Doug Johnson absolutely nailed it in his latest blog on research projects. It really is a must-read for anyone at all interested in real assessment. Here's why.
A few years ago, after 18 years of teaching English, I was growing bored with the usual persuasive essays, so decided in one of those "fools rush in" kind of moments that I'd have my 10th grade class do a video documentary on a current problem in Cairo (where I was teaching at the time.) I figured it would take, oh, 3-4 weeks, tops. I knew absolutely nothing about filming, or editing software, but when did I ever let mere ignorance stop me? Three months later, the students turned in their final documentaries, most of which were awful (though not all. Not that I can take any credit for that!)
Yet I consider that unit one of the most successful of my career. I was almost as clueless as the students were, so when problems arose with camera or sound or editing, we'd hold brainstorming sessions and I'd often turn the spotlight over to one of the students. They had to work in teams and collaborate and compromise. They researched. They interviewed. They wrote. And then, poor kids, I turned them loose on the filming/editing and said "You have six weeks." I don't know what I was thinking. Live and learn.
Well, after we sat in agony (or laughter) through all of the documentaries, and I was wondering if I'd just wasted twelve weeks of valuable class time, I had the students write an evaluation with suggestions for improving the project next time. I told them I wanted honest comments, thoughtful comments. And they complied. Those evaluations were their real assessment; I was floored by the students' insight into the process, their own strategies, and where my management helped/hindered. They moved beyond mere iteration of content to a profound understanding of what worked, what didn't work, and how they would improve the experience.
That summer I took a class on making videos, which gave my next class a far better experience; they produced good--occasionally astounding--documentaries, and certainly learned a great deal. Moreover, their videos are being used for real audieces: the Sudanese refugee video helps recruit volunteer workers, the animal abuse documentary educates local Cairo children. And yet I sometimes think the earlier class learned more because I was less in control. I also worry that, now that I'm back in the States and tied to NCLB, there will be less and less time for these sorts of authentic projects. For as Doug points out, they are not about correct answers, covering the curriculum, or multiple-choice tests. Few teachers will take the risk.
There are also few teachers willing to take the time. Last year, the documentaries took six months to complete. Obviously, we worked on other tasks; nevertheless, that's a lot of time in an already crowded curriculum. I also took quite a bit of flack from others in my department who said, "These kids can't even write essays, and you're having them do films??" To his credit, the teacher who made that remark came up to me after seeing the Sudanese refugee documentary and ruefully admitted, "OK, I get it now."
Thus, next year, I'll not only do the documentaries again, I'm giving a workshop for other staff in digital storytelling. I'm plugged in to the AFI, which makes wonderful tools available free to teachers, George Lucas's Edutopia website, and Library of Congress' link to primary source materials that can be used in student videos. And I plan to ask Doug if I can open my presentation with his posting. I can't imagine a better way to start!