Assessment in the new Scottish Curriculum is still a hot topic for all involved. Obviously there’s the looming (or present for some schools) implementation of the new National Qualifications, but there’s still a lot of head scratching going on around assessment in 3-15. Whilst there are obviously many issues around the new approach, there are a particular group which interest me. These are around the complexities which arise from the new model of assessment in 3-15. I’ll broadly categorise these as…
We’re not as sure about where pupils are at. Without the National Assessments how can we be sure which level a pupil is working at? This for me is the wrong way of looking at it. Could it be that we were never sure? Perhaps the National Assessments provided a false sense of confidence as they papered of the complexities that were always there? People are complicated learners. We will never know precisely where one learner is on their journey and any categories will always be imperfect. This will be especially the case when the categorisation is achieved through a limited piece of assessment. Isn’t it the case that the 5-14 levels were originally supposed to be assigned by the teacher based on a wide range of evidence with the National Assessments used more as a secondary benchmarking tool? That sounds much better than the way it appeared to have ended up in many cases. If we are ever confident that we have a system that can simply and easily categorise something as complex and lacking in understanding as learning into a number of boxes, then we have gone seriously wrong. Learning, and learners, are complex. Assessment and judgements of progress should therefore be complex also, we should worry if they are not. We need to try and relax a little and revel in the complexity.
What do we do with pupils who haven’t achieved a level? Let’s ask this another way…what we do with pupils who haven’t progressed as much as others? This isn’t a new problem. Surely the issue of pupils progressing in different ways and at different rates didn’t arrive with Curriculum of Excellence? I’m not claiming that the issue of differentiating in a classroom is easy, I’m just trying to suggest it’s not new. It has, perhaps, been brought more to the fore as a result of what I’ve already discussed above. If complexities of progress have been brought out due to a more holistic approach to assessment, perhaps this is more likely to lead to the identification of a differential of progression in a class. Again, although this isn’t easy to deal with…surely this can only be a good thing from the pupils’ perspective?
How can we report to parents without “robust” evidence? For me, this question reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of reports to parents. We are not the SQA. Our job is not to “assign” grades or levels which need be backed up with tons of rigorous evidence. The purpose of a report to parents should be to communicate progress in such a way to allow parents to support their children to make whatever next steps are required to improve. As such, I think it’s more important that the comment in the report reflects the complexities of the young person’s learning, than providing some sort of “reliable” level. In which case we need a holistic approach to assessment which allows us to validly access all the different forms of progression and not over rely on one particular form of summative assessment in our quest for reliability.
These thoughts reflect my own developing understanding of assessment in Curriculum for Excellence as a teacher and CfE Development Officer and I’m sharing them here in the hope that they help other teachers…however, I also appreciate that until those that hold us to account take a similar approach to assessment and progression we’ll always be a bit up against it. But, that’s not a reason to give up. We need to keep embracing the complexity and pushing others to do so too. Otherwise, we risk selling our learners short.
As I mentioned, I was delivering a workshop at the Pedagoo TMSLFringe last Saturday. Here is a variation on what I said — not least because it was different each time, and I received lots of great ideas and suggestions and questions from those kind enough to come and listen!
I took as my topic how I’m moving towards getting the learners to use the Curriculum Experiences and Outcomes for Literacy & English (and if you think that’s a mouthful, you should see the new URLs on the Education Website!). While the focus was based on my own classwork in English, many of the ideas I’ve been trying out have potential for other subject areas — not least because as you will see with my closing example, opening up the means of exemplifying what has been learned can lead to cross-curricular fertilisation that can be immensely rewarding.
Giving The Learners Ownership
As I said on the day, I take my starting point as being the need to give the learners ownership of their own learning. This means handing over the E&Os as soon as possible and is based on the following simple and obvious thought…
I sometimes feel that we as a profession have spent too long agonising over the E&Os — yet they do not exist for us. They are the property and right of the learner. Our role is to introduce, explain and exemplify them, and quite simply bring them to life for the learner. So, as I see it, the E&Os are simply the rules of the game…
As such, we need to teach the learners the rules so they can ‘play’ the game. (And yes, I am well aware of the potentially negative connotations of ‘playing the game’ — but no cynicism is intended or should be implied! )
What Do I Do?
In simple terms, I have changed the nature of the tasks I set… and this permeates my whole approach.
