Assessment – What does it really tell us?

Every August the youth of the country – their parents and teachers too – await the results of public exams.  Some are lucky and get the results that they need to set them on course for a university degree and a successful career.  Other students are not so lucky and have to start looking at options that they had not considered.  They may still achieve success in life but their path may well not be as easy as for those students who got the results that they needed.

Students, parents and teachers celebrate the success of students.  School managers scrutinise results and there will be a headline on the television news about the percentage of students achieving A grades rising again.  A politician will condemn falling standards and say it that it used to be better ‘in my day’.  This is all so predictable but what do our public methods of assessment really tell us about our students and their performance?  We like to think that a student who gets an A grade in physics, for example, is far better at the subject than a student who achieves a C grade, but is this really the case?

I have taught countless students at both A level and GCSE and it is notable that often students who are able to articulate similar levels of knowledge and understanding in class get very different grades in exams.  I would contend that the same level of knowledge and understanding is required for a C grade and an A grade.  The difference between the A grade student and the C grade student is often in the way that they present what they know.  The A grade student will be very explicit in what he writes and include all the steps in his arguments.  The C grade student will write down those points that he thinks are important.  His arguments may be a little less coherent because they may make leaps from one point to another.  The A grade student essentially gives the examiners what they want and answer the questions in the way that the examiners required; the C grade student didn’t.  And this decides their futures.  But it may not tell us who is ‘better’ at the subject being studied.  Exam success really only tells us how good students are at taking exams.

Coursework or controlled assessment is even more fraught with difficulties.  Many people have rubbished coursework arguing that parental input can be important; that students can receive feedback and refine their work on a seemingly endless cycle; that it disadvantages those from deprived backgrounds.  All of these criticisms are more or less valid and certainly the government has reduced the amount of this style of assessment in recent years.  I am convinced that the biggest factor involved in coursework achievement is actually none of the above; it is the understanding that the teacher has of the assessment criteria.  Often a student will produce a decent piece of work that the teacher knows will achieve poor marks because the student has overlooked particular things that the moderator will expect to see.  There is no possible way that the student could know what these vital things are without the input of the experienced teacher.  A prerequisite for coursework success is how well the teacher understands the moderator’s requirements, it does not simply reflect how well the student has responded to the given stimulus which is patently unfair on the student.

Recently I was on the interview panel for a head teacher’s post.  I asked a question about safeguarding and the candidate did not answer the fully.  If this had been an exam the candidate would be achieved less than half marks for the question.  If I had not been able to ask supplementary questions the interview would have been terminated at that point; the answer was not good enough and safeguarding is a vital part of a head’s job.  I was, however, able to ask targeted supplementary questions that probed the candidate’s understanding.  His answers showed that he was aware of all the issues involved and that his understanding was in fact perfectly adequate and he stayed in the process.  Because the assessment was interactive the candidate was able to show his true capability rather than being limited by the assessment method.  I am convinced that a significant proportion of our students would achieve far better results with a more sympathetic method a of assessment.

Research tells us that success in one field is a poor indicator about potential in another field but the country is still fixated by grades in public assessment.  Success in public assessments tells us one thing and one thing only: how good a student is at dealing with public assessment.  The trouble is, success in public assessment is used as a proxy for success or potential in so many other areas.  At best this practice is lazy and at worst, it is damaging to the young people who are subjected to it.

Assessment – What does it really tell us?

Teach Like the All Blacks

The All Blacks are the most successful international rugby team ever, and they have sustained their success over a very long period of time.  They have always been the team that others measure themselves against and they have just won the World Cup for the second time running.  I’m sure that teachers and schools can learn a great deal from their approach.

The All Blacks are not the most flamboyant or entertaining side, the French team of the 1990s would probably earn that title.  They lack the shear power of the South Africans.  They do not have the invention of the Australians.  What they do have is a winning formula that has been honed over many, many years.  In the rugby world of 2015 Australia are probably the best outfit at the breakdown where many international matches are won and lost – but the All Blacks are not far behind.  Argentina are probably the best scrummaging nation – but the All Blacks are not far behind.  The trouble is that both Australia and Argentina have weaknesses elsewhere that other teams can exploit.  If the All Blacks are not the leading team in a particular facet of the game then they are close to it.  The All Black team has no real weaknesses that other teams can exploit.

