Constructing meaning in a sip of camel milk tea in a ger on the Gobi Desert. The opportunity for fresh experiences brought us to our current teaching positions in Mongolia.
I have an acquaintance. Let’s call him Tighe McWiggins (not his real name). Every year Tighe goes on a week-long vacation. He begins his annual trip knowing exactly where he wants to lodge, the precise day and hour he must be back in his car heading home, and exactly how much money he can afford to spend during the week. Armed with these certitudes, he then pulls out maps and pulls up websites filling in the details that will get him to his destination and allow him to have an enjoyable stay once he gets there. “Backwards by design vacation planning,” Tighe McWiggins claims, “is the way to go.”
Maybe. For some. But whatever its merits or demerits as a means of planning out a short vacation, it’s hard to take seriously as a model for promoting inquiry-based, meaningful learning.
One of the things I like best about teaching in a PYP program is that there is no clearcut demarkation between teaching/learning and assessment (determining what we’ve learned). Assessments inform instructional practices and instructional practices inform assessment in an ongoing, seamless interplay that ensures authentic assessment experiences and meaningful study and practice.
As an example, in our culminating projects there are elements of both assessment and of further practice, learning, teaching, inquiry and reflection. Students aren’t limited to pencil and paper responses to test questions (although that sometimes is part of assessment). Rather, they are challenged to present their learnings – a process with self-reflection inextricably imbedded.
On the other hand, neither the student nor the teacher knows for certain where the inquiry, study, and research will lead. And yet, while there is a culminating assessment for a given unit, there are always additional, ongoing micro assessments based not on whether or not the student has mastered a list of teacher-provided facts, but on what the student is discovering.
Of course, the teacher must be present to guide and facilitate the learning. Just as with a vacation where we don’t want to begin our trip heading for Cape Hatteras and end up in a fast food parking lot, we want to ensure that student learning throughout a given unit remains within certain parameters. Overall, this coming together of student-driven inquiry and teacher-led guidance has the capacity to create powerful, meaningful learning experiences. It is appropriate that assessment is tailored to honor those learnings.