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Student assessments that bring tears to my eyes: The next generation of teachers

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Assessment in Higher Education can be a punishing and torturous time in an academic’s life. It is punishing as a large volume of student work is expected to be graded and their results uploaded in extremely short periods of time. Such expectations demand that this work is done over hours which extend well beyond when our loved ones are sleeping, as well as when they are awake and expect some love. Assessment can also be torturous, as if the tasks are not well considered and creatively constructed the monotonous recount of key quotes or really important information retold more than three hundred times can be mind numbingly painful. This piece however, focuses on the joy of assessment, and my recent immersion into the thinking of our future teachers.
I love working in a School of Education, where pre-service teachers are pushed to work in authentic ways. And, coming from the profession of primary teaching, I take great pride (and delight) in demanding that my students are able to translate the academic theory, readings and their understandings into everyday practices of a primary classroom. I am committed to rigour in thinking and research, but unless a pre-service teacher understands what it means for a six year old or other prospective student, it seems luxurious and superfluous.
Over the past ten weeks, I have read or assessed around three hundred assignments. The subject helps pre-service teachers to consider creative ways of teaching history, geography and economics in a primary classroom. In order to develop their curriculum and pedagogical philosophies, we ask students to plan units of work, and to respond to a series of mini-tasks. In doing this in the way that we do, we challenge our pre-service teachers to represent learning in ways which are quite different than they may have experienced at school. For example, in primary economics we consider how popular music has been used to promote awareness of a social issue and gather financial and other resources for the cause. We then ask the students to write a song reflecting a social issue close to their hearts and think about audiences and strategies for gathering resources. In another task, the students use a web 2.0 tool of their choice to recount their personal history within the context of what else has happened in the world or locally. This task clearly demonstrates more creative and considered approaches to the teaching of the new Australian Curriculum.
What is really profound about the assessment process I have undertaken is how incredibly overcome by emotion I have become. The standard of my students’ work is more than I could have ever anticipated, and I understand has equally surprised many of them. At the beginning of the semester when I outlined the task, the students were mildly traumatised –anxious about how they could bring such complexity to what they were learning, and moreover make the connections to the primary classes where they would work. With every assessment task that I read or graded, I felt overwhelmingly proud of what the students had achieved.
More importantly, I felt very privileged that they had responded to the task in ways I had not anticipated. In many instances, the students bared their souls, taking risks in representing what they did or did not know. They bravely shared their own stories of learning in schools and reflected upon the ways in which they would work as teachers. And I cried, as the evidence of their learning touched my soul as well. I learned from their learning. I empathised with their struggles, and I rewarded them with my time, my feedback and my expertise across the subjects. I felt humbled.
And, I needed to share this encounter for all too often the media and public forums are flooded with the negatives of teacher education and education systems more broadly. I am heartened and inspired by many of the pre-service teachers with whom I work. I am also hopeful and comforted in the knowledge that they will be the ones who are teaching my grandchildren and shaping new futures for our country. Such inspiration truly heralds an educational revolution.
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