I first became aware of the power of big ideas in an educational context during an early ’90s visit with colleagues to Grant Wiggins’s Center for Learning, Assessment, and School Supervision. This was some years before the publication of Wiggins’s seminal work, cowritten with Jay McTighe, Understanding By Design. As we debriefed the session upon returning home, we had no trouble reaching consensus about our essential learning:
- Begin your program planning with a clear vision of how your students will be different by the end of their time with you.
- Be sure to keep a clear focus on what’s essential, to avoid getting bogged down with minutiae.
- Recognize the limitations of relying exclusively on paper-and-pencil assessments since they rarely allow for demonstration of deep understanding, application, and transfer.
Some years later, during my time as assessment consultant to Nelson Education, I was part of the team developing a new mathematics program. While my primary role on the project was assessment consultant, I found myself constantly having to keep the mathematics experts focused on the big ideas. For example, I frequently had to ask, “Is this outcome essential?” Subject experts often have difficulty letting go of nonessential material. From their perspective, everything is essential learning. The result, of course, is to overwhelm teachers with too much stuff they feel compelled to “cover,” and to overwhelm students with too much they have to learn. I remember well the words of my son at the end of his first year of an undergraduate degree in psychology: “Dad, aren’t there any big ideas in psychology? All we ever do is memorize hundreds of facts in preparation for a series of multiple choice tests.”
When I began to write my first assessment resource for teachers—Talk About Assessment: Strategies and Tools to Improve Learning—I made two key decisions:
- Big ideas would provide the organizational structure.
- I would ask Grant Wiggins to write the foreword.
The biggest challenge I faced in writing was to determine just what are the big ideas of assessment? Clearly there is no right or wrong answer to this question. I began by examining the concept of a “big idea” per se. Ideas are “big” when they apply across a wide variety of contexts, when they endure over time, when they facilitate the understanding of many smaller ideas, when they comprise the foundation of a discipline, and when they help forge connections among a set of facts, skills, or procedures.
The eight big ideas of assessment derive from a number of sources: the ever-growing research base in assessment; my own experiences as a student, a teacher, a parent, and a consultant; and input from thousands of educators during the workshops I’ve conducted across Canada, the United States, and around the world. These same big ideas also provide the foundation for the second resource I wrote: Talk About Assessment: High School Strategies and Tools.
Big Idea #1
Assessment serves different purposes at different times; it may be used to find out what students already know and can do; it may be used to help students improve their learning; or it may be used to let students, and their parents, know how much they have learned within a prescribed period of time.
During workshops or school visits, I remind every teacher, before asking students to participate in an assessment task, to ask two questions:
- What is the purpose of this assessment? to inform instruction? to improve learning? or to judge the quality of what has been learned?
- Who is the primary user of information derived from this assessment? the teacher? students? parents? other decision-makers, such as selection committees, administrators, etc?