Fewer things in great depth.

This week I met Clare Gatsby on Thursday who really impressed me with her take on asse
ssment; what a switched on, clever lady. Then on Friday I trained a bunch of Schools Direct students about primary science and they impressed me with their take on…just about everything! (Watch out old timer teachers – this new lot are top notch!)

So – a pretty impressive week!

One thing that came up all week was the Tim Oates concept of ‘fewer things in greater depth’ in relation to curriculum and assessment.  When we look back at the journey education has been on since 1988 it really had gone a bit potty with teachers trying to teach everything and assess everything with the result that potentially nothing was learnt or assessed that well, but was heartily ticked off as ‘done’. Things are better now, but there are lots of reasons why this happened; everyone had a hand in this from teachers, leaders and most definitely politicians. In the profession a kind of unconscious contract was made to define lots of teaching as being evidence of lots and lots of learning so that it was assumed that the harder teachers worked the more pupils must be learning. The profession, weakened in many ways from the backlash against the apparent sloppy pedagogies of the 70s, colluded with this fixation on teachers and teaching, while learning itself was often overlooked. Yet still this kind of unintended collusion in the classroom has the potential to spoil the latest ‘assessment and learning spring’ if we’re not careful.

What do I mean by collusion? Well, I mean those instances when pupils and teachers agree on success because it just makes everything easier. We unconsciously collude on what successful learning is. Teachers can do this by allowing pupils to feel success is only about completing tasks, making everything neat and tidy and being correct when mostly deeper learning is far messier, error ridden and all over the place. Deep learning should look nothing like we imagined ‘good learning’ would be like when we were kids. There should be crossings out, notes, drafts, dead ends and arguments, disagreements and a great scratching of heads. Have you ever seen a photo of Einstein’s office? It wasn’t pretty.  The problem is that deep learning is different from what education has been used to. It’s often slow and often messy. We might present things nicely at the end, fine, but the journey has to be messy. We weaken learning when we try to make it like a shiny text book.

Like this, a quiet collusion has sometimes gone on in classrooms, making children feel like they are climbing lots of ladders and ticking lots of boxes, and teachers feel like everyone is off their back. The point is that deep learning takes time, things need to slow down and pupils have to think more and work harder. Mostly, they’d rather not do this; we’d all rather just get a nice tick and smiley face than have to work harder wouldn’t we? So children quite like the idea that successful learning has been about finishing and everything been ticked. We’ve allowed this too because in the back of our heads there’s always that nagging feeling we need to ‘get on with it’; we need to get through this unit or that topic or else we’re incompetent. Somehow coverage has also become a sudonym for learning. In essence, teaching can be unwittingly mistaken for learning.

Anyway, this brings me full circle back to Captain Oates’ ‘fewer things in greater depth’ motto and I say, ‘bring it on!’  Let’s do less, but do it better. As Dylan Wiliam says, let’s lose some of the important things in order to focus on the more important things well. We need to bite the bullet, get the scissors out and believe that fewer things in greater depth will work, because it will. Yes indeed, less is more.

To finish – enjoy this funny clip on ytube and think of assessment and feedback while you do! Food for thought!

Give me a decent ladder to climb…

After listening to Tim Oates tell us all about why levels are out, I think I’m looking forward  now to assessing without them, and I feel a lot less apprehensive.

Already there’s a change in the air – people are talking a lot more about specific steps in learning rather than who’s a level 3 or who’s only a 2!  It’s no wonder we got too into the numbers though, everyone around us did, and quite honestly it’s very hard for teachers not to fixate on learning in a narrow way when everyone who’s judging them is fiercely and mercilessly holding a telescopic sight on the numbers too.

The problem was the preoccupation with ‘levels over learning;’ no one meant to do it, it just crept up on us, didn’t it? Although I don’t agree with everything Tim Oates has said, I do agree that pressure for ‘getting through the levels’ rather than  mastering and describing progress  has meant many children have been pushed through levels without learning some aspects of learning properly. SLT wanted ‘the levels,’ parents wanted ‘the levels,’ and teachers (desperately) wanted ‘the levels,’ and pupils had to get ‘the levels,’ and often even became the levels:  ‘How many levels 3s in your class?’ This isn’t wrong in itself, but is it if that’s all you hear, and all the time.

Part of the reason this happened is the top down assessment system that kept flinging assessment tools at teachers who then jumped on them to get …. you’ve guessed it, ‘levels’ rather than describing progress, which means nothing more than talking about learning in detail– which levels didn’t do, or stopped doing in a positive way that directly affected class teaching.

An instance of this, that I’m sure will be held up as an example of the ills of micro-managing schools, assessment and teachers, was APP (or as I call it, ‘absurdly, pain-staking paperwork’). For me, APP is an assessment system hell bent on describing the minutia of steps in learning to such lengths that much of it no one really understands. All those strange sections, often repeated with different synonyms for different levels (to show progression?) and that terrible feeling of ticking things that you thought might be what you found evidence for, but what the hell tick it anyway because you’ve just got to move through that level, right?  You say this to teachers, and all of sudden you get this broad smile of shared relief because we all thought it was ‘just me’ who felt like this, and that everyone else understood each of those ATs that seemed to have been written on the planet ‘Verbosia,’ in a distance galaxy called ‘Impractica’.

Anyway, as I’ve said before, the new assessment learning ladders better be the antithesis of the APP ladders. Pupils better be able to read them and know what they mean, parents and, yes teachers too! They should also be simple and focus on assessing what’s essential learning rather than trying to assess every detail. As Michael Tidd pointed out, if your learning ladders have things like, ‘Can chose the right equipment for writing,’ alarm bells should start ringing. His ‘things to ask of any new assessment system’ is spot on and worth looking at on his blog http://michaelt1979.wordpress.com/

Let’s hope ‘LearningLadders’ will save us the time and produce something coherent and simple for pupils, parents and teachers to use to learn, assess, teach and plan with– instead of all that bureaucratic, managerial ticking!  If not, I suggest schools agree what a pupil in each year group should achieve in reading, writing and maths in no more than ten bullets point for each and create your own ladders. However, it would be better to do it all together though and build a coherent system with which we can communicate on learning. Here’s looking at you Learning Ladders!