Authentic AfL: check!

teacher and pupil

‘Assessment’ is derived from the Latin verb assidere which means ‘to sit beside.’

For some time now I have had a nagging feeling that the true spirit of AfL (Assessment for Learning) is not always understood by teachers and schools. This is not to say that AfL strategies are not being used to help pupils progress; however, as Sue Swaffield (Senior Lecturer in Education at Cambridge) suggests, simply using AfL strategies does not automatically results in what she refers to as ‘authentic AfL’.

A long while ago, I began to feel like this over ‘success criteria.’ These days pupils having these is a routine feature of most lessons. These are the means for a shared understanding of what ‘quality’ means in relation to the learning intention. You share an exemplar and then together with pupils you tease out the criteria that signify quality in the exemplar. This is like saying ‘what makes a good adventure story?’ You read a really great one and then pupils take it to pieces and list the qualitative features. Then together you recreate those features through modelling and demonstration, which brings things to life for the children in real time: this is the exemplar, this is what’s good about it and this is how to get there. You can do this for almost anything and this is exactly how you pull pupils cross Vygotsky’s ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development): from a place where they couldn’t, to a place where they can.

However, if you’re not alert to the real message behind this process then this can become an increasingly dry procedure that eventually pacifies pupils – the antithesis of the AfL’s intent. The message this process should send to pupils is that whenever you set out to do something, make sure you know what a really good one looks like, know what the quality content is, break this down into manageable parts, then have a go at it. Then use this to check back and improve and go forward. In other words, teach pupils to look for the criteria for quality and to use this as a marker for learning. This is teaching them to be active, autonomous learners: the real promise of authentic assessment for learning.  Yet this is lost if the teacher misinterprets this particular strategy as ‘tell them what to do and how to do it,’ because if you do this enough times, pupils soon stop thinking for themselves. You’d be really surprised how quickly too!

The problem is that, as Swaffield describes, the complete obsession with progress and monitoring progress, as well as ‘test progress,’ expounded in the National Strategies, meant that many teachers and schools felt pressurised to ‘ensure pupil progress’…and not much else. This meant that in this dash for progress, teachers indeed enacted AfL strategies: they shared learning intentions by telling the pupils what they would be learning, giving out success criteria, then getting the pupils to use these as ‘tick lists’ against learning, but none of this changed them or their pupils as learners. In many cases, the use of success criteria became as close as doing it all for them as is possible without whipping the pencil out of their hand and writing in their books yourself. Just giving out success criteria without understanding the process behind it, or even giving out APP levelling sheets for that matter, is not AfL. This is not what AfL means at all because it does not teach pupils about the process of learning and change them as learners. Unless over time you change pupils as learners, AfL is not really happening. This is why I stopped printing out pre-prepared success criteria a while ago – now I leave a blank box for pupils to decide for themselves (after of course we’ve had a good look at a good one and discussed the quality features etc.). If they can’t jot down, or for younger children say, the key aspects of quality that should be in that blank box, as short key words of their own to remind them,  we go back to the exemplar and have a good think together again. This is shaping them as learners who take charge and are being guided towards understanding and owning the process of learning. I’m not interested in rushing this process through to get a nice ‘product’ in their books as evidence of progress either. We are constructing learning together and they are learning to, as Swaffield explains, ‘regulate’ themselves as learners: “I’m not satisfied if I don’t really know what I’m doing, I won’t  pretend I do either, I’ll go back and find out more, I’ll make sure I’ve got what I need, then I’ll have a go and make it my own!” Imagine if teachers ensured all children had these thoughts when learning rather than only ensuring they get as many ‘criteria’ ticked off as possible.

According to Swaffield, ‘assessment’ is derived from the Latin verb assidere which means ‘to sit beside.’ It does not mean, as she points out, ‘standing in front of’, ‘looking down on’ or ‘peering over the shoulder.’  As Dylan Wiliam says, ‘we should be making them work harder than we are,’ and he does not mean physically, he means as thinking agents!  AfL should change the way teachers see their role and should change the way pupils see themselves as learners. In turn, it should change how a school feels and enable teachers to see themselves as learners too: learners who check things makes sense for themselves before they go forward. They don’t just blindly accept new initiatives and dump them on children; they take them to pieces, check for quality then think about how to go forward. This is what Stenhouse urged teachers to be: professional learners!  In essence, AfL is about a huge change in school culture; it is not a just a set of teaching tools you can check are being used by carrying out a book scrutiny or a few lesson observations. AfL is a learning culture.

