The good, the bad and…crackers.

Illustration re corporal punishment of s

Conversations about our jobs often pop up around the table at Christmas time, but I didn’t expect a whole family debate on intelligence to rage across the crackers and cranberry sauce, but it did. I came away feeling that intelligence isn’t so much misunderstood, but rather terribly misapplied.

Anyone who reads my blogs will know that assessment is my thing, with a particular focus on  factors that promote or prevent formative assessment working well for pupils and teachers.

One of the biggest bees in my teacher bonnet here is mind set and how both pupils and teachers view intelligence or ability. During some action research I carried out a while ago, I was surprised by just how prevalent fixed mind sets are amongst pupils and how far this appeared to prevent them from taking hold of their own learning. Many of us will have read  Carol Dweck’s research into this, but I wanted to see how this might manifest in my setting.

I found that some pupils had created in their minds a kind of pecking order of cleverness within their class and ranked themselves within it so that they could quite literally order themselves and their peers in  intelligence with phrases such as ‘really clever,’ ‘quite clever’, ‘sort of brainy’ and ‘not that smart.’ This was despite a strong emphasis on choice in learning and mixed ability groupings in the class. It seemed that many of the children had long established ideas about intelligence that had not shifted with our work on learning how to learn or collaborative class ethos.

There were undesirable outcomes from these seemingly fixed views of intelligence, not least the palpable fear of revealing misunderstanding or ‘being stuck’. For pupils this meant revealing their ‘ranking’ in the intelligence order compared to everyone else and running the risk of being seen as ‘dumb’ (their words not mine). The result was that when some pupils needed help, or would have benefited from further explanation, they didn’t ask for it and preferred instead to sit ‘surviving’ by either copying or appearing to write lots of ‘stuff’ and look busy. Ring a bell with anyone?

Of course, some of the nifty formative assessment techniques seek to combat this secret survival thing kids do by forcing them to show their hands right there in the lesson. Using things like hinge questions on white boards and generally responsive teaching that will pick out this kind of quiet ‘wallowing’ well before you find the grim evidence in the books later when you mark…and when it’s really too late. Nevertheless, a teacher’s job shouldn’t be about finding out how far children can hide their misunderstanding; in the end, we’re doing our job really well when we teach children to recognise and use their misunderstanding and deal with ‘getting stuck’ positively. After all, that sticky point, that cognitive discomfort (posh word: dissonance) when learning, should be where learning begins, not ends.

It was no coincidence to me that the children who made the most progress in that class were the children who were never happy secretly surviving and actively sought out help whenever they needed it. “I don’t get it?” was and is a sign of a learner going places, as long as something is done about it of course.  That in itself seemed like an ‘ability’ that took the learner far: doing something about feeling challenged, not shrinking or hiding. When I talked to these few children about what they thought about being clever and ‘intelligent’ they seemed to think about this differently. Their ideas about intelligence lent more towards it being something to be built upon and cultivated rather than something endowed and fixed inside. These children weren’t always confident or optimistic or even enthusiastic in every lesson– things we always count as important factors in learning, but instead, they seemed secure in their feelings about learning itself– this was their confidence in effect: that with help and time, they could always improve, even if it seemed impossible at the start. Like this, their identity and self image did not seem attached to the tasks they undertook.

At the same time, these children could talk about another child being more intelligent, but they did this in a way that was more like talking about a journey when someone is ahead rather than about someone who possesses more of something. It seemed to me that these few children understood ability as an active process while many others, most in fact, engaged with it as a finite endowment or a fixed asset, just as Carol Dweck described. Both these ideas also appeared innate in that they were revealed to me mostly by the way the children were when operational in class rather than when they had rational conversations about intelligence.

This brings me back to the beginning and all that debate about ability. What is it then? What is this thing called ability that teachers still call high, low or middle? We’ve talked about it so much in education and for so long surely we must all know? Well, the more I teach and the more I watch children learning I know that views about intelligence are a potent force when it comes to learning. While on the one hand we all know that children learn, brains grow, connections are built and meaning made, we also know that not all children are the same or can do the same things at the same time, but how pupils and importantly teachers interact with this thing called ability really matters. It is all about how we apply our knowledge of these differences.  Without doubt some brains are quicker, synapses work faster and there are stronger connections; however, the salient point is that all healthy brains can build connections: intelligence is an active process not an entity. This means that defining pupils by ability is problematic and threatens to limit their prospects because no matter what we say, humans suck up self image like a sponge; we carry an image of ourselves that is shaped by what we and others think about us. The moment definitions come into play we start pinning them to ourselves. Defining those children who are further ahead as ‘high ability’ limits them because we all start to think of them as ‘children who always succeed’: a terrible burden for everyone. Pinning ‘low ability’ to a child all too often means they and others see them as low achievers for the foreseeable future.

This creates a problem for teachers. How can we talk about where children are without pinning these things on to them? And how can we really break down this thing that causes children to feel so self conscious about their image in class? Teaching a few lessons on the growth mind set and telling children they need to challenge themselves just isn’t going to touch instinctive ideas that children have developed and that are confirmed not only outside school in myriad ways, but often in school by peers and also teachers who might talk about growth mind set, but have the most fixed ideas of all. It is imperative that teachers think careful how they talk about children, even in the staff room because mud sticks and labels are hard to shift. We all declare we have high expectations for all children, but do we? Believing that all children can improve and build intelligence is not only essential, but I would say it is as imperative to being a teacher as elegance is to being a dancer.

