Tag Archives: Carol Ann Tomlinson

Traffic Lights meet Bump It Up Wall


Not only can the TRAFFIC LIGHT system be used for ‘On-The-Fly’ assessment (akin to Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down),  I have found it useful in conjunction with a form of TIERING as well as ASSESSMENT AS LEARNING:

Prior to the unit, I had students fill in a pre-test of concepts and definitions associated with essay-writing (such as thesis, topic sentence, etc.) but also a sheet where I listed those same essay ingredients and concepts and asked students to do a form of self diagnostic using the Traffic Light.

In other words, the student would read the word “thesis” and I would ask them to give themselves a Traffic Light colour about a) whether they knew what the concept was and b) were they able to use that concept right now. A number of students gave themselves, for example, a Green Light about knowing what a thesis was but only gave themselves a Yellow Light for using one.

(SIDE BAR: I found this sheet to be very informative for me and I have come to a place where adding that step of having the students self-diagnose can be very powerful for the students’ learning but also for a level of accountability.

That is to say, I have had students who have been frustrated when I have given feedback that their writing was at a Level 2 as opposed to the Level 4 they thought it was, and it is then that we will access some of this Traffic Light feedback. And the ensuing conversation can be very powerful when I say “The reason you have Level 2 is because, for example, your thesis is a little vague and disorganized. What traffic light colour did you give yourself about making a thesis?” And the student and I can then ‘triangulate‘ where the gap or the disconnect is in what they thought they knew versus what they actually know.

If I decide to make all of the students reflect on whether they made the right choice for themselves, then this becomes a form of ASSESSMENT AS LEARNING, I believe.)

“Assessment as learning…gives particular importance to the role of the student in coming to own his or her success as a learner.” — p. 73,  Differentiation and The Brain, Sousa and Tomlinson

At certain stages of this Bump It Up Wall process, I have told students what my next step was going to be (based on the plan I was following) and have then used the Traffic Light to differentiate how the students have moved forward in the writing process. For example,  after I wrote a Level 1 example of a paragraph for the students, I had the entire class write suggestions for improving ONE thing in the paragraph.  I then said to my students,

“I have read all of your feedback so far (pre-test and Traffic Light self-assessment) and, based on that feedback, I have the following three paths you can take with this stage of learning the writing process:

– if you are feeling RED LIGHT about essay writing today, I recommend that you take Path #1 which means that I will write the body paragraph with the group on the SMARTBoard allowing us to talk it out and to make decisions together, which will allow you to see the process completed in front of your eyes;

traffic signal large yellow– if you are feeling Yellow Light, then you can take this paragraph that we are going to improve and you can take Path #2, which means that you try re-writing this paragraph on your own or with a partner and then you can compare with what we have written;

traffic-light-green– and if you are feeling GREEN LIGHT today and about essay writing in general, you can choose one of these other topics from this list and you can ‘prove’ your writing skills by creating a paragraph on your own about that topic.”

This, in essence, is a form of self-directed TIERING;
by having the students choose their path by using the Traffic Light, I am hoping that this “…increases student ownership of learning and (as well as their) independence.” (Sousa and Tomlinson)


Focus On: Is Testing Even Useful?

In a recent post, I listed a number of ways that I tried to reduce stress in my students as they prepared for a unit-ending test. For this class (and for all of my classes), I have developed a test policy in which they can re-write a test as many times as they need until they pass and I will take the better of those marks. Plus, this test occurred after a three week unit in which I included a number of instructional strategies, including Foldables, tiering, the Traffic Light system, formative assessment through  daily ongoing feedback to which I responded, Thumbs Up Thumbs Down, community building, short mini-lectures, and cooperative learning.

I am somewhat disappointed to report that 8 out 21 students or 38% of the class failed the test, which was a combination of Knowledge and Comprehension questions, such as fill in the blanks and then a longer answer section that asked them to apply their knowledge to an article they had not seen before and to provide two short answers with examples, explanations and some analysis. In addition, 2 of the students barely passed, while 10 achieved 65% to 85%.

I suppose my disappointment stems partly from my feelings that I implemented a number of research-based strategies that promote student learning, and I also strove very hard to implement responsive teaching based on a culture of ongoing feedback and communication between myself and the students, where I responded to comprehension problems as they arose.