Of course, I have put this very clumsily here. Like most teachers I have little spare time in term time. I can only apologise to Sue Swaffield for ineptly trying to make sense of her excellent insights into AfL learning. But this really matters; especially now we can get away from all those levelling tick lists and APP sheets! Sadly though, if schools and teachers do not understand the real promise of AfL the new assessment system will become just a set of progress criteria to tick off, rather than a tool to activate and change learners. I’m glad to say, this won’t happen in my school.  I can only suggest you try to get hold of her paper, which I’ve listed below. Under copyright laws I can’t upload it here. However, I will finish with a list taken from her paper from the Assessment Reform Group. The list is important to me; it is a set of principles to guide AfL and I feel should be pinned up in the staffroom along with any assessment materials for the new curriculum:

  • AfL should be part of the effective planning of teaching and learning
  • AfL should focus on how pupils learn
  • AfL should be recognised as central to classroom practice
  • AfL should be regarded as a key professional skill for teachers
  • AfL should be sensitive and constructive because any assessment has an emotional impact
  • AfL should take account of the importance of learner motivation
  • AfL should promote commitment to learning goals and shared understanding of the criteria by which they are assessed
  • Learners should receive constructive guidance about how to improve
  • AfL develops learners capacity for self-assessment so they can because reflective and self managing
  • AfL should recognise the full range of achievements for all learners

(Assessment Reform Group 2002a, 2-3)

Swaffield, S. (2011) Getting to the heart of authentic Assessment for Learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 18:4, 433-449.

Teaching Evolution

Last year I attended an excellent lecture at the IOE by Professor Martie Sanders on teaching evolution to young children. I’ve been meaning to share this.

As evolution now has to be taught in Key Stage 2,  I think it’s really important for teachers to think carefully about how to do this, and do it well. To begin with I’m going to use a quote Martie used:

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”            

  (Dobzhansky, 1973:125)

You can also watch a quick Ytube clip below explaining this in a snappy set of clips, but in essence life processes and living things begin and end with evolution. If children understand the basic concept of evolution it will mean they have a fundamental foundation for understanding all the other biological concepts. Even if pupils don’t become scientists, which most won’t do, understanding evolution brings the individual a clearer sense of the relationship between living things and the environment; this helps them become an informed citizen. For example, take the over use of anti-biotics causing bacteria to become resistant to common drugs then developing into ‘super bugs’. This is evolution!!

Why evolution is important:

Worries about teaching evolution

Martie shared her studies carried out in South Africa and found that when confronted with teaching evolution, teachers were most worried about their own subject knowledge and also conflicts with their own or pupil’s religious ideas. However, her quote ‘knowledge is power’ really made sense here. The best thing to do then is not to shy away from teaching it, but jump right in and try to understand what’s going on here.

One suggestion is to present the scientific ideas about evolution as ‘scientists’ explanations’. A teacher then should never use scientific theories to confront religious beliefs. In fact it is important to make a distinction between scientific explanations and religious beliefs and not set them against each other, even if they seem contradictory. For me, it’s a mistake to present religious and scientific ideas as both theories because we are then using ‘theory’ in a very causal way and not the scientific way. A theory comes about when a hypothesis has been tested using evidence. A theory is not a belief; a theory is a viewpoint arrived at using all the evidence presented so far; theories themselves can also evolve and change depending on the evidential base. So – I would say, please don’t call beliefs theories; you need evidence to have a theory.

So, once you’re comfortable with presenting these scientific explanations, and have not set these against any ‘beliefs’ in the room, then it’s all about getting the subject knowledge and the teaching method right.

