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 What is assessment ?

Black and William (1998b; 2) subsequently defined assessment per se as “activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged.” It is plausible to argue that almost every activity undertaken in a lesson fits into this category; if nothing is learned from an activity, why therefore is it being done?

Assessment wordle

The problem this presents is that the information to be gleaned from a single lesson may become overwhelming and thus the effectiveness of the information lost in vain attempts to ascertain meaning from every activity, student comment, or written piece of work. However, importantly Black and Wiliam (1998b) then qualify this statement, positing that formative assessment only occurs “when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs.” Wiliam (2009; 13) later further qualified this theory, emphasising that for true formative assessment to take place the teacher must “adapt teaching and learning activities in order to meet student needs.”

Evidently, the overarching emphasis here is on the act of changing and modifying teaching in order to best suit the needs of individual students; a conscious decision, made based on clarity of student progress and understanding and possession of a range of pedagogical tools to allow adaptation of lesson content and materials.

Gardner (2006; 104) echoes this sentiment, arguing that “AfL is used in making decisions that affect teaching and learning in the short-term future.” From this we can establish that AfL relies heavily on the professional skills and judgement of the teacher and their ability to make instantaneous decisions in response to a comment, question or an unexpected issue. Indeed, Lambert and Lines (2000) highlight the need for teachers to have “the ability…to analyse the pupils work within the bigger picture of the disciplinary context,” (ibid; 121) suggesting that as well as being decisive, in order to effectively employ AfL, teachers must also possess firm subject knowledge and confidence with their subject matter; without it, how can a teacher truly know the progress of their students? This point is strongly supported by Bennett (2011;15), as he argues “that a teacher who has weak cognitive-domain understanding [poor subject knowledge] is less likely to know what questions to ask of students, what to look for in their performance, what inferences to make from that performance about student knowledge, and what actions to take to adjust instruction.” As the majority of Year 12 teachers at the academy had not previously taught the KS5 curriculum, it may seem obvious to expect their subject knowledge to be weaker than at KS3 and KS4, and thus adversely affect their use of AfL. Considering this, I am inclined to agree with Gardner’s claim that “the importance of subject knowledge may have been underplayed in some of the earlier writing on AfL.” (2006; 139)

The role of students in formative assessment

Whilst Berry (2008) echoes the sentiment that AfL is vital in identifying progress and areas for development, and the teacher plays a vital role, she places the onus of using AfL squarely on the shoulders of students, alongside their teacher, giving them equal responsibility and independence. She argues that “students need continuous information about their learning, information that describes what they are succeeding at, where they should pitch their efforts to make improvements in their current level of performance, and what strategies that may need to consider in moving their learning forward.” (Ibid;1) Ultimately, Berry (2008) suggests that whilst teachers are important in providing this learning information, they are not entirely responsible for the learning of their students (an outlook that in many ways is wholly opposite to the perceived role of a teacher); the students themselves need to make decisions and choices related to their learning. So rather than the only teacher adapting their teaching activities or behaviours, Berry is implying that the students themselves, when armed with learning information derived from AfL, can adapt their own activities and behaviours to ensure their own progress.

Considering the focus of my research was Year 12 students and their progress in Humanities lessons, at a time when they had selected specific subjects to study, and had chosen to continue with their education rather than it being a legal requirement and therefore mandatory, the role of student responsibility and independence in learning cannot be ignored.

Issues for teachers in putting AFL into practice

Despite many teachers seemingly recognising the value of formative assessment, its actual use in the classroom leaves much to be desired. This is due to a range of factors; preconceived ideas regarding formative assessment; teacher resistance to the introduction of new initiatives, a lack of practical and easy to use strategies for teachers and the pressure of external summative examinations are some such examples.

Gadsby (2012; 1) insightfully noted that “many well intentioned teachers are engaging with the letter of AfL rather than the spirit of it,” summarising the age-old problem of teachers simply ‘ticking the boxes’ by paying lip-service to what is seen as yet another new initiative introduced by the Government or SMT and foisted upon staff, rather than buying wholeheartedly into the usefulness and rigour of AfL. Indeed Wiliam (2009;22) commented on the frustration experienced by Leadership in schools, who, after implementing a new pedagogical initiative involving AfL, find them seemingly adopted by staff “only to hear that as soon as they [the observer] have left, the teachers revert to their former practises.” This can be largely due to two explanations; teachers are unwilling to comply, or they are unable to comply.

