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Creating change-makers through the authentic assessment of deliberative dialogue

By Jessica Selzer (she/her), M.Ed., teacher, West Vancouver and Dr. Paula Waatainen (she/her), Ed.D, Vancouver Island University

They have taken over my class. My unit on climate change and its effects on displaced persons has been hijacked by 24 Political Studies 12 students who have decided that as a class we are going to collaborate, deliberate, and create an actionable emergency plan for a catastrophic flood scenario in Richmond, BC, and send it to Bowinn Ma, Minister of Emergency Management and Crisis Management, for her consideration. They had discovered the province didn’t have one yet.

They genuinely believed that I, their teacher, would convince her to not only read it, but come and visit them with her feedback.

In the end, they submitted a 62-page formal document, including a full budget, and a 10-page bibliography. Minister Ma did in fact come to visit them, and she stayed for 45 minutes answering questions.

What on earth just happened? What happened to make them think that this was even a possibility, and then successfully pull it off?

In the fall of 2022, I taught Political Studies 12 for the first time as part of a collaborative, design-based research project with Dr. Paula Waatainen.

My goal for this course was to borrow the format of Model United Nations’ (MUN) committee simulations using real-world scenarios to help students become creative, critical thinkers; thinkers who could negotiate actionable solutions and be passionate about making a difference for the common good, while interacting with conflicting worldviews and priorities. In MUN students are presented with a global issue and must act in the best interests and within the worldview of their assigned nation. Together, students must create a resolution that realistically addresses the problem.

The course was thematically structured and culminated in major simulations that gave students experience deliberating on real-world problems. I had experience with this, as I have been involved in the MUN club at my school since 2013. But the assessment piece associated with structuring a class around MUN simulations was a challenge I needed support with. I wanted to develop an assessment strategy for the course that would not be about “winning” the argument or “getting” the top score through memorization of testable facts. Instead, it would be about collaboratively creating actionable solutions based on research and data. I contacted Paula, a former department colleague at Rockridge Secondary, whose doctoral dissertation research focused on designing authentic assessments of citizenship competencies, and we embarked on a collaborative inquiry centred on the following question:

How might we operationalize competencies associated with deliberative dialogue, so that they can be taught effectively and assessed authentically?

Our inquiry and design process

Design-based research is powerful but messy—designing and redesigning while observing and reflecting. To begin we worked through a model Paula designed in her doctorate to help teachers develop more authentic assessments of competencies. “Authentic assessment” in research terms means assessments that involve complex intellectual problems that have a realistic, real-world value and performance tasks that are as close as possible to what someone would have to do in the real world. Criteria are explicit, and students engage in self-assessment throughout.

Paula’s model connects criteria for competency to a real context and connects student needs to teachers’ professional requirements.

Authentic to context

What competencies are required to respond to a real-world context? As teachers, we tend to make best guesses, but digging a little for context expertise can yield better ideas. In her dissertation study with Grade 6 teachers, Paula interviewed a Nanaimo city councillor and a city planner about the nature of competency required by citizens to make effective contributions to a public consultation process. Both suggested downplaying public speaking skills in favour of deliberation. Deliberation, in contrast to debate, has small groups decide “What should we do?” by weighing multiple perspectives and options. Both experts also highlighted the value of being able to prioritize, as it’s too easy to ask for the sun and the moon, but real-world processes require deciding what to do first and what to spend more money on. Did these criteria apply to Jessica’s context? She reached out to Jaime Webbe, the President of the UN Association of Canada, and came away satisfied that they did.

Authentic to students

To make the assessment more authentic to students from day one, we ran a lower-stakes “zombie outbreak” deliberation in the first week of class, and students self-reflected on how they did. Looking ahead at the major MUN simulation several weeks later, we purposefully used student-friendly language, to ask them what they thought they needed to know more about (knowledge), be better at doing (skills), and be more like (dispositions) to be and feel ready for that simulation. Both Jessica’s draft rubric and instructional plan were well-aligned with their ideas, but we adjusted the rubric to capture some of their additional, insightful criteria wording. This process was the start of an ongoing assessment conversation between Jessica and her students as they assessed competency growth together.

Authentic to teacher professional needs

We tackled aligning authentically generated competencies to the learning standards in the BC Political Studies 12 curriculum and discussed how Jessica could accurately generate a percentage to report. As we intended to assess for the development of competencies over the term, we used language from the provincial proficiency scale in this graduation program course. The students were used to having rubrics capture growth of learning, having been through the International Baccalaureate Middle Years program in Grades 8–10.