The All Blacks are relentless.  They make fewer mistakes than other sides.  Their weakest players would probably walk into many other international sides.  In short, there is nowhere to hide against the All Blacks.  In teaching this translates into all teaching being no less than good.  It means that there should be no lessons when learners have a chance to slack.  They are constantly challenged to do their best.  There is no place in lessons for those students who want an easy life and do not want to be challenged.

If you were to put together a tape of the greatest tries ever scored, I am fairly certain that the tape would be dominated by scores from France and Australia.  The All Blacks do not set out to entertain; they set out to win.  It is their relentless approach that leads to their winning formula.  There are no weak links but equally there is little flamboyance.  The lesson here is that the lack of poor lessons is far more important than pulling out the occasional outstanding lesson.  It is the irresistible nature of their play that brings results and so it can be in the classroom.  Equally, an entertaining lesson may not be an effective lesson – the aim is for the children to progress rather than enjoy your lessons.

The All Blacks are also known to kick more than other teams.  They don’t mind letting the opposition play but they do pressure them and work very hard for each other in defence.  I read this as teachers allowing space for the learners to learn.  Teachers must be giving constant and effective feedback to all learners.  Teachers need to cut down on the space that learners have the opportunity to slack.

The All Blacks are not perfect, and they would be the first to acknowledge this.  They are very good across the board but they are always looking for ways to improve.  They are unfailingly honest with themselves even when they are successful.  They won the 2011 World Cup but looked vulnerable even in the final.  In 2015 they did not look like losing a single match.  Even though they were the best in 2011 they did not sit on their laurels but set out to become even better.  This should be a lesson to all schools and to all teachers.  No matter how good you are, there is always a way of getting better.

The All Blacks have a superb record and are often at their peak between world cups.  They have a culture of excellence at all times.  There is a message here for schools and teachers – why chase outstanding observations or OFSTED inspections?  If you know that you are doing an excellent job all the time and are always looking to get better, then what’s the point?

Teach Like the All Blacks

Engaging Learners

I recently went to a really interesting CPD event that was presented by Peter Marshman.  The course was about delivering my subject, computing, more effectively but some of the insights that he shared should be used far more widely.

We often design tasks with a particular objective in mind.  We decide what we are going to teach during a series of lessons and we make this very clear to our students – communicating the objectives.  Then we will get our learners to understand how to put this objective into practice – using commas correctly or manipulating the equation, speed = distance/time.  Finally we might focus on why this is important and how it can be applied in wider contexts. In fact, too often this step is missed out because the objective has already been (apparently) achieved.

Too often we hear children saying, “Why do we have to do Shakespeare?  It’s boring!”  Or, “Quadratic equations, why do we bother with them?”  I am sure that they either haven’t experienced the why part of the sequence, or it hasn’t registered.  The learners have not connected the learning experience to anything that they care about and so the learning is not valued and is shallow at best.

Learners and their needs have to be at the centre of our planning and it must always be learning must informs the way that we choose to teach the young people in our classes.  Certainly, in the examples above, teaching has taken precedence.  The teacher has looked at what needs to be taught and how can I put it across to the students.  Little thought put into why the learners should engage with the material.  I know that I’ve fallen into this trap too often.

I have previously argued in this blog, that if teachers can tap into their learners’ emotions they are more likely to be successful than if they only tap into their learners’ intellect.  Turning the sequence of what, how, why on its head will make it far more likely that learners’ emotions are aroused and they will care about their learning.

Pete was an advocate of starting from why.  If there is an initial stimulus that outlines a situation and students have to work through this scenario and decide on a way forward then they are likely to become immersed in the task.  This initial stimulus needs to be carefully thought through so that it leads naturally to the how and the what that the teacher would have been aiming for anyway.  The chances are that the learners will be more engaged in their learning because they have a real reason to learn the new material as it will help them with the situation that they have been confronted with.  The actual objectives for the series of lessons will be exactly the same as they would have been but the engagement of the learners will be different.

