“Give me a thumbs up if you felt like you learned something today”, came the nauseating screech of the trainee I was observing. It was period 2 on my self-dubbed “Take No Bullshit” Tuesday, and I was not feeling easily impressed. The kids looked around at each other. They liked her — she reminded them of Bella off the Tweenies. Telling her that they didn’t fully grasp what she’d just taught them was either beyond their meta-cognitive abilities or way outside of their social comfort zone. Fourteen out of the twenty-four put their thumbs up. The rest did nothing but sway, stare idly out of the window, or look confusedly at their peers. “Great! So now I’d like to…” The trainee warbled on, continuing with her lesson. I stared down at the observation form in my hands. “Can I really justify ticking that AfL box?” I mused. The pedant in me won out.
AfL, ‘Assessment for Learning’ for those unfamiliar with the teaching acronym, is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of strategies to check, in a formative way, whether students understand what you have taught them. The following table, found on the Cambridge University Community website and based on the UK’s National Foundation for Educational Research report (NFER 2007), classifies formative and summative assessment types as either formal or informal:
Let us therefore take our AfL strategies to be those highlighted in blue — informal and formative.
Now, like many aspects of teaching pedagogy, AfL is one of those things which can be done well and have an amazing impact, or done awfully and be an utter waste of time. When undergoing teacher training (both during my PGCE and in my subsequent NQT training year) I felt the distinction between good AfL and bad AfL was never properly highlighted: we learned to spot the difference between open and closed questioning, but never dealt with self-assessment — the one that I find goes most unchecked in schools. This is a problem that training providers and/or schools need to address. We can’t continue to congratulate teachers simply because they do something which appears to be eliciting self-assessment from the pupils but which is, in fact, merely an exercise in positive affirmation. We need to teach teachers to spot the difference.
I don’t think this will be difficult. Three good rules might be:
- Self-assessment should be private. Closing your eyes and rating yourself using your hands is good, but is it as good as writing a brief, honest assessment of how that lesson went?
- Self-assessment should specific. It should not be based on vague questions such as “How much progress do you think you’ve made?” or “Rate your understanding on a scale of 1 to 5.” After all, there may be some bits which students get and other bits which elude them. They need to have the chance to express these nuances.
- Self-assessment should not be perfunctory. If it doesn’t feed into your lessons at some point during your scheme, it isn’t worth it.
Your students need to trust you if even your best AfL practice, meeting all these criteria, is to work. Students have to trust that you’ll act upon their needs, or they’ll see no point in responding honestly. If they don’t trust that you won’t be disappointed or angry with them if they have not understood, then they will give whatever answer they think you want. If they don’t trust your ability to rework a boring topic to make it fun, they’ll tell you whatever they think will make you move onto something else. And if they don’t like you, they’ll say they’ve learned nothing just to spite you, and to advertise their non-compliance, and you’ll learn not to bother with AfL.
I still have a lot to learn about feeding self-assessment back into lessons; taking into account thirty or so students’ assessment of their own progress seems, if anything, make planning even more time-consuming. Is it even possible to include it every day? If not, how do you decide when it’s appropriate to deploy it? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think if we weed out the rubbish AfL then we can edge closer to a more concrete understanding of good AfL.