Over the past few years, since that action research, these are the practices that I can say have made a difference in breaking down some of these problems with image and learning. For many these are probably old hat, but nevertheless, they’re worth noting:

  • Celebrate when pupils ask for help when they need it – deliberately create an ethos where questions are welcomed and enjoyed. Don’t forget that teaching is very much about creating the right atmosphere for learners to thrive – it’s not just transferring skills and knowledge (that would be easy).
  • Model being a learner who makes mistakes yourself – a lot. Scratch your head and get confused sometimes and ask your TA or another adult for help.
  • Be gracious when pupils point out you’ve made a mistake, show gratitude and humility rather than defensiveness – show that everyone is up for errors!
  • Watch how you praise pupils – avoid ‘good boy,’ ‘good girl’ type phrases that tickle the ego rather than focus on learning. Mostly, there’s too much praise of pupils in lessons which creates this image focused atmosphere we need to avoid. Think carefully about what you are praising? It is the ‘finishers’? If so is finishing always the same as achievement? Is it the ‘neat and tidy’ pieces? If so, is all learning neat and tidy? When you stop and check, you’d be surprised what and who you praise and how often. When I’ve checked on myself  – I’ve often cringed! What and how you praise contributes massively to how pupils feel about themselves and their peers. As far as you can, qualify your praise by making it clearly task focused, describing what the child did that  was positive. Remember: when you say things like: ‘excellent work’ or ‘well done’ often children have no idea what was ‘excellent’ or ‘well done’ at all and it just becomes another ego badge.  Stars and smiley faces are out  for me too, sorry! (In fact, I think the whole rewards thing needs a re-think… another blog perhaps.)
  • I know it’s been said before, but use the word ‘yet’ a lot. If I ask a child a question, I encourage them to say ‘I’m not there yet?’ rather than a plain ‘I don’t know’. I use it all the time too, ‘you’re not there yet’. It’s a small word that helps keep the doors open so it’s worth getting it well embedded into the class vocabulary.
  • Ban the phrase, ‘it’s easy,’ which children seem to like to say when they get something and see that others don’t. It’s designed to make children feel inadequate so stamp it out. Look out for all the other little gibes that mean the same thing. Talk about it and discuss these things as a class too – bring the bogey man out the cupboard!
  • Lastly, really drill home that struggling is the first sign of learning. Celebrate cognitive conflict and turn it into something you and children look for and prize. I’m not saying allow kids to sit in utter bewilderment either, that’s too far the other way. Vygotsky was clear that we need to take children to that special place where learning becomes possible and this isn’t a place where it’s easy, because you’ve already learnt it, or a place where it’s too hard for any meaning to be made. Get kids to recognise that place for themselves: not easy and not impossible.  Get them to look for it and want it.

These things have made a big impact on  the children I teach. I don’t always get it right and it’s easy to slip into ‘label talk’ so we need to be mindful of it all the time. It’s taken hundreds of years to embed this concept of ‘praising the good child who gets it right,’ so it will take a while to break it down – remember once it was OK to stick a child who got it wrong in the corner with a dunce hat on; my Nan used to get hit with a ruler for wrong answers. Ethos change needs work, time and reflection, but it’s worth it.

Happy New Year!

#LearningFirst Number 2!

I was lucky enough to attend the second #LearningFirst conference on Thursday 22nd September 2016 and, as with the first, I returned inspired and keen to consolidate all I had heard. It also seemed plain to me that when something is right, people just know it; it makes them nod, clap, cheer and celebrate, especially when it’s been a long time coming.

Here’s a synopsis of the main themes and some of the points made. Please note that this is an interpretation. I can’t claim to know what’s in the mind of these skillful people; I can only interpret what they say. In short, this is what I think they meant…

Tim Oates began the conference reminding us of the reasons why we had to leave levels, but also expressing his misgivings at the many schools who have simply changed the labels while repeating all the old mistakes with levels. He reminded us that all too often with levels, the labels,  level 3 for example, meant different things to different people, and this discrepancy was simply ‘no good for assessment.’ The reason levels lacked this common understanding was because they were the result of a ‘best fit’ approach to assessment. We signed children off on parts of the curriculum when they had secured perhaps only 60 %, and this percentage might have been for different criteria for different pupils meaning that Jonny’s level 3 would be different from Jane’s level 3. Add to this, teachers having higher or lower thresholds for quality regarding specific outcomes and you had arbitrary, unreliable assessment that let children down.

With this in mind,  we need to catch ourselves running into the same trap with any new system. Check up if you’re ‘best fitting’ and shoe horning children into something they aren’t, just for the sake of numbers. Make expectations crystal clear to teachers so they speak the same language too, or as one speaker said – ensure there is ‘validation,’ (I think I like that word better than moderation now). In fact, I predict that understanding quality so that the descriptions of learning mean the same thing to different people will be the glue that will make of all this succeed or fail.

Mr Oates also highlighted the importance of children being ‘uncomfortable’ in their learning. For too long teachers have pulled back when a child is uncomfortable, when that’s the exact time to leave a child to think rather than us diving in and explaining.  As Tim said, for Vygotsky, ‘that’s the place to go,’ not shy away from. I vouch for this, as I remember when I first started teaching being marked down in observations because this child or that child was ‘struggling’.  When I look back, we were actually encouraged to ensure children didn’t feel challenged at all, but instead wallowed around in the cosy embrace of their prior learning.  It was also a custom to ‘just teach’ and get through content without making the slightest assumption regarding prior learning at all. How I cringe now…

Tim also made no apologies for uttering his judicious war cry, ‘fewer things in greater depth.’ Reminding us that the new curriculum has meant more than a shift in content, but rather a focus on constructs, ensuring that objectives are specific and cover the key things children need to know and build upon throughout their education.   He maintained that practice is possible when there are fewer things in greater depth, because there is space to apply these building blocks of key concepts again and again rather than trying to skim over expansive content. In this way, there should be ‘high production’ with children saying and doing much, being given the chance to reflect on their learning often. If schools do this, then they have to rely less on data because there is a wealth of evidence for attainment and progress actually in classrooms. One of the terrible mistakes made with the levels era was that numbers often replaced authentic knowledge about learners and learning.

In addition, children should also be ‘exposed’ to simple concepts early in their education so that these act as the building blocks of key concepts, with rich questions and answers being an everyday feature of classrooms.  Assessment then needs to be ‘granular’ and ‘analytical’ rather than a general amalgamation, which we know results in evaluations of learning that overlook deficits. Certainly, when Tim  finished with the immortal words ‘it’s the stuff that counts,’ he reminded us that we need to make sure we are clear about the ‘stuff’ all the way along.

Next was Mary Myatt, who continued the theme by declaring that ‘numbers are only numbers,’ as so many leaders still forget it seems. She maintained that any numbers should always be ‘triangulated with children’s work in books and with what they say’.  And it’s true that Ofsted now follow this line of enquiry during inspections it seems.

