Saturday, March 7, 2009

Plugged In Parents

How do you involve parents in the formative assessment cycle. Caren Cameron says that different types of assessment have different purposes. She goes on to say that the purpose of formative assessment is to inform the student and the teacher where to go next with the learning. David Bolton calls this being on the edge of the student learning (I like that). Cameron continues to explain that summative assessment has the purpose of reporting out.

Well over the past few days I have been having micro-conversations with my twitter network about just this concept. Without fail, educators will agree that the formative assessment is where they want to spend all their time. It is relevant to the day to day learning of their students. It guides their teaching and learning. A mass of descriptive feedback occurs and students push themselves along the continuum of understanding. Where as, summative assessment is the anchor that holds new learning back. It is labourious for teachers and admin alike, it is a mere formalization of conversations that have hopefully already happened with parents. Most often it is a pseudo objective process. More realistically, it is a subjective process where behaviour and work habits too often creep in and influence what should be an evaluation of understanding and ability to apply.

Almost all educators will say that the real assessment is happening on the front lines.

How do we get parents into this cycle of feedback?

I think this is where technology can play a major role. It is true that there are many parents who are not tech savvy. There are many who are. There are too many educators who are not tech savvy. These are excuses not real barriers. It is not going to be long before the masses are using applications like twitter to micro-blog updates on everything from coffee requests to professional development questions.

I don't think that there is a silver bullet solution here. What I think is that we, as educators, need to layer the tech network/info/feedback opportunities for parents, teachers and students. Like any good differentiated classroom the educator needs to accommodate for all levels of readiness. Here are some ideas for you to look at and provide feedback.

Layers that currently seem pretty common in many schools today include school and classroom websites. Many including a calendar of events, static information like teacher lists (some with emails), school goals, mission statements and registration information. These pages also contain less static info like school newsletters, pdf versions of notices, homework worksheets and the like. These webpages are quite informative and a great place to start. They can be quite laborious for the webmaster (most often a teacher who already has lots to do). Unfortunately, many of these web pages end up outdated with dead links or dated information.

For most parents the most useful web page is a homework page that is updated daily. This page allows parents, at work for example, to check the page before they head home and then initiate a better conversation than "what did you do at school today?". The conversation changes to "how can help you with your public speech that is due in two days?". These tools depend on the parent to regularly check a webpage. Making these pages rss-able can help reduce this dependence. The next step could be a listserve for all the parents of children in the class. Personal emails to particular parents are more direct to parental routines. Many parents now check email as part of their daily routine. Teachers can take advantage of this communication tool. However, this takes a long time for teachers and sometimes emails lack the tone the teacher intended and it can sometimes lead to miscommunication that cause a mess that would need to be cleaned up. In addition, emails mostly deal with behaviour and tasks rather than descriptive feedback that help move students/parents along a continuum of understanding.

These layers are still utilitarian and while they help parents engage they still do not get parents onto the edge of their child's learning. The next level of parent engagement is archival apps that capture work and provide opportunities for a community of feedback. Class and/or student blogs that allow parents to be a part of the network that can comment on work bring parents into the feedback loop. allows for work to be displayed and then for feedback to be layered in on various aspects of the work. Peers, teachers and parents can all provide descriptive feedback. Class wikis can show off group work and link aggregators like allow students to collaborate and for parents to stay abreast of the various projects their students are working on.

The final layer I want to talk about puts the parent right on the edge of student learning. I don't see this being a reality in my current school system just yet. But I think that it has huge potential once all the bugs are worked out. Once teachers shift their pedagogy to a child centered classroom where open ended tasks are differentiated for the various groups of needs in the room and children have spent a good chunk of time at the beginning of the year learning how learning is going to function in the classroom, the teacher is able to get down and dirty with individual students for micro-conferences in which the teacher is able to push the student to the next level of thinking and also provide formative (highly descriptive) feedback on what the student needs to do next and where they are succeeding. Teacher could use micro-social networks like,, and/or to micro-blog (140 characters or less) a paraphrasing of the specific feedback (or as one of my staff suggested, use voice recognition software to simply speak the feedback into a micro-blog tool). Using hashtag (i.e. #jared) the micro-blog entries would be archived and easily sorted when it came time to write summative report cards. Parent conversations would totally change at home because both parent and student would have the feedback comment to initiate dialogue. Students could look back at the archived feedback so as to make adjustments to assignments once they looked at them again at home.

All of these tools can be found as free web 2.0 apps or they could be arranged under the convenient umbrella of a district/school or class portal. For more information on portals check out the excellent work of Cindy Seibel at

This idea could actually happen right now. Using one of the micro-blogging apps mentioned above and if parent, student and teacher had a web browser ready cell phone (i.e iPhone), we could involve parents in the formative assessment cycle live as it happens.

