Hangout Recap: Assessing 21st Century Competencies in PBL

For our Hangout on April 16, 2014, we were joined by educator Laura Greenstein, author of Assessing 21st Century Skills: A Guide to Evaluating Mastery and Authentic Learning (Corwin, 2012) and David Grant, a teacher and digital technology specialist at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, and Director of Video at Expeditionary Learning.

What are the challenges of assessing 21c competencies?

Laura said one challenge is the diversity of learning outcomes; is it a performance, a demonstration, the creation of an artifact? Also challenging is what the psychometricians are concerned with: the technical quality of the assessment, its reliability and validity.

David noted that Expeditionary Learning (EL) schools look at assessing standards-aligned learning primarily, and many EL schools separate content from 21st century competencies, aka “habits of work & learning” which are assessed separately, and self-assessed by students.

Generally speaking, how should 21st century competencies be assessed?

Content knowledge should be built into the assessment of 21st century skills, Laura said. Teachers can use a rubric or a learning log, so students can be metacognitive and think about what they’re learning.

David said, “You can’t assess the 4 C’s without an authentic context,” (i.e., a project with a purpose). “Without such a context, assessing 21st century competencies is not going to work.” He noted that the assessment process at the state level is still primarily focused on the content standards, so assessing other things needs to be built into an individual school’s culture.

Laura agreed: “It’s about going beyond what traditional tests measure.” Assessing the 4 C’s is not more difficult, it’s just a different mindset about assessment – which traditionally has been “someone gives you a test.”

How should critical thinking be assessed in a PBL context?

David explained that he thinks of critical thinking in terms of “the capacity of students to critique thinking.” You have to have students look at models, (e.g., in a project about wind turbines) and discern if what they’re doing is aligned with the goals of the project. It’s important to think of this as a teaching activity, to show kids what critical thinking looks like.

Laura spoke to the need to break critical thinking into a broad set of skills, e.g., problem solving, reasoning, inductive reasoning, and synthesis of multiple ideas.

How should collaboration be assessed in a PBL context?

David commented, “It’s such an alive thing that happens. In King MS, except for walking around the room to observe it happening, I’m not sure how scientific you can get. The primary value of assessing collaboration is getting students to assess themselves. So there’s less emphasis on ‘is this a 3 on a rubric?’ vs. helping students think about what they’re doing and how to improve.”

How should creativity and innovation be assessed in a PBL context? Laura cited the Torrance study of creativity, which shows, “Sadly, our children are losing their creative abilities as they get older because of the way we are teaching in this day and age. But the study also helped me see that we can be creative in different ways. It doesn’t always have to be an original product or idea. We can take an existing idea and build on it.” David pointed out that, “Creativity happens very fluently in the context of playfulness.” Students need to have time to play and time to experiment with their thoughts and ideas. Give them time, and a reason, to be creative; then time to reflect on what it is they have created – what was original and new?

Final Thoughts

Laura advised: “Start somewhere; pick one of the 21st century skills to focus on, then continue to stretch and grow.”

David offered, “Define what you want you want kids to be able to do successfully, then give them as much power and control as you can over assessing themselves, so they become the owners of how they’re doing.