How To Mess Up A Good Thing

Formative assessment has been a vitally important element in education, as educators seek to have ways to move away from the old fashioned models based endlessly on the use of standardised examinations to provide data and evidence of student learning. Incidentally, on that, I read yesterday that in Japan, children don’t take any kind of full summative assessment until the age of 10.

Formative assessment goes by many names, the most common other name being assessment for learning (AfL) to differentiate it from assessment of learning (AoL) AoL can be compared to cracking eggs open on a regular basis to find out how the chicks are developing. When we consider that the man who invented standardised tests (especially of the multiple choice variety) actually came out after a year or two to say that they were too crude and unsophisticated to use to measure school pupils’ knowledge, skills or academic performance (and was promptly sacked for his honesty!) we have to say that if we are to have assessment it has to be something a great deal more advanced.

AfL sets out to pay more attention to the future, rather than looking solely backwards like summative testing. It includes a variety of techniques and methods to gather clues as to how well a student is progressing in some learning and to have clarity about where they need to go next to best build on to their existing knowledge, skills and competence. Also, and perhaps most critically, AfL is not just predicated on the need to produce a set of data for the teacher, but aims to have the learner themselves reflect on their learning, the journey they have taken up to the point in time and where they are going next – including what they will need to do to get there. It

In November 2008 I was very fortunate to attend a presentation in Mumbai, India arranged by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). The keynote speaker was professor Sue Swaffield of Cambridge University, a leading proponent of AfL and researcher in educational leadership, assessment and school improvement. She presented powerful research evidence about the ways in which grades and marks demotivate all but the strongest of academic achievers, lead to negative approaches to learning from children and teachers and advocating strongly for stronger training of teachers in the techniques and methods of AfL.

So, I was very interested recently to come across this article written by professor Swaffield nearly a year later that really highlights how good ideas can get mangled and abused in the education domain. The needs of those in power for data, control and top down dictating of how things are done is the very opposite of what we see throughout the world in the most dynamic, creative learning organisations.

The Misrepresentation of Assessment For Learning
(To download the document as a PDF you will need to have Adobe reader or some similar programme loaded)

I particularly loved the section on the second page of the paper that talks of the origins of the word ‘assessment’ in latin, deriving from a word that means “sitting beside”. Tell that to the exam invigilators – they would call that cheating!

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That ‘No Homework’ Letter

During the last month, an education issue that has long caused debate sprang to the attention of the world when a simple short memo from an American teacher to the parents of her class went viral across social networks. Here’s some reporting on what she wrote, and how the story unfolded;

Cristian Science Monitor – Should Second Graders Get Homework?

Understandably reactions varied widely and some were pretty extreme. Many educators quoted educator Alfie Kohn in support of the teacher’s perspective. His writings and analysis of many research studies concluded that there was little or no evidence to prove the usefulness of homework except when pupils were in a year when they were due to take competitive standardised examinations. This suggests that it doesn’t really do anything much for learning, but helps in memorising to pass exams. In fact, some commentators have even gone as far as to suggest that it has negative effects because it undermines motivation to learn – thereby becoming a negative influence on learning.

The final line of the teacher’s letter reminded me of the admonition to parents – “Make your home a place of learning, not a schoolroom.”

There is something a little naive and childlike at times about the internet when such things go viral. It’s not as though this teacher is the first person to advocate (or even to act on feelings against homework) elimination of homework. Even when working with Indian parents in both India and Sharjah, I’ve been able to support teachers who wanted to minimise the relevance and significance of homework. These, after all, are considered to be very traditionally minded parents with a penchant for hard work and a belief that academic outcomes must be striven for in the extreme.

It was no surprise to me that when the teacher in question, Brandy Young, chose to explain herself and provide more context she chose to emphasise school-home partnership and collaboration in the best interests of the child and their learning. I find it slightly disturbing that both these articles and some others I’ve read appear to see this teacher as an individual working in isolation.

I would very much hope that the project-based, collaborative approaches she espouses are schoolwide policy and not merely an issue of chance for parents as to whether their child is in her class or another teacher’s. Also, if the consistency isn’t there children are the first to recognise that they appear to be the victims of fuzzy thinking and inconsistent treatment. They then have to adjust to the different ideological bases of the different teachers. Teaching leaves ample scope for individual creativity, flair and style within the context of key standard expectations and approaches that should be school wide policy.