In a sense, I suppose I haven’t really changed the task as much as I could, but what I have done is consciously moved away from the old tasks I used to set — the ones that involved me teaching with a specific outcome in mind from the first lesson (usually an essay), and being disappointed when the learners didn’t just hand me back the notes I’d given them in the form of an essay. I now try to set tasks that have more of a potential for research and discovery, and that allow the learner to demonstrate his or her learning in the way s/he thinks most appropriate… It’s not as difficult as it sounds at this stage… the real fun comes later!
The key difference is this…
I genuinely have done everything I can to stop agonising about the assessment. My focus is on what is or can be learned… and even in this aspect, I am trying to stop myself from pointing the learners in specific directions. For me, this is where my skill and knowledge as a teacher come into play. My role is as a guide, or mentor, or critical friend, and absolutely not as a sage on the stage. This is not to say that I abandon the learners… quite the reverse… but it does mean I have to advise a direction for studying, and sometimes standing aside and letting the learner get it wrong, while being ready to help him or her reflect on why things didn’t work out. This is a challenging position to take, but I find it immensely rewarding. In short…
I cannot stress this enough… by all means, point learners in particular directions, encourage them by providing them with relevant resources, metaphorically hold their hands as they make the inevitable mistakes (or ‘Management Learning Points’ as an old boss of mine used to call them), but I also try to support them to draw on their existing skills and knowledge as they prepare to gather what they have learned into a format they can share…
If I ask for an essay, I’ll get an essay… and I’ll be really disappointed if it doesn’t do what I expect (see point above)… yet I cannot think when I last shared what I had learned by writing an essay. I am also struck by how limiting the essay as a format is for some things. I recall being told that I wasn’t allowed to include diagrams or pictures in an essay because — essentially — “it just wasn’t done”. Yet I am just as visually literate as I am with words, and more importantly, most of us are. It appears perverse to me to place artificial barriers on the sharing of learning, yet that is pretty much what we do all the time. As I said in my workshop, I keep coming back to The Barometer Problem. This is the possibly apocryphal story about Niels Bohr being asked to measure the height of a skyscraper using only a barometer. Rather than giving the expected ‘right’ answer, he gave several solutions all designed to illustrate his frustrations at his professors:
…teaching him how to think … rather than teaching him the structure of the subject.
If we ask closed questions, we get predictably dissatisfying closed answers. If we allow the learner to choose his or her own means of demonstrating what has been learned, we can be amazed and inspired… but this requires a great leap of faith but by shifting the focus from assessment to learning, we give ourselves and our learners something better…
We are given the freedom to learn, but for many there is an inevitable element of fear associated with this but we need to persevere. Remember, we too need to be ‘confident individuals’!
So to attempt to sum up my new approach, I am moving from…
I am much more receptive to receiving evidence of learning in formats that are non-traditional. Since adopting this approach, I have received presentations, essays, talks, songs (in response to WW1 poetry), posters, ‘graphic’ novels, and videos… and each of these have been looked at and reflected on against the E&Os… and you know what? They have come up pretty well. And this has given me the confidence to have faith in what I am teaching and also to use the E&Os with the learners to demonstrate evidence of good learning.
One More Thing
There is one other aspect of the work my classes are doing now that I want to share. I am emphasising one thing above all others…
I think it essential that pupils be proud of their work. They need to find something that they can take ownership of and that is evidence of something they have done well or better than they have before. This requires reflection and honesty on the part of the learner, and this is also where referring to the E&Os can be invaluable… when a learner sees something s/he has done referred to as an outcome it is a confirmation for him or her that their work has value and worth. Interestingly, pride can come form the simplest of things like correctly using paragraphs where previously there were none…
As I ask (challenge?) my classes, “What are you proud of in your work?”… and if the answer is nothing, “Then why are you bothering?”
Pulling it together
So… enough talking… what does this look like when it works? The best example generated by one of my learners so far came as the result of an open task that I set my S2 class. I simply asked the the question: What Is Beauty? Obviously, there was a little more to it than that, but you can see the whole preamble I gave the class on their blog (click HERE to find it).
A surprising number of the class gave me traditional essays. Some gave me presentations. And then one of the class handed me a DVD with the following presentation on it:
If you don’t want to watch the whole video, skip to 6:43 and see her conclusion. This is the section that the real David Cameron was talking about when he summed up the day last Saturday. I think it is one of the most moving and impressive pieces of homework I’ll ever be handed. But I am gradually realising that as I become more confident in finding evidence using the E&Os, and more importantly, as the learners do too, work like Eilidh’s is likely to be the norm rather than the truly exceptional.
