Dynamic Assessment in the Google Classroom – A Reflection

Introduction

Dynamic assessment (DA; which I’ve written on here and here) is a process of taking a traditional dualism – teaching  and testing – and understanding them as a monism: Teaching as Assessment and Assessment as Teaching. In our current education ethos of No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top and their heavy emphasis on standardized testing, teaching/testing-as-monism can almost seem unimaginable or incomprehensible to many people and even some teachers.

I have already written and conducted case study research on DA here on this blog, so I won’t rehash it here, Please see those posts for examples and further reading. Instead, here, I want to explore the use of Learner Management Systems, in particular Google Classroom and Google Docs, to practice DA. The questions I have for myself here are:

  1. What multi-modalic affordances exist for my Korean high school students using Google Classroom?

  2. How can Google Classroom be leveraged for DA?

  3. What problems arise for Korean High School students who have never used an LMS?

I’ll start by describing the ideas I will use briefly. Then I will move to my specific teaching situation, describing the students, our class and our use of Google Classroom. Finally, I will explore the use of Google Classroom in the use of DA.

Dynamic Assessment

In brief, the Dynamic Assessment I practice is founded on James Lantolf and Steven Thorne’s 2006 book Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of L2 Development. If you are interested in SCT, then this book is a foundational text. James Lantolf and in particular, Matthew Poehner, have worked to structure and describe DA as a pedagogical tool for L2TL(See here, here, and especially here for computer-mediated DA). I have also written on DA in my own practice here.

DA in this tradition is part of the sociocultural theoretic approach to L2TL founded  on the work of Lev Vygotsky and in particular his concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). For the interested reader, please see Lantolf and Thorne (2006) for a comprehensive and exhaustive(-ing) description of the ZPD. For our purposes here, the ZPD is simply the social space and frame that allows knowledge and actions to move from one person or group to a new person.

The traditional example comes from standardized testing. Two students might both get the same question wrong on a test. They will both be given the same score and we assume that those students are, basically, the same in their development. SCT says no. In fact, before students can do a task by themselves without help there is a whole universe of developmental steps. One of the students may only need a questioning look from a teacher to realize that they made a mistake on the test. Whereas the other student may need explicit explanation and practice to understand the question’s answer. To say that both of those students are developmentally similar is wrong in a profound way.

For teachers then, the task of DA is creating a ZPD around any given task and continually teaching and assessing the student at the same time. The point of assessment is not to give an arbitrary score and grade, but to help the student develop towards automation.  By giving prompts, tools, material or letting more able peers work with less able peers, teachers can promote the creation of a ZPD for a learner that they can progress through until they can do a task without help from the teacher, a peer or other material (like a concept-based SCOBA).

For the DA practioner, mistakes or errors are approached very carefully. Instead of simply telling the student they are wrong, teachers will go through a series of questions in an instructional conversation. First, they might start with something like, 1) hmm… (look curiously at a question). Then, the teacher waits for a student response. If the student gives no response, they may point out the area of the question they got wrong without saying anything. Wait again. If there is no response, they might say, “I think there is a problem here.” and so on until the teacher provides the response and explains why, or the student manages to recognize and correct their error.

Classroom Ecology and Affordances

The concept of “affordance” as used here was developed by James and Eleanor Gibson. James is most famous for his comprehensive examination of the visual perception of animals in their environments (including humans) and his theory of ecological psychology (EP) is used often in Direct Realist theories of perception (which, I also used for my master’s thesis). Eleanor, often not remembered in discussions of EP, was influential in extending the use of affordances to child development. Teachers would be well advised to read both James and Eleanor’s work. 

Affordances are, in a simple way, the environmental features that a being can perceive and then use for the accomplishment of goals. A traditional example is that of a cup. Cups afford many things, one obvious thing is that they afford moving liquids. The shape of a cup and its size will, to varying degrees, also afford grasping and holding. The same ring-like shapes we give the babies to help them develop grasping are often found on our coffee mugs.

Some cups do not have these affordances, and it is no wonder that we do not use cups that do not afford carrying liquid to drink from. A silly example:

a4d11f49667908d95ce0bbd21c99e481--little-ones-little-things

The word “novelty” is, I think, often a synonym for “thing that does not afford what it normally affords”. Importantly, affordances are not qualities of objects nor are they the intentions of subjects, instead an affordance is created (see van Lier, 2000) between an organism and its environment. As an easy example, door handles create affordances between some people and the door. Namely, they afford grasping, turning and opening. However, as parents know, its important that some doors afford these things for them, but not for their toddlers. This means the doorknob is higher on the door than the toddler can reach, its opening mechanism may require more dexterity or hand size than a toddler has and so on. In this case, an affordance is created between the parent and the door, but the same affordance is not created, or is missed, for the toddler.

Classroom affordances then, are the aspects of the classroom, its physical layout, the specific tools available in the classroom, the people in the classroom, the social relationships between the people and its temporality. Below is a summary table of some of the possible affordances that exist in my classroom.

