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An Assessment Analogy: The Thermometer v. The Thermostat

Why do you assess your students? A teacher's answer to this question reveals much about what that teacher values.  

For example, if a teacher's answers to the question center around determining a student's grade for a report card or transcript or around figuring out how much a student learned at the end of instruction, then it's obvious the teacher places a great emphasis on grading.

On the other hand, if a teacher's answers center around providing the teacher and the student with feedback so that more appropriate instructional and learning decisions can be made, then it's obvious the teacher places a great emphasis on learning.

This post is written to provide those teachers who care more about learning than they do about grading with an analogy that will help them productively focus their assessment efforts.

At a recent Salem High School faculty meeting, SHS Welding Teacher, Joshua Graham, shared with his colleagues the assessment tools and practices that he and his fellow Trades and Industrial teachers use to help them help students learn.  He spoke about several software programs they use to assess student progress and to provide students with descriptive feedback to help them focus their study habits.  He talked about using assessment data to evaluate his teaching and to enable him to make more student-centered decisions.

The content of Josh's presentation was insightful and the strategies shared exemplary.  Near the end of it, though, he shared with us a rather simple analogy that has profoundly impacted the way I now view an educator's assessment role.

Josh shared with us that, along with other women in their church, his wife was reading a book entitled Leading and Loving It.  The book included an analogy that Josh took and applied to assessment.  It was the analogy of The Thermometer v. The Thermostat.

The Thermometer

Think about what a thermometer does.  A thermometer gives you a temperature at a certain point in time.  Let's pretend you have a thermometer in your home.  By checking its reading, you will know the air temperature in your home.

What does the thermometer do FOR the temperature in your home?  Nothing.  While a thermometer is a useful tool, it simply provides us with information.  It does nothing to alter or change that information.

The Thermostat

Now consider the thermostat.  Like the thermometer, the thermostat also checks the temperature at a certain point.  In fact, by checking the thermostat in your home you can find out the air temperature in your home just like you could with a thermometer.

But the thermostat also does something FOR the temperature in your home.  The thermostat takes the temperature, compares that to the DESIRED temperature outcome, and then makes adjustments to increase or decrease the temperature accordingly.

While a thermometer is a useful tool, a thermostat is a much more powerful tool and a much more impactful tool.  With only a thermometer you would be able to verify the fact that your house was too hot, too cold, or just right.  But with a thermostat you can actually control the temperature outcome.

Josh explained this analogy and then applied it to assessment by encouraging his colleagues to be thermostats - not thermometers.  Being a thermometer is fine if our goal for assessment is to determine a grade.  We can teach a unit of content, asses our students to see how well they learned it, record that "temperature", and move on.  

But if our goal for assessment is to increase learning, then we have to be thermostats.  The thermostat teacher is constantly assessing so he or she knows where his students - collectively and individually - are in the learning process.  Then the thermostat teacher makes the necessary adjustments in teaching so that the "temperature" changes appropriately.  The thermostat teacher trains students to be thermostats as well, always self-assessing and analyzing feedback to determine what adjustments need to be made at their end.  

Simply put, the thermometer teacher can document IF students learned.  The thermostat teacher increases learning.

So why do you assess?  If it is to increase learning, then consider how the analogy of The Thermostat might be applied to your classroom.

Thanks, Josh! 

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