The 64000 dollar question is not whether we can do this or how do we make this a reality. The real question is do the majority of parents really want this level of involvement in their children's education?

I now solicit your thoughts and feedback.



James McConville said...


Thanks for doing this great summary of technology to connect to parents. I'd be interested to read their feedback on these ideas. Would they take the time to connect?

Dave Truss said...

Good question James... another questions I have is about the 'digital divide'. As we invite parents in, is this an opt-in or an expectation? How do we support parents that are not plugged in, or more specifically don't know what to do when they are plugged in?

I think you are really talking about two things Dave:
1. Moving to a model that is based on Formative Assessment
2. Involving parents in the learning process.

Where the conversation gets exciting is where you mention the idea of combining these two ideas, "we could involve parents in the formative assessment cycle live as it happens."

But in my humble opinion, most teachers are not ready to open up their classrooms to that (yet).
There needs to be a digital confidence and a depth of understanding around meaningful assessment first.

The exciting thing now is to see examples that work... the trailblazers that are figuring these things out and sharing them with parents... AND the rest of the world!

Britt Gow said...

These are some really interesting thoughts about involving parents in assessment for/as/of learning. Our school has embraced blogging, with each class using these to enable parents to have a window into the classroom. It is most satisfying for teachers and encouraging for students when we get comments back from parents. Although we promote this through our school newsletter and at parent/teacher nights, few parents regularly use the opportunity. We will continue to give parents, relatives and the general public the opportunity to learn about what we are doing in the classroom as we have seen the benefit to student learning of a global audience.
I would like to be using Twitter or other apps. to let parents know when students have important projects due, homework or revision tasks, but due to the diverse nature of parent occupations and internet abilities, I think this will be along time away. I have made good use of email with parents who have identified this as a way I am able to contact them - especially when I have concerns about student behaviour and attitudes, as well as their learning and assessment.
Thanks for encouraging me to verbalise these thoughts!

Melissa Techman said...

I like your respectful tone towards parents who aren't there yet! Also, that's a great idea about using hashtags to sort responses from microblogging platforms - I'm just catching on to that idea, but hadn't thought of it for school use. One thing to keep in mind is how to make it easy on the teachers while you open up communication with parents. Lots to think about here - thanks for a good post!

Elaan said...


This is a valuable and pertinent question and I am glad that you put it out there.

Several things struck me as read through this post - some of which will be less popular than others:

1. Having parents be part of the feedback process would be extremely valuable, but not without its own challenges. As we deal with a myriad of student abilities and personalities, we shouldn't forget that parents have different needs as well. Some would be more "at home" in the feedback process than others.

2. Updating a daily homework page can be laborious for the teacher and may decrease a student's own responsibility to be accountable. It would be easy to blame the teacher if it wasn't updated in a timely manner. Plus, some parents could enable their kids to be less accountable by "doing it for them."

When I had a Grade 8 core class, I sent weekly or biweekly emails home to parents (en masse) so that they stayed up-to-date on what we were doing in class, major tests or projects, important dates etc. But I let them know that it was NOT used as a comprehensive homework list and that their child was still responsible for writing in their planner and being accountable for their own work. This seemed to work well, and parents really loved getting the emails, although I am sure that you're right - they would prefer to have a daily update on homework. It just seemed like a reasonable and happy medium for my students and myself at the time.

3. Having parents involved in the formative assessment cycle as it happens sounds ideal, but perhaps a little lofty? I think perhaps when you take into account 30 students and 30-60 parents, it could get overwhelming and/or unmanageable. Having said that, I'd be willing to try it out and tweak... that's how I have learned to do many of the things I feel successful about today.

Anyways... these are just the thoughts off the top of my head. I feel like it is possible to get to the place you describe, Dave, but that it will take time and small changes as people (students, parents, AND the teachers) become more comfortable with the assessment model and using technology. In fact, it may even take a whole shift in thinking about how the classroom is run.

If I currently spend all day teaching, and all my spare time prepping and marking (not to mention the billion other things we do as a part of our daily routine), where do I find the time to do formative assessment with each and every student and their parents? The struggle & stress to get formal and informal reports done throughout the year already seems like a huge undertaking. I think in order to go in this new direction, we'd need to change how we teach, how we report, and how we interact with the technology at hand.

Thanks for having the vision to see the changes that need to be made, Dave! I am all for taking the steps to get there. Even if they are baby steps. :)

dmac32 said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments Elaan.