Huffington Post – Why I Did It – The No Homework Letter

In her explanation the teacher highlights her use of Classdojo as an alternative to homework. Whilst I believe she’s completely right to stress that homework as a means for parents to check on children’s learning is a weak justification, I’m not wholly convinced that Classdojo is the answer. Whilst some of the features, such as instant sharing of pictures etc, can be beneficial in building home-classroom connection, Where I’ve seen Classdojo used, I’ve been concerned that it became a distraction in the classroom, that the carrots and sticks approach of praise and negative feedback that will all be visible to the parent every day does not build self-regulating children with a growth mindset.

I’m very interested to hear what educators and parents think on the issues of homework and home-classroom collaboration and partnership. Please share thoughts in the comments box below.

Good Stress and Competition

A few days ago I wrote about the changing views in education relating to grit/ resilience/ perseverance and the recognition of mistakes made in the past when educators somehow believed that everything in education had to be about ‘unburdening’. Even as recently as the last few years, education authorities in India believed the answer to student stress, anxiety and even high rates of suicide was to make the examinations ‘low stakes’.

This is closely tied to Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth of Fixed Mindsets. The implications for the growing child, and in to later adult life are enormous in terms of their willingness to take on challenges, how well they deal with stress, the extent to which they perform up to their potential in situations that carry stress.

In this connection, I was fascinated to reread this article I first came across a couple of years ago from the New York Times;

New York Times – Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?
(Right click on the link above to open the article and read. You should be able to read without taking out a New York Times subscription)

The article is fascinating for what it reveals are clues as to the interrelationship between different factors that shape an individual’s ability to cope or even flourish under pressure and to respond effectively to stress. It highlights a genetic factor linked to the rate at which dopamine is cleared from the prefrontal cortex – which makes worriers of some and warriors of others.

Those who had the gene that only cleared the dopamine slowly were the worriers. What was particularly interesting was that they had higher IQ levels on average and that they could overcome the negative implications from the stress if they were trained and competent in what they were doing. This, to me, reinforces the need for a focus on the ‘how’ of studying and exam preparation as much on the ‘what’.

What is a little surprising is that this article came out in 2012, but i’m not aware of any further developments relating to these lines of research. What would be particularly valuable would be to treat this as a further element for differentiation of learning experiences for different children, based upon the cues and clues about which gene is at work for them – and therefore whether they need to be pressured, but with appropriate training or experience reduced pressure.

Finally, the article reinforced for me that when we applaud certain students for their academic achievements over others, sometimes we’re merely praising them for something that happened by chance and over which they had no overt or direct control. In the meantime, others are missing out on the motivation from praise and recognition even though they may be producing performance that challenges their genetic and other limitations.

Stress is a factor in most lives, especially for anyone who wants to achieve or aspire to rise above the commonplace. In such circumstances, young people need to acquire the tools and learn the strategies to not only cope with it, but to even, potentially relish it and flourish on it.

Permission To Be Human

Teachers are humans too!

As professionals an awful lot of teachers want to believe that they are objective, detached and that their thinking about every child in their care is shaped by professional considerations based upon pedagogy, all their training and learning and the desire to support every child to fulfil their potential.

Ahem! Reality check!

Let’s get real teachers. We’re no more or less subjective in the way that our minds work than other mature adults.

Here’s one way that we’ve all either done or certainly heard teachers doing in staff rooms (or might I say even Principals and leadership team members in management meetings! (Shock, horror!)

The Danger of Teacher Nostalgia – Cult of Pedagogy

Another example comes from my reading a few years ago. I wish I could remember or find the source for this. Apparently, there was a training programme going on for a group of around 30 teachers in a Scandinavian country. The teachers were asked to come up with a collective definition of ‘naughtiness’ in a classroom – what constituted bad behaviour? After arriving at a shared definition they were asked to think about who was the naughtiest child in their current class, to write the child’s name on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope.

Then, over the course of a couple of months their classes were monitored and analysed with video and other tools in great detail and all acts by children that fell within the shared definition of naughtiness were noted and recorded. In this way, they were able to rank the children in all the classes for the extent of their naughty behaviour.

So, the the million dollar question – how many of the teachers had the same name in their envelope as appeared at the top of the observed naughtiness lists?

10%, 25%, 50%?

Exactly none of them, 0% had a match in the children’s names.

The researchers concluded that innate subjectivity of teachers and their own personalities mean that some children’s ways of misbehaving were more noticeable and memorable than others. In short, the teachers were nothing like as objective as they thought they were (or wanted to believe they were).

