An in-depth case study from Canada describes the challenges encountered by a middle-school teacher as he introduced new assessment practices in his classroom. George, a teacher with 18 years’ experience, was part of a four-year research project conducted by Canada’s Queen’s University and the University of Victoria. The goal was to identify practices that enhance a teacher’s abilities to assess students’ growth and achievement appropriately.
George wished to introduce goal setting, assessment portfolios and student- led parent conferencing in his combined seventh- and eighth-grade class of 27 students. In addition to having a strong interest in new assessment procedures, George acted as both student support teacher and curriculum resource teacher for his school. He was also the school’s teacher federation representative. Working in collaboration with George, Cinde Lock and Hugh Munby, Queen’s University, found that his attempts to change assessment practices were inhibited by the teaching environment and by his own beliefs about teaching and learning, which did not change significantly over the course of the study.
Despite being actively involved in this in-depth collaborative research, George was not reflective of his own core beliefs about teaching and learning that constrained his implementation of new assessment practices. Lock and Munby suggest that this was due, at least in part, to the many demands on his time in the school environment. From this study, they conclude that even when teachers actively choose to change their practice and have the support of a research team, deeply held beliefs and the school environment can inhibit their ability to change.
Introducing New Assessments
George began by having students set personal goals for themselves and by structuring activities so that students would collect data to show how they had worked to accomplish those goals. However, these researchers report that he did not alter his role or his goals for the class. George’s teaching emphasized the importance of factual knowledge and he assessed students on the number of facts they supplied to support their ideas. Both he and his students continued to see him as the authority figure in the classroom. He taught predominantly with whole-class presentations and large-group discussions. He saw his job as the transmission of information, and it was difficult for him to conceive how this affected student- centered assessments. He did not believe he would fulfill his obligations as a teacher if he allowed students to work on their own without his leadership. GeorgeÆs beliefs about teaching and learning remained essentially unaltered throughout the course of this research. He viewed the new methods of student assessment as separate from his teaching. George’s unchanging beliefs and his teacher-centered style of instruction conflicted directly with his attempts at student-centered assessment. He wanted students to feel more responsible for their learning, yet he did not relinquish any authority. The busy environment of the school and his additional coaching, disciplinary and supervisory responsibilities interfered with his time to reflect on his practice and to implement the new assessment program. Observations revealed constant interruptions of his instruction and planning time. In addition, there was the burden of accommodating a wide variety of student abilities in his split-grade class.
Lock and Munby conclude that this in-depth study of one teacher’s attempt to change his assessment practices confirmed the difficulty associated with understanding and changing teachers’ long-held beliefs. George’s beliefs did not change even though it was his own idea to change his ways of assessment. George did not understand that the new assessment practices required changes in his behavior as well as his students’. The complexity of the classroom environment was apparent to the researchers in this study. As one researcher wrote, teachers deal with “spontaneous, idiosyncratic, unpredictable, context-dependent, time-constrained, group-influenced learning.”
Long-held beliefs make it difficult to mandate new practices
Although George took advantage of many professional development opportunities, his attempts to implement new practices were inhibited by the environment and by his unchanged beliefs. These researchers believe that the difficulties apparent in this long-term study have implications for methods of conducting professional-development programs for teachers. They suggest that mandating new practices to teachers is unlikely to be successful. Even when teachers instigate changes themselves and are provided with professional support and resources, they may find it very difficult to make these changes without altering many other aspects of their teaching environment. p> “Changing Assessment Practices in the Classroom: A Study of One Teacher’s Challenge” Alberta Journal of Educational Research Volume 46, Number 3, Fall 2000 Pp. 267-279.
Published in ERN December/January 2001 Volume 14 Number 1