In addition, teachers need to recognise the ‘difference between the work and the learning’ so that ‘completing a piece of work’ is not confused with ‘the work’ itself – ‘doing the work is the work!’  Indeed there are, as Mary put it, too many ‘quick sign offs’ simply because a child has been seen to ‘finish’ the task. Cringe…how many times have we told a child to ‘hurry up and finish,’ like we’re all there on a little running track. Is going fast or faster the same as learning deeply? No! For me, this is also partly fuelled by ineffective book monitoring by leaders who chastise teachers for ‘unfinished work’ without understand the learning that might have been going on around that unfinished piece. Moreover, Mary related this to what she called ‘editing cheap praise’ in classrooms so that children aren’t praised for finishing or putting their heads down and getting on with it, but praised for their real efforts in learning instead.  Certainly, when content coverage ‘trumps learning  it is rubbish,’ resulting in ‘loads of dots that are never joined up’.

Certainly, as teachers we need to ‘dig deep’ in how we teach and how we question children, avoiding ‘superficial responses’ to signal when to move on,  and being ‘operational instead of educational’.  There were without doubt some pithy gems in Mary’s talk that teachers and leaders need to heed. Mary finished with predicting that labelling and ability is still an issue that requires considerable redress – we should not be calling children ‘lower ability,’ but rather talk about children with ‘low prior attainment.’  I can only agree with her prediction that the discourse on ability might one day be looked upon in the same way as the discourse on sexism and racism, after all marginalisation, is marginalisation.

After this, Chris Chivers shared his years of wisdom as an educationalist, reminding us to pay attention to the transitions in school and between schools and also to see just how valuable our relationship with parents is and how we should  work hard to include them in our decision making. I can say that I spent six months on secondment last year and noticed the difference having parents on board can make. I also know that poorer parents will have just the same care and aspirations for their children as more affluent families, but ten times the amount of barriers to fulfilling those intentions.  This is not the same as not caring.

Then for the main part of the day we moved through presentations of various people’s journeys through assessment. What was striking was the humility and honesty of everyone who spoke. What a relief to know everyone else has made mistakes trying to get things right for their children! Quite a few people admitted to starting systems that were just like levels again and having to abandon ship and start all over again. Nearly everyone admitted that there was still much more to do and more to tweak. There was consensus that numbers were needed, but also agreement that it was everything behind the numbers that counted. As Tim Oates said, ‘it’s the stuff that counts!’

One of the most inspirational talks was from Ruchi Sabharwal, about how she had tackled pupils’ own entrenched ideas about themselves as learners using Solo Taxonomy. She explained how she’d used this to continue to lift the lid on learning.  It certainly flagged up the care we must take to ensure any name or label is pinned to the task and not to the child. As educators we must be so mindful of the propensity for humans to use labels to form images of themselves and create stuck identities. This is why Carol Dweck’s work is so important to study and understand too. Teachers might offer free differentiated choice in a mixed ability setting, but if children pick the same ‘labels’ each time, is that because they’ve attached themselves to a label or that they really are making informed learning choices?

Lastly, James Pembroke leapt onto stage attacking ‘progress measures’ with his witty and concise delivery. Yes, he was completely right, ‘sometimes progress is simply consolidation’ so how will that show up on the progress measures?  I know that a teacher can make considerable progress on pupils’ learning behaviour with little effect on actual ‘data’ until perhaps the next year when all that hard work has been synthesized and then they have a new teacher.  How will that be measured? Maybe share the data increase between the teachers?  See how silly it all is.  That’s why tracking should be based on conversations between professionals more than an exercise in corporate accountability.

James was also completely right to say that we might track and monitor progress, but should we be measuring it? After all, progress isn’t always measurable! Certainly, the idea of a linear progression is, as he put it, ‘a fallacy,’ and I would agree. Interestingly, only 1 in 10 children follow what we all consider the typical trajectory anyway, so this concept of zooming from A to B applies mostly to no one! All it really does is ‘encourage pace at the expense of depth’ and as James reminded us too, ‘in any healthy system numbers will go up as well as down’.  For James then, ‘progress is: catching up, filling gaps, deepening understanding and overcoming barriers’ so if it is all these – then what is expected progress and could that ever be expressed as a score? See, it’s silly!  He finished by advising us all to ‘do more with less’ because ‘the less we carry, the further we go.’ Priceless!

Priceless all round.

Assessment: The journey so far…

traditional teaching

I often wonder why I’m so interested in assessment. Why I read about it in my holidays and feel perfectly happy tinkering and engineering my ideas about it all the time. It never feels like work. Well today, as I sit on a Greek island somewhere far away, I know why. It sounds too profound, too Hollywood, too idealistic, but to my mind getting assessment right will offer a great gift to our children. The gift will be to know themselves very well indeed; to look inside their own mind and understand themselves; to be deeply honest with themselves; to look towards quality and measure themselves against it; to work towards improvement because they know change is always possible; to see the change in themselves and to understand that improvement is always in their own hands. The right approach to assessment, throughout a child’s school career, has the potential to do this; it has the potential to make our kids strong people.

So, what about this year? How far have we travelled in this direction? Well, I think I can sum up this year as a time when we sought to close the gap, but this time, not just between what children know and need to learn, but at last, as an educational community we have thought about the gap between actual learning and all manner of ciphers for learning. In simple terms, this last two years have been about accepting fact that we’ve spent too much talking about units of measurement for learning rather than the learning itself. And in that mix, we often misunderstood assessment, or at least saw it only in one light, which was to act as a critical tool to hold ourselves and our teachers to account. I’ve no doubt that many teachers and leaders did recognise this and fought against the tide, but so many didn’t and perhaps still don’t.

Over the last two years, I’ve helped implement Learning Ladders, a new curriculum assessment system into our school, and supported some other schools to do the same. I consider assessment as a pedagogy, so that whatever we do we always remind ourselves that when we evaluate a child’s learning, we make sure that not only do we do something with that evaluation that benefits that child further, but we also do our best to involve the child in that process too, gradually drawing our pupils into evaluating their learning themselves and acting on that evaluation. I will always maintain that the best teachers seek to become useless to their pupils…eventually.

So now, where are we? What have we gained? What do we need to think about next? (I’m thinking both in terms of our assessment system and for assessment in general.)

