Assessment – it’s all in our heads


Image: @jasonramasami

I have read David Didau’s two recent posts on assessment – here and here – with interest. David is rightly sceptical about the efficacy of assessment rubrics and has summarised the problem succinctly: “We need always to remember that any system of assessment is an attempt to map a mystery with a metaphor.” In other words, as student learning is invisible and opaque and written work is only a proxy for learning, we must be careful about the inferences we draw so that we avoid over-simplified judgements.

This has got me reflecting on how I have assessed students in my English lessons over the last few years. What follows is not advice, just a description of the developments I have been through. About three years into teaching, I stopped using descriptors almost entirely, especially with my key stage 3 classes. I would pay lip service to APP and the like, but in reality I would read the child’s work and award a grade based on gut instinct. Although I kept my little secret to myself, this never became an issue: in standardisation meetings my marking was no more or no less accurate than anybody else’s. It is easy to put work in rank order and assign a grade; it is much harder to explain why. These days, when I want to communicate or learn what quality work looks like, I always seek out examples and models to share or adapt for teaching.

My theory is that the mental models we develop as teachers – of a) what progress and standards look like in our subjects, and b) where individual students are in relation to these – are of far more importance than lists of crude, meaningless assessment sentences. Consider for a moment the sheer complexity involved in assessing a page of student writing. Any fair and accurate assessment must consider a broad range of aspects, including grammar knowledge/application, topic knowledge, understanding of textual conventions, writing habits, level of effort exerted,  working conditions (were they rushing to finish or carefully redrafting?), originality (did they only parrot what they had heard in class or did they make it their own?), etc. In other words, work is the product of many factors, only some of which are visible to the teacher.

Secondly, the accuracy of assessment should play second fiddle to what we should be attending to, which, to borrow John Hattie’s metaphor, is helping students to become ‘unstuck’ – i.e. the way that we we respond to work so a student learns more and learns better as a result. Many social and cognitive factors play a part in this and, surely, these decisions are where teacher expertise really lies.

Below is a paragraph written last week by one of my Y8 students. The class were writing from Lady Macbeth’s perspective:

LM piece

My assessment of this paragraph is far stronger when I leave rubrics and descriptors to one side. Immediately, I can see a few areas she needs to work on, such as:

1. The paragraphing of direct speech.

2. The unfortunate splice comma habit she has adopted (more noticeable in earlier paragraphs).

3. The unsophisticated syntax – e.g. ‘we both were in our night clothes’.

4. The ambition of vocabulary choice.

5. The depth of insight into Lady Macbeth’s thoughts/feelings.

However, I also know this paragraph was rather rushed; she was writing very quickly in timed conditions and this was the last paragraph. It would be unwise, therefore, to draw too many conclusions about her knowledge and skill levels from this paragraph alone. It would also be easy, for instance, to read this piece and infer that she cannot spell ‘successful’ … but perhaps it was just a one-off slip-up? (She added in the extra ‘s’ after I had circled the mistake.) If I tried to map her against an assessment grid, it would only lead to abstract and unhelpful targets based on the faulty assumption that all children become successful writers by following the same path.

Ultimately, lists and grids of nebulous assessment criteria are a smokescreen, unnecessary distractions that infantilize and over-simplify the assessment process. If I could have my way, I would ditch almost all summative assessment and throw everything into improving my expertise in delivering formative assessment. So that we could pool this expertise, subject departments would regularly meet to share and discuss the work of those tough students’ for whom progress and learning seem intractable.

Like student learning, teacher assessment skill is largely invisible. We need to find more opportunities to make this genuinely tangible.

Related post:

726 ways to achieve good exam results (or why the solution should be smaller than the problem)

Making every lesson count – first reviews

front cover

Last July, Shaun Allison and I started upon a project. We wanted to write an accessible, readable book for classroom teachers, whatever their subject. We wanted to cut through the myths that surround education to focus on some core principles for teaching and learning that could be adapted to fit a range of teaching contexts. We wanted the book to be founded on strong evidence yet not to lose sight of the wisdom of experienced teachers.

And so Making every lesson count was conceived. The book looks at the practical ways ordinary teachers can foster a spirit of excellence and growth through everyday classroom practice. We have been helped along the way by many others from the edu-Twitter world – Dan Brinton, Pete Jones and Chris Hildrew have all written about how they have put the principles to work in their schools. Our friend Jason Ramasami has brilliantly brought the book to life through his illustrations.