This leads to two critical questions;

a) Does this level of subjectivity matter?
b) If so, what can teachers do about it?

In my view, absolutely this matters and has potential risks that some children are going to get their education potential hampered by the subjective clashes with individual teachers. As to the solution, I believe one of the most valuable tools for a teacher to get more objective is daily journaling – a regular habit in which the teacher records simply the facts of what happened in their classroom, wherever possible avoiding applying their emotions and feelings to it. Regular review of these journal records can enable the teacher to get a more holistic and objective perception of what’s really happening, class dynamics and how their own personality and those of the children are interacting.

For some teachers this may sound like a big investment of time and effort. However, I believe if the habit is built solidly it’s a task that can be carried out quite quickly. The biggest payoff comes at report writing time and the time of parent teacher meetings. All that objectively gathered data enables far better reports to be written in far less time.

Incidentally, i believe this also applies to leaders and the people they work with in terms of being objective about performance and development. Again, the payoff comes at the time of appraisals and performance management feedback sessions. For that, another day, another blog post.

Confessions of a Grade Fetishist

An interesting TedX video from a teacher about the benefits she and her pupils experienced when she broke her love affair with student grades as a measure of everything important.

"The score is what's remembered which essentially means nothing out of context."

One of the points she makes is something that has always stood out to me - there can be a whole bunch of children with the same grade, but who have very different learner profiles, needs and requirements as future learners. The truth is they tell us so little as to be useless.

She is at her most animated when she talks about what the process has done for her students.

This is well-worth watching to develop the debate about what's possible in learning.

Great At The Game. The Right Game?

Within the education field, there are some who believe that the only things worth measuring or caring about are those that can be measured. To them, data is everything. Their logic suggests that if you can’t reduce something to hard data, then it probably doesn’t really matter in education.

The result of this mindset is articles like this:

The Washington Post: This Company Says It Can Predict Whether A Teacher Will Be Any Good – Before Entering A Classroom

Quite simply – what they’re saying is that they can isolate the features of those teachers who are capable of getting children to score higher on standardised tests, identify those attributes in prospective teachers and thereby short-circuit the recruitment process.

Of course, their whole premise is based upon the idea that ability to get children to get high scores in standardised tests is the most (only?) important attribute of a teacher. To my mind, this is so dangerous as to be daunting. Worse, it can look to the public like it makes sense – who won’t be tempted by those who promise that their children will get better exam results and as a result have better higher education prospects, better work and professional potential and even a better life.

Who cares for the skills and competencies of the twenty first century? Just because you can simplify our profession down to one or two simple measures, doesn’t mean that’s wise or moral.

Learning to Learn

The Delors Committee under UNESCO, when looking at the requirements for high quality education, identified four pillars of learning; learning to do, learning to know, learning to be and learning to live together. later there was expansion on this thinking to add a critical fifth element – learning to learn – the so-called process of becoming a lifelong learner.

(For those who want to access the report: Learning: The Treasure Within , you can click on this link)

I’ve written in the past about the plague of education systems that spend inordinate amounts of time and energy focusing on ‘learning to know’, until children believe that education merely consists of the meomorisation and accumulation of vast bodies of facts, separated from their context in the world in which we live.

On the issue of learning to learn, I recently came across this excellent article from Education Week about teaching and developing the habits of self-assessment. it argues that the earlier children start to see these metacognitive skills modeled and learn them for themselves, the better.

Education Week – Student Self-Assessment Practices That Work

In short – reflective teachers develop reflective students who are capable, and have the right attitude to take full ownership of their own learning. Then, learners aren’t waiting to ‘have learning done to them,’ or seeking ways to get out of learning – as if it is something inherently abhorrent and to be avoided!

The ideas and suggestions in the article are good and i particularly liked the focus on the students themselves setting goals at the beginning of modules/ units/ pieces of work and then using that as the basis for their later reflection. I agree that the reflection shouldn’t wait until the end of the work, but should be a regular, ongoing part of the process so that it feels natural and draws on experiences and memories which are fresh in the mind.

We should not underestimate the value of this self-assessment and reflection for student motivation. The student who reflects will have a better grasp of what they’re doing, why they’re being asked to do it and the criteria for success. Also, when they struggle or hit obstacles they will be better able to figure out what they need to do to overcome them.

Finally, i also believe that students who see their own learning as a personal journey of do-reflect-do, are likely to have a healthier and more positive approach towards the learning journeys of their peers – with less negative comparisons and unhealthy competition.