How can the 'real world' be incorporated into assessment?
Nina MK, PhD
This is what I just read in the news: “Experts estimate Germany faces a shortage of 25,000 teachers, with 1,100 more needed in Berlin.” It is as real as it gets. Where can one country find so many new teachers at once? And even if they manage to find such a large number of specialists, would they be willing to work under the new conditions? Teachers talk of newcomers suddenly coming to their classes, teenagers for whom not only the language but the whole surrounding new world are a huge challenge. Now instead of either continuing their work with the familiar classes or with young beginners, every teacher may find himself or herself faced with multiple tasks which they simply never needed before. It is up to the teachers to teach, help integrate and work out the new strategies “on the fly”.
If we get a mixed class, not just our usual mixed-ability but mixed in all respects, how do we assess them? While the local children understand the idea of school as an institution where they spend 10-12 years, where they are taught many subjects, where they communicate with their peers and learn to deal with many adults, a large number of newcomers may not even grasp the whole concept of secondary education. We teachers may recite all the traditional skills we teach, and all the well-known issues: discipline, motivation and yes, assessment. But now we must change the known approaches to something new. A great proportion of teachers and headmasters are female; now we are dealing with students who are wary of being taught by women. A woman is not seen as a figure of authority in many Muslim countries; girls often do not attend school. It is estimated that over 70% of all refugees are young males. Accepting the simple fact that in Europe, women are equal members of the society is an education in itself. We are also used to existing in the familiar triage: teacher-pupil-parents. Well, lots of teens come to Europe as unaccompanied minors. ANY children who do not have responsible adults in their life experience adjustment problems anywhere.
In my region, there are lots of Chinese students; there are many families from the Asian republics that used to be part of the USSR; refugees from the Crimea come to Siberia too. Recently small groups of Ethiopians and some other African countries began to trickle in. So far, there are no conflicts, since there are about a hundred nationalities which co-exist here peacefully. When children come to school they need some time to get used to the process. Their parents often speak their native language only, so it is up to the teachers to smooth the transition. Surprisingly, many families regard the relocation as a good chance for their daughters to get a solid education and to find a job after school or to continue their education at a university.
I would say that we need new ways of assessment. Probably teachers should be allowed a little or a lot of leeway in deciding how to assess the local students and the children for whom the whole system is completely new. It should be understood that a gradual transition into one universal approach is only a question of time. I am often asked the same question by my colleagues whenever I happen to conduct a workshop or a seminar for EL teachers. “How do you achieve success with mixed ability classes? Why do all your students get the top marks at their final exams?” I give the same answers every year.
• True, I get mixed-ability classes, same as everybody else. And I deal with what I get. If somebody is already quite advanced, I bring in extra tasks so that they are not bored. If, say, a teenager cannot read English, I try to understand why this happened and how they managed to get to ninth form. Then I work out some ways and means to help them overcome the problem, the obstacle to their general learning.
• Assess the successes, in other words, be sure to point out each item the student managed to get right, show them where they went wrong, and suggest they try again. If possible, do not give them any grades for a test until they reach a better level than the one they started with. In other words, allow them some time to catch up.
• Believe in your students’ abilities. If they feel your continuous support they may try to do their best and more.
• Be ready for disappointments. You may have students who may never become motivated. Do not beat yourself up. You are not the one who caused global conflicts. Just do what you can and hope for the best.
Last but not least: Teaching English is a great platform, a huge instrument at our disposal. I visit the site regularly to see what’s new, what problems are discussed, what happens in the whole wide world. When we post our thoughts and ideas, we may actually help our colleagues in many other countries. Let us brainstorm, let us pool our resources together!