To Assess or Connect? That is the question!

Almost two months into the school year, many of us wonder–how is my learner doing? In a school with no tests, grades, or homework, assessing progress can seem a bit mystifying. 

Our first instinct might be to ask our children about reading, writing, science, math, etc. “What did you read today? How long did you spend on math? Did you write a story?” As products of a more traditional school system, most of us were expected to progress according to specific norms on a set schedule. We might know logically that kids don’t actually learn that way, and maybe we chose The Village School for exactly that reason. But letting go of all of those benchmarks can still feel disorienting.

Take a quick look at our “Portrait of a Graduate.” It shows how we put the basic academics in a much broader context as a way to guide our learning design. Building character, improving interpersonal interactions, and developing the desire to learn are just as–if not more–important compared to knowing specific subject material. These essential building blocks create the lifelong learners we want our children to be.

That still leaves the question of how to assess their progress. What if, instead of monitoring test grades and poring over report cards, we use questions and conversations to gauge growth? Character-related queries, reflections on the process of learning, discussions about how they connect with their peers and guides, all send the subtle message that these are the things we value most. 

Who were you kind to this week?

What was your greatest failure (that taught you a valuable lesson)?

When did you have the most energy today?

When did you serve as a guide for someone else? Who guided you?

What was your greatest achievement this week?

How did you work through a challenge today?

Tell me about an opportunity you had to help someone this week.

What are you struggling with?

How can I support you?

Just choose two or three at a time–always questions, never answers. The goal here is to listen intentionally and approach with genuine curiosity. Pay attention to their interests. Do their experiences in school spark passions in new areas? Do they turn to books to answer their questions or collaborate with peers? Take stock of their interactions with others, too. Are they kinder, more patient or more empathetic? 

The pictures on Transparent Classroom are great conversation starters. Ask about specific works you see, what they learned from them, and whether that was easy, challenging or hard. 

It’s also helpful to quietly observe them from afar. Guides use this technique as an essential way to understand how learners think, see, feel, and learn. What are their goals? How do those goals change over the course of a year? Observation will help you connect more deeply to their learning journey. There’s no right or wrong way: evening or weekend, once a week or once a month. Capture a few moments and reflect on them later, perhaps at a family meeting. Children love it when they feel noticed, seen, appreciated. 

You can adapt school systems for home, too. Some learners are eager to create a home contract, much like the ones in their studios, in which they list the promises they make to family members. During difficult moments, you can pause and ask “What did we agree about XYZ on our contract?” 

Once a week, you might check in with them, like we do in guide meetings. Maybe you touch base about goals they have and talk about how they felt their work during the week. You might choose a few of the questions suggested above, or think of your own. The challenge is to ask these questions from a genuine place of curiosity, without conveying expectations–met or unmet. Children can sense when we trust them to do it themselves and when we take a real interest in their lives.

Assessment is a tricky thing. For a lot of us, it may cause more than a little angst. When in doubt, resist the urge to compare one child to another. Everyone learns differently, at their own pace. That learning comes easiest when children are ready and motivated to learn!

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