The gains:

  • A large part of the educational community is taking charge, sharing ideas and practice. For example, look at the work of Beyond Levels and the #LearningFirst conferences. School leaders and teachers are coming together to share ideas and tease out the best ways forward for learners.
  • Assessment has moved away from being associated purely with data and tracking and is becoming increasingly associated with making an impact on pupils’ learning. Hurray!!
  • More teachers are being held accountable through the development of their pedagogical craft, with a view to improving learning (and learning behaviour) over time, rather than being held to account through straight forward numerical data, that may or may not accurately reflect a child’s journey towards academic progress. (I’ve just spent six months on secondment with a really challenging group of children, much of the progress they made was in their behaviour and attitude to learning; progress was certainly not always academic in some cases. Did I have any effect on that ‘progress over time’? Yes I did! Now they are well set up for next year when they will take off!
  • Senior leaders are able to lead teachers more effectively because gaps in pupils’ learning are easier to identify which results in more productive conversations about pupils’ progress. Our Learning Ladders system has a finely tuned gaps analysis tool so that when overviews of progress are looked at, conversations about why certain pupils are or aren’t making progress become very detailed about the aspects of learning in question. The result is really productive conversations about assessment, curriculum planning and pupil progress rather than those ones of the past where progress meetings were around levels or sub-levels and the details about pupils’ learning were not always foremost in people’s minds. We’ve discovered that being able to drill down to the granular curricular detail has meant that it’s much easier to pin point issues. Sometimes the issue might be teacher’s confidence in assessment; they’re just not sure about how to assess a certain aspect, it might be the first time in that year group and they’re finding their feet. Other times, it might be a teacher needs to refine and focus their planning a little more so they hit gaps in learning and at other times we might see that a child has been absent on the three times division and fractions were taught for example. This kind of depth of conversation just didn’t happen as easily with levels and for so many reasons.
  • School leaders can look at overviews of learning (which all leaders have to), but with Learning Ladders we have purposely not made inflexible bench marks or narrow progress thresholds for points within the year. Achievements in learning are noted on the system and accumulate through an algorithm into a score, but this is used as a measurement outline. This allows for the overview that school leaders need, because we have a traffic light score range based on a very general expectation of progress, but the  fact that it’s considered a range means that teachers focus on the learning rather than getting to a certain score;  plus, we have worked hard to make our assessment ethos mean that everyone understands the difference between ‘being seen to reach a level or a score’ and real progress in learning. These two were often confused under levels. Back then, moving up a level  assumed progress in learning, whereas now real progress in learning leads to an increase in the score. This might all seem like playing with words, but this is the whole impetus behind the idea of ‘learning first’… put the learning first and data will follow, but if you put the bench marks first, it might not.
  • Curriculum and assessment relate to each other in a cause (what do I want to learn) and effect (what did I learn) cycle rather than being loosely associated through summative assessment outcomes. This means that learning intentions are not merely derived from the national curriculum, but they are the curriculum. In the past there were two languages ‘curriculum’ and ‘assessment’ which meant that teachers had to translate the taught curriculum, into learning outcomes and then assessment judgments. Teachers no longer need to bridge the gaps between what is taught and assessment judgments because they are using the same language.
  • Teachers are more able to use assessment as a framework for planning because they are clearer on what children need to learn next and where there are gaps in children’s learning.
  • Teachers are able to access quality learning outcomes through shared learning moderation within our Learning Ladders group and soon these will be available to all on the system too. This means that the sloppy ‘best fit’ approach has been refined into a much sharper mastery approach for the detailed steps in learning. While I agree with many that the interim frameworks are far too demanding (that was my experience in Year 2 anyway), the Learning Ladders system means that the details required for a mastery curriculum to work well are exemplified. All assessment needs to be underpinned by shared images of quality and this should underline any decent assessment system.
  • After a year of everyone teaching the new curriculum, teachers are moving from using Learning Ladders as a ‘tick off tool’ to much more of a support for planning. Yes, we teach more than just the criteria on Learning Ladders because that is the basis for a broad and balanced curriculum, but that structure and mapping of the curriculum has been invaluable to support teachers mapping their way through all the changes.Teachers’ confidence in assessment and planning for it are now on the up!

Area of development:

  • The DfE interim frameworks don’t seem to reflect the key performance indicators considered appropriate by the rest of the education community. A lot of the guidance that goes with them is vague and open to many different interpretations. This has meant that teacher assessment is more difficult and less reliable as schools become more reactive to moderators requirements than authentic learning needs.Something isn’t right with those ITAFs! How many teachers have kicked themselves because they know that competent seven year old writers have had to be labeled ‘below expected’ because they didn’t do enough commas in a list or possessive apostrophes? This cannot be right.
  • 53% of pupils in the country reached expected in RWM the end of primary school. Really? Yes, expectations are higher, but pupils and teachers haven’t suddenly been knocked on the head so come on! Are we saying failure is a sign of success DfE? Schools need to plough ahead and make assessment work for their pupils; I know it’s hard – but we have to ignore this nonsense and follow our principles on assessment. We’re all in the same rocky boat of changing goal posts and incompetent management of national assessment from above, but we can still get on with doing what we know is right.
  • For some schools, assessment it still a vehicle for accountability much more than it is for learning. Leaders need to look at the progress over times in both hard and soft data and ensure this is aligned to authentic learning and not ‘ciphers for learning’. In other words, don’t set up a system that kids you into thinking all is well, when it isn’t!
  • Many schools still set children into ability groups and limit children’s learning through this approach. These schools need to trust learners and communities of learners and allow all pupils to reach their very highest potential; ability setting does not allow for this academically, socially or emotionally for pupils. Learning is not all about knowledge and skill acquisition.
  • Lastly, we have spent the past couple of years getting to grips with everything new, but we still need to move assessment more into the hands of pupils. Assessment is not complete unless it engages the learner into assessing themselves and moves them more and more towards independence. I think with Learning Ladders we have this in our sights. We have developed pupils’ overviews to summarise and see next steps, these have been very effective; next we need to refine these so they are easier for pupils to use regularly.  For me, this is the beauty of Learning Ladders, it is evolving to suit the needs of pupils, teachers….and leaders. This is the right away around, I promise you.
  • As always, I have to add that any assessment system can be used badly if the leaders running it don’t have sound principles on assessment; however, some systems encourage a certain approach that is modelled on the old levels system. No names here, but these should be avoided.

Final thoughts

I’m so optimistic that we can make assessment work for pupils in the UK, but we have to keep nudging the government our way and stand up for teachers in the classroom. Yes, we need to check teachers are doing the best by their pupils and then we need to check that school leaders are doing the best by their school communities, but as Mary Myatt put it so well, this must be through a culture of ‘High challenge and low threat’. The unwelcome consequences of a high threat culture in assessment mean that people then do things more out of fear rather than reasoned and deliberate action. High challenge, low threat always results in the best outcomes for pupils, teachers, leaders…and humans.

