Looking at Student Work
Looking at Student Work


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The following description is excerpted, with slight adaptations, from Looking Together at Student Work. Blythe, Allen, & Powell.
Teachers College Press (1999).

Experience a Collaborative
Assessment Conference in the
"Virtual Protocol"

A piece of student work has the potential to reveal not only the student’s mastery of the curriculum’s goals, but also a wealth of information about the student him/herself: his/her intellectual interests, his/her strengths, and his/her struggles. The Collaborative Assessment Conference was designed to give teachers a systematic way to mine this richness. It provides a structure by which teachers come together to look at a piece of work, first to determine what it reveals about the student and the issues s/he cares about, and then to consider how the student’s issues and concerns relate to the teacher’s goals for the student. The last part of the conversation – the discussion of classroom practice – grows out of these initial considerations.

The structure for the conference evolved from three key ideas:

  • First, students use school assignments, especially open-ended ones, to tackle important problems in which they are personally interested. Sometimes these problems are the same ones that the teacher has assigned them to work on, sometimes not.

  • Second, we can only begin to see and understand the serious work that students undertake if we suspend judgment long enough to look carefully and closely at what is actually in the work rather than what we hope to see in it.

  • Third, we need the perspective of others—especially those who are not intimate with our goals for our students—to help us to see aspects of the student and the work that would otherwise escape us, and we need others to help us generate ideas about how to use this information to shape our daily practice.

Since 1988, when Steve Seidel and his colleagues at Project Zero developed this process, the Collaborative Assessment Conference has been used in a variety of ways: to give teachers the opportunity to hone their ability to look closely at and interpret students’ work; to explore the strengths and needs of a particular child; to reflect on the work collected in student portfolios; to foster conversations among faculty about the kind of work students are doing and how faculty can best support that work.

In the Collaborative Assessment Conference, the presenting teacher brings a piece of student work to share with a group of five to ten colleagues (usually other teachers and administrators). The process begins with the presenting teacher showing (or distributing copies of) the piece to the group. Throughout the first part of the conference, the presenting teacher says nothing, giving no information about the student, the assignment, or the context in which the student worked.

Through a series of questions asked by the facilitator, the group works to understand the piece by describing it in detail and looking for clues that would suggest the problems or issues or aspects of the work with which the student was most engaged. They do this without judgments about the quality of work or how it suits their personal tastes. The facilitator helps this process by asking participants to point out the evidence on which they based the judgments that inevitably slip out. For example, if someone comments that the work seems very creative, the facilitator might ask him or her to describe the aspect of the work that led him or her to say that.

In the second part of the conference, the focus broadens. Having concentrated intensively on the piece itself, the group, in conversation with the presenting teacher, now considers the conditions under which the work was created as well as broader issues of teaching and learning. First, the presenting teacher provides any information that s/he thinks is relevant about the context of the work. This might include describing the assignment, responding to the discussion, answering questions (though s/he does not have to respond to all the questions raised in the first part of the conference), describing other work by the child, and/or commenting on how his/her own reading or observation of the work compares to that of the group.

Next, the facilitator asks the whole group (presenting teacher included) to reflect on the ideas generated by the discussion of the piece. These might be reflections about specific next steps for the child in question, ideas about what the participants might do in their own classes or thoughts about the teaching and learning process in general. Finally, the whole group reflects on the conference itself.