Assessing Ecological Literacy: Dispelling the Hunch

June is often a stressful time at public schools throughout the world. Educators can be seen scrambling to finish their assessment of student growth, development, and transformation following ten months of intense and rigorous study. Coupled with this, learners are often placed in highly stressful situations whereby they are asked to empty their brains onto a piece of foolscap paper, sitting in cold gymnasiums.

More often now, learners are madly trying to finish up project work, hurriedly putting the final touches on public exhibitions, and/or wrapping up their intense internship experiences.

However a particular school is designed, June can be intense and chaotic. And all of this frantic activity has one goal in mind: to summatively assess the growth and development of learners in a meaningful and authentic way.

What is often not assessed, however, is the one skill that may be most important skill of our time — the ecological literacy of our learners.

While we place heavy emphasis on numeracy, language literacy, we seem unable to assess one’s ecological literacy — that is one’s ability to see the Earth as the very thing which sustains life combined with one’s desire and ability to take meaningful action. (See attached infographic.)

Matt Henderson

Assessing for an ecological literacy is a perplexingly difficult endeavour, and it’s one that I have struggled with for my entire career. But it is also an opportunity as a community of educators to think deeply about the skills and attitudes required to compete against  those who are hell-bent on destroying the planet.

Given our our seemingly insurmountable task of overcoming these destructive forces and to some degree a general societal malaise, how do we teach and assess for an ecological literacy? What are these skills and values we are attempting to impart, and when do we know when someone has indeed become ecologically literate?

For educators, whether teachers, parents, older siblings, homeschoolers, etc., these are exciting times!

David Orr, the American academic who coined the term Ecological Literacy, suggests that someone who is indeed ecologically literate needs to have an understanding of basic concepts such as the laws of thermodynamics, energetics, carrying capacities, environmental ethics, etc.

At a content level, we are able to assess whether someone has developed at least some sense of an ecological literacy. For instance, we can determine to what extent a student is aware that energy/matter cannot be created or destroyed. This has huge implications, as those who are aware of the first law of thermodynamics understand why burning fossil fuels has its limit and they begin to understand the notion of externalities. We can assess as to one’s understanding of carrying capacity and systems thinking. We can assess as to whether one can determine what is right and wrong when making decisions about our environment.

The change in behaviour comes with creating educative experiences which cause disequilibrium within the learner. The more learners are able to question their role within the universe, the greater questions can be elicited about human existence on this planet. This is a different type of assessment – one which involves a dialectic and democratic conversation between educator and learner and one that is authentic. We don’t have to look into a crystal ball to see if a learner has been impacted by a deep educative experience and a meaningful relationship within a learning community if the design is sound.

A few years ago, my friends Pauline Gerrard and Dean McLeod and I had the idea of creating an educative experience for young people at the IISD’s Experimental Lakes Area. This intense whole ecosystem field course for High School students has most certainly impacted the learners who have engaged with the ecosystem, the world-class scientists, and the quiet conversations around campfires or in the middle of a lake.

But the experiences don’t have to be as intense, so long as we are equipping learners with the tools they will need in order ask deep and powerful existential questions and as long as the experiences are designed with purpose. This type of learning arguably occurs outside of the confines of a traditional classroom and leads to curiosity, inquiry, and praxis.

To assess this questioning and praxis, we then need to create learning environments which allow for a horizontal conversation about our role on this rock hurtling through space. This is the heart of assessment and a pathway towards an ecological literacy and a better future for all species and systems.

To Err is Human, To Cheat is a Cry for Help?

A colleague of mine recently put out a survey to some of us “humanities-type” educators on whether or not we wanted to invest into some anti-plagiarism software. What ensued was a conversation between another colleague of mine, Mark Duncan, and I on how and why people cheat and what our role is, as educators, throughout it all.

Mark is a really cool customer, a brilliant English teacher, an amazing writer, and fountain of knowledge when it comes to music produced in the last 1000 years, and a mentor. He has been at our school for 35 years and is essentially the institutional memory of the joint. My point is that I respect him deeply and our chat raised some pretty important things to think about in terms of assessment. He was willing to allow his words to be used here.

The conversation began with a question from the English Department Head:

To others: What do you think about this?

I responded, like a smart alec and whilst putting my kids to bed in the dark via a mobile device with one hand:

I might suggest changing how we assess as a means of curbing plagiarism. I don’t just mean in terms of changing the assignments from year to year, but also the tools.

Gratefully, Mark called me on my comment and demanded greater clarification:

Don’t follow you, Matt. Can you say more?

