Charlie Brown Teaches Us About Formative Assessment

During the holidays, Charlie Brown and his eternal optimism always finds his way into our hectic and harried lives. We have all seen the Halloween Special with The Great Pumpkin and his Thanksgiving dinner around card tables and beach chairs where he served toast, popcorn and jellybeans. I love how after a dismal display of a meal Charlie Brown concluded his day by singing his way through a fabulous journey with friends to celebrate at his grandmother’s house. Not surprisingly, a few weeks later he was severely ridiculed by his peers for buying a small, withering Christmas tree to cherish during the holiday season. The Charlie Brown Christmas pageant concluded with an inspiring speech by Linus that truly captured the spirit of Christmas. Charlie Brown always won in the end – even after experiencing several mishaps and setbacks. Thanks to Charles Schultz, these cartoons and its beloved characters became an American icon, and I have tried to pass on their eternal messages and enduring understandings to my own three children. The messages of optimism, kindness, generosity and respect immediately come to mind. Recently, Charlie Brown sparked a different thought: summative and formative assessment. Strange connection? Perhaps. The famous scene of Lucy Van Pelt above captures the basic principle of formative assessment. We see Charlie Brown once again fall subject to the challenges of life. Once again, he summoned the energy to challenge himself, faced his demons directly in the eye and tried to succeed by kicking the football halfway down the field. Ugh! Only to have Lucy pull it away at the very last moment, does he experience his inevitable defeat. However, he remains the eternal optimist. If only Charlie Brown knew what was happening to him each time he failed. The numerous experiences merge to help develop a young, tenacious boy who has learned to never give up when a challenge arises.

The concept of formative and summative assessment often gets confused and the difference is critical when we consider teaching and student engagement. Formative assessment is when the teacher and the student are both fully engaged in the learning process and view each assessment or small experience as an actual formation of the student. Ideally, the student is engaged every step of the way and receives consistent feedback, which provides a wealth of data from which to draw. Think of the learning process and John Dewey’s constructivist approach to learning: like building blocks each experience builds on another and constantly works towards constructing/building/ teaching the student. The goal is the fully developed student who sees learning as an ongoing process, not the one, single assessment itself. Summative assessment is when teachers assess a student’s understanding of a topic at a specific period in time, most likely after the teaching of a particular unit. Think of a dipstick gauging the level of oil in a car. Teachers assess the level of understanding at a particular moment in time through a quiz or a test. While I think both styles of assessment have their proper place in education, it is formative assessment I look to when I consider a more thorough and engaging approach to teaching. Consider the following elements that accompany formative assessment: student engagement, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, meta-cognition, student-led conferences, differentiated instruction. Student engagement is the most critical of these because it can lead to all the others.

As educators we will not truly affect nor teach our students the necessary 21st Century skills until we begin to look more seriously at formative assessment, rather than spending quality time and resources towards state-testing, benchmarks and consistent summative assessments. Let’s begin to teach students how to think critically, how to construct logically, how to build creatively, and how to act empathically. Great teachers will always be brilliant, masters of their subject matter, but they will also understand their students and show empathy and understanding. This is a movement we all must help propel forward.

Charlie Brown has never learned how to punt a football because he never had the chance! But perhaps that wasn’t the intended lesson? Perhaps the lesson was found in the small, difficult moment of defeat. Each time he attempted to punt the ball down the field, he learned something new. He learned to never give up. He learned something far more valuable: how to be tenacious. Is that a concept or a skill that one can assess through a summative assessment? How can one fully examine the concept of tenacity through a state test, a fill-in-the-blank quiz or a benchmark? By engaging the student in a process where teachers can gauge their learning and how they learn best by consistent formative assessments, critical skills and concepts similar to tenacity can be taught effectively and the way in which the student learns best.