The Power of Authentic Performance

Today our 3rd Grade demonstrated mastery of their ability to lead and understand the Amidah, nineteen consecutive blessings that form the backbone of every Jewish prayer service.  I think they did phenomenal, but full disclosure – my daughter is in that class.  At Gesher we call these moments a Siyyum, which means ending/closure/completion, and each grade in our Elementary School has a similar opportunity to demonstrate learning in this way.  I’m writing about it because these moments are such beautifully designed ceremonies, and because they also are perfect examples of the most powerful, meaningful form of assessment found in any educational setting – what Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins call an “Authentic Performance Task”.

Wiggins and McTighe are the authors of Understanding By Design (UBD), a comprehensive approach to planning and assessment that uses principles of backwards design to help educators develop units of learning and means of assessment that learners will truly retain because they have personal relevance and meaning.  There are a number of features to their system that I love, and the one I want to share today is the authentic performance.  When you write a unit using this system, you start with the end product, and you ask yourself questions like:

  • At the end of the unit, what will students know and be able to do?
  • What are the key ways in which the material from this unit connects to other units and other disciplines?
  • How could a student demonstrate their learning for an audience in a way that is truly meaningful (not just “school meaningful”)?

If the educator is truly building units around questions like these, then a final assessment can’t be a paper and pencil exam.  They can have those as part of the unit, sure, but the end product will have to be far more real – tests only really matter in schools, for the most part.  Enter the siyyum.  Today, for example, the a bunch of nine-year-old children stood proudly in front of parents, teachers, and community members and lead prayers in Hebrew that most Jewish adults can’t even follow, and then each one spoke about the personal relevance of one of those prayers to them.  These children demonstrated their mastery of knowledge and skills in a task that really happens in the world outside of school (a morning prayer service), and literally showed their teachers and everyone else how much they have learned.  Their pride in their accomplishment is well-deserved – they did a great job!  This is learning that will stick, rather than learning that is done for an artificial assessment like a test, which we know will not last very long.

I believe that these UBD principles are the most effective, not just for children, but for any learner, and we all know it – when we need to truly know that a learner has mastery in a crucial area, we don’t give them a paper and pencil.  We give them the real tools of their trade and tell them to get up there and prove to us that they have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills to be trusted and paid to perform their tasks well.  Employers seeking competent applicants don’t ask them how they did on their SAT – they look at their real, relevant experience for evidence that this person can do the job and produce the product.  The driving test does have a written component, but you still fail it if you can’t get in that car and prove to the instructor that you know what you are doing.

I’m proud to work in a school that understands the value of authentic performance assessment so deeply that students begin demonstrating learning in this way in Junior Kindergarten and on up from there.  We know that a Gesher graduate, by the time they leave our building in 8th grade, has the knowledge and skills they need to live meaningfully, lead ethically, and engage in relationships and community, because we have literally seen them do it.

Shabbat Shalom,