Engaging Learners

Rugby Coaches in School to Build Grit

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a teacher and I am also a qualified rugby coach.  Recently the Department for Education announced that coaches from 14 of the top rugby clubs in the country will be coming into schools to coach ‘grit’.

Rugby is one of very few sports to have core values, which are Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Sportsmanship.  They are outlined and described on the England Rugby website.  From the nature of the game of rugby it is fairly clear that the sport could not function without the whole rugby community buying into these values.  In fact, coaches are trained to include a least one of these core values into each of their sessions.

Another point that is emphasised during coach training is that the aim of coaching should be to develop young people through rugby.  I commented in an earlier blog post that I have never heard anyone advocate developing young people through, for example, geography, although I would argue strongly that this should be encouraged.  The main emphasis is in developing the young person, and rugby is secondary.  In practice this means that coaches have to encourage the behaviours, attributes and attitudes that make players coachable and able to improve.

Coaches go through an exercise where they are ask to describe the qualities of their ideal player – you could do the same for your ideal learner in your subject.  When we had finished we were asked to group these qualities into two sections: those to do with rugby ability, and those relating to personal qualities and attitude.  We all found that there were very few, if any rugby related qualities but many relating to personal qualities and attitude.  I am sure you would find a similar thing with your ideal learner.

My coach training also touched on the work of Carol Dweck and her work on mindset.  We looked at feedback and what to praise.  I have to say that I was very surprised and very pleased that this was part of the course.  It is clear that the RFU do take note of developments and include then in their coach education.

Jerry Collins, who played for the renowned All Blacks, at the height of his career, turned out for Barnstable 2nd XV.  In many way this behaviour tells us a great deal about what the sport of rugby is about.  The video below tells the story:

So far, you might be thinking that I support the DfE’s idea of putting rugby coaches into schools, but as Alex Quigley points out on Twitter:

This could well be the problem.  I have already outlined that rugby coaches through their education and training are far more clued in than those outside of the sport might imagine but they are still rugby coaches and their expertise is in developing young people through the demands of that particular sport.  There is no doubt that rugby does require a large dose of grit if someone is to be successful but it remains to be seen whether rugby coaches will be able to transfer their development of grit into the realm of school subjects.  Certainly, before I trained as a rugby coach I was an experienced teacher, but I needed to train specifically so that I could ‘teach’ rugby.  I rather suspect that coaches will find that the reverse is also true.

Rugby Coaches in School to Build Grit

Learning Flowchart: A Diagnostic Tool

I first mentioned my learning flowchart in a blog post nearly a year ago.  I am pleased to see that it is now proudly on display in my classroom.

This flowchart gives a good representation of the learning process.  Certainly, a year on from creating it, I cannot think of a way of refining it.  It certainly cuts out all the surrounding fluff that can interfere with any learning experience and only shows the essential features.

When I was putting the display on the wall and indulging in some ‘cut and stick’ a new revelation hit me.  Obviously, as it is now on my wall, I intended using the flowchart with my learners so that they can easily see where they are in the learning process.  My thinking went a little deeper than that and I realised that this flowchart can be used as a diagnostic tool to find out where learners are having difficulty and where they are not engaging with the task effectively.  It could well be – and often is – that they lose direction at the very first step, understand what you need to do.  Overcoming this was the subject of my recent post, Will They Really Answer The Question?  It could be that the quality of feedback from their fellow learners or from their teacher is simply not good enough for them to improve.  Or it could be that they are unwilling or unable to refine their work.  Having the flowchart will make it easier and clearer for me to find out where learner’s difficulties really lie, and, equally importantly, it will allow me to communicate this to my students more easily.

Learning Flowchart: A Diagnostic Tool

Mise en Place

Mise en place, is a term used in professional kitchens that refers to having equipment and ingredients organised and arranged in their correct places in order to make the preparation of a dish efficient in a busy kitchen.  The term means, “putting in place.”