And so the summer madness begins…

crazy face

Recently, I went to a cross-borough moderation for mathematics and came away thoroughly depressed about just where teaching his going, and indeed where it’s come from.  I’ve no doubt that at any time education in this country can turn a corner and become about learning rather than about accounting for teaching, but it’s so far away from that now, and it’s all the more depressing because I thought there was window when it could have all been different. Education has dropped the ball.  There are still too many teachers, and importantly leaders of teachers, who don’t seem to understand how children learn well and how teachers teach well too.

At the start of this ‘moderation’ (or general panic), teachers spent that first part pawing over the interim frameworks for maths, gasping and moaning about how they would be able to show evidence for this or that criteria. Fair enough. After a while, the PowerPoint presentation flicked over to ‘What makes good formative assessment?’  Oh good, I thought, something useful for a change. A muffled silence followed as teachers looked at each other hopefully, until the presenter began.

‘So in assessing these criteria, what makes good formative assessment here? What can you do to find out what the children know? Come on, what do you do to assess your children here?’  Gradually, arms went up. ‘Children’s recording in books, listening to discussions,  making observations, taking pictures, getting children to write explanations….’ and so the list went on.  Then the presenter rounded the discussion up with her own list of good ‘formative assessment’.

I now kick myself that I only sat there, frowning and scratching my head rather than challenging this obvious and complete misconception about what formative assessment really is, because one thing I know for certain is that ticking an interim teacher assessment framework sheet as you look through a set of books is not formative assessment at all and for a borough moderator to stand up and talk about such as formative assessment is more than a little worrying. As the great man himself * has said – continually and quite clearly, formative assessment only becomes such if it is used to change teaching in the future; it ‘forms’ practice, that’s what formative means.  Once again it seems teaching has tripped over its tangled understanding of assessment, stacking all its cards on the side of measuring learning rather than effecting learning, not unlike a small child who measures himself everyday against his wall in the vain hope that somehow this act will cause him actually getting taller.

The fact that no one around me at this moderation seemed to notice this clear and obvious misuse of the term ‘formative’ disturbed me more than anything I’ve heard or read recently about DfE blunders and botched testing. Apparently we had to get this ‘formative assessment’ done by July 28th too? Now, I know some people might say I’m just being pedantic, it’s just a word – but I’m not backing down here. Assessment against the ITAF is only going to be summative and to call it formative is no different from calling an autopsy a medical checkup – there’s a big difference, not least for the patient!  It’s even more worrying that so much time and energy is going into this great big autopsy we’re all tied up in rather than allowing us all to get on with the business of helping children learn. I also wonder how many schools are using those ITAFs as their new curriculum too?  One thing that also bugged me was that STILL most teachers around me were grouping their children by ability and calling them all sorts of dubious terms like my ‘highers’ and my ‘lowers’.  One teacher even had her books colour coded for ability: red was for the real ‘lowers’, yellow for the ‘middlers’, green for ‘middle aboves’ and blue for the real ‘high flyers’.  Good grief! I wonder how that kid who keeps getting that book with the red label on feels about that?

Having kept my raging thoughts to myself, I began to chat a little more to my colleagues, all of whom I’d never met before and were from schools right outside my borough. After a while, a woman shared her stress about the expectations put on her by her SLT. They had thoughtfully based her performance management  pay progression target this year on her pupils achieving 98% expected and 50% greater depth, this is despite her leaders having no idea what working at  ‘expected’  or working at ‘greater depth’ means – never having looked at the ITAFs (that’s only for teachers to see, right?).

It is fundamentally wrong to use data for holding teachers to account, not because teachers shouldn’t be held to account, they should, but because using data to do this is unreliable and more importantly, often distorts assessment practice to the detriment of pupils’ learning. Let’s face it, if a pay rise depends on ticking a box for a child who’s ‘nearly there, but not quite,’ how many teachers are going to leave that box unticked and forgo the pay rise? And how many teachers are going to narrow their teaching focus on to only those criteria that will lead to the pay rise?  If you set up teaching as a sales commission exercise then you’re going to get salesman’s tactics, aren’t you.

In addition, we know that the effects on learning don’t come in neat twelve months packages. As the great man himself* explains, you might have a teacher who spends a year getting the children’s behaviour under control and ensuring they are working well collaboratively together, but after all this, they don’t learn that much academically. Then the next year, the new teacher gets all the benefit that the previous teacher put in to getting those children ready to learn, with all the behaviours for learning that really matter.  Now, a decent leader who knows the pupils and teachers well would be able to know that the first teacher deserves that pay rise, even though according to the data they technically ‘did nothing’.  This is why connecting pay raises to data stinks. Yes, in this bureaucratic world you have to measure and record teacher performance, but make it over time, make it descriptive, wide and with a huge measure of flipping common sense. I even have a  friend who once had a small class of twenty children, two of whom had Down’s syndrome and were years behind in their learning. She was given a PM target of 98% of children reaching expectation, despite the fact that this was  an impossibility. She was told all teachers had to have the same PM target to make it fair. Really? Argh.

As you can see, I’m taking all this SUMMATIVE assessment madness calmly and not getting upset by the whole shambles teaching finds itself in.

My only solace is that on the inside, where I work, people have sense, but out there, in so many schools, I fear this is far from true.

* Thanks to Dylan Wiliam – a constant source of knowledge and insight.

 

Learning or performance? Where are you?

In thinking about assessment, data and ‘everything’, I was reminded about learning and performance orientations and realised what great significance this concept continues to have. (Chris Watkins is the master in this area). I’ve made a kind of scale based on the idea of what certain school aspects might look like under a full learning or performance orientation. I expect most schools are a bit here and there (ones in trouble further over toward a full performance orientation). In my humble opinion, the best place would be for everyone to have a full learning orientation and for us all to get away from performance being a motivator in education.

