Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Encouraging the Use of Assessment for Learning Through PLC Time

Whenever I'm asked about working in the Cowichan Valley School District, I will always mention how great it was to have Professional Learning Community (PLC) time. Six times a year we dismissed eighty minutes early across the district in order for teachers and principals to work collaboratively on school goals and the instructional strategies that will help us achieve them. Then VP Jeff Rowan and I had both attended BCELC sessions in Vancouver and were very interested in bringing Assessment for Learning (AFL) to our school. It proved to be timely when our School District staff also decided to focus on AFL for our annual district Implementation Day. After meeting with our School Planning Council, then with department heads, and then the full staff to set some new goals for our Graduation Program, our decision to follow that first Implementation Day with a series of focused PLC sessions seemed to be a great way to move forward as an organization. We also supplemented those sessions with several other learning opportunities over the next three years, and these are the highlights:
  • School District Implementation Day session with a Ruth Sutton Webcast to build a basic understanding of AFL across the district School PLC session identifying the Six Big Practices of AFL. Staff members shared examples of strategies they already use that reflect one of the "Big Six"
  • A September timetable restructure and introduction of AFL in a Sheltered Learning Block as described in my article for the BCPVPA publication Adminfo
  • School PLC session viewing a BCELC Webcast on Assessment featuring Tom Schimmer. (The Internet crashed part way through, but some good discussion still occured. The full webcast was replayed after school a month later, with attendance optional)
  • School PLC session on learning intentions with the challenge to have staff members try using them in the following weeks, then share how it went in the next session
  • A follow-up school PLC session where we reported back from our attempts at using learning intentions, first in department groups, followed by selected reporting out to the full staff 
  • Release time for four volunteers from the humanities department who developed a list of key outcomes for grades 6-12 so teachers can go "narrower and deeper" with the learning in their classrooms, and improve their opportunities to use AFL 
  • Two workshops with our family of schools (the two elementary schools whose students come to us) with local teacher Dani Garner describing practical AFL strategies for the classroom and how to make the shift from traditional assessment to assessment for learning
  • A second Implementation Day session, this time with Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert focusing on AFL, followed by working sessions in curricular teams to develop student friendly outcomes
  • School PLC session on AB partner talk led by our district literacy coordinator, Venessa MacDowell
  • A tour of Jacquie Lee's grade six classroom where she shared how she uses posted exemplars, SMART learning strategies, vocabulary, and student friendly “I can” statements
  • The first triple-length PLC working session to decide on key outcomes, develop student friendly “I can" statements, and time to actually write them on sentence strips for posting in classrooms. (Jacquie made fun of me for cutting up poster paper, and I learned what sentence strips were and that we even had them in stock!) Staff members who stayed until five o'clock enjoyed a team-building dinner paid for by grant money
  • School PLC session on criteria with video examples taken from classrooms in our family of schools, where our students answered the questions: Where are you in your learning? How it is going? and, Where do you need to go next?
  • School PLC session where staff members share their favorite feedback strategies in small groups A second triple-length PLC working session on outcomes and learning intentions, followed by dinner. (Now a wily veteran, this time I headed right for the sentence strips.)
The school leadership team's adoption of AFL in our own classrooms also helped. In small school, the job comes with substantial teaching time and this proved to be a great opportunity to experiment with the strategies ourselves, then share our successes and struggles as true teaching colleagues. My taking on Communications 11/12 was particularly helpful in gaining credibility for AFL practice, as the course was populated with reluctant learners often well known by staff, and at the twelve level, it has a mandatory Ministry exam attached weighted at forty percent of the total mark, adding to the pressure to properly prepare students to qualify for graduation. Jeff successfully used AFL in his social studies, leadership, and guitar classes. When he moved on to the principalship at Quamichan Middle School prior to last year, his replacement at VP was Dani Garner, who stepped comfortably into English 10, using her formidable instructional knowledge and high connectivity with students to support some of the best exam results we've ever had. 

One of my favorite moments occurred at session at the second Implementation Day, where I was describing the AFL marking process I use, how I expected students to continue to revise assignments with my feedback until they are "fully meeting" expectations, and how I assessed each student's learning overall, instead of averaging their percentages to generate a grade. A teacher from another school, not knowing my role in our school, asked incredulously, "And your principal lets you get away with that?" In a rare public moment of comedic timing, I responded, "Oh, he is very supportive."

Staff feedback on our PLC sessions has been positive, and though there have been a few other topics mixed in along with some conversations about our school plan of course, the reoccurring focus has allowed staff to feel like they are genuinely moving forward in their understanding and comfort with this complex topic. Many of our teachers have fully embraced the AFL strategies and would never go back to a traditional assessment model. Others use some of the strategies, perhaps with more intention now, but still use percentages for individual assignments. In all cases, staff instructional vocabulary certainly improved during this time, as did the quality of the conversations around learning in our school.

The really good news is that this movement has contributed to a higher level of student engagement in the building and decidedly better results. Grad rates, transition rates, and student exam success all improved over this three year span (especially cohort pass rate - which uses the Sept. 30 count), and the differential between Ministry exam scores and classroom marks has compressed as well. The other positive, along with the many flexible programs we have added to help students access learning opportunities, is that our improved understanding of AFL has put us in a great position for the personalized learning movement, as these concepts will dovetail together most effectively. [After some reflection, I am unsure how to facilitate any serious personalized learning programs using only the traditional assessment model!] Many of us in BC look forward to the upcoming changes in our education system, and hopefully, a quick return to the conversations about learning that we enjoyed so much and that were so integral to the improved success of our students.


  1. I think what I like the best about your work Peter is how focused it is. Too many PLCs bounce around from topic to topic over the course of a year that it is impossible for any kind of sustained improvement to happen.

    Rick and Becky DuFour describe PLCs as "collaborative teams engaged in an ongoing process of collective inquiry around practice."

    Your commitment to AFL as the primary (only?) area of focus for your school makes the "ongoing" part of their definition a reality.



  2. Thank you Bill. My (only) previous experience with PLC time involved working with an ongoing focus area and it was, I'm sure, more impactful and satisfying as a result. I can remember rolling the AFL continuity idea out to staff in the first month while making this goofy porpoise-like motion with my hand, not knowing really where it was going to end up. It sure was fun, though. Cheers, PJ