We are very proud of what we have achieved and, this week, have received the first pre-publication reviews, all written by educators who have really inspired us. We have been thrilled by the response so far. Here’s a flavour of them:

John Tomsett:

This book is seriously good. Oh I wish I had written it! It adheres to all the common sense approaches to teaching that matter, paring back practice to some universally acknowledged teaching techniques which have lasted for millennia. It also smacks of the here and now of pedagogic practice, as it is rooted in research-based evidence, yet it is imbued with the huge professional knowledge of its authors. What I know about what works in the classroom is boiled down between the covers of this fine book. As Shaun and Andy make clear, ‘Exemplary teachers are not born great, they become great’. I find it hard to imagine how reading this book couldn’t help you become a better teacher; recommended without reservation!

Mary Myatt:

This is a great book. I could have done with this at every stage of my career. It is grounded in common sense, firmly rooted in the realities of the classroom, triangulated with some great researchers and thinkers both in education and beyond. From Socrates, to Berger, Lemov, Dweck, Willingham, Heath, drawing on the expertise of the colleagues they work with and above all their own experience, it is all here. And it’s beautifully illustrated by Jason Ramasani.

Helene Galdin-O’Shea:

I hadn’t read an ‘edu’ book with such glee in a long time. No gimmicks there. No patronising. No box-ticking. No magic bullet. The antithesis to the ‘Ofsted wants’ approach (or what we were led to believe they wanted). Just a clear, coherent vision to help create an ethos of excellence and growth in our classrooms and our schools. A book which speaks to professionals, structured around 6 core principles, anchored in a wealth of experience and evidence. Heck, they even provide the sources of evidence they draw from so that you can read them yourself.

Jill Berry:

‘Making every lesson count’ should help new and experienced teachers to do just that. It offers practical advice on how we can focus on “simple truths” in order to ensure that great teaching leads to genuine learning. Drawing on what research evidence suggests, what they have learnt from inspirational colleagues and, most importantly, from their own practice as serving teachers, Shaun and Andy offer a carefully structured analysis of how teachers and school leaders can create a climate within which excellence and growth will take root and flourish. I’d recommend this to anyone who is committed to being their best within the classroom.

Alex Quigley:

Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby have produced a rare thing: a book on teaching and learning that is useful and accessible for pretty much every teacher. The book synthesises a plethora of great ideas and sound evidence from around the educational world and distils it into usable knowledge for busy teachers. Clearly, it is a book written by knowledgeable and expert teachers who understand what their fellow teachers need to develop their practice and make their lessons count. The readable style is a rare treat and I gobbled this book up in no time, confident in the knowledge that I will be revisiting it often.

David Fawcett:

Andy and Shaun have beautifully weaved together multiple components of a teacher’s craft with research, inspiration and experience. They highlight six core fundamentals that make up the day to day practice of the profession and put each meticulously under the microscope. What they reveal are a number of principles for each and dissect them to reveal the essence of great teaching – not what observers want, not what third parties want, but what actually matters for learning and our students. The book ties in case studies, evidence and anecdotes that help the reader make meaningful changes that promote growth and excellence in their classroom. If I was to write a book myself, I’d want it to be exactly like this.


If you would like to pre-order the book, due for publication in September, please click here. Thanks for reading. Andy and Shaun

Teaching students how to plan extended writing

tharby-shopping-listImage: @jasonramasami

Not for the first time, a trip to the supermarket has given me cause for thought about my English teaching. This time the catalyst was a shopping list written for me by my partner. Even though it was good of her to save me the effort, I found it extremely hard to follow. The vegetables, for instance, were not all listed together. It was only upon arrival at the baby wipes that I realised that I had missed the ‘parsnips’ (scribbled at the bottom), which left me with no other option but to traipse all the way over to the vegetables near the entrance again …

All this got me thinking about the way students and teachers plan for extended writing. You see, when I write my own list I am a much more efficient negotiator of supermarket aisles than I am when following somebody else’s. The act of writing a shopping list is really a plan of action, a cognitive support written to help us cope with the human and grocery overload of Morrisons on a Saturday afternoon. Without a list, we are likely to forget vital items and walk round in aimless circles. When we write a list ourselves we also think through the process of shopping, not just the items we need.

This phenomenon also explains why teaching children how to organise and structure their ideas is such a key aim of writing instruction; once a plan is in place, a child can concentrate on the finer details of grammar and ideas, instead of worrying about what they will write next. However, I do wonder whether I have often scaffolded too much and in doing so prevented children from learning the process of planning.

In my early years of teaching, I was often guilty of producing writing frames that looked a little like this:

Paragraph 1

Start with a discourse marker.
What did the quote ‘We are members of one body’ mean?
Why do you think ‘body’ was a good metaphor for Priestley to use?
How do you think this links to Priestley’s overall message about socialism?
What impact would this have had on Priestley’s 1945 audience?
And so on …

This would go on for a number of paragraphs – I even remember one or two double-sided plans! Of course, I was not teaching students how to structure and develop ideas; they were simply learning to ‘writing by numbers’. In fact,  like a shopping list written by someone else, it would confuse as often as it would guide.

