Whether or not you want to keep levels or not (you’ll have to use something involving numbers somewhere) there are four foundations, like four sturdy corners of a building, which will make any kind of assessment effective and meaningful. Whether or not you pay oodles of money for a whole new tracking system with lots of fancy coloured charts and graphs, or whether you merry along with levels for a while, or you spend time linking old levels to new year group attainment criteria, (what a minefield) unless you have these four foundations established in your school your assessment system will be partial and only semi-effective. Also, those summative assessments we punch into the tracker, they wont be as good either! And whether we like it or not, we have to show numbers eventually and everyone prefers them if they are on an upward trend and high!
If we accept that a numerical measurement of learning is limited and often limiting, we should also
accept that assessment is also the backbone of education. Teachers can try all sort of new initiatives, strategies and enterprises, but unless formative assessment is at the forefront of their practice anything they do remains akin to shooting arrows at a target while blindfolded. Sometimes you’ll get lucky – but mostly you’ll miss! Incidentally, fanatics of any kind are those who lose sight of their aims, but put in twice the effort, and I would suggest that if teachers do anything these days they should always make their aim to effect learning before anything else. When educators ask themselves ‘how does this effect learning?’ then whether things are worthwhile become clear.
Now, what then are these four foundations of assessment? Essentially they are common sense cornerstones which enable assessment to work. Assessment for learning (AFL), pupil voice, learning to learn (L2L – a language of learning) and relationships are what drive really effective assessment and in turn learning. I came across the concept of the first three while reading Dylan Wiliam some years ago, but I have added the fourth – relationships, because while pupil voice might account for some aspects of this area, relationships between teachers and pupils, teachers and leaders, teachers and parents usually decide whether a school has a chance of being effective or not regardless of everything else.
If we start with AFL, we know now that the best assessment feeds learning for teachers and pupils. Pupils are clear about where they are and what they need to do to improve through effective questioning and feedback; they know where they are going through the explicit sharing of learning destinations or outcomes and they know how to get there through effective modelling and exemplification of success through the use of success criteria. There is robust yet simple feedback and marking system that everybody knows how to use so that there is a continuous two way communication system between pupils and teachers where next steps are clear and pupils are always given time to respond to these. There is also a healthy sense of urgency about this process, it’s in quick time so that connections aren’t lost, but exploited to their maximum. Every part of this is enabled through teacher, peer and self-assessment so that pupils come to understand themselves and their peers as resources for their own learning. Everything moves away from a centralised, teacher-led classroom to a dialogic, robust pupil dominated learning environment. This isn’t pupils running riot, (sorry Daily Mail) but pupils owning their learning and taking control of it – contrary to old fashioned ideas, when pupils feel in control they feel confident and when they are confident magical things start to happen. Engagement and challenge are high because through this system learning becomes personalised. Thanks to the work of Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black, these AFL practices are common now and need little more explanation.
The trouble is that AFL can only start to work when other things are already in place and having a strong sense of pupil voice in a class and school forms the basis of AFL. If pupils feel a sense of agency and self determination they start to realise that what they think and do really matters to teachers. Who do you remember fondly from your school days? Who did you learn most from? It was the teacher who you felt wanted to hear what you had to say. However, pupil voice doesn’t just happen, schools and teachers need to work at it. Tokenistic ‘have you say’ moments won’t be enough, nor will a nominal school council which amounts to little obvious change. Pupils need to see that their opinions matter and are acted upon. The message is that ownership of learning is precipitated by tenure of the environment surrounding pupils so that feelings of belonging and responsibility are firm. If you make a child really feel that ‘this is my place, I matter,’ you will see a level of responsibility and seriousness about learning like never before.
Classrooms where pupils aren’t allowed to decide much at all, and teachers directs every move, mean that pupils will feel less in charge of themselves and that’s the opposite of what AFL requires. To add to that, in the years I have taught, I have never ever found that giving children more responsibility has resulted in them being less responsible – never. Like this, true and authentic assessment relies on pupils taking responsibility for it themselves as much as they can.
Learning to learn – L2L
This is the third building block, for without a language of learning, pupils can’t talk about their learning with the depth or richness that will make peer, self and teacher assessment have impact. Pupils need to get to know about the mechanics of learning, then just like someone who knows a bit about car engines, when it breaks down (which it often does in learning because that’s the nature of it) they can jump out, fix it and get on the road again. Learning is emotional and pupils need to be able to talk about learning experiences and unravel them. This is what makes children expert learners who are able to negotiate around obstacles and recognise when things aren’t working and why they aren’t working. When pupils have the chance to meta-cognise about their learning they are able to recall things they did that worked well and approaches that didn’t. They learn what words like ‘focus,’ ‘concentration’ and ‘understanding’ really mean. We use these words everyday don’t we in school? But how many times do we ask a child what they know about them, what they really mean to them? Having a classroom with a ‘learning orientation’ (to borrow the term from Chris Watkins) is to have a classroom where learning is on the table and conversations about learning are common. Ensuring pupils learn how to learn means that the feedback given to learners is effective because they understand how to use the feedback in a much richer way.
The relationship between pupils and teachers are really what underpins all of the above. If a pupil trusts their peers and teachers they won’t mind making a mistake. They will understand feedback is for learning and will use it to improve. If there is a whiff of being made to feel small because you got it wrong in a classroom – learning seizes up like a rusty machine. Pupils stop thinking in an environment like this and just start to try to survive. They try to survive by either staying quiet and disappearing, or they start to clown around to displace the focus on learning (because learning is too scary).
If you set pupils against each other in ability, so there is an implicit pupil ranking in your class, then relationships are all about looking up to or down on each other. It’s an uncomfortable environment – a nervy place. How can you learn and thrive if you think you’re not that good? How can you really learn if you think there’s nothing much to learn either because you’re top dog? Relationships are vital in learning. Pupils need to trust each other with their defeats and victories, they need a brother and sisterhood between themselves and protection and care from their teacher. Everyone is a supportive resource for everyone else.
But relationships don’t stop here. Teachers needs to feel like this too otherwise they won’t learn either. Just like a child will close down and try to survive if a teacher is waiting in judgement, so will teachers if their peers and leaders are like this. Trust must permeate everywhere.
If you know it doesn’t work when you rank and put your pupils in a pecking order against each other, then why would it be different for teachers? What do teachers look at on observation feedback forms – the list of comments or the grade at the bottom? And how do they feel when people stand over them with a clip board and a pencil watching every move? Just like a pupil does – awful and unable to be themselves. Does this scrutiny help their performance? No. Does it help them learn? Very rarely. However, if you put a bunch of teachers together to share and talk about good practice, do they learn then? Yes they do and a lot! So if you know pupil voice and learning to learn work with pupils – ensure the same is in place for teachers. Give them a voice in your school and a language of learning too and you’ll have teachers who feel valued and want to improve all the time. Which head teacher doesn’t want that?
So – all this is a long winded way of saying that effective assessment needs more than a few fancy success criteria and different coloured marking pens. It needs an ideology of learning behind it and an understanding of the psychology of learners as people with self-esteems and emotions. Effective leaders will establish and support on these four areas in their schools so that assessment and learning thrive.