This is a work in progress and I know I’ll keep changing it! Needs refining…

See below, or for PDF here’s a link Learning or performance orientation1

Learning or performance.PNG

Whatever happened to the growth mindset?

ability_mental

At one time, the ‘growth mind set’ was a phrase on every school leader’s lips and Carol Dweck, its progenitor, was the ‘it’ person in education. But where did it all lead? And where are we now in thinking about how pupils think about themselves as learners? It seems to me that for many schools, the new curriculum and so called new approaches to assessment have not led to any real change in learning orientation, as people like Tim Oates might have hoped for. There seems widespread confusion in what  mastery in learning really means. Yes, people on twitter seem to get it, and educators that put themselves out there may not be confused, but these are the minority I feel.  There are hundreds of teachers and leaders who are very much stuck in ‘level land’. Teachers are still asked every few weeks to sort children into numerical data groups and pressured to get children to a certain threshold by a set time resulting in just what the abandonment of levels sought to do away with: the sacrifice of deep learning for speedy surface progress. Worst still, many schools still reserve mastery for the ‘top’ children and  have the so called ‘bottom’ children sat counting their fingers in the corner with a teaching assistant while the teacher gets the rest to ‘expected,’ and ‘challenges’ those pupils who are ‘exceeding’.  This got me to thinking – where is the precious growth mind set in all this?

To remind myself: what does it mean to have a growth mind set?

To being with, the term growth mind set is a phrase created by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe a belief system built on the understanding that intelligence is incremental and ultimately changeable. In her book, ‘Self Theories,’ she explains why some pupils possess a ‘mastery –oriented’ approach to learning, where they seek challenge and persist in the face of obstacles, while others avoid failure at all cost and rarely enjoy challenge.

As educators, we know that children who love learning, are motivated by effort and enjoy overcoming setbacks fair better, not just at school, but also in life. We also know that assessment for learning techniques work better for pupils hooked into learning in this way. These are the children who don’t slump into a miserable pile over the desk when learning gets tough, or go quiet and try not to get noticed, but rather become energized by  difficulties and won’t rest  until they ‘get it’. These are the children who keep us on our toes because they aren’t satisfied going over old learning for long, but they also make the fastest progress and have an infectious way of motivating others too. We want children to be like this. If we want schools to be truly effective and for children to leave school imbued with this love of learning, then we need to understand that this attitude can be cultivated in all pupils and we owe it to them to ensure this happens.

So what happened to the mind set?

The problem is that, as with many new things in education, complex ideas are quickly précised into bite sized bullet points so that leaders can feed this to teachers in hourly staff meetings, then tick off evidence of implementation  in learning walks and observations so they can tell themselves they have disseminated this new practice across the school. Sometimes this might work, but this cannot work with the growth mind set because, as Dweck says, ‘people develop beliefs that organise their world and give meaning to their experiences;’ this creates our ‘meaning systems.’ People’s beliefs about themselves and others, their ‘self theories,’ are not something that can change in a few staff meetings. Whether or not one has a growth mind set goes to the heart of who you are and how you think, feel and act.

Too many school initiatives have used Dweck’s theory merely as an motivational device to attempt to get pupils to work harder rather than committing the whole school community to a complete change of heart in relation to learning and ability. Importantly, this applies to everyone, including teachers, parents and most definitely leaders as well. Some of the most fixed mind sets in schools can exist in the minds of leaders in how they think about their staff and in the way they treat them, which ultimately sets the tone of the whole school environment.

If leaders and teachers really want to cultivate a growth mind set in their pupils the whole school needs to check up on what they think and feel about ability and intelligence. It is my firm belief that schools who still label children by ability, and separate pupils into closed ability groups might very well pay lip service to the growth mind set vogue, but do not really believe in it all.

At the heart of the growth mind set is the understanding that wherever a pupil is, their intelligence can be increased; there is no set quota of intelligence that a child is endowed with at birth. This goes against the way many teachers think and talk about children because our theories about others, and indeed ourselves, tend towards being fixed in nature. Let’s face it, first impressions stick, just like first loves; once you feel something about someone or something it’s hard to shift it and nine times out of ten we spiral into a repetition of the same thoughts and feelings about people and situations. Intelligence is no different. It is after all only the sum total of one’s present skills and knowledge which is open to change during every waking hour; we must get away from the idea that somehow intelligence is a sealed box inside the head that is, to a greater or lesser degree, filled with a kind of mental elixir.

Dweck found that pupils who had a less fixed theory of intelligence regularly sacrificed opportunities to appear ‘clever’ in favour of opportunities to learn something new. We all know pupils like this: those tenacious kids who ask question after question and won’t rest until they have succeeded.  Whereas, pupils with more fixed ideas about intelligence feel the need to look clever and avoid looking ‘stupid’. They seek easy success to demonstrate this and regularly disengage from tasks that pose a threat to their perceived intelligence. We all know plenty of children like this too! (We know plenty of adults too.)

In practice, we know that children (and adults) who will persevere through adversity regardless achieve more because for them failure motivates rather than undermines. If you think and feel that you have a fixed amount of intelligence then whatever you do it will remain the same, therefore failure only exposes the truth about how much intelligence you have. If this is true then it makes sense to hide failure and avoid anything that exposes this unchangeable truth. However, if for you intelligence is fluid and can be built upon through effort and practice, then a failure is a signal for you that growth and change are just around the corner – so failure takes on a whole different meaning, it becomes a motivator.

In truth, too many classrooms have too little cognitive discomfort for places of learning. A classroom should be a place full of quizzical looks, small frowns and lightly chewed lips, interspersed with eureka moments followed by yet more finger tapping and head scratching. Why this seems to frighten teachers is not a mystery, but a result of intense pressure for progress and evidence of lots of ‘learning success’ with little or no mention of the horrible F word.  These days, there is little time to fail in class. Why failure seems to frighten pupils is because we’ve disconnected failure from the concept of learning when there is no learning without failure first, as Samuel Becket said: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Growth mind set:  Failure = a challenge which leads to future learning.

Fixed mind set:  Failure= an intelligence deficit which can’t be changed so only leads to looking stupid! Avoid it!

This is why growth mind set initiatives in schools need to be much more than a simple motivational driver. Any initiatives need to challenge everyone’s beliefs about intelligence and then lead to real change in thinking and behaviour. This means that the shared ‘meaning systems’ of the school community support change in the individual meaning systems of all. If this doesn’t happen, children’s feelings about being ‘stupid,’ ‘slow’ ‘bright’ or ‘clever’ are only reinforced and behaviour will not change.

