Learning (and Assessment) First

In Feedback & Questioning by Alex Quigley0 Comments

(Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt)

We so often get assessment wrong in schools. Under perennial accountability pressures, assessment often loses it chief purpose: aiding learning. Today, in Sheffield, hundreds of teachers are gathering to discuss assessment at the ‘Learning First’ conference, headed by Dame Alison Peacock and hosted by Sheffield Hallam University, and it is timely that teachers gather to consider something better – the fabled ‘assessment for learning’.

With primary assessment in seeming disarray and life without levels at secondary likely proving a missed opportunity for too many we are at an important juncture. The likely problem is that as we are driven to distraction by endless tracking and so we are not starting in the right place when it comes to assessment. Royce Sadler puts it better than I ever could:

“The indispensable conditions for improvement are that the student comes to hold a concept of quality roughly similar to that held by the teacher, is able to monitor continuously the quality of what is being produced during the act of production itself, and has a repertoire of alternative moves or strategies from which to draw at any given point. In other words, students have to be able to regulate what they are doing during the doing of it.”

Royce Sadler, Formative Assessment and the Design of Instructional Systems

This is assessment for learning. It reminded me of a similar passage from Ron Berger on authentic assessment:

“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.”

Ron Berger, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’

Both Sadler and Berger show us where assessment should start. In the heads of our students – quite simply, where the learning happens.

Why are we looking at assessment from the wrong place? Of course, accountability matters. When OFSTED want lots of written feedback in books (whether that is a truth is dubious), or senior leaders want the same to herald progress, the teacher spends their time daubing coloured pen in books with little time or energy to promote the excellence Sadler and Berger describes.

Are there easy answers? Well, we can start by stripping back our summative assessment and tracking systems so that we can concentrate on our students’  learning. Why can’t we have fewer summative assessments and focus more on great formative assessment? We can and should evaluate our curriculum planning so that assessment is designed for learning and not for tracking and micromanaging. Rather than spending all year marking tests, teachers should go mad sharing examples of excellence. I think we should be assessing for learning, the formative stuff, by modelling every lesson, at the beginning, in the middle and at the end. Modelling is the closest thing I’ll offer to an easy answer for great learning.

Assessment, feedback and marking should be about us – as well our students – making better decisions about their future learning. We get obsessed by tracking the minutiae of data, but we hand the data upstairs to management, whilst we feel stripped of the autonomy to actually make our own decisions based on it. The focus of the assessment should be about decisions rather than data. I expect the ‘Learning First’ conference helps remind teachers that they have the power to make those decisions.

We should question our current practice, such as how we undertake work scrutiny or ‘book looks’. Call them what you like, if we don’t share them properly then it is a sterile exercise in checking and compliance. Any work scrutiny should prove collaborative. It could mean that there are lots of photographs taken of quality work and this is shared with teachers as a central act of professional learning. It is about modelling again. From this quality work, we evaluate our planning, our teaching, and students’ learning. Happily, all these images and exemplars are ready-made resources for our teaching.

Curriculum design, target setting, testing, work scrutiny, moderation, feedback, marking – we need to look again at all of these and ask whether they are actually aiding learning.

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