We talk often in the world of education about data and formative assessment. As an administrator, I challenge my teachers to assess their students as often as possible. But what makes for truly effective formative assessment is not the strategy used to assess, but rather what you do with the data gathered. Using data to drive our decision-making is the pinnacle of assessment.
Too many teachers believe that assessments should be done only at the end of a lesson. Using an exit ticket to determine if students grasped the concept you’re trying to teach is great, but it does not give you the opportunity to use the data gathered until the next day. The feedback I find myself giving to teachers most often is to use group work as an opportunity for assessment.
In the army there’s a saying, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” I want to be clear: I am not a veteran. I learned this strategy early in my administrative career from a leadership professional development seminar with West Point’s Thayer Leadership. Col. Thomas Magness introduced my team and me to the tactical pause, a military strategy designed to slow the pace of operations on the battlefield. Leaders use this strategy to regroup, assess their observations, and decide how to move forward. I thought to myself, “This is exactly what teachers need to do in the middle of their lessons.”
While students are working in pairs or groups to complete a task, we, as teachers, can tell when things are not going the way we planned. More often than not, we fear deviating from the plan. We bounce from group to group like a pinball hitting as many groups as possible, re-explaining the task or asking, "How can I help?" or "Do you need anything?” We try to put out fires as they arise, when we should be thinking like a sports coach and calling a clutch time-out.
Rather than muddling through, I advise teachers to use this time strategically. When students are prepared to work independently in groups, the role of the teacher is to be a facilitator, observer, and evaluator. Set clear expectations of what students should be doing, and be transparent about what you will be doing during this time. You might say, “As you do this activity, I want you to work collaboratively. If you have a question, please be sure to ask your classmates before coming to me. During this time, I will be circulating from group to group, listening in and taking notes on what I hear in order to assess your learning.”
You should circulate throughout the room, listening intently to the discussions students are having. Resist the temptation to interject or answer questions that students are asking, especially “Hey, mister, is this right?” Listen in like a fly on the wall and take notes on what you hear. Record common misconceptions. Consider if everyone is completing the task the way you expected and what adjustments need to be made. Highlight comments that you hear from groups or individuals. Are two students having a great debate about the task that should be spotlighted as a model for the rest of the class?
A Tactical Pause
Once you’ve gathered some data, you are ready to do something with it. It’s time for a tactical pause—regroup, assess observations, and strategize about how to move forward. Bring the class back to your attention, and share your findings with them. Below are some examples of the type of feedback you might share with the class.
Spotlighting: “I heard Theadora and Jesse having a great debate about the best way to solve the problem. Theadora, can you share with the whole class what the debate was about?”
Misconceptions: “I noticed that several groups are all making a similar mistake as they solve this problem. Let’s revisit this as a whole class.”
Grouping: “Through my observations, I have decided to make some shifts to how we are grouped. I think that your discussions would work better in pairs rather than groups of four so that everyone will have an opportunity to be heard.”
Clarification: “I am noticing that many of you are unclear about my expectations for this task. I want to take a minute to re-explain to everyone so that we can all move forward on the same page.”
Once you’ve delivered the feedback, you should give students a clear next step to make your feedback actionable. You might say something like, “As you are going back to work, I want you to be sure that you are citing textual evidence in your responses.”
Most teacher observation rubrics, like the Danielson Framework used in New York City schools, place a heavy emphasis on discussion technique, student engagement, and assessment. The tactical pause is a formative assessment tool that teachers can use to make the data gathered through teacher observation actionable, but by design it also fosters student-to-student discussion and boosts engagement as well.
By pushing students to not use the teacher as a crutch, you force them to ask questions of their peers. This creates opportunities for authentic discussion and meaningful engagement.
Great coaches know that a time-out taken at the right time can be the difference between winning and losing a game. A teacher’s time-out is the tactical pause.