There’s much more to say on this, not least about how teachers communicate with pupils in confirming or breaking down fixed mindsets. Teachers can have a dramatic affect on how pupils view intelligence just by changing how they talk about learning and deliberately making pupils conscious of when they are literally building their own intelligence.   However, this needs to go hand in hand with a school ethos that mirrors a mastery-approach to learning  for all – including teachers and leaders, a place where failure is recognised positively and utilised by learners rather than desperately feared, and certainly a place where  we get away from the same old cavalry charge for data that has driven shoddy practice for years. Data never leads to learning, but it might do the other way around.

Some more ideas about assessment…

ethos

A few of my ideas about school assessment going forward:

  • Schools need to establish their own principles or ethos about assessment before they do anything! This means knowing why they assess pupils and what good practice in assessment looks and feels like for pupils, teachers and the school. Too many schools approach assessment as just another facet of school life. It isn’t! This is because evaluating learning, understanding if learning has happened and what is done with that information is at the heart of education.  Schools must have their own ethos on assessment…or get one! Too many schools are just signing up to new assessment systems that promise to solve everything without understanding what they really think and feel about assessment first. Really, this is all about shifting thinking away from the organisational detail around assessment and moving towards a holistic viewpoint on it that will guide decision making on the detail to come. 
  • Current progress is what Ofsted are most interested in rather than old trends and last year’s results. This means a system has to support progress pathways so that teachers and pupils are really keyed into what comes next. This needs to be visible in the books too so that pupils are pointed towards what comes next through feedback and, importantly,that this is acted upon. So marking everything is a waste of valuable time, but ‘deep marking’ makes more sense. Less is more! – by now I think this is obvious to everyone. (Although I still see teachers sometimes trying to mark every piece of everything when most of it will never be seen again. Do they have an ethos on marking and feedback to begin with? Do they know why they’re doing it?).
  • For me, first and foremost, an effective assessment system should have an impact on pupils’ achievement (assessing with levels didn’t mean this always happened). Assessment should mean both pupil and teacher should know where they are, where they need to go and how to get there (I know for many this is old hat, but you’d be surprised).
  • An assessment system should help teachers to plan what to teach next by having clear progression on curricular content.
  • It should relate directly to curricular content using simple language pupils understand and are eventually able to use to assess themselves by.
  • This clarity and simplicity should then allow teachers to go beyond the curriculum into broader areas of interest to pupils and themselves.
  • An assessment system should over time increase pupils’ independence and self managemement because it allows teachers to be clear on next steps and supports teachers and pupils identifying what quality in learning looks like. If you don’t get the link between good assessment like this and independence, imagine having to walk to the shops and having no idea what shop it is or how to get there. Now imagine the same walk if you know which shop and how to get there – you’re more confident and certainly more independent because you won’t get lost and have to keep stopping to ask people where on earth you are. This is why effective assessment will change mind sets and learning approaches for life. No one will be happy routinely going for a walk to an unknown destination; learners will get into the habit of taking control. (I know some people might want to throw in here something about creativity and the benefits of not knowing where learning will take you sometimes… Yes, true, sometimes exploration takes you to new destinations you might have missed – but let’s also get real about how to help kids progress well please.)
  • It should be easy for teachers to record any assessment information and the quality of assessment should be supported by regular moderation and dialogue about quality between teachers. We don’t know everything and should be allowed to say so and share ideas!
  • Overtime, it should decrease record keeping, data analysis and report writing work for teachers so they are freed up to focus on sound assessment techniques and understanding quality outcomes.
  • It should provide a framework for teachers and schools to collaborate together in exemplifying and agreeing quality in learning. 
  • An assessment system should support a range of assessment approaches in class that inform teachers of what to do next. This way formative assessment practices lead the way and dominant the school’s pedagogy. Even summative tests are used to tell teachers what to do next.
  • Any resultant data is merely capturing where learning is at a point in time. This capturing, or stopping to look at ‘data,’ should be infrequent and when used should inform teaching, and advise leaders how they might support their teachers rather than be used to judge teacher performance.
  • Having data expectations should be handled with great care because of the danger of fitting children’s learning into numbers for the sake of reaching given thresholds. Schools need to tread carefully between having high expectations for all pupils,  setting targets and children’s learning trajectories. If teachers feel under a lot of pressure to get pupils to ‘a number’ then schools actually put learning at risk; however, some way of describing and evaluating expectations is still necessary. (Schools who say they don’t need numbers are just not being honest -having an overview of learning is necessary; data is not inherently evil just because levels went wrong).  As I’ve said before: good assessment practice precedes good assessment data! Schools need to develop an ethos where teachers are dedicated and highly motivated in trying to close learning gaps for pupils rather than simply motivated to reach ‘that number’ (or previously, level).  There is a profound difference between these two approaches which schools must acknowledge and deal with. The dealing with it brings me back to my first point:  teachers and schools must have solid principles to begin with. Why are you here? What do you want for these little people? What is the best way to achieve this?

So, a little pre-holiday  blah, blah, blah from me. I hope it’s useful. 

Science Assessment Ladders

Key Stage One Individual Pupil Science Assessment Record with pupil assessment (1)

Lower Key Stage 2 Individual Pupil Science Assessment Record with pupil assessment

Upper Key Stage 2 Individual Pupil Science Assessment Record

These are phase group science learning ladders for the primary science curriculum. As a precursor to using them, I assume hopefully that teachers are using the pupil’s prior science learning as a basis for planning what to teach rather than grabbing plans from books or on-line and just teaching, this is very old hat transmission teaching and kills science! Even better, I hope teachers are allowing children to get excited by a topic, encouraging them to ask questions about the topic and then using those questions to form the basis of the children’s science investigations.

