to convey information to students and caregivers, I learned to use collaborative exchanges with them, allowing everyone to be much better informed and make more effective, responsive, and empowering learning decisions.

[C]ommunicating with students and caregivers means making sure exchanges are learner- and learning-centered, that is, inclusive, accessible, and meaningful.

Here is an example of what this difference can look like in action: Early in my career, at the beginning of the school year or semester, I would send home the class syllabus and direct students to give the document to a caregiver and ask the adult to read and sign it. Students would then return it to me. Later in my career, after I learned more about becoming a learner empowerer, students and I would digest class information together starting on the first day. That would put us in a great place to co-create classroom learning agreements, such as a social contract or class constitution. Students would then take this co-created information to an adult, review the information with them, and ask the adult to add an idea or question. Back in class, we would use those ideas and questions to refine our agreements. We then used them to guide our collaboration as a learning team.

How to go from monologue to dialogue

Of course you need to share a certain amount of class, course, or program information with students and caregivers. Your textbook and attendance policies may be decided by your district, for example, and some rules related to conduct, especially during COVID-19, may be set by your school. But, as I learned the hard way, merely sending information out doesn’t mean I communicated it in an inclusive, meaningful, or accessible way that could be understood and applied. It doesn’t matter how many signatures I got on a document. This approach usually resulted in the type of frustration most of us have experienced at one point or another. You know the scenario I’m talking about: A student or caregiver asks a question. The teacher growls, “It’s in the syllabus!” Not productive. Not empowering (for anyone, frankly). Not conducive to learning.

When I shifted to engaging with students and caregivers in processing learning information, steps, or results together—first in class and then with a bite-sized collaborative action with a caregiver or other adult outside of class—frustration decreased, and productive engagement, learning success, and self-efficacy increased. There was greater understanding of policies, even those made by school or district leaders, because there was active discussion for the reasons behind the guidelines. It also became much simpler to engage in responsive teaching and learning practices, such as peer feedback and self-assessment, because we had already nurtured the conditions and routines for collaborative exchanges of information. These actions nurture listening, clarity, and collaboration, so they also align with trauma-informed practices.

[L]earner success, well-being, and self-efficacy are far more likely if there is an exchange of communication with all the members of the learning team.

As you get started on this work, consider that how this change takes place in a classroom depends quite a bit on the grade level. At the same time, don’t underestimate how ready for this kind of collaboration kids as young as first and second grade probably are. Here’s a more detailed exploration of what I did in my middle and high school classes to make this more collaborative type of communication happen.

1. Replace “I” with “we”

How I did this: Just thinking about switching from talking at people to talking with them was a critical starting point for me. I started using the word “we” a lot!

Why I did this: After adjusting those tiny yet mighty words—“I” and “we”—it was easier to slowly but surely figure out how to shift my communication practices overall away from learner-manager directives to learner-empowerer exchanges.

2. Process learning information with students beginning on the first day

How I did this: On the very first day of class, my students and I would look at learning goals and processes for the year and begin to talk about what kinds of things we would like to have shared agreements on, like how to take turns speaking, the process for taking brain breaks, and pronoun usage. We would also take the opportunity to understand the reasons behind larger decisions made by school or district leaders as well as identify opportunities for voice and choice along the learning journey.

Why I did this: To immediately support student understanding, establish routines for their ongoing active contributions and self-efficacy, and prepare them to share the information with a support person at home in an inclusive, accessible, and meaningful way.

3. Collaborate with students on shared agreements during the first week

How I did this: Instead of reading the syllabus to the students, I used the jigsaw technique or another collaborative formative assessment strategy to engage pairs or small groups in digesting the syllabus information, especially non-negotiable expectations such as safety and respect. After debriefing the jigsaw, I directed their attention to the class-agreements portion of the information. In their pairs or small groups, students would write down examples of actions that would support everyone’s success, well-being, and self-efficacy. Next, the students would circle the top two ideas. I then prompted them to take the information and their ideas to a trusted adult, review the information, and have the adult add two more action ideas. Lastly, the students brought back the ideas so we could choose the best actions together. The actions were then posted in the learning space so we could use and update them as needed throughout the year.

Why I did this: To support the members of the learning team to be active rather than passive participants in a bite-sized way; to encourage students to translate the information and task into the mode or language that was best for their adult, which helps ensure inclusivity and accessibility; and to establish critical foundations for success in later responsive learning routines, such as feedback and sharing progress.

4. Ask students to share learning information with the right adult support person throughout the year

How I did this: Early in the school year, I gave students the option of engaging in our initial learning information with a caregiver or any other adult in their life who acted as a mentor or was otherwise a support person. They would ask this adult to add feedback or a question. Later in the term, I created opportunities for students to share work in progress with adults at home. For example, after practicing peer feedback or self-assessment in class, I would prompt students to share their draft with their support person, once again seeking feedback or a question. Students would then return to class with feedback or questions we could use to further refine skills or better understand the learning goal and routes for success.

Why I did this: We all do better when we have people in our corner, but not all students have a caregiver who is available to talk about school information with them. For various reasons, such as work schedules, houselessness, or custody situations, some students need to engage and connect with a coach, counselor, pastor, or other adult instead of the caregiver who is legally responsible for them. By providing these options and investing in this exchange, I also learned valuable learner context information, my students and I were able to build trusting relationships, and the whole learning team was informed to make responsive learning decisions throughout the school year.

Note that there are lots of other ways to go about strengthening communication exchanges with learners and caregivers. I particularly love these three articles from Edutopia that focus on how to build a strong collaboration between you, your students, and the adults who support them outside of the classroom: “Getting to know your students in a million words or less,” “How student-led conferences center the learning journey,” and “Teacher-parent communication strategies to start the year off right.”

Moving forward

As you know, there are multiple layers of communication in an educational ecosystem. In this post, I gave examples of the classroom level of the ecosystem, but I encourage you to consider how the same kind of thinking and action can make an impact at other levels. For example, how can educators at the school, district, and even state level of the ecosystem shift from communicating at learners and caregivers to engaging in communication exchanges with learners and caregivers? This ecosystem-wide shift in communication is necessary to reinforce our hard work and the hard work of colleagues, students, and caregivers.

If you haven’t done so already, I recommend choosing one action step that can help shift systems and practices from learning communication directed at learners and caregivers to engaging in learning communication with students and caregivers. To help you decide on an action step, here are some prompts for further thinking and discussion.

  • How do I actively listen to students and their caregivers to make informed, affirming decisions? Name at least two ways.
  • What’s an example of a time I communicated at students instead of with them? What’s one thing I could have done differently to foster more collaborative communication?
  • In what ways are my students engaged as active agents in my assessment communication processes? Name at least two ways.
  • What’s one more way I can engage my students as active agents in my assessment communication processes?
  • What’s one way I can share my communication successes with an educator who serves as a school, district, or state leader?

To learn more about assessment empowerment, read my previous posts on this topic: “It’s time to embrace assessment empowerment,” “Begin your assessment empowerment journey with principle #1: Learner context,” “Continue your assessment empowerment work with principle #2: Learning environments and relationships,” “More on assessment empowerment: The power of knowing your purpose,” and “Assessment empowerment principle #4: Responsive learning cycles.”

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