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Hotchalk Global

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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Extracting Authentic Assessment From the Real World

Yesterday, I had the privilege of sitting in on my five year-old son’s tooth extraction.  He was also getting a filling in the adjacent tooth, and before I launch into the article, I would like to give “mad props” to the pediatric dentists and all the staff at Pediatric Dentistry & Orthodontics in San Jose, California.  What they do for children is top notch.

And not a single No.2 pencil in the bunch.Now, back to the extraction and why I am writing an education article about it.

I was literally sitting off to the side, notebook in hand, jotting down ideas for articles for this column.  I noticed that the one dental assistant appeared to be training another.  The trainee was the one actively assisting the doctor while her more experienced colleague supervised.  And then it hit me: this was authentic learning and assessment live and up close!

Before the doctor even came in, the more experienced dental assistant (hereafter RDA) helped lay out the tools and other materials for the procedure, and she also informed her trainee (hereafter . . . trainee) how to impress the doctor right off the bat by dictating the name of the patient and the letters that represent the teeth being worked on that day as soon as the doctor entered.  This is stuff you can’t learn in books or manuals.  Each doctor will have his or her own preferences, and RDA was letting trainee know how best to work with this specific doctor.

As the procedure continued (and I was the anxious parent, but also maintained calm with my notebook and pen to occupy me), I witnessed RDA answering questions the trainee had, supervising and mildly correcting or otherwise guiding the trainee’s moves, overseeing processes such as mixing amalgam for a filling, and serving as a second assistant for some tasks that just required another pair of hands, such as mixing more amalgam while the trainee’s hands were busy.  RDA, clearly a veteran at this office, also modeled encouraging words to the patient (that would be my boy) during the entire ordeal.  Such a thing is not taught as curriculum, I would think.  But if you’re going to work in pediatric dentistry, as much work goes into the show itself and the crowd control as goes into the performance.  The doctor also gave some tips to the trainee, such as which way to hand a particular instrument to the doctor.  RDA oversaw the entire procedure and was there to step in if needed.  She also modeled some of the techniques for her trainee.

I couldn’t help but think about how much of “education” in our schools doesn’t really prepare students for their future occupations.  I took a few moments at the end of the visit to ask the trainee about her formal education in this field.  Were there written tests? Yes.  She has to pass licensing exams.  But she was quick to add that she also has to write reflections and reports about the experiences she was having at the dental practice as well.  Again, I wondered to myself, do we ask students to reflect on their learning enough?

This raised so many issues in my mind.  When school for American children consists mainly of objective tests and rote memorization, how useful will the information be to them later?  And why just have them spit facts back at you when they will be able to look those things up when they really need them in the future.  Shouldn’t we be having students USE information in realistic scenarios?  So we assign research papers.  But even then, these are often little more than mash-ups of what the kids found online.  And “mash-up” here is actually too complimentary a term, when you consider that little or no creativity is usually involved.

This entire break from my ordinary day provided me with another example of how the real world expects our students to be able to perform.  And it shone a bright spotlight on the failings of an educational system that can’t spare the time for authentic assessments when there are pacing guides to adhere to and standardized tests to take on pre-ordained dates.

I just know that I am relieved that my son’s tooth extraction wasn’t just a benchmark for that trainee to pass, but rather a real experience involving a real child with real hands that crept up to interfere with his dental procedure.  (RDA guided the trainee on placement of her own hand in a defensive posture of pure genius.)

The key word here is EXPERIENCE.  Just how many tests and benchmarks do our students need to experience?  Aren’t there other experiences that can teach them so much more?  Now, I’m not trying to go all Montessori on anybody, but I’m just saying . . . how many grown-up jobs in the real world involve regular multiple-choice tests?

(No offense to Montessori education intended.)


Diane Main is a Google Certified teacher who teaches technology integration in San Jose, California.

Image is from Flickr user technochick, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.


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