‘The only thing we learn from the past is how little we’ve learned from our mistakes’.
Geog Wilhem Friedrich Hegel
‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’
‘Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders’.
Inside the black box of classroom practice…
Formative assessment helps pupils understand how to improve
but requires teachers to focus on what works best and change their habits of practice.
i. What AfL is: getting pupils to understand how to improve.
Before I started to teach, my Head of Department said, ‘if you read one thing, read ‘Inside the Black Box’. So I did. AfL seemed to revolve around getting and providing effective feedback (1999). Research that summarised 250 assessment articles over a decade argued that AfL ‘could do more to improve educational outcomes than almost any other investment in education’ (Black et al 2003, 2). International evidence corroborated this: a synthesis of 250 studies concluded that ‘the gains in achievement are amongst the largest ever reported for educational interventions’ (Marzano 2007, 13). Studies from Natriello (1987) Crooks (1988) Kluger & DeNisi (1996) and Nyquist (2003) backed it up. John Hattie’s research that I summarise here, enthroned feedback as the most effective teaching strategy, bar none. Clearly, all this stuff on questioning, peer- and self-assessment, and feedback, could be powerful stuff.
AfL in a nutshell.
ii. What AFL became and why: hijacked, hoop-jumping gimmickry
Few education concepts have been more distorted in a shorter time span than formative assessment: teachers falling prey to gimmicks, schools mandating unhelpful AfL policies, and government policy confusing AfL with national levels. Lolly pop sticks, coloured party cups, red-amber-green traffic lights five times a lesson, thumbs-up-or-down, starred self-confidence post-its, scribbled emoticons for end-of-lesson feelings, strange and unhelpful acronyms like WALT & WILF all became a kind of reductio ad absurdum. Many senior leadership teams then enforced the letter of the AfL law rather than the spirit of it: school-mandated lesson plans, observation rubrics and progress checks 3 times a lesson and endless mini-plenaries; objective sharing in rigid but often counterproductive formats required across all subjects like ‘by the end of the lesson, students will be able to…’; peer assessment on levels that often resulted in comments like: ‘5a because he tried hard and wrote neat’; marking in green pen rather than red to avoid damaging students’ self-esteem; and posters with tiny, illegible, incomprehensible but displayed level descriptors. Prescriptive but flashy AfL techniques like waving around mini-whiteboards became the OFSTED-enforced orthodoxy, and inspectors became obsessed that pupils could say what level they were on.
The last government then bureaucratised AfL into a National Strategy, which ‘practically ignored the process and pedagogical essence of AfL and its underpinning principles’. Critics described it as a ‘woeful waste’ dominated by an alignment with ‘Assessing Pupils’ Progress’ and summative assessment’ (Swaffield 2009, 13): a ‘misinterpretation of AfL as a mechanism for advancing students up a prescribed ladder’ (Swaffield 2009, 13). Politicians hijacked Afl and ossified it into sub-levelling and labelling students.
Dylan Wiliam himself recognises these unintended consequences as what he calls ‘policy diffraction;’ or, more graphically, ‘scoring a spectacular own goal’. He gives the examples of one school that showed him ‘AfL lessons where pupils know what level they’re on, and when asked how to get to the next one, they say ‘listen in class and do my homework’; and one teacher who had ‘lost the plot’ and combined ‘lolly pop sticks with bunny ears that pupils held up to show they were listening.’ He put these own goals down to government ‘looking for a quick win’ and being ‘in a rush’.
Perhaps, though, such spectacular own goals are being scored and the ideas misunderstood because they weren’t clearly communicated in the first place. One of Wiliam’s four top ideas was, after all, the formative use of summative tests. Confusion between AfL and APP is more understandable in that light. His 2011 book, Embedded Formative Assessment, looks set to repeat the mistakes of his past 1998 and 2001 pamphlets. A laundry list of 53 techniques includes coloured cups, popsicle sticks, red/green disks, traffic lights, WALT, WILF, two stars and a wish, ask the audience and phone a friend amongst others. A decade on, it seems we have learned little from such unthinking, hoop-jumping blunders.
iii. How to make formative assessment work: examples, questions and feedback.
For a classroom teacher, teaching an average of over 200 pupils more than once a week, checking and improving the subject understanding of every individual pupil is a huge challenge. Wiliam clarifies it in a helpful grid, and I simplify it below as a cycle. I then summarise the top five (out of 53!) highest-impact ideas for applying formative assessment that work to help pupils understand how to improve in my experience: exemplars, hinge questions, exit tickets, checklists, and numbered questions – dovetailing with Engelman’s advice of examples, questions, practice and feedback.