Oh dear. Now I had to put my money where my mouth was:

If we offer the same assignments each year, then some kids will cheat. If we offer the same assignments like everyone else at every other school, some kids will cheat.

The key is not to have kids simply right a reflection piece on Fifth Business or on the causes of Confederation (for which I am guilty), for example, but to have them think and communicate about ideas that are specific to their experience. For example, one essay Heather and I assigned this year asked students to speak to how the Indian Act may have located to the two main characters of Three Day Road in the middle of a European war. It was fundamentally impossible for kids to cheat. 


We also might want to consider different forms of evaluation – oral evaluation, evaluation whereby students have to interact with peers, with authors, experts, etc. If the assessment is authentic and meaningful, then I have found there is little room and desire to cheat.


Rather than trying to catch kids at cheating, I think we should offer them opportunities to be original. I wonder how many kids cheat in art class? I would bet that there is a sizeable market for Grade 12 major papers out there. What if you changed it up? What if students had to interview an author and then read his or her book? What if Grade 12 students were assigned mentors? What of their essay wasn’t an essay at all? What if, what if?!


Just my ramblings. By no means do I suggest that I have the answers, but the issue was dangled out there and I had to take the bait. I have cced a few folks in the case that my message was equally unclear for them.


Would love to hear your thoughts as this is an important issue that needs many voices.
Peace out,
Mark came back with fundamental issues related to morality and the human condition:
I differ in my assessment of why kids cheat. You seem to be suggesting that the fault is actually with us, since we don’t offer them enough opportunities to be original, our assessments are not “authentic and meaningful”, we aren’t original enough ourselves to come up with new topics every year, etc. This seems to me to be putting the shoe on the wrong foot. There’s this thing called human nature that sometimes gets in the way of making good choices, and the last time I looked adolescents were human. (Well, most of the time.) C. S. Lewis said that there are two indisputable facts about the moral life: 1. We all know, at least past the age of 13, what the right thing is to do, unless we possess no conscience 2. We all know that quite often we don’t do that thing. Kids – like adults – are lazy. They are also – again, like adults – easily tempted. Then they sometimes make poor choices.
I am all for original approaches to assessment, and I try my hardest every year to come up with plagiarism defeating topics. The subject matter we deal with in English, however, often makes that a difficult task. There are a number of factors that contribute to the downfall of the tragic figure, for example – an important topic in the study of literature. I cannot change what Shakespeare or Sophocles wrote. How much literary criticism, now available online, has been written on how those factors operate in, let’s say, King Lear? The mind boggles. This is a different situation, it seems to me, than what prevails in a Visual Arts class. (I don’t even know what a plagiarized art assignment would look like.
One way around this would be to set assignments on writers who are not exactly in the mainstream. I think this idea has merit, but it cannot stymie human nature. Two years ago, I set a topic on an incredibly obscure story, and two of my Grade 12 students plagiarized from the one online source that my exhaustive search for criticism could uncover.
Speaking personally, I never nail kids for plagiarism unless I am 100% convinced that they have taken the easy way out by copying and pasting blocks of words from online sources, copied someone else’s homework or, more rarely, appropriated ideas that are clearly not their own. Turn It In would make it easier to catch kids who decide to do that. That’s all. If we don’t decide to get plagiarism detection software, so be it – we will just continue to do the aggravating detective work ourselves. But I think it is important to recognize that this is not our problem – it belongs to those who make bad decisions, and we have to insist that they own them.
Hmmm… Perhaps this was more complex than I had originally thought, but I was still convinced that as educators we needed to create learning environments whereby cheating was next to impossible or not desirable:
I am not suggesting that student cheating is the fault of teachers. I agree that students who cheat are responsible for cheating. I am also not suggesting that anyone’s assessment practices are not meaningful or authentic. I am just responding to a general malaise communicated to me concerning the regurgitation of major paper topics, sources, and ideas.
I think my main point is that we, as teachers, can only fundamentally control one variable when it comes to the issue of plagiarism: That is the learning experience. I guess my argument would be that we would be better served putting resources into the design of learning experiences, as opposed to trying to catch kids cheating via a software program. This might prove a more fruitful endeavour for everyone and it might elicit the critical thinking and communication we/I claim happens at our school.
I agree that plagiarism is the fault of those who commit the offence, but adults need to help those who feel that they have little choice and we also need to create environments where by the thought never crosses their minds. These notions are perhaps Utopian, but I would prefer to prance around on this side of the issue than become a member of the Plagiarism Police. 
Mark, again, points out that my writing and thinking are not always as clear as mean them to be:
You raise some good points here. Thanks for taking the time to do so.
My sense that you were putting part of the blame for plagiarism on teachers came from your sentence, “If the assessment is authentic and meaningful, then I have found there is little room and desire to cheat.” Since we do have students who cheat …
Your idea that some students feel they have “little choice” but to cheat is an interesting one and deserves further discussion. I agree that creating an environment in which the thought to cheat never crosses a student’s mind would be a Utopian project – one worthy of Swift’s projectors. But I hope this doesn’t make me a happy member of the “Plagiarism Police”, as you put it. That would be a strange badge – no pun intended – of honour. Few things make me more crestfallen than a plagiarized assignment, and I always mete out justice with a heavy heart.
So, here we are – two educators concerned about plagiarism, but looking at it from two different perspectives. I suspect, as Mark and I are finding, that there is some middle ground – room for the cheaters not to cheat and also for educators to create assessment tools that inspire, include, scaffold, nudge, and fundamentally promote the creativity and critical thought we demand.
Thoughts, World?

