Bowling with Your Eyes Closed: Students Need True Formative Assessment

April 1, 2008

I've been bowling recently, as perhaps have some of you. There are some unusual things about bowling you can directly apply to improving classroom learning, so let's go bowling for a minute.

Imagine you are at a bowling alley. You have brought your own beautiful bowling ball, and you are wearing your stylishly patterned bowling shoes. As soon as you step up to the lane, however, someone ties a blindfold over your eyes so you can't see a thing. Undaunted, you launch your ball down the lane, and you hear the solid crash of a ball against pins. But there is so much noise in the building that you can't tell whether it was your ball or someone else's. You wonder, "Did I get a strike, or was it a gutter ball?"

How long do you think you would continue to bowl if you could not see what you were aiming at, and you never knew if you even hit a pin? I know I wouldn't last very long. It would be pointless.

The most enjoyable thing about bowling is seeing how you did after each throw. You are in charge of your own performance, and you get to see the results as a natural consequence. As with any endeavor, if you do it enough, you can often get pretty good at it, which is even more fun. Bowling is one of many learning systems that give participants intrinsic feedback to improve, and feedback is the most important element of formative assessment.

Education, just as bowling, is most fun and effective when the learner is in charge of his own improvement. He sees the goal, gives his best shot at meeting it, gets feedback to make corrections, and then can try it again. If the bowler does not knock down all ten pins on the first roll, he gets another chance to knock them down.

The bowler is dependent on being able to see what happens when the ball he has just released strikes the pins. The next time he rolls the ball, he applies what he learned from the first roll to do it better. If it works, great. He's achieved success. If it doesn't, then it is not failure. He simply tries again. Everyone is a lousy bowler the first go-around. It's the repetition that makes us better. So, why do we expect our students to knock down all ten content pins the first time they pick up the ball?

Please share your thoughts, and click here for the second part of this entry.

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  • Formative Assessment

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