What a great day at the ResearchEd National Conference yesterday! Chobham Academy (built, I assume, as an homage to the Starship Enterprise) was full to the brim with excitable education devotees from all over the country. We had our free TES totes, our programmes in hand, and were ready to be unleashed on this pedagogic jamboree. I spent the day frantically weaving in and out of rooms and queues for the presentations I wanted to hear, with pen poised for every good idea. Naturally, I wanted to document these ideas here so that I could give form to the chaos of scribbles, and also to acknowledge and thank the presenters for their hard work. Here are my four best bits from #rED2017:
- What is true formative assessment, why hasn’t it worked in schools, and how can we make it better? (Nikki Booth, @nbooth2506)Since beginning my training in 2015, I have grappled with numerous questions surrounding formative assessment: is it the same as AfL? When, during the sequence of a lesson, should it occur? How do you collect the information? What do you do with the information once you’ve got it? I’ve heard of many flamboyant examples involving post-it notes, whiteboards, dice, you name it! But, as I waited for the talk to begin, I wondered whether I’ve actually ever seen formative assessment delivered on a practical, day-to-day level without the bells and whistles.Thankfully, Nikki Booth, in a jam-packed room of edu-keeners, soothed my aching brain. He began by asserting that formative assessment has so many definitions that it has become a useless concept. Teachers, he claimed, have become so muddled in their thinking about what the term means, that they are using quantifiable summative methods and simply calling it formative assessment, simply because it’s not done at the end of a unit of learning. Not a big deal, right? Wrong! For Booth, the teacher-student partnership breaks down as soon as tasks are quantified through grading – because the grade implies a finite judgement about their abilities which discourages further learning (Kohn: 1994). Teachers, he thinks, are only partially to blame for this confusion; he speculated, much to the palpable satisfaction of the room, that senior leaders’ incessant desire for data (that rarely matched up with the end of schemes) drives teachers towards quantifying students’ abilities at times when it’s simply not appropriate from the point of view of their learning.Formative assessment should simply be stripped back to the halcyon days of Black and Wiliams’ black box. It should be understood as an ongoing dialogue between teacher and each of his/her students, which will alter the course of how and what that teacher teaches. Yes, that dialogue might take place with mini-whiteboards, but it is important to recognise that verbal dialogue counts too. This may seem obvious to those of you who have been teaching for many years, but for me this was a simple revelation that reassured me that I’m not a terrible teacher for failing to use “fancy” AfL methods every lesson.
- What can group work achieve in English and what makes it work? (Barbara Bleiman, @BarbaraBleiman)
I was dead keen to get along to this talk. As a purveyor of the much-maligned ‘seating in rows’, I am the first to hold my hands up and say that I am not very good with group work, neither do I do it very often. That is partially because of my fear of losing control of the class, and partially because I’ve always been wary of group work for its own sake. Personally, I always despised the idea of going into teacher-selected groups at school; I hated the idea of exposing my ideas to those who didn’t know me, and got frustrated by those who didn’t take it seriously or failed to pull their weight. Whenever I consider doing group work with my own students, it’s these memories that haunt me. So I was keen to hear about research on how it could be done properly.Barbara began her talk by whizzing through a summary of the research to date, concerned mostly with the optimum structures, roles, groupings and sizes involved in group work. I say ‘summary’; in truth she just said, ‘I’m sure you’re all familiar with…’, and then moved on, to my disappointment, without elaborating. (Note to self: research group work!) She then showed us a video of classroom groups working on poetry: students had to read their given poem and then discuss a list of ten or so statements. The teacher merely listened to their conversation, noticed that there were some statements which the students were simply passing judgement without giving evidence, and so drew the class back together to correct this practice. The discussion between the students thereafter was noticeably more focused and detailed. The best bit was when the group of three joined with another group of three (who had a different poem on the same topic and the same set of statements) to compare the two poems. This was a brilliant way to get the students thinking independently about the challenging poetry that they had been given; it allowed them to formulate their own opinions of the text before further teacher-led analysis took place. I kept thinking what a great way method this would be for introducing the seen/unseen poetry elements of AQA’s Literature Paper 2.I was, though, a little disappointed that some of the questions posited at the beginning of the talk were left unanswered; probably because, having only this experiment to go on, Barbara and her team cannot yet assert the sought-after range of answers for sure. If the research presented yesterday is anything to go by, though, I expect interesting conclusions — probably featuring the words “dialogic” and “facilitator”!