Where we’re going: Clarify Success
1. Snap & share exemplars
Comparing multiple student samples of essays, paragraphs or sentences that exemplify excellent work or different levels of a success criteria rubric. Discussing strengths and areas for improvement helps them understand what excellence looks like. An easy way of getting sample work is to ‘snap and share’ from students’ books with the camera on your smartphone to save you or them typing it all up.
Where we are: Check Understanding
Just as a pilot guides a plane toward its destination by taking constant readings and making careful adjustments in response to wind, air currents and weather, so a teacher within and across lessons must check whether and to what extent students understand what they need for the destination or end-of-unit assessment. Both these ideas are ‘all –student response mechanisms.’
To reach your destination, adjust direction.
2. Ask & adapt to hinge questions
Asking a key question at the right moment in a lesson allows you to visibly see among your whole class who gets it and who doesn’t, then adapt afterwards. Multiple-choice questions work well for this as you can scan the class instantaneously then probe and follow up misunderstanding. Wiliam suggests the options of using mini-whiteboards or ABCD cards, though the content of questions matters most.
3. Pose & use exit tickets
At the end of lessons, and for longer responses, ask a single question designed to assess whether they’ve learned what you’ve tried to teach them by getting them to apply it, and get all students to write an answer in their books or on cards you’ll take in.
How we’ll get there: Share Teacher-, Self- & Peer-Feedback
To be effective, feedback must provide a recipe for future action. Otherwise, feedback is more like the scene in the rearview mirror than the windshield. Feedback only functions formatively if it is used by the learner in improving performance. Wiliam says he often asks teachers whether they think that their students spend as much time using their feedback as it took to give it. Typically, he says, fewer than 1 percent of teachers believe this to be the case. His advice is not to provide students with feedback unless you allow time, in class, to use the feedback to improve their work. Feedback should be focused, as less is often more, focused on the rubric of success criteria, and it should be more work for the recipient than the donor.
Feedback as a windshield not a rearview mirror
4. Tick & target with a preflight checklist
Peer and self-assessment works well through a simple checklist of requirements and success criteria. You get students to tick off criteria they or their peer have met, and write targets for criteria as yet unmet.
5. Mark & require responses to numbered question options
Before you mark 30 books, decide on six or so questions that you might want students to respond to next lesson when they get their books back. As you read, write a number or two for questions that student will have to answer for ten minutes next lesson. In the lesson, display the questions on the board, and get the students to copy their questions and respond to them. It takes you just a minute to read the work and write two numbers, and takes them ten minutes to respond. For examples, and instead of numbers, you could use icons.
iv. How we can improve teaching: focused habit change
Wiliam says all the research shows the best way of improving student achievement is by improving teaching quality: the most effective teachers help their students learn at four times the rate of the least effective teachers. But he argues that just improving the quality of entrants by raising the threshold for entry whilst getting rid of underperforming teachers with rigorous deselection takes too long. We need to help improve the quality of teachers already working in our schools – the ‘love the one you’re with strategy.’
Old habits die hard.
Wiliam then uses a Weightwatchers analogy. Everyone knows that the route to a healthy body is to exercise more and eat less. But Weightwatchers realise they’re not in the knowledge-giving business; they’re in the habit-changing business. Similarly, most teachers know that questioning and feedback are the ways to improve learning; but old habits die hard. If you’re serious about improving teaching, he says, you’d better get in the habit-changing business.
If you don’t change what teachers do in classrooms, students don’t benefit: that’s why so much structural and curriculum change has made such little impact. But no one has cracked this idea of habit change. Mixing his metaphors slightly, returning to the pilot analogy, he thinks the reason why teachers resist change is it’s scarily like doing engine change in flight.
His solution is Teacher Learning Communities, with the principles of choice, small steps and flexibility as to which of his 53 techniques teachers opt for. Monthly 2-hour sessions between 8-10 teachers help sustain dedicated practice and undo old habits.
Whether Dylan Wiliam’s TLCs will get the better of the AfL blunders, time will tell. In the meantime, as teachers we can first and foremost ask whether our own use of formative assessment is genuinely helping pupils understand how to improve in our subjects.
Black, P. and Wiliam, D. 2001 Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam King’ s College London School of Education
Marzano, R. J. 2007 The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework For Effective Instruction. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.
Swaffield, S., 2009. The misrepresentation of Assessment for Learning – and the woeful waste of a wonderful opportunity. Unpublished paper’, at the 2009 AAIA National Conference (Association for Achievement and Improvement through Assessment) Bournemouth, 16 – 18 September, 2009.
Wiliam, D. 2011, Embedded Formative Assessment.