My late father was one of Her Majesty’s School Inspectors in the 1970s and 1980s.

As I became older and, much to his pleasure, involved in education, he began to talk to me about his experiences. The most interesting of these involved his work with schools, many of them small and rural ones, in the part of West Yorkshire for which he was responsible. On more than one occasion he described significant moments of learning that occurred in classrooms, where he had shared some aspect of his enjoyment of learning, or a pupil had shared with him some exciting insight. He was brilliant at anatomising what was important or meaningful in these exchanges and his stylish reports would document this. He never once discussed with me the test results of any pupil in any school.

Skip a few generations and picture this scene. My thirteen-year-old son bounces into the kitchen at the end of a long day at school. ‘Guess what,’ he says, ‘I got 76% in my Science test.’ There is a long dramatic pause while I try to evaluate this potentially interesting information. Is this a good result for him? Is it a good result comparatively with other pupils in the group? Does he think it represents his best work? Does it give him (or me) any useful clues as to what he might do differently next time? Was it a test of recall, or of application, or of both? As you have doubtless deduced, test news of such a bald kind as this, is almost useless without at least a context. And after a few minutes this was supplied. It emerges that he hasn’t the faintest idea what 76% means, just that it was better than Jamie’s score…

Why we may hit the target but miss the point

So much of assessment in schools today is a waste of time. Indeed, the amount of resources expended in undertaking assessment tasks that are little more than mark-book fodder, is nothing short of a national scandal. Of course teachers need to assess pupils. And pupils need to assess themselves. And someone needs to assess teachers’ performance. It would be preposterous were this not to be so. What we really need is a revolution in the way assessment is undertaken so that it really works to the benefit of pupils by helping them to become more effective learners. Make no mistake, this revolution is already underway, thanks to the influence of the Assessment Reform Group, of whose work you’ll hear more later in this article.

A brief and biased history of assessment

Once upon a time assessment was a specific compliment from a teacher for a good piece of work or, at worst, a clip around the ear if you nodded off in class. Then public examinations were invented as a means of deciding which secondary school children should go to. At the turn of the last century a pernicious new force was unleashed upon the educational world, ‘intellectual quotient’ or IQ. Originally conceived as a benign tool for diagnosing the special educational needs of pupils in Paris by Alfred Binet and his colleagues, this simple test has come to exert a deeply unhelpful influence on schools and workplaces the world over. For it introduced two poisonous notions. The first was that intelligence was a fixed commodity; you largely have what you are born with. And the second was the idea that intelligence is in short sup-ply. For make no mistake, IQ (and all its derivatives) is based upon a scarcity model of human talent. It assumes that only a small number of pupils are smart enough to do certain things in life.

As a consequence of this view of the world, a school report system was dreamed up in the twentieth century, which is still very much used today. It rewarded attainment and effort. In an act of compassion, it was decided that, since intelligence was largely fixed at birth, pupils could not only be marked for what was essentially a genetic accident of their birth (how ‘intelligent’ they were), but also needed to be scored on how much they tried to improve. So you could be C for ‘intelligence’ but A because you tried very hard.

And thus the twin peaks of our educational assessment system were born; effort and attainment. Of course the attainment bit of the score always counted for more. It determined where you went to secondary school, whether you went on to university and what kind of job you were likely to get.

In the recent past, someone thought that it would be a merry wheeze to go one stage further. Rather than leaving the first major test until age 11, children could be assessed at ages 5, 7, 11, 14, 16, 18, 19, 20 and 21. Of course it was only practical to use the attainment scores. Consequently, the marks awarded for effort were left to languish as a small consolation prize for those who were not ‘born smart’. And as so much data was being collected, it made sense to gather it all up into league tables showing how pupils in different schools performed in a number of different subjects.

About five years ago an extraordinary thing happened. ‘Assessment for Learning’ was born, thanks to the pioneering work of Professors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. This is leading to a radical return to common sense in schools. Formative assessment is being rehabilitated as a vital force for good.