- Why do we need to improve assessment and how can we change it? (Daisy Christodolou, @daisychristo)I can’t say how pleased I was to finally get along to hear one of Daisy’s talks, and I wasn’t disappointed. She has this brilliant, tell-it-like-it-is manner, which I find so refreshing in a world of jargon and cliché. Daisy began her talk with this simple mantra: Better measurement leads to improvement and innovation. Bad measurement leads to distortion and unintended consequences. In a system obsessed with, for example, whether a student is acceptably intelligent at a grade 4 or a 5, ain’t that just the truth!So, bad measurement was Daisy’s target and that, she identified, took the form of four distinct practices: (a) prose descriptors, (b) absolute judgements, (c) grades as discrete categories, and (d) thinking that tests scores matter. I’ll briefly deal with each of her points in turn:(a) Prose descriptors? Burn them. They’re a waste of time and are not accurate enough to produce a reliable grade, because small changes in the wording mean that any hope for precision is lost. Instead she proposes to define descriptors only as a set of questions. I stayed back to ask her how this could be practically applicable in English, but sadly there was a queue of about a dozen people in front of me. (Daisy, if you read this, please answer my query!)
(b) Absolute judgements cannot be made because humans are too damn fallible. The only viable alternative, according to Daisy, is to make comparative judgements instead: “Is this essay better than this one?” This is something that would not only, she feels, help the teachers produce more accurate standardised results, but would help the students to understand better what they need to do to improve. And the best thing of all? Daisy is currently working on software which makes these comparative judgements and ranks essays in order of successfulness. (Bad news is, the software probably won’t be ready before the DfE changes hands again!)
(c) Grades as discrete categories are useless unless considered alongside more finely-grained data. Kieron who gets one mark under the grade boundary, doesn’t necessarily need emergency intervention more or less than Khyran who gets one mark over the grade boundary. We basically just need to be more sensible with how we use our data and not only intervene with those who fall foul of our discrete categories. Fair play.
(d) Daisy reminds us that a test is just a sample drawn from a range of knowledge. In trying to work out how a student is doing, we shouldn’t read too much into one-off exams, such as mocks. It isn’t the profoundest of points, but it is one to bear in mind when mock results come rolling in.
- How do we equip students with cultural literacy? (Jude Hunton and Chris Pierce)
It seems that wherever you work, if you teach in a state comprehensive, you will always be faced with the problem of “cultural illiteracy”. Students who are culturally illiterate will have little or no knowledge of such things as British or world history, literary and art movements, political systems and ideologies, social class, religious texts and practices, etc. This is a big deal here in the South West where there is little in the way of high art, and low racial, religious, and cultural diversity. Team that with high social deprivation and you have a rather toxic mix — toxic from the point of view of English teachers, particularly, who need students to infer not only linguistic meaning from a text but also appreciate a wide range of cultural references.So, the question is: how we go about equipping students with “cultural literacy”? First we should identify the cultural reference points that we think essential knowledge for each age group; Hunton and Pierce have, on their list, things such as: trade unions, the Midas Touch, Original Sin, the Fall of Icarus, and so on (!). Then, you test to see whether students know these things, you teach them through a series of mini-lessons, and then test them again. Whilst this might sound like a boring old school means of imparting this extra-curricula knowledge, the outcomes are unavoidably impressive. Hunton and Pierce recorded a positive effect on the grades students were getting in English Literature at KS4 in quite a short space of time. That could also have been due to the more rigorous curriculum they designed at KS3 that reflects a wider range of literary movements. I felt pleased when hearing this, because my own department has recently begun to do just that, and it was encouraging to hear that it seems to be having a positive effect in other schools. I’ll follow their progress closely, and would be interested to see if they do any work on “cultural literacy” in relation to Pupil Premium students who commonly have had little engagement with the kind of culture that middle-class teachers and the education system they have built value and prioritise.
And that’s it! My four most illuminating presentations from what was a really fabulous day. Thanks ever so much to the ResearchED team that put it on, and I can’t wait to join you at the next one.