For Those Teachers Who "Hate" Report Cards: Write a Story of Learning

Two days ago I read a social media status of a teacher which stated: “I dislike report cards!” The following day I saw on Twitter an educator suggesting that “I F_____ing hate report card writing!”

Wow! I was unaware at the level of angst this de facto assessment tool caused amongst my colleagues. This anger and frustration sparked some reflection on my part as to the purpose of the dreaded report card, and perhaps how we can re-envision it as a means for helping learning, teaching, and transformation.

From a pragmatic perspective, the report card is a mechanism for communicating to the learner and the parents/guardians of the progress the student has made. As a teacher, parent, and stakeholder in our community, I am a little concerned that educators might see this assessment and communication tool as an arduous and painful task. Shouldn’t this process be about reflecting on the learning and teaching that goes on in our classroom? Should it not be time consuming, rigourous, and thoughtful? Should it not be part of the conversation we are having with students throughout the year?

I know for many that report cards come down to a series of drop-down boxes and recycled comments from previous years. This is how we can “get it done” so that we can take off for the summer, right? I don’t know about you, but this makes me feel icky.

What if we looked at report cards a little differently? What if these end-of-term or end-of-year snap shots were meaningful, thoughtful, and personalized accounts of the learning, teaching, and growth that transpired throughout the term or year? What if we re-envisioned them as a means to inspire excellence in learning and teaching, as opposed to a mindless chore of matching comments with the “right type of student.” I once ran into an educator who suggested that there were five types of students and that you could predict which students in September would fit into these moulds in June. Whah?

Let’s change this…

Report cards can be stories. They can tell the story of the transformation of the learner, your story as a teacher, and the story of the relationship you have fostered with the learner. Firstly, if you hate the process of report cards, spend some time reflecting about each learner at least a few times per week. I create a Google document for each of my classes and jot things down periodically when a learner does something really impressive, or when they have struggled with a particular skill or with their thinking/logic. By this, when it comes time to writing a ten-sentence synopsis of this learner at the end of the term or end of the year, I am not just recounting test scores or reciting nonsensical statements about how well he or she gets along with others; my comments are a narrative of the development of this learner’s journey.

Secondly, report cards are a massive and critical tool to generate some reflection on our own practice. A few years ago in a graduate course, Ralph Mason, an impressive faculty member at the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba , asked the following question which has been embedded into my daily reflection: “What is excellence in teaching?” Most days, I know that I did not come close to excellence in teaching, despite trying desperately hard. I usually blow a lesson, ignore the needs of some students, and insult and annoy parents and colleagues inadvertently. By sitting and reflecting on report cards, however, I am able to think about what we, as a learning community, have learned. What were our goals when we set out? Did we meet the outcomes that the people of Manitoba set out for us? Did I provide my students with the right amount of space and/support they needed? Did I get to know my students?  For me, this is often scary, as I prove deficient in many of these areas, but the practice provides me with a lengthy “to do” list for the following term or year.

Report cards, just like any assessment tool of value, take a long time and force us to communicate effectively. I am often up to the wee hours of the night trying to meet deadlines, but at the end, I always find the process rewarding and positive. In my first year of teaching, I finished right before I had to take my wife to the hospital in order to deliver our first child. You can imagine how impressed she was with my dedication.

In any event…

If you hate or dislike report cards, change your perspective on what they are. Don’t see them as a thing, a burden – but as a chance to tell some pretty important stories. Take your time. Work hard. Look beyond the commonly conceived utility of these documents, whereby they offer a mark and a few broad statements about attitude, study habits, and behaviour. Have your students contribute to the report card and have them approve what you will submit! Do anything to make this tool meaningful. We owe it to our students and to the process of learning.

June Exams: Assessment or a Rite of Passage?

