3 weeks ago, I was working hard at my job at The Math Forum – We were having a big event. Teachers from across the country were coming to help us brainstorm and test a new software that we’ve had under development for the past 2 years (that’s from even before I joined the MF crew). I was excited and I was charged… and then I was stressed.

No sooner had the 5-day congress begun, than I was asked to prototype a new feature for presentation before its end. There was simply not enough time. And if I were to make time, it would mean giving up my attendance completely. Thus foregoing the opportunity to meet and observe our would be end-users. An opportunity that I felt could not be missed (again).

So I decided to reach for the best of both worlds. I chose to design an interactive mockup that would be as close to the real thing as possible. It took me 4 of the 5 days, but I was able to spend 3 of those in the midst of our end-users working, while I did the same. With a little help from one of our senior developers, the presentation was ready in time, and on the 4th day we presented.

It was a great success!!!

Being able to listen in on user concerns while simultaneously designing the mockup, really helped generate ideas for the final product. I was surprised by how many teachers commended me and expressed satisfaction afterwards. It really felt like my work had paid off, and I found myself elated.

But even more moving than the stress at the beginning and the elation at the end, were the realizations in the middle. As I listened to teachers express their concerns about their students and their teaching methods, their successes and their failures, and their hopes and their dreams for the software, I truly began to feel like I belonged.

The things they valued, the way they thought, their approaches to problem solving, and the things they said, all struck very loud chords within me. Everything that I had ever been called out on, both in good and bad ways, suddenly seemed “normal”. So much so, that on the 5th day when it all came to an end, I cried buckets…

Because for the first time in my life, I understood why my nickname is, and always has been “Prof.” I notice like a teacher, I wonder like a teacher, and my initial feedback is usually some sort of assignment to the listener (like a teacher!). Moreover, my final feedback also sounds like a grade…
Something like:

“You can do better” – I actually said this recently.

Or more elaborate:

“From what you’ve said, I think that you are struggling with X, so this approach will probably be difficult for you. Perhaps you should try Y, or better yet Z. Let me know how it goes… ” – I also said something like this a few months ago. Lol.

Formative Assessment in a Nutshell

Teaching (by formative assessment) in a nutshell

I have always done this, and never thought it odd. But for some people, my elaborate diagnoses come across as a chore. Instead of inspiring thought, they sometimes breed confusion and disinterest. While my abbreviated responses, come across as even worse: “A judgement.”

These “abbreviated responses” A.K.A “brutally honest answers,” have offended many in the past… and may continue to do so. Because it is very hard for any person to separate a judgement on their thinking, from a judgement on their person… and even harder to elicit a more defined answer, with a more complicated response. Not to mention that few people enjoy the feeling of being probed with 21 questions.

Yet this is the issue I saw at the heart of teaching: “How can we gain insight into another’s thought process, without putting them off, so that we can better aid them?”

How can we gain insight into another’s thought process, without putting them off, so that we can better aid them?

As I am not a teacher, even the fact that I deal with others this way, is a risky endeavour. It easily comes across as condescending, arrogant, and rude. Learning to give a most effective response, that is both constructively strong, and well-targeted, while at the same time remaining emotionally considerate, is an art form of tact that I still struggle with. Especially as a (muted) ESTJ.

So while the ideal solution for a non-teacher like me, continues to elude my grasp, it is reassuring to know that I have comrades in arms: At The Math Forum, in the ESI 2014 participants, and in teachers at large all-around the world…

With the software we’re developing, we’re looking to help teachers, discover increasingly effective ways to reflect on and respond to their students… and in doing so, shine a light on the path to effective formative assessment.

Formative assessment or diagnostic testing is a range of formal and informal assessment procedures employed by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment.