Category Archives: PYP

The Central Question: Why do We Assess?

students assess their work & others n

Third grade students use Post-it notes to comment on classmates’ work. With thoughtful guidance from teachers, young learners can play a meaningful role in the reflective process that is at the core of assessment.


Many educational institutions get hung up what they teach and assess, or perhaps go no further than discussing how they teach and assess. The central and most important question though is, “Why do we assess?”

Missing from the education of my youth was the use of assessment as a means to synthesize new information. A biology teacher would give us 20 vocabulary items to memorize and correctly identify on a weekly test, but beyond that, we seldom if ever used those terms in any meaningful way. History and other social sciences, math, foreign languages and even literature were generally taught in a similar manner: knowledge was acquired through memorization, and proof that learning had occurred was measured with multiple choice, true/false, or short-answer tests.

Only those of us in athletics were lucky enough to be able to routinely engage in meaningful assessment. In sports, new skills were acquired, new understandings about those skills were explored, and in meets, matches and games we had the opportunity to “put those new understandings and skills to the test.” After the contest, as individuals, in collaborate peer groups, and with coaches we engaged in reflections about how we had performed. These sports-related assessments were the most fun part of school.

There is no reason academic assessments can’t be equally engaging.


The Synergism between Taught and Assessed Curriculum

camel milk tea n

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.

Four Learning Theories: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism and Connectivism

Let’s begin with a brief description of four well-known theories about how people learn.

1. Behaviorism: Learning is a response to external stimuli.

2. Cognitivism: Learning is a process of acquiring and storing information.

3. Constructivism: Learning is a process of building an understanding.

4. Connectivism: Learning is a process of connecting nodes or information sources; it is dependent upon technology and recognizes the role the Internet plays in helping people expand their learning.

Allowing for what we currently know – or think we know – about the brain, it is easy to see that each of these learning theories are both correct and limited. Given that understanding, there are elements of each of these theories that I find myself agreeing with, and there are elements of each that make me uncomfortable.

Consider Behaviorism. All of our lives, we are subject to conditioning by positive and negative stimuli. Praise and scoldings, pay and poverty, a comforting touch or a slap – all of these external stimuli impact our learning. And I disagree with the most narrow views of Behaviorism which hold that these external stimuli don’t foster higher level thinking. Our quest for love, acceptance and a comfortable life are probably the most motivating elements in our world. Some of the most sophisticated, high-level thinking humans have produced – in the form of art, exploration or simply mastering the math skills necessary to earn a good paycheck are driven by these external stimuli. But when Behaviorists ignore internal predispositions of learners, they oversimplify the learning process.

Cognitivism, with its emphasis on discrete facts and memory, is also a vital part of learning. Attending lectures, memorizing poems, music, sequential moves in sports and math facts are quite enjoyable for most people possessed of healthy minds, and this kind of learning has the further benefit of creating connections in our brains that also allow us to remember shopping lists and phone numbers and in other ways make negotiating life easier and less stressful. I think what makes me most uncomfortable about Cognitivism is not anything in the theory itself, but the attitude among some educators that it is somehow not an important or relevant part of how we learn. But, like Behaviorism, in and of itself, it’s an incomplete explanation of learning.

Constructivism is another facet of learning that all healthy minds engage in. A reality is that many schools – perhaps most schools – are poorly equipped to adequately facilitate this type of student engagement. And so we have example upon example of some of the greatest minds in history either literally dropping out of school or de facto dropping out of school in order to pursue a Constructivist model of learning under the tutelage of a mentor. What concerns me, though, is that many self-identified Constructivists take an approach as narrow as the Behaviorists. They overstate their case and ignore other important pathways to learning. Students who do not have a solid grasp of facts – and an ability to readily recall and remember what they do know – may be lacking the foundational blocks necessary to engage in meaningful construction of knowledge.

Connectivism is intriguing. But again, caution against too narrow an interpretation is warranted. While the theory of Connectivism may have emerged in response to our ability to acquire and share knowledge electronically, the principal is surely much older than this new technology. Anyone familiar with science, literature and the arts appreciates that circles of friendships and acquaintances – inquiry circles before anyone used that phrase – spawned some of the best thinking, writing and artwork of any given era. Humans have always been Connectivists, just as they’ve always been subject to external stimuli (Behaviorism), have had a need for and found enjoyment in acquiring and memorizing facts (Cognitivism) and have always sought out their own means of creating meaning out of the world (Constructivism).

My question is this: Why do so many educators see learning primarily through only one lens?

See our photo essays on food, nature and life in Alaska and Mongolia at