Written by Dr. Alex McGregor, Deputy Head of School
Dr. McGregor is Deputy Head of School at UWC ISAK Japan. He also teaches History.
Reporting is a decidedly tricky bag of snakes. All schools do it, in fact they must, and yet it is often a difficult, cumbersome exercise. Report comments can often be too short for parents to be able to infer how their children are developing in their learning. Sometimes report comments can be too long. In our context, with eight or nine subjects being studied, a report card might easily turn into an unbearably long trudge for the reader. On occasion, teachers may strive for precision only to submit something written entirely in impenetrable teacher-speak. All these problems exist before we even try to navigate the more existential issues: what are we reporting on; is the report designed for student or guardian; what do these numbers mean; should we report on outcomes or approaches to learning; is there time to affect change?
In an ideal, perfect world, schools may even try to drop written narrative comments, replacing them instead with conversations between teacher, student and parent. After all, a five-minute conversation might be more enlightening than a paragraph, and they’re certainly more time efficient. However, in our boarding context, and with so many language spoken within our wider community (and not all of them being English), we probably can’t make that happen without a profound technological and linguistic upgrade.
So what do we do? Our educational discourse is centred on the concept of transformation. In order to become a self-transforming school, reporting is one of the areas where we need to elicit feedback and be prepared to experiment with different forms and styles. We encourage discussion, and I would be delighted to hear from any stakeholder with ideas. In the meantime, our approach is both intentional and multifaceted. We currently report four times a year. Each of these report card features the students’ current level of attainment based on our UWC ISAK Japan attainment indicators. This provides a regular opportunity to perform a diagnostic exercise on the level of competency our students demonstrate in terms of conceptual understanding, skills development and content acquisition. The ambition here is to place learning front and centre and not merely assessment outcomes or product. Moreover, we want the reports cards to be for both the student and their parents or guardians. After all, if we believe in transparency and the growth mindset, we need to involve all relevant parties equally.
However, this does not resolve the essential conundrum vis a vis written comments and what they should achieve. Earlier in the year, our teachers composed subject specific written reports. These complemented the attainment indicators by focusing on the students’ approaches to learning in their specific classes. The design was to provide clear, unambiguous information regarding why the students’ work has achieved the attainment level it has, and what the next steps should be to develop further. In other words, the number or grade referred to the level the work demonstrated whereas the narrative comment discussed how the student arrived there and what they should focus on in order to move forward. In our final report card of the school year, we’ll provide another round of subject specific written comments.
So far so good. We strive for accuracy and clarity. We want our reports to be helpful and supportive. But in all honesty, we’re hardly reinventing the wheel. The issue we spend considerable time mulling is how do we report on our values. We pride ourselves on being an ethos-informed school with a clear mission, but providing evidence-based assessment on how our students live our mission is a complex, sometimes elusive objective.
Our current response is the advisor comment. The advisor is the individual in our community most connected to the students’ holistic learning. They spend time with our students in coaching and reflection conversations, they guide them through their choices, academic and personal, and they advocate on the students’ behalf in a variety of different contexts. Allowing the advisor the chance to write a commentary enables us to shine a light on the areas of our learning programme and life in our community that more conventional reporting doesn’t allow.
Some schools provide report cards through an online, automated service. Perhaps in time we shall shift to one ourselves. At this present moment we want all report cards to be sent home by the advisor. With your children so far away, these small personal touches enable parents to know better the most significant point person for their children’s wellbeing. However, the disadvantage here is that advisors, with all their many responsibilities, cannot email the reports en masse. This is why we ask them to do so during a brief window. However, knowing how important it is to receive this information is why that window is deliberately brief.
So what might an advisor comment look like? Together with Raffaela Corrias, our Advisory Programme coordinator, we have provided some materials to help you better understand our process and the final outcome.
Below are the guidelines that advisors follow when drafting their advisor comments.
Using evidence and examples from across Advisory, CAS clubs, Academics and Residential Life, Advisors provide a commentary on students’ engagement with the following UWC ISAK Japan leadership concepts:
Identifying what is important and what is needed in the community (the student’s ability to listen to others, read their needs and take action)
Using diversity as a strength (the student’s ability to acknowledge, value and celebrate diversity; the student’s eagerness to learn from diversity and enrich his/her perspective;)
Taking responsible action in the face of discomfort or uncertain outcome (the student’s ability to reflect on her/his experiences and take action based on this reflection; the student’s ability to take responsibility when asked as well as the level of proactiveness – taking responsibility and acting before being asked to do so; the student’s level and quality of involvement in the community)
Supporting others in this practice (the student’s ability to support and involve other people)
The advisor commentary is developed through observations, coaching sessions, formal/informal conversations, interactions and feedback from other teachers. It concentrates on students’ demonstrated ability to listen, act, and reflect.
As you can see, we focus on a range of areas and a variety of evidence. We also focus on our core leadership principles as a mechanism to provide clarity on the specific values on which we want to report. So how might this look in practice? Below is an example we have written (the student is fictional) to give you an idea.
Lucy has embraced her UWC ISAK experience with full-on enthusiasm. She is very cooperative and aware of the needs of the Community and of the people she teamworks with. During Stop&Clean for example she displays great sense of responsibility when performing her duties and takes action without needing to be prompted by adults.
Lucy’s resourcefulness, enthusiasm, reliability shine through in her CAS and Outdoor Education experiences. She has built meaningful relationships with local students during her service sessions. She is is eager to learn about Japanese culture and make the most of her experience in Japan (this also shows in her attendance to cultural trips and in her Japanese grades). She also talks enthusiastically of the Outdoor activities she has led. In this context, she has shown the ability to create a positive group atmosphere and a sense of group accomplishment.
In our recent coaching conversation, it emerged that Lucy is facing some challenges in Advisory. She is part of a very talkative Advisory group and she seems to experience some discomfort in sharing her ideas. At the moment she is more of a listener and probably needs to gain some self confidence. We will be supporting her in the process.
Lucy is a kind and generous young lady: her way to interpret Leadership is to be at the service of other people in order to empower them. A very positive and promising first year.
Our ambition is hopefully clear. We want to report on our values in a meaningful, accessible way. We aim to provide evidence-based, precise feedback on subject specific learning alongside more holistic reports on students’ approaches to learning and how they are trying to live our mission. We may not have cracked the code of reporting in the 21st century but we’re committed to trying.
As ever, reports are not an end in and of themselves. They provide us with a point in time to pause, reflect, and think about how we should take positive action moving forward. They also provide us with a chance to come together as a team to talk supportively and honestly about how we can help your child meet their fullest potential.