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Nerdfest 2015 Day Three: Quick Writes to assess historical thinking

If you aren’t familiar with Bruce Lesh, author of the very sweet book titled Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?, then . . . well, you need to be. The book highlights his experience as a classroom teacher struggling to find ways to get his kids to think historically. More importantly, how best to measure that type of thinking. His stuff is just incredibly practical and useful right away.

So I’m pumped to hear him share some ideas about quick, easy to use, writing assessments to gauge student thinking. Bruce started the session with an audio clip of a Scantron machine scoring multiple choice answer sheets. The more noise it makes, the “worse” teacher you are. Because that means students were missing lots of multiple choice questions. Like many teachers, he used to use that type of test to measure learning.

But at the same time that he was using MC and other traditional types of assessment, he was changing the way he designed his instruction to focus more on the processes of the discipline, on having kids think historically. Bruce continued by suggesting that quality instruction measured by poor assessment does more harm than good. We need to focus on both powerful learning activities with appropriately aligned assessments.

He’s preaching to the choir.

To set the stage for his Quick Write assessment idea, Bruce shared a bit about what he calls his History Lab idea. A History Lab has the following characteristics:

  • A central question that does not have one answer
  • Dedicated work with evidence – sources must be evaluated and the information applied to the development of an answer to the central question
  • The employment of literacy skills to evaluate sources
  • The development, redefinement, defense of an evidence based answer to the guiding question

His sample question:

  • Were the events at Wounded Knee in 1890 a necessary battle or an avoidable battle?

But even as he became more comfortable using and tweaking his History Labs, he began to notice that his assessments were not really aligned to his instruction.

So his problem became:

  • How do we measure whether students address the question effectively?

His epiphany:

He needed to go beyond multiple choice and short answer tests. It really hit home when he heard one of his kids say:

Your tests are way easier than what we do in class.

He also began to realize that he needed more of what he calls “informative” assessments, measurements that “inform” the instruction and learning while it’s happening – short, quick, easy to measure formative tools. So Bruce began to change how he measured the learning in his classroom by developing non-traditional history assessments. Bruce shared that he liked the tools available at Wineburg’s Beyond the Bubble and the Assessment Resource Center for History but that these “feel more summative” than formative.

So he began to develop the idea of what he calls Quick Writes, activities  designed to measure the thinking behind a student’s analysis of evidence by asking the student to respond to short writing prompts about historical evidence.

He described a Quick Write as

cognitive vomit.

Characteristics of a Quick Write:

  • quick to write and quick to assess, so able to read and provide feedback in just minutes
  • isolates a specific literacy skill
  • is not an essay
  • embedded within the content being studied
  • allows student to  wrestle with the application of skills within the investigation in which they just invested instructional time
  • empowers students to write about something they are confident about
  • can be used to track student growth with skill development over time

A Quick Write asks students to aggregate factual information to make an evidence-based argument, to rank the evidence by importance and usefulness, and to demonstrate specific historical thinking concepts such as periodization, interpretation, causation, comparison, and synthesis – more conceptual thinking that goes beyond the basics of Wineburg’s skills of sourcing, contextualizing, corroboration, and close reading.

The Quick Write starts with giving kids evidence based terms as scaffolding for supporting their ideas. (I didn’t get to his session in time to get the handouts so you get crappy iPhone photo samples.) These are phrases to promote the use of evidence. Bruce laminated these and taped them to student desks. You could also put this on the wall as a huge poster or in student binders.

evidence based terms 2

He then provides a list of possible writing prompts:

sentence starters

These “felt formative. I was diving in with feedback while they were thinking.” He used these once a week or so. Not graded. Just feedback. But as he continued to have kids complete these kinds of activities, students began to realize that his feedback was useful during more summative assessments.

My take away?

Instruction that focuses on the teaching of historical thinking skills  – what Bruce calls the “the heavy lifting during instructional time” –  has to align to the assessments. And that formative assessments – in the form of Quick Writes – can support that process.

I just love his stuff. And he’s shared it all with you. Grab the goodies below:


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