I don’t know about you, but I am in the thick of exams. At the Senior Years level, we have been using exams as a huge  summative assessment piece intended to perhaps supply a bookend to the year and establish some sort of “rigour” within the learning process. I recall this process during my High School career: cold gyms, desks in long rows, hovering music teachers who were forced to invigilate the exam, long sheets of foolscap paper, and deformed extremities which were overcome by writer’s cramp. In 1993, I wrote my last exam in the Kelvin High School gymnasium, but very little has changed 20 years later.

A few days ago I was invigilating the Grade 11 Canadian History exam at my school. As I was walking up and down the same long rows of nervous and stressed out students, I began to question this bizarre ritual we perform each year at this time. Why do we have students all write in the gym? Is there pedagogical value in this? Why do we suggest to students that we will assess their learning and provide them with 20 to 30 percent of their mark based on three hours of writing? In what other part of life do we place people in long rows in sterile rooms and expect them to be creative? Right, post-secondary education.

All of these questions began to swirl in my head and I knew I really needed to do some reflection. So why? Why do we create these sweatshops of assessment?

I suspect that the main value is twofold: Firstly, there is the basic efficiency in terms of supervision. Holding exams in huge rooms allows us to use fewer teachers to ensure that students are not cheating. But what if we turned our understanding of summative assessment around and changed how we perceive it?  Williams and Wong (2009) suggest that open book and open web exams can provide even greater learning and assessment opportunities when applied appropriately. By this, gymnasium exams and end-of-term exams change philosophically and physically. More on this in a second.

Secondly, I think we like to pretend that the anxiety we create by corralling students into a large room ensures that learning has been rigourous. I am not sure about this (See my thoughts on rigour). The only rigour or challenge I saw in the environment and the act of this type of summative assessment was the actual physical space and the stress of trying to cram as much information into short-term memories as possible. It would seem that the final exam has become a ritual of compliance and a rite of passage.

So then what is the point of having students even write exams of this nature in the first place? Why are we asking them to write about what they know of a subject in three hours? Why do we base 30%, sometimes 100%, of their assessment on this short moment of time? What if we changed our understanding of summative assessment and provided students with the opportunity to truly apply what they have learned? I am not suggesting that we move to a strictly formative assessment structure, rather that our summative assessment becomes meaningful and allows students to offer a nugget of truth and/or knowledge to the world. I suspect by taking them out of the gym might be a first step. The next is to look at what we are assessing. Ken Robinson, in his most recent TED talk, suggests that education is about creativity and curiosity. Perhaps final exams should be measuring curiosity as a primary outcome. In order to this, however, we might have to change the our methodology for assessment.

Recently I had the opportunity sit down with my good friend Andy McKiel, curriculum consultant with the St. James-Assiniboia School Division and Dean Shareski of Discovery Education. Amongst other topics, the discussion found its way to the notion of assessment. We discussed the limitations of final exams, in particular multiple choice exams, and how these are designed for short-term memory assessment and often purely based on lower-order thinking. As we often do, we found that our conversation resorted to the basics of education: What is learning and what does excellence in teaching look like? If we struggle with these on a daily basis, both personally and as teams, I think we might be able to do better than exams as isolated pockets of short-term memory and/or rites of passage and masked attempts of rigour.

If we see exams as summative assessment of curiosity and action, we might better be able to assess for the application of skills and knowledge, and ultimately the creation of new knowledge. New ideas, I would argue, rarely come from looking at the back of someone’s head in a gym or on a plane, but rather in groups, in the shower (when we’re blue-skying, and washing), and when we have a real audience. It is my contention that we need to move away from preconceived notions of rigour and towards, as Wraga (2011) suggests, a “vigorous educative curriculum.” Let’s move from rigour to vigour.

Tests and exams can also be learning tools. Dylan Wiliams (1998), the guru of assessment for the past 15 years or so, suggests that “Class tests, and tests or other exercises set for homework, are also important means to promote feedback. A good test can be a learning as well as a testing occasion. It is better to have frequent short tests than infrequent and longer ones. Any new learning should first be tested within about a week of first encounter, but tests more frequent than this are counter-productive.” So if summative assessment tools can indeed by learning tools AND  that they should happen immediately following instruction, what purpose do our traditional end-of-semester exams serve? Also, how often to we get to review a final exam with our students and suggest ways of improvement or offer praise?

Now I am by no means suggesting that we rid ourselves of final exams. I am also not suggesting that AP Calculus exams become cute and cuddly group work sessions. Not at all. I am just asking that perhaps we stop and think about how final exams in gymnasiums might help or hinder learning.