 

I recommend then using these science learning ladders in the following ways:

 

  • To baseline assess science knowledge before a topic by for example having a ‘what do you know’ session, or a little quiz type assessment.
  • To assess science skills and knowledge as children learn – the best way to assess!
  • To summarise learning at intervals if needed (like termly or at the end of the year for reporting to parents).
  • To ensure/monitor phase group coverage and thus allow for a more fluid, child led learning cycle.
  • To ensure progression from one year to the next and avoid repetition of learning. Copies should be handed on to the next teacher each year too.
  • For gaps analysis in knowledge so you and the children know where they need to go next. Although, I would say, if you’re providing/allowing a rich child-led enquiry basis for science learning you will find that these relatively simple knowledge objectives are easily learnt. Also please avoid telling the children ‘what they will learn today’ in science as this destroys the ‘finding out’ aspect that is at the core of science learning. Leave sharing the knowledge learning intention until the end – a grand finale! Or better, let them tell you what they learnt and then let them tick it off on the ladder! Magic!
  • For gaps analysis in science skills learning. This will indicate which types of enquiry the children need to do in order to practice specific skills. Then you can choose the children’s questions that fit these enquires. Remember there are five types of enquiry the children need to try in order to hone the necessary scientific skills within working scientifically: Observing over time 2) Identifying and Classifying 3) Pattern seeking 4) Fair testing 5) Research.  The type of enquiry depends on the type of question raised. It is important teachers and children understand this and do not always resort to ‘a fair test’ whenever they do an investigation. A fair test is only one type of investigation and only answers questions which seek to compare variables. Like this, a fair test is one of five different ways to investigate a science question and teachers need to ensure all five ways are used to answer class questions. More can be read about this by reading ‘It’s not Fair,’ by Jane Turner, Brenda Keogh and Stuart Naylor . I also have a powerpoint on it too which I will post. Importantly, children don’t just learn skills through osmosis, they need them modelling and then they need to practice at them so they develop and become more systematic. So don’t forget to model them well; show them what it’s like being scientific!
  • Previously, I have posted science assessment ladders that have three columns of assessment such as working towards, achieving and exceeding. However, as I have thought about this it doesn’t make sense to try to assess each skill or knowledge criteria like this. For example, ‘to know how the rotation of the earth results in day and night’; you either know this or you don’t so it makes no sense to say working towards knowing this, achieving knowing this or exceeding knowing this. It’s a case of OSD ‘obsessive sub-dividing disorder’ if you start doing that for criteria that are either yes or no!
  • The terms ‘working towards’, ‘achieving’ or ‘exceeding’ should apply to the assessment of the child’s whole learning journey through the phase group learning ladder. However, I would err on the side of caution with ‘exceeding’ as this is a mastery science curriculum and we should think of children going wider rather than further. This means rather than ticking off the learning ladder and then dipping into the next phase group’s learning, teachers should provide rich opportunities for more able children to be challenged in their scientific thinking and to investigate their own questions at a deeper level (think Blooms taxonomy).
  • Importantly, these ladders should also form the basis of frequent phase group moderation in school, and even better still, between schools. Questions at the heart of this should be those such as, ‘what does it look like if a child is working within Year 3 for science?’  ‘Or what does it look like if a child is working towards Year 3?’ Bring your science books and folders let’s share. However, on the table should also be questions such as: ‘what does ‘to understand that light is reflected from surfaces’ look like? or ‘what do we mean ‘ask relevant questions and use different types of scientific enquiries to answer them?’ etc. This means schools are building up a repertoire of exemplary understanding on science assessment; they’re making success criteria for what good science skills and knowledge are themselves rather than ticking a box and hoping they’re right! Or worse taking a test and finding out what the children didn’t know when it’s too late. This ‘deep moderation’ approach should also avoid talking judgementally rather than descriptively about learning, as so often happened with levels. Remember those times someone brought ‘their level 3’ and you brought ‘your level 3’ and they were worlds apart? Well deep moderation on really sharing ‘what makes good’ will avoid this. It might take more time, but if this approach is stuck to teachers will build their science assessment skills over time. Schools must put the time into this. Cancel those staff meetings about stuff you don’t need and make time for moderating…and please not just English and Maths.
  • Finally, a nice data tracker can be made to go with these ladders by putting all the class names on one side and then use the year group and the ‘working towards’, ‘achieving’.. and I suppose ‘exceeding’…but I think I’m going to call it ‘deepening’!  The data entry on the sheet for a child might look like ACH 3 for achieving Year 3, or WW 3, if their working towards and DPN 3 if they’re a high flyer. At some point I’ll make one of these sheets perhaps. I expect you could also start to talk about expected progress too so that if a child starts Year 3 as ACH 2,  they should end Year 3 as ACH 3. But perhaps that should be left to English and Maths and we shouldn’t let that spoil science! We’ll see. The point is that the ladders show attainment and achievement ..or should I say they record it…the children will show it!
  • Have I forgotten anything….? Probably. I might add more to this blog another time!

 

Any questions or suggestions about these ladders, or my approach greatly appreciated and welcome.

 

Post-mortem or medical? Quality v quantity?

In thinking about feedback I really like Douglas Reeves idea that authentic feedback should be like a medical rather than a post-mortem. Like this, feedback shouldn’t be about what went wrong, but about how to get better. Focusing on what went wrong is the traditional transmission method of feedback where the teacher is centre stage, passing judgement on the pupil’s demonstration of knowledge acquisition. We know now this only widens the achievement gap, it makes low ability pupils shrink back and the more able ping forward – so for a while now we’ve known we need to turn around in the road and face the other way.

This is why ‘next steps feedback’ should really drive the new curriculum and any new assessment systems put in place. It is this kind of system that should govern summative assessment too, indeed even school tracking systems. In this way, the ‘where are they now’ snap shot is a moment in time that is looked in on, ‘snapped’ and then used to understand the field of play, and by this I mean children who are not locking into and benefiting from the next steps pathway.

Like this, a school tracking system should work for (not with) the next steps assessment system to create a strategic overview that can then drill down to groups or individuals who need more attention within the context of the whole school. In this way, a tracking system will support in-class assessment and support a teacher’s ‘aerial view’ of what’s going on. This is important because we’re really close up and personal in class aren’t we? Yet really, any teacher worth anything should know which individuals are not moving and making those next steps.

Systems like new Learning Ladders and Classroom Monitor seem to be on the right track here, but my one worry is the old quality v quantity problem. Some systems seem to try to provide next steps assessment pathways for anything and everything, which will mean stressed out teachers who get squeezed into a corner where they have to tick things they’re not really sure of because of time. This is what was wrong with the last system, overkill! Really, if we’re taking on a mastery curriculum we should take on a mastery assessment system too where less is more and we cut out what we can do without and focus on the vitals.

So, next steps: good; each and every next step: bad.  We need to be careful the accountability shadow doesn’t needlessly spoil it all and make us ‘panic assess.’

Anyway… just some quick thoughts on how it might just all fit together. You never know…it might just work!

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!