Reflecting on our inquiry and design process

Ultimately, we appear to have created an assessment plan that supported assessment for, as, and of the development of competencies, but it was by no means perfect. Like any teachers who are trying to generate a percentage to report while assessing for competency over time, we struggled somewhat in reconciling using proficiency scale language when the Ministry of Education and Child Care has not provided adequate supports to do so in grad program courses. Ultimately Jessica chose to assign percentages holistically by having percentage ranges associated with proficiency levels. Like many districts that are generating their own conversion scales in the absence of a provincial one, we recognized that our system was trying to force two systems together. Still—the students Paula interviewed universally supported Jessica’s approach as clear and fair.

Design outputs

1. The rubric: After working through Paula’s model, we created a list of assessment criteria that seemed essential, then operationalized the descriptors for “proficient,” then other performance levels. Our criteria were as follows: knowledge, perspective taking, reasoned ethical judgment, prioritization, and communicating in a deliberative dialogue. Having unearthed “prioritization” as authentic, we aligned it with the Political Studies 12 curricular competencies of significance, and cause and consequence.

2. Deliberations: From there we planned a series of deliberations designed to practise different aspects of deliberative dialogue competency. We built competency through an urban planning deliberation game, a challenge to provide advice to their new mayor and council, and UN simulations, including a UN Human Rights Council simulation on the topic, “How can nations feasibly deal with a mass migration due to a climate crisis?”

3. A recording process: Our process would have fallen apart if Jessica couldn’t realistically record what she saw and heard. Jessica had trained her students to keep deliberating while she “lurked” so she could observe students she felt she needed more data on. However, grading live authentic competency in a class of 30 is a daunting task. In consultation with a colleague, she developed a sophisticated spreadsheet that she continually updated with codes aligned to proficiency levels.

Best learning

Jessica: Some of my favourite times this semester were my bi-weekly walk and talks with Paula where we reflected on everything that happened during that block. We talked about what worked, what didn’t, and most importantly about frustrations we had when students weren’t getting what we were trying to have them do. It reminded me of being a brand-new student teacher reflecting on my teaching practice; something I rarely get to do now, let alone with a teaching partner. One thing I was grateful for was our co-developed method of continually grading for competency. This allowed students to try and try again until they progressed without being penalized for their prior attempts. We could informally assess via group and individual reflections and discuss what was working or holding them back. The students and I had a joint goal for their learning: for them to develop the competencies of deliberative dialogue. This was the first time in my career where I felt like a partner in learning rather than having a traditional student-teacher relationship.

Sunjum Jhaj photos

Paula: The best thing about this design collaboration for me is that Jessica carved out the time and space in her course for us to work on deliberation with her students over several Tuesdays. This helped her to offer formative feedback and the multiple attempts the students needed to nudge the development of competency along.

Jessica was great at giving ongoing feedback to the whole class when she noticed trends. I remember watching them nodding thoughtfully as she pointed out that many of them were still “developing” in deliberation because they were just developing the confidence “to raise issues and considerations that are important but may complicate discussion.” It was also pretty exciting watching her figure out how to manage the logistics of triangulating her collection of assessment evidence and adjusting her record of where students were in their competency development as they learned and grew.

So, what could have inspired students to design their own, very authentic, collaborative final project about emergency plans in our province?

After spending a semester working on simulations and being in communication with experts and decision-makers, it wasn’t surprising that the students wanted to tackle a local real-world problem applicable to their futures. From Paula’s interviews and our observations, we suggest four factors that may have helped students build interest, confidence, and motivation to tackle a local problem.

1. Relationships! Paula interviewed a student who had participated in MUN simulations before, who noted that through this series of deliberations “we’ve developed a relationship where we can talk more freely, and as such we can more accurately express our perspectives but also work collaboratively.”

2. Deliberation: It was fascinating watching students who were accustomed to arguing until blue in the face, now needing to consider multiple policy options and perspectives in groups. A student commented, “I usually just go aggressively with my tactics from the perspective of my country, but on day two of the simulation I realized I needed to be more collaborative.” The policy proposal that they created for Minister Ma required a broad consideration of policy and collaborative decision-making.

3. Disposition: The secret sauce in competency! While research indicates that to have competency students don’t have to just be capable of doing something, they have to feel capable too, we rarely operationalize competency by considering student disposition. An English language learning student spoke to Paula about getting out of her comfort zone: “It always feels great afterwards. I feel good about myself.”

4. Self-efficacy as citizens: We think that by having them grow in their competencies for deliberative dialogue they were able to see the value of themselves as citizens, and in their proven ability to create logical, actionable solutions that were supported by research. The curtain had been drawn back on positions and systems of power and they seemed to feel worthy of a seat at the table. It also deeply resonated with them that they were treated as full citizens with valuable opinions and queries by speakers, such as Jaime Webbe, President of the UN Association in Canada, and MP Patrick Weiler who they held in high regard.

Schools play a key role in civic education. Who were they to give advice and opinions to the Provincial Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness? They are educated citizens of British Columbia and understood that the power and potential of a participatory democracy is only possible when citizens act.

Visit to find Jessica and Paula’s Model UN resource.


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