Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Trucks and Formative Assessment

Did you know that September is National Formative Assessment Month?
(I totally just made that up. But I think I’ll make a mini-series of Wednesday emails on Formative Assessment ideas for the rest of the month....)

My two year old is obsessed with trucks. Particularly, construction trucks. You probably don’t know that there are some dads on Youtube who have cashed in on the toddler love of trucks and written songs -- with trucky music videos about all different kinds of trucks. There are thirty videos these guys have made.

Thirty. Different. Truck. Songs.

Seriously. And you all wonder why I listen to the Hamilton soundtrack whenever I get the chance...

And despite my pledge to not be the parent who throws a screen in front of her kids... well, let’s just say that our whole family has learned the words to every one of those dang truck songs.

And my two year old is such a sponge! He might still throw a complete fit about who-knows-what, but he is learning more about trucks all the time.

And so am I. Because of these Youtube dads, my two year old and I now know what feller bunchers and concrete boom pumps are.

My husband and I were marvelling at our recent knowledge acquisition recently. Our conversation went like this.

“I used to think there were, like four or five kinds of construction trucks. Who knew there were so many?”

“Turns out there are over a dozen -- that my two year old knows. Real engineers and construction folks probably know even more!”

“How is it that my two year old is teaching me about something other than Elmo?”

And this reminded me of a wonderful strategy for formative assessment. It’s called  ”I used to think ... but now I know...”

Remember, formative assessment is a way to see if your kids are getting it, if they are understanding the learning target. Formative assessment is so we don’t wait until “the test” to see if our kids are with us, or if they’re lost. When we get tired of the same exit slips and “whiparounds”, we need new ideas to mix it up in our formative assessment.

“I used to think ... but now I know ...” is a strategy that works just as it sounds like it would.

At the end of a task, an activity, or a lesson segment,  ask kids to take out a sheet of paper. You can maybe even have them just draw a line under their “so-far” writing and write to the prompt based on the task, activity, or lesson segment:

I used to think ...  
But now I know ...

This is a routine for reflecting on how and why our thinking has changed. This strategy comes from the Harvard Visible Thinking routines. They believe that if we make student thinking visible, we can better foster students intellectual development. The idea of visible thinking helps to make concrete what a thoughtful classroom might look like.

All we have to do is plan to put it in a stopping point or a transition point, explain it, and ask students to complete the two sentence starters -- about content from that day or lesson.

For example:
I used to think that there were three or four types of construction trucks.
But now I know that there are at least twelve that all have different jobs on the construction site: dump trucks, cement mixers, excavators, front end loaders, crane trucks, graders, backhoes, road rollers, concrete boom pumps, forklifts, bulldozers, and scrapers.

So simple. It’s a great way to do several things at once
  • Formative assess how well students have grasped the content in a mid-lesson (or “so-far”) point in order to adapt the next step of the lesson.
  • Help students identify and articulate errors in logic or reasoning (Marzano DQ:3 Element 18)
  • Help students track and reflect on their progress.

We KNOW we’re supposed to use formative assessment regularly, every day. We KNOW we’re supposed to use it to inform our instruction -- to make in-the-moment decisions about where to go next in your teaching. We KNOW we should take that formative assessment and decide whether to move forward or back up in instruction.

But we don’t always know HOW to do this.

So here’s a strategy for reflective formatively assessing: “I used to think ... but now I know ...”

Try it and let me know how it goes. Is this a strategy worth using regularly? How will/did you use it? And ... can you figure out what a feller buncher does? As always, email me at

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