Physical Affordances
Spatial

hexagon modular desks
Each sitting space of the desk angles them towards other students, affording visual access.
Desks are shared, there is no defined space for each student, affording easy access to what each student is working on.
Desks are on lockable wheels, which affords easy movement and changed arrangements when needed.

centrally located large TV
The TV affords access to multi-media and internet content. 

Two white boards on each side of the room
They afford note-taking, toolbox making. Because of their extreme location, on each side of the TV, students seated on one extreme have difficulty seeing and reading the whiteboard on the other side.

Windows on the opposite of the room from the TV with blinds.
They afford natural lighting, air and natural sound. The blinds afford clear visual perception of the whiteboard and TV when sunlight is to bright.

5 older computers
The computers afford student access to the internet and other computer based resources. Most of the affordances on the computer are available to the students through their Smartphones.

Temporal

50 minute classes / once a week
This time allotment affords a lot of time to process between classes, making homework or out-of-class work ideal.

Social
Spatial

– Students share a 1st language, Korean.
This affords simplified interpersonal communication between students and a set of shared cultural-historical concepts to build upon.

– Students have asymmetrical English-language abilities
This affords peer-help and languaging as more-capable peers can act as translators or guides for tasks that would be out of reach for less capable peers.

– Students have aligned affinities
Students attend a Robotics High School, this basic set of shared interests and knowledge affords group cohesion.

– Students have access to a LMS
Students can use email and a class messenger system to community with the teacher if they find face-to-face communication overly taxing.

Temporal

– Students are with the same class everyday for a whole year.
This affords students a well-defined social relationship that extends beyond the English class. They don’t come to English class with a new personality disconnected from their other school identities.

– classroom conversations are synchronous face-to-face through speech.
This affords doing and failing in real-time as well as continuous noticing of what they can do and cannot do.

Google classroom conversations are asynchronous / synchronous and mediate through typing.
This affords planning, revising and critical awareness of language use and knowledge.

Praxis

Due to the lack of face to face time affordances in my classroom, I use GC as a primary method of both instruction, communication and assessment. Students in my class spend much more time on classwork using GC than in f2f interaction. Here, I will detail some examples of DA in the ecology of GC and how the asynchronous and quasi-synchronous tools afford different, and sometimes better, instruction and feedback.

Background

My first example is paradigmatic. I want to show a way in which I think GC and GD provide an excellent form of DA. In this example, the student (Kim), is tasked with listening to a recording of themselves playing a game with other students during class. For our purposes here, their task has two parts: 1) listen and write down exactly what they said in the recording. The purpose here critical examine and externalize to themselves their own use of language. 2) provide them an opportunity to self-correct their own use.

In this assignment, students were tasked with listening to an audio recording of themselves and their classmates playing the card game Coup in class. The classroom f2f task included a pre-game plan to use specific language during the game, playing the game, and finally a post-game reflection with a partner who had been note-taking on their performance during the game. For homework, the students were tasked with completing a google doc (GD) that focused on the examination of their language use in the game.

DA example – Kim

As can be seen in the screenshot above, although Kim has written down what they said during the game successfully, they were unable to self-correct and they answered “I think [I was] perfect, I don’t know what I [said] wrong”. From a DA perspective, this is level 0~1 mediation. By simply creating an framework of self-evaluation, the student must wrestle with their own understanding of the language. In this case, Kim requires a higher level of mediation.

This mediation occurs through a slow process of instructional conversation, in the spirit of Lantolf and Alejfreeh (1994). Together with the student, I attempt to guide them towards a noticing and correcting their own language use.

In GD, I do this using the “suggestion” editing tool and through comments, which appear to the side of the page. Whenever I make a suggestion or a comment, the students receive a message on their phones, letting them know I have done so. In this way, GC and GD act quasi-synchronous and it is entirely possible for the student and I to be working on their assignment at the same time, chatting in real time. The reality however was more asynchronous in nature.

In the photo above, I have taken an incorrect social use of language (while not entirely grammatically wrong, it is socially incorrect in the context of the game). I suggest to the student to correct this specific use and prompt them with a question, “There is a problem here, can you find it?” This is a fairly low DA mediation, however, in my own reflection on this instance, I recognize that my first mediation could be less explicit. I could highlight a group of answers and ask them to find a mistake, focusing their attention on a specific area of their use. I could skip asking the question, instead just putting the suggestion into the document.

However, I chose to use this level of mediation, given the tools we are using and the affordances available. In a f2f interaction, I may have been less explicit because the time affordances allow for more swift communication. In this case, the student may not respond for hours or days. Because of that time affordance difference, I chose to provide slightly more information, particularly in regards to what it was exactly I wanted the student to focus on. We might call this a 3 level mediation.

In response to this prompt, the student successfully changes their answer to the social-grammatical one. In response to this, I praise their effort to stick with the problem and award them the remaining points (if the other DA mediations are also finished) for the assignment.

 

 

A quick add-on example – Beo

While Kim simply engaged with the DA protocol by making corrections, other students used the chat capabilities of GD to respond to prompts. In the case of Beo, they both corrected and commented on teacher DA prompts.