I want to respond to the last part of your comment that talks to not having enough time to do formative assessment. Let me try to articulate it in another way.

For the purposes of argument lets assume the access to technology issue has been resolved.

iPhone in hand, you circulate from student to student while they are working on the learning intention of writing strong transisiton sentences. You have already made this intention clear to the students. They have been made aware of the criteria. As you consult with "Bill" your feedback to him is - you need to use stronger adjectives in order to make your connection punch - you text this to emodo with the #bill07 tag and voila. The parent who is following this gets the feedback, so does the student who is also following, at the end of the day, unit, term, sort all your feedback micro-blogs via #tags and use them to help write your report cards.

The only add on is a 20 second text message during the time you would normally give feedback to the child about their work anyways.

The parent who follows can read or not read, get involved or not involved, but at least there is a piece of data that facilitates a conversation between parent, child and teacher.

I would love to see someone pilot this idea. I don't have access to a class or iPhone at this time (working on that). Any takers?

James McConville said...

Hi Dave,
Interesting idea about making comments on a phone so that parents can see when they want. As Dave says, very exciting way to think about formative assessment. What I'd think we would likely hear about is concerns related to student privacy. Feedback using open (public) networks would need to be generic and positive.


dmac32 said...


The Edmodo software, as an example, is actually a pass protected, private social network that only those who are invited can share and see. Yes you are giving up the data to a third party software company and this would have to be explored as to the ramification of student data being in the hands of a company like Edmodo. I'd be interested if anyone has a suggestion. I wonder if district portals would be able to create a twitter-like program.

Frank Pearse said...


I told you I would get to it eventually...

Great post, I think this is an awesome idea, not sure if it could come to fruition however it would be an ideal.

The concept of saving your ongoing formative assessments to use on a report card is an interesting one. I wonder if this would work with the "snapshot in time" concept of reporting, but that might be getting a little bit nit picky!

On James's second comment I wonder if there there is a way to do direct messages with your 'tweets' (or in whatever program you use) so that only the individual student and their parents could view the individualized feedback. If this was the case it could definatly be a viable method of assessment / communication.

With all this in mind, I think the bigger step is to move our staffs towards formative assessment first...or at least at my school! Read too many "Johnny scored 79% on his recent Math tests" comments this reporting period!

Heidi Hass Gable said...

The texting feedback idea feels too open to me – what kind of feedback? What would be useful to parents and kids to talk about? Will each parent understand it? What limitations and misunderstandings will result from quick written feedback being misinterpreted? How many kids will get reprimanded as a result, instead of having a conversation with their parents?

I’m not sure I want to be involved in the assessment of my child’s learning to this degree. How much would I have to learn in order to make meaning of the teacher’s comments and then be able to have a meaningful conversation with my child about it? (eduspeak, pedagogies, learning outcomes, Bloom’s Taxonomy, assessment theory, appropriate variation in learning and development, etc…) I wonder if it would just be more frustrating to get the quick comments on a daily basis, without the context of being able to ask immediate questions or of having been in the classroom when it was said?

Although I can research the blood test my doctor ordered, I want the trained and experienced experts to interpret the results for me. Involve me in the conversation about the results, but don’t send me the raw data and expect me to know what to do with it!

I feel the same way about parent involvement in student assessment. Yes, I want to know how my child is doing – based on an analysis done by the expert in the room. Yes, I want to be able to add my perspective and my knowledge of my child – because I can add value to that assessment by telling you what’s going on at home or what I know of my child’s habits, abilities and experiences. But don’t make me figure it all out on my own! I have enough on my plate! :)

On one occasion last year, I dropped in to touch base with my daughter’s teacher. He mentioned that he was a little puzzled – he had assigned a writing project, starting with an introductory paragraph. What Sophie handed in was a drawing, with several text boxes pointing at different sections of the drawing, each with one sentence in it. Although creative, it didn’t follow his instructions or meet the objective of demonstrating contiguous writing. He was puzzled – wondering if she hadn’t understood his instructions?

As he told me about what she handed it, a light bulb went on for me – he was describing the “Dinosaur” book that Sophie loved reading lately. She wasn't reading novels.

It was an “ah-ha” moment for each of us - he better understood Sophie’s experience and expectations for writing, and I took her to the library to pick out some chapter books in order to help her better understand what contiguous writing looked/sounded like. Problem solved!

Without my input and realization, I suspect it could have taken longer, with more frustration on both sides until Sophie better learned what was expected of her on this project!

That's the kind of partnership that I like to see!

I've also got blog posts running around my head about what I'd like from a class website - and what I think parent involvement needs to include. I'll link back here once I write them!

Thanks for the discussion!