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.

Success! Whose success? – has the success criterion become just another tool for transmission in your classroom?

hypotised child

So many times in education new things sweep through classrooms. There is a great rustling of excitement, teachers rush to use this latest tool…hopefully there are some good effects to learning, but then the new gimmick (that you were sure wasn’t just a trick) gets sucked into the gurgling whirlpool of curriculum coverage.  (Whaa! Hang on to a branch – save yourself!) Also – the last tidal wave of Ofsted wanting pace and challenge has meant at times pupils barely have time to pause and think  – gotta be active, active, active. Let’s hope we didn’t forget the learning too! (Thankfully I think they noticed the pendulum swinging away there – I hope).

The truth is, these new things are usually based on common sense ideas, but dressed up in fancy, new clothes and somehow, some way, we all take more notice of the fancy clothes than the common sense. I hope this hasn’t happened with our dear friend the success criterion, which was realised in the profession as a means to make learning explicit and clear.

My point is that most of us would agree that we are trying to create independent, self-actualising learners who eventually become their own best teachers. Provocative as it may seem, the very best teachers seek to eventually make themselves useless to their pupils, while the worst make themselves indispensable to their pupils, so that the teacher is everything, a life line to learning, the keeper of all. This sounds extreme, and perhaps it is, but sometimes this is needed to make something quite subtle deliberately evident. I am wondering you see whether there are times when a simple tool like a success criterion can slip quietly into becoming a means for the dependency and passivity that we seek to overcome in our pupils.

This thought came to me when I was looking at some old plans. I realised that I had written in the success criteria for the lesson on the plan and that this was the same set of success critiera printed out and used in the children’s books. Well, that’s making the learning journey explicit to the children some might say? Exemplifying success so that the destination is clear? Yes, maybe. But I wonder how many teachers are doing this in the usual mad rush we always find ourselves in, and simply giving out these steps to success without a second thought?  ‘Read your success criteria won’t you children…and don’t forget to share it with your partner at the end to check you did it.’

In this case, how far are the children really involved in their own learning journeys if they are told what they are going to learn (the learning intention) and how to get there (the success criteria)? That sounds to me more dependent and passive than ever!  What will they do on their first day at work unless someone appears with a tick list for success?

I suggest that we just take a moment to stop and check here. Is it a good indicator of learning success to have every book with the same printed success criteria and learning intention at the top of the page? Ok, so you might differentiate them, three different printed success criteria, but what is the real purpose to these?  The real purpose is to make pupils stop and think about what they need to do in order to successfully learn something or for them to understand what success looks like. The very best way to do this is allow pupils to take control of this themselves. This does not mean reading something stuck into their book, nor nodding their head when shown a list on the white board. The answer must be for pupils to determine success themselves after having success modelled to them. This is subtly different from being told what success is or looks like because this way it is a very active, engaging process that is all about self-agency.   This is what modelling is for after all, to pull pupils across that zone of proximal development, but how much more powerful to have them become active agents in this process themselves.

So, I say, let’s remember the common sense part of success criteria and not get distracted by the fancy typing and boxes that look nice in books, especially when they’re highlighted!  You can have your printed title and success criteria, but why not leave the set of empty bullets points for pupils to write in three or four things they have agreed with a friend? This would really be enabling the personlised learning this AFL tool was originally devised for. Would we be so daring as to even leave a space for them to write in the learning question? They’d spend too long writing it all out? Oh well, let’s just give it all to them then? Really? Why not put a collection of different success criteria on the table to choose from then. Choose the one that you and your partner agree best describes success? Why not leave a selection of learning intentions too? What did we learn? What will we learn if we do this? At least ensure each child has got themselves involved in what success is! Also be careful of agreeing a success criteria as a class as a whole, because let’s be honest, that is only the criteria agreed between you and the pupils who contributed isn’t it?

Perhaps I’m over thinking this, but I think it’s worth shaking this up a little – we must always reflect on these ‘new-fangled-thingamy-giggies’ mustn’t we? We must always make sure we’re working hard to become increasingly useless!

All thoughts on keeping success criteria active and rooted in learning gratefully welcome!