For my first intervention, I added a blank space to the GD where Beo had made a grammatical error. This mediation is a level 3 on Aljaafreh and Lantolf’s scale. In reflection, I could have started lower– and in fact I believe I should have. Beo is a determined student who is willing to work through problems with their teacher. In this case, a level 2 mediation, perhaps by highlighting the problem area, would have been more effective.

In response, Beo replies directly to my comment because they aren’t sure at first how to change the google Doc directly. They comment again saying so. But, because we are communicating asychronously, before I could reply to the question, Beo figures it out by themself– a level 1 mediation. In reflection, I believe that had this interaction occurred in a f2f environment, I would have provided a different form of mediation, maybe something higher than they obviously needed. But because of the asynchronicity, the correct level of mediation was used.

Teacher conversations in GC – Lee

The final example I want to discuss is not DA related exactly, but instead on how the affordances of GC supplement and improve the f2f classroom experience. In this example, Lee has questions regarding both the classwork and homework that are maybe a little complex for them to express in English.

As is commonly found in other studies of asynchrounus CMC (here for an easy example. ), the time affordances available to the student on GC allows them to think more about how to craft and express themselves. They can also switch between Korean and English with less discomfort and, if they need to, they can use a translator to express themselves, creating a zone of proximal understanding that both they and I enter together and navigate.

Importantly here, and something I don’t see mentioned in the literature often, is how the use of A-CMC in an LMS affords the teacher more expressability. I am able to trust that the student will ponder my answer more or use a translator if they need to, in order to understand my message. And so, I am able to communicate with Lee in a more complicated way. Additionally, the ACMC nature allows students who never speak in the f2f environment (for fear, ability or whatever), to send me messages in Korean and I often respond to them with both English and a full korean translation (as best as I can manage) in order to show the student that their communicative efforts are valuable to me and that whenever they need to, they can and should contact me about our class, building slightly more trust between us that can be leveraged later for language learning.

Limitations

A common problem with A-CMC dynamic assessment is maybe obvious. But students sometimes ignore my prompts, for whatever reason. In these cases, f2f interaction is preferable in that the time affordance and the social affordance of responding forces the student to say something, or at least, their silence allows me to re-orient to their problem and try again.

When a student does not reply to a GD prompt, then it often just hangs there, unanswered for all time. Because my own semiotic budget (van Lier, 2000) is limited and I have 300 students, it is difficult to remember to go back to all students work and re-prompt them like I did in Beo’s example above (the “bump”). I rely on the notification system within Google classroom to prompt me to check students’ work.

A separate problem quickly noticed in this kind of classroom experience, is that the students’ work is divided between the classroom and the google classroom. And, because the students in my classes do not have much, or even any, experience using LMSs, they often don’t percieve the learning-affordances that integrating the work from GC can provide to their f2f work.

As a public school teacher, there are only two non-koreans in my workplace (the other being the Mandarin language teacher). My position in the eyes of the students varies greatly, but often negatively when it comes to novel ways of teaching and learning. Because I introduced GC and GD (and game-based learning) to these students, many of them had and still have trouble orienting to the new method of study. My colleagues and co-teachers too, struggle to accept my methods and use of LMS. 

For the students then, a common experience is to simply ignore the LMS and computer-based homework. To do so however, makes what we do in the classroom less effective because I don’t rely on traditional self-enclosed and packaged content-based instruction. Some students are making recordings of themselves and then never listening or examining it, making their participation in the class limited.

To overcome this problem, I have made an effort to present to the students at the beginning of every class, an example homework from one of their peers. These examples, I  hope, will demonstrate the kind of work I expect and so I often choose students who put in effort, but make a lot of mistakes. This kind of reminder and motivation however, does not address the underlying disconnect of the classroom and the google classroom. In the future, I plan to use the technology more in the f2f environment in order to promote its use outside of the class as well.

It would also be extremely helpful if other teachers at my school also decided to use an LMS (any lms. It’s a robotics high school after all). This would give the students more experience with LMSs in general, but more importantly it would provide a more socially-centered example for the students. They would be less likely to rebel against one of their Korean teachers or to ignore them than they are me, who is a legitimate-peripheral member of the school social community (lave & wenger, 1991).

Conclusion

In this reflection, I attempted to describe my teaching environment in terms of its time and spacial affordances in order to compare my physical f2f classroom and my digital LMS classroom. I also demonstrated how DA can be performed in Google Classroom and how it affords different types of mediation compared with the f2f environment. Finally, I expressed some limitations with a dualistic classroom.

The use of an LMS improves my ability to communicate with students and provides more opportunities and ways of communicating for the students. At the same time, I am able to practice DA (or, as I mean to say, I am able to continue to teach)  outside the f2f classroom, with its extremely limited time affordances. 

Not mentioned or demonstrated here however, is how DA can be used as an overall evaluative tool to demonstrate student development over time (see here for an example of what I mean). This, perhaps more than any other reason, is a potentially powerful tool that would possibly motivate students to engage more, both with the f2f class and the LMS.

 

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