Assessment is the process of gathering data about student learning. It embraces a range of formal and informal strategies and employs a variety of tools (structures that provide support for doing work in a variety of contexts) where evaluations of learning are recorded and shared. It is more than a test, more than a grade, and more than a report card. Assessment spans the breadth of teaching and learning and helps nurture critically thoughtful learners.
Alberta curriculum is based on learner outcomes that identify what students need to do in order to demonstrate their attainment of these outcomes. Until we engage in assessment to gather this evidence, we cannot say with assurance that learning has taken place. Assessment is an integral part of teaching and learning.
The new Alberta Social Studies Program of Studies "provides opportunities for students to develop the attitudes, skills and knowledge that will enable them to become engaged, active, informed and responsible citizens" (Alberta Education 2005, p.1). In order to accomplish these goals, teachers will need to create classrooms where the focus of instruction and assessment is on critical thinking and inquiry.
Such classrooms will be visibly different from classrooms of the past. Rather than a focus on covering a defined set of knowledge outcomes, students will be engaged in asking meaningful, purposeful questions that arise from their study. Students will be encouraged to "approach any task, problem or issue in an open-minded manner, to look carefully at the various options and to reach reasonable conclusions based on careful assessment of relevant factors" (The Critical Thinking Consortium 2005, p. 3). Assessment experiences that consider multiple plausible answers provide opportunities for students to think critically about the knowledge, skills and attitudes of the program of studies.
Critical thinking is:
- a complex activity, not a set of generic skills
- concerned with judging or evaluating what is reasonable or sensible in a situation
- focused on quality of reasoning, not on performing a specific set of mental operations
- dependent on the possession of relevant knowledge
- done in endless contexts and is required whenever the situation is problematic
- is effortful but not necessarily negative.
In essence, "critical thinking is about being thoughtful about everything students do and study in school" (The Critical Thinking Consortium 2005, p. 3).
Creative thinking is a companion skill to critical thinking. A creative solution finds ways to use existing knowledge and skills in new ways to arrive at a solution that meets established criteria. Simply encouraging students to “think outside the box” is insufficient. Creativity is not a random generation of ideas but rather is guided by a purpose. Thinking outside the box with no criteria to guide their thinking does not help students to arrive at plausible, feasible or even relevant solutions to the problems and challenges they will face. When both critical and creative thinking are properly employed, teachers and students see how ingenuity results from the application of skills and knowledge in a critically thoughtful manner.
To nurture critically thoughtful learners, teachers need to teach in a critically thoughtful manner. The teacher’s role changes from that of a provider of knowledge and information to that of a facilitator and mentor. This approach to teaching and learning requires an adjustment to the commonly-held understandings of assessment.