This week, two conferences, both on Wednesday, floated past the eyes via the twittersphere, as different accounts and commentaries offered personal insights into presenter thoughts. It demonstrated that assessment is still, in teacher minds an indeterminate beast and is in danger of becoming even more so; a little like creating an animal by committee.
There are many schools of thought, but the poles, for want of a better term, can be summarised on the one hand as assessment being part every action within the learning process, while on the other the articulation suggests assessment as something you do at the end of the process. This latter is often then linked with marking, so that the value of doing so, in what depth and to what purpose assumes great prominence in discussion. Valuing drafting, as an approach to learning addresses both sets of need, as it gives a value to feedback.
Teaching is a complex art, whether a teacher is in the first or second camp. But teaching is the art of communicating ideas to a mixed ability group of learners, that will have, by definition, a number of members who are likely to misinterpret, so the clearer the teacher is about what they have to do, the clearer will be the direction of travel and the quality of learning as a result will be higher.
A one year overview plan might resemble aspects of the following diagram.
It is also a truism that any project will grow to fit the assumed available space, with much more that could have been done, as alternatives or in addition. Every subject could be grown to fill the school day. “Will we get through the project?” could be one level of teacher judgement, affecting whether some activities continue in the SoW or not, depending on time.
Discrete projects (SoW) can assume a life of their own, as an incomplete project is not a pretty thing. You only have to read Allan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler, to find a poem about “Never-ending Projects”. There is a set amount of work to be covered in that timescale. This can begin to dominate, and, in the worst cases over-ride, learning needs. So some children will be premanently playing a game of “catch up”, while others could, potentially, be marking time. To use Allan Ahlberg, some individuals may have incomplete projects and thereby become incomplete projects, as a result.
Understanding how a subject develops and what constitutes appropriate outcomes for the age and abilities of the children are also key to decision making. If, as a teacher, you don’t know what the next steps look like, how can you require it of a child and how will you know if they produce work of that quality? It is the understanding of the processes as well as the variation in product that enables insightful evaluation and reflection during and after the event. Teachers need to look at past years to see where they have come from and look to future years to see what is coming up. Moderation within a school and between Primary and Secondaries would provide a good basis for this understanding.
Progress was a word that caused some issue on Wednesday. This, in part, comes from the fact that the national scheme of assessment, based on level descriptors, was put into free-fall in 2014 when the new National Curriculum was introduced.
As a teacher when the original National Curriculum was introduced, I can say that, linked to an already creative curriculum, the level descriptors, used solely for that purpose gave guidelines to teacher expectations, which, over the next few years improved outcomes across the board. They described potential progress, in general terms, but all within creative contexts.
Over time, the numeric aspect of levelness, which was further compounded by the introduction of sub-levels, took over and the words assumed less importance, so aspects of levelling became almost a form of guesswork.
Progression in a subject needs to be well articulated, so that expectations are clear, plans can be effective in challenging children’s next steps, in-lesson guidance can be given to a purpose and outcomes can be properly evaluated against earlier baselines to help the child to clearly understand what they have achieved and what they need to do next. It should be a dialogue.
Sharing and showing the possible next steps provides the visual evidence for a child. Simply to rely on the teacher voice or the teacher words in marking, could allow for further misinterpretation. Given the nature of learning, assessment judgements are a guide, rather than firm indicators. Rather like an MOT, the assessment stands for that occasion. There might be some misfiring the next day, in a new context.
The introduction of sub-levels and an over-zealous application of these, did, to my mind, take teachers away from the big picture. Too much concentration on the minutiae of movement from c to b or b to a, with associated worksheets that might have supported that move, meant that children often made less progress than if they were given more open, challenging tasks, especially if those task allowed peer learning, so that they learned from each other and identified what they needed to learn to be successful.
Like a number of concepts in education, over-prescriptive interpretations further limited the view.
It may also be the case that a large number of classroom teachers grew up with the prescriptive approach as their educational journey, may have had that instilled during ITE training, so cannot see an alternative approach, but may feel instinctively that there must be better ways.
The simple rule of thumb, for me would be to know your children really well and to use assessment as a means to refine your knowledge of them, so that learning challenges became ever more refined. What’s the wrst that can happen? A lesson might misfire a little and need an in-lesson adjustment. That’s learning.
A simple approach that supports the process, without the teachr having to remember every child’s personal learning needs can be seen in this post.
The language structures and the vocabulary choice in delivering information is altered by knowledge of the “audience”. I use that term, because, in presenting information, the teacher is acting more as an actor improvising in front of an audience, reacting to audience participation, deviating slightly, then coming back to the main “script”. It is a salutary experience for a teacher to either see themselves teach, via video, or to have feedback from a valued colleague, especially to note the different approaches wih different children, where there may even be a form of interpretation, from a harder word to an easier form or vice versa. It is all based on judgement, which is assessment.
Having worked very closely with the Teaching Standards over the past ten years as an ITE Link Tutor, and even more closely since the 2012 changes, when I developed a dartboard tracker for Winchester University. It has become clearer to me that the subtext of the standards describes the teaching process very effectively, as described in the diagram below. To me, it also describes the teacher thought process clearly, where I would argue that assessment is embedded. In other articles on assessment, (scroll down the contents list) I have argued that AfL is just teacher-think, while summative assessment is capable of being instant assessment, either in response to a parent or with a colleague, wanting to know how x is getting on.
These questions gain answers by linking together the standards 2,4,6,5,2 in a cycle.
Standard 2; know the children, enabling progress and outcomes.
Standard 4; Planning, for challenge, in appropriate contexts.
Standard 6; Assessment. Interpreted as thinking about children’s learning, it can be further interpreted to thinking on your feet, while they are working. This guideline, when ITE students “get it”, forces them to look closely at their classes for the tell-tale signs that the children are “getting it, or not”. This enables action in the form of:-
Standard 5; adapting to need. In lessons, this enables tweaking up or down to evident needs, providing appropriate feedback to the children at a point where the advice or extension can be enacted.
Standard 2; reflection after the lesson enables adjustment to subsequent lessons, based on the evidence arising. This is a new “baseline” from which progress can be judged.
Providing a rich diet of learning opportunities, which open children’s eyes to the wonders of learning, coupled with a “forensic attention to individual detail”**, personalised approaches to learning, reflections on the process as well as the product, enables children to make progress in their learning.
That does require the teacher to prepare the journeys as thoroughly as possible, to anticipate possible diversions and have contingency plans, to engage with the “team” en route, ensuring the wellbeing of each member, adjusting apropriately to identifiable needs, celebrating with each of them and making them feel positive about their place as learners. This would seem to be the bottom line to support the possibility of them putting maximum energy into their learning.
This approach does make a link between differentiation and assessment, as both are premised on knowing the learners. What were you expecting? Did they get there?
** Edison David, HT of Vauxhall Primary School, London.