Measuring What Matters

One of the many things that drew me to Acton Academy’s learning model was the emphasis on authentic assessments through public exhibitions of learning. After spending several years as an educator in the public school system, I was looking for a learning community that measured what matters, not what was easy to measure.

I thought about my own children. I wanted them to be more than active participants in their learning- I wanted them to be owners of their learning. I saw this in my oldest son’s “Reggio-inspired” PreK class, but I hadn’t seen it upon his entry into Kindergarten and the following Primary years spent in our neighborhood public school.

In observing my own children and the countless others I’ve guided over the years, one of the things I know for sure is children want deep, meaningful work and they want to have something to show for it. Something that they can point to and say, “I did that!”

Have you ever heard a child excitedly point to a test or grade on a report card and say, “I did that!”? Probably not- because they have no intrinsic reason to care.

Public exhibitions of learning provide a chance for a young person to show the world what they can do. It is the culminating event of a long-term project, providing real-world situations and real-time feedback. It is the opportunity for a learner to stand back with a sense of satisfaction and say, “I did that.”

An integral part of our learning design at The Village School, are our Exhibitions of Learning which take place at the end of each session (every five to six weeks). These are our tests- real-world assessments for the Heroes to prove what they have accomplished. These events are designed and executed by our learners themselves with parents and guests invited to attend. In addition to showing what they’ve learned, these exhibitions are designed to serve as incentives for the Heroes over the course of a session. Nothing like a deadline and an audience to get people cranking on their work.

This week, we ended our first session as a community with our first Exhibition of Learning. Heroes showcased their new roles as self-directed learners by walking parents through a typical day at school, explaining the various online software programs for Core Skills, presenting their finished book of poems, summarizing their Civilization and Art challenges, and explaining the intentional, thoughtful process of creating their community contract.

These young people had learned so much over the past five weeks and I was thrilled that they would have the opportunity to show all of their hard work to their families. I had so many ideas of how it should go, what it should look like, what they should say- AND, I wasn’t allowed to share ANY of them.

As a learner-driven community, our heroes do it all. They plan, delegate, make the programs and run the exhibition, entirely themselves. While I am well-versed in the value of this experience for our learners, this was HARD. While I know the process of learning is far more important than the finished product, I found myself fighting my impulses to control the outcome in efforts to alleviate my discomfort in being faced with the unknown.

What would it look like? What would our families think? What if they failed?

As I stepped back and watched the exhibition planning from the sidelines, I found comfort in this passage I had read by Laura Sandefer, Director of Acton Austin.

“There is a caveat I give parents about these exhibitions: be prepared to see failure and struggle. These are not pristine, tightly managed school performances. Our exhibitions are meant to display the grueling process of learning rather than a polished end product. In addition to letting the Eagles shine, they also let them experience the real-world consequence of not giving one’s best to a project if that’s the case. (The latter may be the most important learning of all.)”

So on exhibition day, I found myself among the parents, with my “mom hat” securely in place. I stood back and watched heroes run the show. With humor and grace, with lost scripts and nervous energy, they hosted a truly authentic exhibition of learning. I received one question, which I deflected back to our heroes. They executed each part with a pride and joy that could only be derived from their ownership over the entire experience. As I watched these young heroes leap off the stage following an enthusiastic rendition of The Greatest Showman’s “Come Alive”, I sat with the quiet understanding of all that I had learned from these young people over these past several weeks, a newfound appreciation of the element of surprise, and a sense of gratitude to be a part of a community that would remain committed to measuring what matters.

(Repost from October 6, 2018)

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