Human beings like measuring

It must be a deeply instinctive thing inside us all to measure things. Think of those old-fashioned signs, which show the name of a village with the number of its inhabitants above the name and below, it’s height above sea-level. Hardly essential and meaningful data, one might suggest! Perhaps it was there because it was easy data to collect?!

In today’s world, assessment has become almost psychopathic. Of course, as Albert Einstein once said, ‘Our theories determine what we measure.’ We tend to measure things that:

  • are easy to count;
  • can be converted into numbers or grades;
  • can be used comparatively;
  • are comparatively easy to measure;
  • can be expresses as crude targets.

All of which has led us into a fine old mess!

Nearly forty years ago, the great educator John Holt wrote: ‘Since we cannot know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever is to be learned.’ Holt was right then and he is still right today. We are missing the point. For we are investing huge amounts of time and money in checking up at the end of the process, rather than using the subtleties of assessment to improve teaching and learning along the way.

Of course it would be difficult to assess ‘love of learning’, (although I suppose you could develop some kind of validated survey tool) but when it comes to being an effective learner, there are signs that this is a more important attribute than you might have first thought.

Assessing learning ability

Most teachers currently use effort and attainment scores on a subject-by-subject basis. But what if, instead of measuring this, they began to assess an individual’s learning power? Professor Guy Claxton and his colleagues at Bristol University began to undertake some research into this area a few years ago and, as a member of their advisory group I learned much. It got me thinking.

Some of you will know that I believe not in the 3Rs but in a new set, the 5Rs of Resourcefulness, Remembering, Resilience, Reflectiveness and Responsiveness (see below).The 5Rs are a set of learning strategies rather than a set of subjects. They describe the curriculum of lifelong learning rather than of education, and it is this that I believe schools should be teaching. What if schools were to measure them instead?

Below are some suggestions of possible approaches.

Assessment for Learning

Of course all of this is pie in the sky, isn’t it? Well no, actually. A growing number of schools are embracing new approaches to assessment, which are not a million miles away from what I am describing.

Underpinning Assessment for Learning is the notion that learners learn best when they get feedback that is relatively immediate, specific and actionable with or without support. The emphasis on the relationship between teacher and taught is on developing a much more sophisticated language to describe progress. Needless to say, raw grades and marks are not much used. In the early research, pupils showed improvements in attainment of between 1/4 and 1/2 a grade across the board, after only six months. The current generation of schools are developing new approaches:

  • a classroom question monitor who notes good questions during a set period of time and shares them with the class;
  • the idea that you only put your hand up if you need help, rather than if you want to answer a teacher’s question, (the assumption being that it is better to support those who need more help); and
  • smart ways of engaging pupils in peer assessment.

Far from being the liberal mayhem that traditionalists might fear, the evidence is beginning to suggest that approaches like this really help learners become better learners. Assessment for Learning is also now very much an accepted part of the national primary strategy.

You see, it’s official, now. The important thing is to find out how you are smart, not to waste hours of time working out how smart you are. Learning is learnable, just like Maths and English. Being able to assess your own progress and respond to feed-back from others is a key skill. If my father were alive today, I get a sense that he might just be smiling at some of the recent developments in assessment practice.

The 5 Rs – The Curriculum of Lifelong Learning

Resourcefulness

  • Managing your learning
  • Developing and organising ideas
  • Working with people

Pupils develop an interactive menu of learning methods and their peers assess their confidence and effectiveness in these, by giving them feedback.

Remembering

  • How your memory works
  • Seeing patterns
  • Memory techniques

Pupils are invited to demonstrate how they transfer learning from one domain of their home and school life, to another.

Resilience

  • Understanding yourself as a learner
  • Staying motivated
  • Being persistent

Pupils constantly develop new ways of working out what to do when they get stuck and are assessed according to how effectively they apply them and share them with others.

Reflectiveness

  • Noticing
  • Questioning
  • Distilling experiences

Pupils are encouraged to set their own questions for most of the occasions when summative assessment is required.

Responsiveness

  • Accepting change
  • Adapting and flexing
  • Planning your life

A new individual adaptability index is developed to show how well pupils are capable of responding to new situations.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, July 2005.

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