I recently read the following quotation from Carol Ann Tomlinson`s book Differentiation and The Brain ,

Timed tests… produce stress for many students. Their brains often get so preoccupied with the time limits that their cortisol levels begin to interfere with the simple recall of how, for example, to organize a persuasive piece of writing.  The more we learn about the brain, the more we question the benefit of timed tests in everyday classroom assessments. While no one proposes giving students unlimited time for an assessment, the notion that one must produce an answer quickly runs counter to our understanding of how our memory systems are activated and respond in different individuals…

If the purpose of assessment is to determine what the student knows, where is the logic in messing up an already delayed retrieval process by pumping cortisol in the system to add further interference?”

My question, therefore, is “Is testing in a classroom useful?” I ask this because, the poor results notwithstanding, all of the students wrote sub-par answers in that setting compared with what they I have observed in class. So, why am I subjecting them to a timed test?

Spelling Clip Art

To be specific, many of the answers I saw contained numerous spelling mistakes, incorrect grammar, choppy and even nonsensical sentences, and vague, ineffectual explanations. So, their answers are not as good as they could be, as good as I have seen; I then  wonder, should I mark with the same rigor and expectation as when they have had sufficient stress-free time to write an answer? Or do I mark with a modicum of compassion and latitude? If so, that means that my professional judgment is coming into play, but to what end?  If I have to extend a ‘helping hand’ during their culminating evaluation, what does that say about the culminating evaluation?

And what do these timed tests teach the students? That teachers and the education system are out to trip them up? That teachers are trying to say, “Gotcha! I’m the cleverest person in the room!” as Carol Ann Tomlinson puts it? That only the ‘good students’ can second guess the teacher and those who cannot detect some form of pattern deserve to be tripped and deserve to fail?

Carol Ann Tomlinson goes on to say,

“Rather than see assessment as a tool for judgment, (teachers) should regard it as an opportunity for reflection…”

She goes on to quote Wiggins:

“The real goal of classroom assessment is to improve student learning, not merely to audit it.”

And further:

“…the rightful role of assessment is to help students succeed. Assessment should not be used to categorize students, but to push their learning forward.”

But even thinking about getting rid of timed tests in the classroom feels… sacrilegious, as though I am thumbing my nose at sacred teaching tradition.

So what do I do? Deeper into the rabbit hole I go…

Focus On: Stress and Testing

“Testing of all kinds creates stress because students perceive it to be a judgment of their intelligence.”

“Students are under far greater stress when they take summative assessments than when they formative assessments because they know that  summative assessments generally carry far greater weight in determing their grades.”

“…stress produces cortisol — the hormone that directs the brain’s attention to the source of the stress. So instead of concentrating on providing the cognitive information required by the test questions, some of the brain’s neural efforts are now committed to the emotional task of worrying about the individual’s test scores and its  implications. As a result, the student’s performance on the test is very likely to be lower than it would have been without the stress.”
— David A. Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson in Differentiation and The Brain




“…students can hit any target they can see and that holds still for them.”

— Rick Stiggins

boy taking test

So, the question I wanted to explore was, “What can I do to reduce stress prior to a ‘traditional’ pen-and-paper test?

Here’s what I tried, using SIX THINKING HATS:

WHITE HAT (Facts):

  1. BEFORE TEST: I provided a DIAGNOSTIC TEST before the unit, which we marked together and which the students were able to keep in their binders for the entire unit.
  2. BEFORE TEST:A day or two prior to the test, I gave them the same diagnostic test again and told them that one section of the test would look like this pre-test.
  3. BEFORE TEST:I then gave them a version of the test up front. Part A had the definitions in a match-the-columns format while Part B asked them to demonstrate their understanding of the terms and concepts by applying that knowledge to a text they had not seen before of my choosing.
  4. BEFORE TEST:The day before the test I had the students play the game “I Have… Who Has…?” as a study tool.
  5. BEFORE TEST:On the day of the test, I used a community building activity (4 Corners) with the Traffic Light system for students to gain knowledge, build confidence, and, hopefully, allay fears or stresses. Once the students had picked one of the 4 Corners, I then asked each person to tell a neighbour one concept they felt ‘Green Light’  or confident about and why, and then to a second person, the students were asked to explain one concept that they are feeling  Yellow Light or Red Light or not so confident about.
  6. DURING TEST: I then had the students write the test in the library. The reason I choose this was because it is a bigger room, so students could choose who they sat with and where; the library has a computer lab so any student who wanted or needed to type instead of handwrite could; and as students finished the test at different times, they could go on to the computers to begin work on a unit project.
  7. DURING TEST: For Part B of the test, the application of their knowledge to a site passage, I provided three pieces of text, which I informed them were chosen according to the Traffic Light: Green was probably the most challenging, Yellow was a balance between accessible and challenging, while the Red option was perhaps the most accessible. I should like to think that this is a form of tiering, a strategy associated with differentiation. Instead of imposing a choice upon the students based on my own knowledge of them as well as any assessment data I had gathered from the pre-test, I allowed the students to choose the article for themselves.





