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.