A Window into Learning

We’re trying to boil it down to what do parents really want and need to know about a child’s progress in school? How can we give parents a window into class?…We believe traditional report cards are highly ineffective in communicating to parents where their children are in learning. If we can communicate this learning routinely to parents, then we see the need for report cards and the stamp of letter grade going way down.”

Dr. Jordan Tinney, Superintendent, CNN

A Window into a Child's Learning

Surrey Schools has initiated a project – Communicating Student Learning (CSL) – to evolve its student assessment practice and tools reflective of emerging educational philosophy and the Ministry of Education’s direction. Two district explorations have been launched – paper and electronic – to assess various potential assessment approaches, tools and implementation strategies that will ultimately become district best practice. This post is focused on our electronic trial—Making Learning Visible.


For over a decade, Surrey’s elementary schools have been using a standard report card, designed by several school principals using Filemaker Pro. The report card is a list of grade specific Prescribed Learning Outcomes where student progress is indicated using a rating scale[1] and/or letter grades. Limited room on the report card exists for teachers to provide a summary of a student’s learning, often noting what the student has been doing well, in addition to potential areas for improvement. These report cards are distributed three times throughout the school year. Our practice represents a significant misalignment with what we know about Assessment and with the Ministry of Education’s new direction.

The Ministry of Education’s new Curriculum Transformation and Assessment,[2] Communicating Student Learning (Reporting) document states:

“Aligning curriculum, assessment, evaluation and communicating student learning approaches will be key in these transformation efforts. To date, consultations regarding communicating student learning have resulted in the following recommendations:

  • Shift from ‘reporting’ to ‘communicating student learning.’
  • Support meaningful communication between teachers, parents and learners.
  • Report on core competencies and key areas of learning.
  • Focus on learning standards (curricular competencies and content/concepts) in areas of learning (subjects).
  • Enable ongoing communication (with provincial guidelines and supports).
  • Maintain formal, written summative reports at key times in the year.
  • Use clear performance standards-based language.
  • Move toward meaningful descriptions/collections/demonstrations of student learning.”

The Ministry recommendations provide a foundation and guiding principles for our new direction.

In the spring of 2013, Surrey Schools officially initiated its exploration of evolving its practices and tools related to communicating student learning. The project is being guided by a District team of Learning Partners[3], with support from District Senior Leadership. Unofficially, the district had already been exploring other ways of documenting student learning electronically with a small group of teachers from across the district as we began to formulate a new vision for reporting practice. As we felt there was a serious disconnect between our current reporting practices and the Ministry’s new direction, we wanted to align our practice with a new vision.

Surrey School’s Vision

Our vision for long-term change resulting from this project is captured in this simple vision statement:

Making Learning Visible: Transforming learning through assessment.

Surrey School’s Electronic Assessment Goal

Our goal is to provide parents with a 24/7 virtual window into their child’s learning to encourage more active parent understanding and involvement as well as ensuring timely responses and intervention in order to maximize student learning.

  • Provide teachers with a better reporting process to communicate student learning.
  • Provide an opportunity to collect authentic snapshots of learning (audio, video and published blogs), to provide descriptive feedback and to enrich the parent communication experience.
  • Provide an electronic space for a three-way conversation (students, teachers and parents) about learning intentions, achievement and next steps in a child’s learning journey.
  • Students are actively involved in their learning through their own capacity to choose, share and reflect on the most important artifacts that illustrate their learning.
  • Provide an electronic option for teachers to collect evidence on a child’s progress and demonstrate growth over time.
  • Capitalize on the analytic capacity of technology to curate information and resources to provide timely learning support for students, teachers and parents.
  • Provide leadership in setting direction for the future implementation of the MOE curriculum transformation as it pertains to Communicating Student Learning (formerly referred to as Reporting).

The Project Plan

Integral to this process is the invitation to explore the use of formative assessment using an inquiry approach in the context of digital documentation. We asked teachers to commit to working as a collaborative team to explore inquiry questions on “reporting:” How can digital documentation and digital tools impact teachers and student learning? How can formative assessment and the continuous growth of students be communicated in a digital format that provides authentic examples? The investigation represents small teams of teachers across the district in both elementary and secondary schools committed to this action research. The project is ongoing.

Regardless of the tool or template, teachers are asked to communicate on key areas addressing literacy, numeracy, and social responsibility reflected through the lens of the core competencies (Thinking, Communicating, Personal & Social Responsibility) and including the content areas (eg. critical thinking in Social Studies).

About the Tool

The software selected for the Making Learning Visible pilot is FreshGrade, developed by a BC-based company. FreshGrade is a Web 2.0 tool that supports teachers (and students) in capturing student learning, creating a digital portfolio, providing feedback to students and communicating student learning to parents.

The tool can also assist in supporting personalized learning by analyzing student activity and achievement. The tool can potentially access curated resources and can prompt teachers on the next steps, based on an analysis of student data and recommend learning resources matched to individual student needs. Not all of these features are turned on in the program but are included as part of the roadmap. The program is designed to change the way assessment is understood and practiced, save teacher time in data collection and provide a much more robust window into a child’s learning. The FreshGrade tool provides a digital platform that takes advantage of technology to collect, assess, share and communicate student learning. In our partnership arrangement, the use of this tool allows the district to “own” the student data and ensure we can have some measure of control over the information. Teachers have been working with the company providing feedback for over two years now.

Outside of the project, there are teachers who have independently started using FreshGrade. This simple act of engaging with the platform, investigating and “playing” with the tool, is an important part of the innovation movement and confirming teacher interest and support of the tool’s application. We fundamentally believe that if the experience and product is effective that teachers will be drawn to its use.

Our findings our guided by the experience of actual practitioners—our teachers—the professional experts in the field. As they explore, we learn. As Antonio Vendramin, Principal of Cambridge Elementary describes, “More and more as I hear teachers reflect on MLV, the more I hear that this is beginning a transformation in assessment and pedagogy. Teachers are asking critical questions regarding learning evidence that is collected, what it reveals, and how it connects with learning intentions. Fundamentally, teachers are beginning to look at collected evidence and asking, ‘Where is the learning?’

Looking Forward

Elements by Lindsey Sterling: Used with permission, educational purposes only.

The district, as part of this CSL project, is undertaking this inquiry – Making Learning Visible – to explore whether digital documentation of student learning could become a new standard. Our teachers are at the front edge of transforming education through their practice. They are the champions. These teachers believe there is a better way to communicate student learning that aligns with our understanding and research. The district is taking steps to explore what is possible. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” We are creating a new model, because, truly, now is the time.

Note: This post is adapted from an Executive Briefing Report prepared last spring for Senior Team and co-authored by Dan Turner (@dj_turner), Director of Information Management Services, and Elisa Carlson (@emscarlson), Director of Instruction with the assistance of Marilyn Marchment of big think communications (www.bigthink.ca). Excerpts and videos are from the most recent presentation at the B.C. School Superintendent’s Conference (2014). For a complete view of the original Elements video, see here. This article is also cross-posted at wickedproblems.ca.


[1] Approaching Expectations, Minimally Meeting Expectations, Meeting Expectations, Exceeding Expectations.
[2] Ministry of Education: Curriculum Transformation and Assessment (curriculum.gov.bc.ca/assessment).
[3] Pat Horstead, Karen Steffensen and Elisa Carlson.

One response to “A Window into Learning

  1. Pingback: March 9 QUIO and FreshGrade Seminar | Fail Better

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