Subject knowledge

Let’s start with variation in a population (a group of the same species living in a particular area). A farmer wants to breed sheep with thick curly brown fleeces.  He has a heard of sheep with different kinds of fleeces: grey, brown, black etc. What does he do? He selects two sheep with the thickest, curliest, brown fleeces and breeds them. This is selective breeding. The two curly, brown sheep have a few lambs. Of these the farmer only allows the ones with the curliest brown coats to breed. He continues like this so that over the generations, more and more offspring have the thick, curly brown feature and any other colour or texture is bred out.


Now, what Darwin thought was ‘maybe this happens in nature too’! Maybe somehow, there is a process of natural selection so that certain attributes become dominant? He was right, but here comes a problem and a potential misconception for pupils!

Anthropomorphism  and evolution on demand

The trouble is that the way we talk about living things often sends the wrong message and forms the basis of misconceptions for young children. Like this, when we say things like ‘some plants prefer more light’ or ‘roots try to find water’ we are implying that these living things possess volition (or decision making abilities). They don’t. So as teachers we need to be really careful how we say things. Most of biology is process driven and not decision driven, and we need to use language to indicate this.

The point here is that living things do not choose to evolve that’s why Darwin used the word ‘natural selection’. A polar bear did not at one time choose to grow thicker hair in order to live way up North, just as a tiger did not choose to grow a stripy coat so it could hide in the leafy jungle and hunt. Instead, these were naturally selected attributes that became dominant over generations. In fact let’s use Martie’s quotes to make the three key areas clear:

  • Evolution: “Changes in a population, resulting from the increase of certain features in the population over many generations
  • Natural selection: “The mechanism by which evolution occur.”
  • Adaptations: “Evolutionary results of natural selection, in a population”

Let’s take the tiger and its stripes. We take a population of big cats in the jungle. Some of the cats have are born with a stripe of two. While hunting this gives them a slight advantage, they are better camouflaged and as a result they have a better diet. In turn, they have more energy to breed and reproduce more offspring. These offspring are born with the same kind of stripes because they share the same genes. These tigers are also at an advantage to the less stripy cats and hunt more and reproduce more. So now there are more stripy cats and less non stripy cats. The stronger stripy cats are more likely to mate with another stripy cat. Eventually, this goes on over the generations and eat generation is more stripy because the adaptation of ‘stripy fur’ has been naturally selected. Remember, the tiger didn’t decide to get more stripes, or decide to choose a stripy mate even, but they might reproduced with the fittest mate who was stronger because he had stripes and was more successful at hunting – see ‘survival of the fittest’.  Even that term can be misinterpreted, like living things having some big kind of fight and the strongest one winning – as you can see, it’s not quite like that. It simply means that the living being with attributes best suited the environment is more likely to survive and reproduce than one that doesn’t. Remember, no decision making – just process.

tiger      tiger eating

Children rightly love stories with animals, but this can also serve to  create misconceptions about them. But please don’t stop reading them wonderful stories! Just make sure you don’t carry it on during science lessons!

Evolution is learnt mostly through observation

Just as Darwin arrived at his theory of evolution through observing living things and recording evidence, children will learn about evolution in the same way so they need to be provided with lots of opportunities to ‘play at evolution’ themselves. Martie Sanders suggested for example, using the attributes of insects to investigate camouflage and survival. For example, on a leafy green plant, which beetle is more likely to be spotted by a predator:

 green leaves   gren beetle   black beetle    yellow beetle

There are lots of games children can play like this. You could darken the room, like a deep jungle, cut the beetles out, lie them on a green leafy background and give the children ten seconds to pick up as many as they can. Because they will naturally find it easier to pick out the black and then yellow beetles against the green, they will see how more of the green beetles will be left to survive and reproduce with other green beetles. What I find fascinating here is that this shows the localised nature of evolution. Children often think all polar bears came at once or all tigers, or green beetles suddenly appeared. The point is that if evolution begins with variation in a population this is referring to groups of living things living nearby each other. In this way, the adaptations are local to the population, which of course might be so well adapted to where they are that they get bigger and bigger then you get migration and larger, more global populations. But all this is at the heart of the great ‘tree of life’ and the huge variety of life on earth. Amazing!!!

There’s also a similar game using different utensils to model bird beaks and different food types of food (see below).

Bird beak activity and speciation

So, if you’re having to teach evolution for the first time I hope this was useful.