Teaching and Assessing for Life Beyond the Classroom
When University of Lethbridge Faculty of Education professor David Slomp was a high school English teacher, he developed a program called Writing for Life that he instructed in concert with a second, more traditional program, Writing for the Exam. His motivation was to prepare students for the writing challenges they would continue to face beyond high school. “Typically, from elementary through to Grade 12, students learn to write a limited set of texts,” he says. “Assignments are often modelled after the scoring guides for provincial achievement tests and diploma exams.”
Consequently, when students enter the workplace or into post-secondary studies, they aren't equipped for writing tasks specific to these environments. Neither are they prepared for many types of writing exclusive to adults.
Filing insurance claims and advocating for loved ones are just two examples. “The contexts are so diverse it’s not possible to teach about each of them,” says Slomp. “What we need to do is teach people how to figure out in each situation what the criteria for success looks like.” This writing-as-problem-solving approach is one of the major foci of Slomp’s research in curriculum and assessment.
To this end, he is currently working with researchers at Educational Testing Service in Princeton New Jersey to build a digital platform for teaching and assessing writing for life skills in workplace contexts. Collaborating with ETS, Slomp emphasizes the critical importance of assessments. “The lives of millions every year are impacted by high- and medium-stakes assessments,” he says. “Careers, opportunity and outcomes are all bound up in what happens as a result.”
Slomp notes that assessment drives what’s taught, valued and learned. “When we assess polished, first-draft writing,” he says, “kids learn to value that as a process and as a way of thinking about writing. Problem solving is not part of it.”
To build more meaningful assessments Slomp encourages teachers to first gain a comprehensive understanding of their subject. “If I’m responsible for teaching writing and I’ve never taken a course on writing or studied the knowledge, skills and dispositions good writers use, then I need to do a deep dive into the literature and see what the research tells us,” he says. Once teachers understand what is required to master a subject, they can design assessments, tasks, and instructional processes for effective learning. “I use Language Arts as an example,” says Slomp, “but the same is true in every subject area.”
Slomp’s assertion that writing as problem solving is an important life skill has been borne out by experience. When he asks adults about the single most important piece of writing they've done, responses often relate to unanticipated, high-stakes situations that require written communication of a kind never before encountered, such as letters or emails to corporate and government officials.
Quality of life for two of Slomp’s disabled brothers has hinged upon advocacy writing. The ability of family members to problem solve what various agencies needed from them in their proposals for services and supports spelled the difference between thriving and despair.
Slomp stresses that when teachers and school systems focus on preparing students to be good at tests, on excelling at publicly reported, narrowly constructed standardized assessments, they’ve forgotten the true objective of education. “We need to prepare students so they’re successful, independent, adaptable and resilient in life outside of school. If we are successful at achieving that goal, scores on well-designed assessments should reflect our success but the scores themselves should never be the goal.”
Wellness is Spiritual: David Slomp
A profile from the Faculty of Education WELLNESS INITIATIVE: Supporting a Focus on Health and Well-being. This series reveals how our alumni, current students, faculty and staff incorporate wellness during this time of self-isolation and physical distancing.
Writer: Elizabeth McLachlan | Photographer: Rob Olson
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