Wednesday, 6 August 2014

What has happened to Assessment for Learning?

There are unquestionably advantages to not being employed in the education sector any more: I get to enjoy the summer holidays for one thing. As a head the summer holidays were no kind of break at all, and the looming key dates of exam results and start of term would start haunting me before the summer term had even ended.

However not being in the thick of things does mean that I can lose track of what used to be central concerns of mine. If educational issues don't make the news (and it is generally only scandals and stories of failure that do) then I rarely get to hear of them any more. Occasionally I do get curious though, and this morning, for reasons best known to myself, I put Assessment for Learning into Google and chose "News" as the search type. After the first 5 pages of search results I was forced to admit that there was simply nothing from any UK site about developments in AfL.

Yet this is the time when pedagogues do their most creative thinking. These are the precious weeks when, freed from the daily grind of Year 9 Geography, teachers plan and share ideas and look to the future. With the new academic year approaching and "Back to School" sections already opening in supermarkets (it's the beginning of August for God's sake! Why do they DO that?) there seems to be nothing to reinvigorate the nation's teaching profession in the crucial business of effective assessment for learning.

I then searched the Department for Education site, and more scarily still there was nothing there either on what I would call AfL. It is as if the phrase has vanished. As if a concept that was utterly central to my thinking for years as a teacher and head has slipped quietly away while my back was turned.

This is maybe not that surprising once I come to think about it. Despite impassioned pleas such as this to Michael Gove I am not aware of him ever having said anything on the subject of Assessment for Learning. Assessment was for him, it is clear, nothing to do with learning at all. Assessment meant testing and nothing else. Testing was there to determine who had succeeded and who failed and what was tested was principally to be knowledge, not skills, and certainly not something as woolly and amorphous as learning. AfL, it is pretty clear, was a product of the Blob, and so to be ignored and marginalised.

Just to be clear on the issue, by assessment for learning I do not just mean the old National Strategy document (which I eventually tracked down in the government's web archive) but a broader way of thinking about education that actually engages with how students learn and how teachers can support and assess that learning. Experienced educationalists know all this stuff of course, but if the Department for Education doesn't then maybe I should clear it up.

Assessment is crucial to effective teaching. There is still a weird belief that, because many teachers are critical of the SATs, the revised GCSEs and A levels and league tables in their current form that they are anti-assessment. This is utter crap. Any teacher with any experience of education in the real world knows that assessment is something without which they simply could not function, because unless you know what students know, understand and can do then how can you possibly decide what to teach and how?

For effective assessment there have to be targets against which performance can be measured. I know the language of targets is anathema to some (because of its ubiquity these days) but actually the setting of targets has always been central to the relationship between teacher and pupil. What is a conversation like, "That's excellent Jasmine. How about putting in a bit of conversation too? Remember what we learned yesterday about speech punctuation," if it is not setting targets for learning?

However there is often insufficient thought given (or no thought at all, in Mr Gove's case) as to the different types of learning targets teachers can set. Personally, I find the following diagram useful in this context:
Learning outcomes are the only part of this diagram Michael Gove thought about. They are things like exam results, thought they can be smaller things too, like producing a piece of software that works, or being able to conduct a conversation in French. 

Barriers to learning are obvious really. If a student isn't in school then they are unlikely to be making much progress and if they mess around in class they will impede their own and others' learning. So removing those barriers is a necessary, but certainly not sufficient, step in achieving learning outcomes. 

Learning behaviour targets are what a lot of teachers spend their time and energy setting students when they have to write reports. They are things like, "Do your homework," "Always bring a pen," or "Work collaboratively with other." These are crucial behaviours of course, and without them students will be very unlikely to reach their desired learning outcomes. However they are no guarantee of getting there. A student who just doesn't understand calculus can dutifully turn up to every lesson on time and properly equipped, every week plugging away at homework they simply don't get and working collaboratively with a group of peers who also do not understand calculus, and if that is all they do they will never make any real progress.

The key to this diagram, and what assessment for learning is all about, is the box in the centre- learning gains targets. If students are to achieve meaningful learning outcomes they need to know what specific things they will have to learn in order to get there. Good teachers knew this before the term AfL was ever coined, and gave students targets like: 
Embed analysis of how writers use language to create effects in your essays 
Learn the past subjunctive tense of some key verbs and practise putting them into sentences from memory. 
Break a complex calculation into simpler steps, choosing and using appropriate and efficient operations and methods. 
Develop your use of a wider range of media and techniques in creating work 

The best teachers also assessed their students' progress against these targets, which is why their students made such significant progress towards the broader learning outcomes targets. The government's Assessment for Learning strategy, whilst cumbersome and bureaucratic, was at least an attempt to embed and validate that approach- to force everyone to recognise that you cannot simply deliver content to students and then test whether they have absorbed it or not (whatever Michael Gove might think).

So if assessment for learning as a concept really has slipped away in the brief time since I was a head then I despair even more as to what is happening in education. And thank my lucky stars yet again that I don't work in schools any more.

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