The trouble with this kind of scaffolding, however, is that when all the dots are joined together and the misunderstandings ironed out, it can lead to an end-product with a veneer of sophistication, even though the writer has had to engage in little independent thought to get there. This is problematic, not least when you consider Professor Robert Coe’s suggestion that “Learning happens when you have had to think hard.” It is unwise to confuse the quality of the end product with the quality of learning; they are not always the same thing. Learning needs to be carried forward and applied in new contexts, otherwise it is meaningless. It is very possible, therefore, that a less-refined final product (planned and organised by the student themselves) could lead to more genuine learning than the polished product of too much scaffolding.

This is why in an age of hyper-accountability coursework is such a bad idea: how do we know whether a successful final piece is the product of student learning or the result of extensive teacher scaffolding?

So how do we strike a balance between teacher guidance and student thinking?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. I try to take students through the planning process by modelling each step and then allowing students to practise that step. This way, they do a lot of the thinking, yet I can shape the direction as necessary.

I am about to teach my my year 9s how to write a comparative poetry essay for the first time. This is the structure I have planned:

1. Teach both poems so that students understand content, poetic features and poet’s themes/ideas etc.
2. Model how to find points for comparison. Students independently find and list their own comparisons, e.g. Both poems explore the idea of the brutality of the battlefield through the personification of nature. They share and we pare down to the best.
3. Model how to organise points into a coherent essay structure. Students independently order their points. (I have created a simple grid for this with 5/6 rows, one for each paragraph, and two columns, one for each poem.)
4. Model how to add supporting evidence and analysis (in note form) to the plan. Students independently do the same, but using their evidence, not mine.
5. Model how to structure and write a comparative paragraph. Students micro-practise writing a paragraph independently, once again using their own points, not mine.
6. Students write extended essay in exam conditions.

As students get older and become more proficient they need fewer steps. Many of these stages can be skipped once the habits have become embedded. For example, as my GCSE students head towards their final exams, I regularly throw exam-style questions at them and give them 5-minutes to create a plan.

Planning extended writing is one of the most important self-regulation and metacognitive skills we can explicitly teach young people. Ultimately, they must learn to scaffold their own work – and they cannot do that if their teacher always does it for them.

Related post:

Beyond PEE

My favourite question: ‘What do you not understand?’

I can still remember studying Julius Caesar at secondary school. My teacher took us through the play line-by-line and, even now, his face, his classroom and even the Times Roman font of the cheap edition I read from spring vividly to mind whenever I think of the words ‘Beware the Ides of March’ or ‘Et tu, Brute?’ Later on, during my A-Level and undergraduate years, Shakespeare became tougher: I had to wring out the meaning for myself. I learned to enjoy the challenge, the endless pouring over footnotes and re-reading of lines.

I have always hated not understanding what I read. I think many of the children I teach feel the same way and that might be why without careful teaching, tough texts can lead to disenchantment with reading and literature. Probably the most challenging teaching decision I face daily is how to balance explicitly telling students what a phrase or word means with giving them the space to tease out the meaning themselves. Students need to be encouraged to think hard, and yes they can work out an (albeit limited) amount from considering the context of the word/phrase, but they cannot always be expected to pluck accurate readings of difficult text out of thin air.

If you then consider the diverse and unique store of knowledge (of language and of the world) that every individual student inevitably brings to your lesson, the problem is made doubly tricky.

So, a simple question I have started to ask is this:

What do you not understand?

I then give students time to annotate the text. It is important that they attempt to decipher meaning for themselves so I ask them to quickly annotate their guesses where they can (to be replaced or extended on later as necessary). As an extension task, I also ask them to come up with their own questions too. The strategy seems to work for two main reasons: 1) my later explanations target the sweet spot between what they know and don’t know, and 2) it helps me to avoid assumptions. (I was surprised this week, for instance, that many of my Y8s did not know what a raven was, let alone its symbolic meaning.)

I would especially recommend this question to new teachers or those teaching a topic for the first time. Student responses gift you with a ready-made plan for next time you cover the topic. Some might argue that with the right scaffolding, every child should be able to discover meaning for themselves. I have tried this for many years and it has rarely been successful for any but the most able, especially when teaching Shakespeare.

A further variant– inspired by a discussion with my colleague Chris Woodcock this week – is to encourage students to devise the hardest questions they can think of to try to catch you out. Another is to replace the hackneyed plenary question of ‘What did you learn today?’ with the more useful ‘What did you not manage to learn today?’

I like turning the tables so that the students ask the questions. Lessons are more interactive and less ‘lecture-like’, yet without diminishing the fact that the teacher’s subject expertise should always be the force driving the lesson.

Related posts:

English teaching and the problem with knowledge

Can we teach students how to make inferences?