BLACK HAT (Dangers, Warnings, Negatives):

  1. What about ‘test integrity’?
  2. How is this preparing students for university or the workplace?
  3. What about classroom management issues?
  4. What about preparation issues / time issues?

YELLOW HAT (Positives):

  1. How might this environment have helped to reduce stress and potentially diminish the production of CORTISOL?
  2. How might this type of testing environment help to create what Barrie Bennett has called a “Positive Feeling Tone” in the classroom?

GREEN HAT (Creative Thinking):

  1. What is STAD and how might it apply to test-writing?
  2. What is GAME-BASED LEARNING and how might it apply to test-writing?

BLUE HAT (Reflecting):

  1. What is the value in traditional ‘pencil-and-paper’ testing in the 21st century?


Traffic Lights for the Zone

“If a teacher attempts to teach knowledge, understanding, and skills as though everyone in the class were at the same point of readiness — that is, in the same zone of proximal development — it is likely that some students will be in the “learning zone” while others are coasting and still others are confused and frustrated.”

— from Differentiation and The Brain by David A. Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson

I just read this in Sousa and Tomlinson’s book this evening and, for me, it reinforced why I use the Learning Skills Tracking Sheet (“Green Sheets“) in conjunction with the Traffic Light system.

Just to summarize, Dr. Jamie Pyper took the idea of the Exit Card and essentially formalized it so that it is a part of everyday classroom practice. That is to say, the teacher and students interact with the Green Sheets on a daily basis but the job or function of the Tracking Sheets changes depending on the day, the teacher’s goal that day, or how the student wants to use the sheet. For example, a teacher may want to focus on one particular Learning Skill one day, but may not see fit to focus on that Learning Skill the next day.

For me, no matter whether I focus on a Learning Skill on a given day, I invite students to communicate with me at anytime on any subject matter through their personal Green Sheet, and I use the Green Sheet as an Exit Card and even an ‘Entry Card’ almost every day.

But the Green Sheet can also be used to address what Sousa and Tomlinson mention in the quotation above, that a teacher cannot hope to reach most or all of the students at any given time without checking their understanding from time to time. Because the students write on their Green Sheets everyday throughout each day’s class and I then read them everyday, there now exists a ideal mode of communication for students to indicate what their level of readiness is, again, at any given moment. And this is where the Traffic Light system comes into play: for example, once I have taught a concept I know to be complicated, I can ask students to pause to write on their Green Sheet what Traffic Light they are feeling at that moment. If students feel confident about

their learning, then they write the word “Green” on the sheet; if they have some understanding but also need some clarification, then the student is invited to write “Yellow”; and if a student is lost, confused, frustrated, etc. they can write “Red”. I can either then choose to read the feedback after class, or I have taken a minute or two (and that is all it takes in reality) to walk around the room and to read what they have indicated while keeping score of the yellows and reds on my fingers.

This feedback then gives me an instant and clear indication of what I need to do next: if there are enough yellows and reds, then I need to repeat, re-teach, re-present, the material. If there are only a few yellows and reds, then I can address those students individually.

I like Traffic Light because it is easy for the students to understand, it is simple and quick, and the Green Sheets provide a perfect way for students to communicate with me that is direct yet discrete while being ongoing and therefore ‘trackable’.


Focus On: Misunderstanding #4

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In Carol Ann Tomlinson’s book “Leading and Managing A Differentiated Classroom” , Chapter 1 opens with 4 Common Misunderstandings about differentiation on page 13. Misunderstanding #4 is described in the following way: “Misunderstanding: Differentiation is just about instruction. Reality: Although … Continue reading