This is something that teachers should take seriously too.  I’m not talking about a tidy classroom, that is an entirely different matter.  What I am talking about is setting up your classroom so that you can conduct an impromtu discussion, or use the visuliser at a moment’s notice, or carry out any one of a range of pedagogical techniques while the lesson flows seamlessly on.

Plans are essential for effective teaching but we all know that no plan survives first contact with a class.  Plans should be flexible and reactive if the objectives of the lesson are to be delivered.  A lesson based on the same plan could be delivered to two different classes and the lessons could take on quite different courses depending on how the learners react to the plan.  A perceptive teacher should be able to react to the learners’ needs and use whatever pedagogical technique is appropriate – even if it was not on the original plan.  Having the correct equipment to hand, in the right place will make this really easy to achieve.

If teachers follow this idea through they will find it very easy to move from one teaching technique to another, because they have all been thought through before hand and resourced appropriately, and the necesary resources will be available at any time.  The down side is that a teacher will be very efficient in their own classroom but they could well be lost in another room because they will not know where things are – or even if the required resources are in the room at all – and will therefore not be able to move effortlessly through their pedagogical repertoire.

Professional cooks know that having things organised and in the right place before starting to cook is essential.  Equally, teachers should do the same so that they have their whole pedagogical arsenal on standby at all times.

Mise en Place

Will They Really Answer The Question?

I have seen answers to GCSE mock exam questions similar to the one above for many years.  No matter how many times I tell my learners to read the question, a substantial number of them don’t recognise the important words in the question.  I’ve used samples, including the one above, to try to persuade learners not to make the same mistake, but it hasn’t had much impact.  This is important as it costs learners many marks because they answer a question similar to the one that was actually asked, rather than the one that really was asked.

Thanks to John Tomsett, I think I might have found a technique that will make this more explicit to learners.  The idea is to model your approach to an exam, from your first sight of the exam paper, going through the process of understanding what is required in the exam from reading the information on the front cover until just before answering the first question.  This technique goes further than just highlighting key words in the question, in the words of my colleague Heidi, “It shows pupils what we are thinking in order to carry out the steps that we teach them in order to approach a question. We tell them to read a question carefully and highlight key words. But this method shows what we are thinking as we read the question and how we decide which are the key words. This is written evidence, that pupils can take time to process visually, of adult metacognition.”  You can read more about Heidi’s experiences with this technique here.

I’ve tried this technique with my Year 11 GCSE group, going through a past paper, highlighting key words and instructions, and making notes on the paper to illustrate my thinking.  I was really pleased when, a few lessons later I gave them another set of past exam questions to do and the first thing that many students did was to get out their highlighters and mark up the questions showing key words, and making notes to help their thinking.  Interestingly, the learners who struggled with the questions were those who had dived into the questions straight away without taking the time to really understand what was required.

I also tried this with my AS Level Computing class.  Again, a few lessons later I gave them another  past exam paper to do.  I asked them if there were any questions that they wanted me to go through with them.  With the one that they chose, the first thing I did was turn on my visualiser and pick up my highlighter.  Once I had gone through the question itself and explained my thinking to them they were far more confident in answering the question – without me actually going through the answer with them.

My AS Level Applied ICT group have also been victims of this technique!  Earlier this week I was in their real AS exam as technical trouble shooter, to sort out any problems that might arise with the computers that they were using.  I was really pleased to see that the first thing that the vast majority of them did when they started the exam was get their highlighters out and start marking up the paper.

So perhaps this technique is having some impact.  In the future I will introduce this to my learners earlier.  For example, I would use it with my Year 11 GCSE class when they are preparing for their mock exams in the autumn.  This would give them an opportunity to try out the technique in a real exam situation and it would give them longer to embed the technique before it really mattered in the summer.  Certainly, this is a technique that I intend to grow.

[I would like to thank Heidi for her continual support and challenge.  Without colleagues who are willing and able to listen to our ideas and experiences it is difficult to grow as a teacher.  Heidi certainly offers that for me.]

Will They Really Answer The Question?