Let us assume for a moment that it is because they are unwilling to comply. Firstly, teachers, by the very nature of their profession, are creatures of habit and routine; to suggest that they should change their practice, which they may have been doing for years, can be both unsettling and frightening; it understandable that some teachers may feel hostile towards new initiatives which impose change. Black et al (2006) conducted a 2 year research project, involving 36 teachers from Medway and Oxfordshire, focusing on putting AfL into practice in the classroom. In their findings they reported on the fear shown by the teachers involved in the project, stating that “the teachers described the changes on which they were embarking as scary;” (Ibid; 96) given that these individuals had voluntarily involved themselves in Black et al’s project and yet still found the pedagogical change scary, one can empathise with teachers who have come to experience formative assessment as a ‘top-down’ initiative, over which they have little control. Similarly, in a later work, Wiliam (2009; 21) (who collaborated with Black on the project) noted that “in traditional ‘top down’ models of teacher professional development, teachers are given ideas to try in their classrooms, but the response is too often ‘I tried what you told me and it didn’t work’.” Such a negative response is arguably due to some staff feeling “coerced and hostile to yet more change,” as a result of schools enlisting all staff in a new initiative, rather than selecting the most suitable candidates, or requesting volunteers. (Clarke; 2008; 161)

As previously discussed, the subject knowledge of the teacher can impact heavily on their ability to successfully implement formative assessment in the classroom, yet their pedagogical knowledge is just as important, and cannot be overlooked. As such, it may be that teachers are unable to comply with new formative assessment initiatives as they simply do not possess the skills to do so. Bennett (2011;18) rightly affirms that “intentionally trying to develop pedagogical knowledge, deep domain understanding, and measurement fundamentals simultaneously may be more than any one professional-development programme can reasonably deliver.” The key issue here which Bennett emphasises, is that changing or developing pedagogy is not a simple issue, nor easy or quick to achieve, especially not on an institution or profession wide scale, and that often training programmes try to achieve too much all at once. In short, all this pedagogical over-load achieves is teacher disillusionment and disengagement, not a pedagogical revolution.

It is clear therefore, that for formative assessment to be integrated effectively into the curriculum, teachers need support and guidance in a number of areas; pedagogy, subject knowledge, and time management. What else is clear, is that although the idea behind AfL is not unheard of in schools, and undoubtedly most teachers have dabbled with ‘AfL strategies’, knowing that formative assessment exists and is important is a very different thing to figuring out how to implement it successfully in one’s own classroom (Leahy, Lyon, Thompson and Wiliam; 2005). imagesThis is why, therefore, that teachers need practical, sensible strategies demonstrated to them, to enable them to apply AfL in their own context; by providing teachers with, if you will, a toolkit for formative assessment, not only would they have practical basis from which to work, but they would also develop the confidence to experiment with these strategies in their lessons. This is the underlying concept behind the academies provision of voluntary training sessions twice weekly, which offer short, focused sessions outlining both theory and practical application of key pedagogical aspects. Bennett (2011;20) goes slightly further arguing that “teachers will need useful classroom materials that model the integration of pedagogical, domain, and measurement knowledge,” thus suggesting that, in addition to practical strategies, it would be more beneficial for such strategies to fit cohesively with external and internal summative assessment, as well as be suitable for the subject matter at hand. This is something that the academy has not yet achieved.  Whilst there is now undoubtedly a wealth of literature available and educational specialists who claim to have expertise in formative assessment, teachers still find the effective implementation of such processes challenging and unsettling. If prior training, CPD and academic research had been successful, surely this barrier would not exist?

There’s never enough time…

Furthermore, teachers may find it difficult to comply due to time constraints. Whilst the process of AfL itself occurs mostly within the classroom, when adapting pedagogy and lesson planning, it can be time-consuming. We must not forget the other aspects of a teacher’s role, such as being a form tutor, or break and lunch time duties in the playground, or indeed family commitments, all of which place demands on their time. Weeden, Winter and Broadfoot (2002; 28) recognised this constraint, explaining that “teachers may need to spend more time marking work, and feeding back comments,” although they do make the explicit point that such additional demands are only transitional when beginning to use AfL routinely. Having delivered training sessions myself for KS5 teachers, I have been frequently asked how AfL might be used in different subjects. To try to alleviate this frustration and uncertainty, some training sessions at the academy have been subject-focused, allowing discussion in departments, but most are generic offering basic, adaptable strategies; my research aimed to examine the extent to which these strategies are used at KS5 in Humanities, and with what effect.

(TBC….my research)

AfL jigsaw

Thinking points:

  • Are AfL and summative forms of assessment actually mutually exclusive or could they be used simultaneously?
  • Why does AfL persist to be a bolt-on to lessons or ‘magic bullet’ in many schools rather than an integral part of learning?
  • What do we need to do to make pedagogical change easier for staff?
  • How can we develop a working partnership with students in our lessons in order to facilitate greater used of formative assessment feedback?
  • How do we ensure that information received from formative assessment is acted on ASAP to guide the rest of the learning taking place?