There was much more said by me and those in my workshops on the day, but this post is already too long! Please use the comments to ask or suggest. Learning is a communal thing, so please add your voice here or on Pedagoo!
I was delighted to discover Pedagoo. Scotland badly needs a dose of teacher activism. CfE is a golden opportunity to transform classroom practices in Scotland’s schools, but it is threatening to become a damp squib, as many teachers worry about the risks of innovation and play safe. Developing more active forms of pedagogy is a major part of CfE, and it is really good to see teachers seizing the initiative and helping each other to develop and share new practices.
However, I also worry slightly about the potential for narrowness – a reduction of education to pedagogical techniques. History shows us that great ideas can quickly become reduced to formulaic practices. AifL is a case in point. The early work of this programme was about process – teachers working together with key principles to produce new practices. A lot of the practices that emerged from AifL and its counterpart south of the border (e.g. sharing intentions, traffic lighting, show me boards) started life as techniques designed to achieve particular purposes. In phase two of AifL (the national roll out), they morphed into ‘required’ techniques to be utilised in every lesson. In the process they became disconnected from purpose.
So my view is that Pedagoo is a really worthwhile initiative – it is great that pedagogy is at the heart of new educational practices. But let us also keep in mind a number of associated issues:
First, pedagogy should always serve an educational purpose – a key criterion should always be fitness for purpose. Thus, for example while cooperative learning might be excellent for sense-making and developing social skills, it is perhaps less well suited for getting over new concepts. Here, didactic teaching may be better suited.
Too much of the modern discourse about learning – what my colleague Gert Biesta calls the ‘learnification of education’ – focuses on learning in a decontextualized way. We also need to ask ‘what are we learning?’ and ‘why are we learning it?’. Pedagogical techniques may be useful for developing skills, but knowledge – what the educational sociologist Michael Young calls ‘powerful knowledge’ – remains important. We need to be clear about what knowledge young people will need to become effective citizens in a complex world, and make sure that we teach it.
Let us not forget values here. Education is a value ridden enterprise. My view is that teacher activism should be firmly underpinned by a strong sense of values. My own preference (and this is of course contestable) is for values based upon social justice (e.g. closing the achievement gap in secondary school identified by the 2007 OECD report on Scottish education) and democracy. The adoption of such values will determine how we develop pedagogy – for example, a desire to enhance democratic participation by young people will inevitably involve pedagogy that encourages genuine decision-making by students. It will preclude classroom practices based upon authoritarian power by teachers.
It is my firm view that, by articulating clear values about education and by having a good sense of educational purpose, organisations like Pedagoo will be well placed to challenge predominant and narrow discourses based upon attainment, effectiveness and accountability – discourses that are currently proving to be so damaging to education in the UK and elsewhere.
So let’s keep the focus on pedagogy, but strengthen the message through clarity of value and purpose. Let’s have a debate about these issues. And let’s position Pedagoo as a Scottish equivalent of the influential US group, Rethinking Schools (http://www.rethinkingschools.org).
A Commission on School Reform has been set up by the think tanks Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy to consider whether the school system in Scotland is meeting the present and future needs of young people and to make specific recommendations as to how things might be improved or areas that require further enquiry.
They’re looking for evidence to inform their thinking…
To inform the work of the Commission, you are invited to offer your views on any matters that are relevant to the remit. Evidence from individuals as well as from organisations and professional bodies is welcome. It would be helpful if respondents considered the following questions:
What do you think are the main challenges facing Scottish schools and how are these best addressed?
Is Scottish education sufficiently ambitious?
What should it do to ensure that it meets future challenges and remains internationally competitive?
What are the outcomes for children and young people that we should hold as being most important?
It would be great if we could use Pedagoo to bring together our voices and make a submission…if you have any thoughts on any of the above questions, put them here. The deadline is Friday 29 June 2012.
I studied for my BEd Primary at Edinburgh University and have just completed my probation year.
I have recently started a new job in a school in the UAE. At the moment, the school works with the English National Curriculum. Yesterday we had a curriculum training day and the more we went on the more I realised how dated it is! From the perspective of this school there is no scope or opportunity for child centred learning, instead they have child led – group work, active learning etc – these are not the same things!
I have spoken to my head about this and told her to just have a look at the new CfE and let me know what she thinks. My idea is to really push certain elements of CfE in the school and if I get the go ahead I would like to share how it is perceived by foreign teachers with those teachers in Scotland.
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