Posts Tagged ‘AfL’

Formative Assessment

May 5, 2015 2 comments

My current MA assignment is on Formative Assessment and as you might imagine the topic has been at the forefront of my mind recently. It’s a topic I’ve touched on before, and one I’ve wrestled with throughout my entire career.

When I was a trainee teacher I heard the term AfL constantly, I knew it stood for “Assessment for learning”, but I knew very little else.  I remember being shown a video of Dylan Wiliam running a classroom experiment where they removed grades from marking and replaced hands up questioning with lolly sticks. An interesting video, not least because the top achieving girl stole the stick with her own name on!

During my teaching placement I heard on more than one occasion “you need more AfL, use lolly sticks or whiteboards”, I heard comments like “that’s a good card match, and it covers your AfL”, once I heard “get them standing up to cover your AfL”. None of this helped. I still managed to finish my PGCE with only a slim grasp on what AfL even was.

Similarly, my NQT year started without any real ideas, but I started to get to grips when my mentor discussed mini whiteboards and how she’d seen people not use them properly, having pupils wave them as soon as they have an answer. I began to realise their use, and gain a better understanding.

As time progressed I became more reflective and I began to think more about the formative assessment I used. I realised that even though I was doing the assessment right, ensure whole class answers were shown together etc there was no point, as it didn’t affect what I was doing. I was using whiteboards to check understanding but teaching the lesson the same. To be effective, surely the plans have to change.

This realisation rocked my perception a little. Up until this point I had thought that ensuring lessons were thoroughly planned was they key. I now realise that willingness and ability to divert from those plans is. If the students can all do, without prompting, the subject of the lesson when it starts, there’s no point teaching them. But similarly, there’s no point moving on after they’ve done something once as they will not retain that information. Formative Assessment must be constant and effect the lesson, you should be checking baselines, checking they have the skills and knowledge to attempt a task, checking they are practising those to ensure retention.

The same principles apply to written feedback, the longer it goes the more useless it becomes. If you mark every two weeks, at the end of a topic say, and a learner has picked up a misconception you have missed in lesson 1 then there’s a strong likelihood that there’s going to be an issue all through. That’s why checking work in class, as it’s being completed, is imperative. That way you can catch the issues as they happen and correct them on the spot.

There’s a lot of research and writing out there on Formative Assessment, and currently I’ve only just brushed the surface, but I’m adequately intrigued to see what others have said.

What are we testing for?

June 30, 2014 3 comments

There are many types of assessment that take place within our schools. Formative, Summative, AfL etc are all buzzwords that relate to some kind of assessment that occurs on a daily basis,  each with a different perceived purpose. So what is the big picture? What are we testing for? Should we be doing it?

I was recently told by someone that they had received feedback from a lesson observation which marked them down for “lack of AfL”. I asked if they had been given anymore information than that and was told that the observer had said “You need to use lollysticks or whiteboards.” This left me a little underwhelmed. The person I was speaking to was an NQT, and I thought that feedback was fairly meaningless and certainly less than helpful.


We’re talking “Assessment for Learning”, not Aussie Rules. The basic premise, as set out by Wiliam et al in the black box series, is to assess in lessons as you go along, to check the class understand what you’re teaching them. In theory, I can see this is excellent practice, but in reality it has in many places become a box ticking exercise. I spoke to a senior teacher this year who described lesson observations as “a game you play”. This frustrated me, I’m a firm believer of trying to be the best teacher I can be every lesson, and I try not to do anything out if the ordinary in observations. (My year 11s did throw the following accusation at me once: “Sir, how comes you pronounced your T’s properly when [the head] was in the room?”- this apparent vocal change was entirely subconsciously!)

That aside, I do think there is place for AfL in lessons, I’m a big fan of whiteboards, they’re versatile, they allow you to check answers from a whole class to ensure they know how to do something. They don’t, however, do some magic and allow pupils to remember how to do things forever. Lollysticks, on the other hand, seem less useful for AfL. I’ve always been told they are “AfL”, but I don’t really see how. You still only get an answer from one person. They may be good for some things (whether they are or not is a debate for another time, but you can read Tom Bennett’s (@tombennett71) thoughts here), but I don’t see how they fit here.

If the feedback was, ” You need to ensure whole class engagement, try using a random name selection method such as lollysticks.” I could have understood it. If it was “You need to ensure the whole class are ready for the task, use whiteboards.” I could have understood it. but to say “You need AfL use lollysticks or whiteboards” just doesn’t help anyone. AfL is great, but use it correctly, ask yourself “why am I doing this?” if the answer is “to tick a box” then don’t bother! If it’s “because it will aid the pupils learning.” Then give it a hell yeah.

Formative/Summative Assessment

This whole dichotomy which is often discussed between formative and summative assessment seems silly. Yes, there’s a difference between checking progress in a lesson on a whiteboard and sitting a test, but surely the point of end of term tests is to see how much pupils have learned? If your class have done half a term on Algebra, and they all got the expanding brackets questions wrong then you need to go back over expanding brackets. Thus the assessment is still formative.

I think many of us are guilty of overtesting to gather evidence of progress. An inevitable consequence of the raft of policy around this area. This itself can lead to issues. A twenty minute end of topic test which takes place at the end of a lesson where pupils have covered the content may give positive results, but the retention may not be there and they may not be able to recreate those results the following week. We need to structure our schemes of work, our lessons and our testing to create sustained progress. To ensure learning that sticks. I’m not sure how we do this yet, but I think a mastery based curriculum may be a good start. I’ve read a lot on memory and learning from Joe Kirby (@joe_kirby) which I want to get deeper into. (IE this but he has other posts too)

I think in class tests are a vital part of what we do, but their primary purpose should be to inform future teaching and learning, with progress monitoring a by product. When progress monitoring becomes the primary gain, we’ve got our priorities confused.

High stakes external exams

These are the output of our education system, what we are always building towards. It seems strange to put teenagers through such tribulations at an age when hormones are flying etc, but I’m not sure what the answer is. We need to have some form of qualifications that distinguishes each of us. @Bigkid4 has some good suggestions here. If you have any ideas I’d love to hear them.

This post is part of the #blogsync initiative for June 2014, you can read the others here.

Observing, and cross-curricular ideas

July 13, 2013 Leave a comment

This week has been a good one. It’s been the last real teaching week before summer, as next week is ICE week (Immersion Curriculum Enrichment week) which means we are off timetable doing a week of activities around a theme. The theme this time us the environment, and the activities look to be fun. One of my favourite bits about ICE week is the chance to do something different and hone my teaching skills in an unfamiliar situation, but more on that later.

Back to this week. We have had most of our new staff in this week, including one of the new NQTs who I am mentoring. I am looking forward to the role of mentor, and have now informally observed him twice. Already there has been a marked improvement and a response to advice, which is pleasing. I was a bit worried about observing in this capacity but the mock observations project I completed with my PE colleague earlier this year and the ITT student observations I have done definitely helped. I also gained a good insight into my own teaching by observing and there are always bits to pick up.

Also this week I completed a joint observation with my HoD on a colleague who was kind enough to volunteer. Again this was unofficial and the purpose was so she could check my ability to grade and give feedback. This was great, my confidence as an observer was boosted as she picked up on exactly the same positive points and areas for development that I did and we agreed on the grade. I also learned a lot about giving feedback and she gave me some great pointers in that respect.

There were also tons of things from the lesson that I picked up, my favourite being this: During a traffic light show me activity he put three wrong answers up. The majority of the kids chose the nearest one and some assumed they must be wrong. This was a superb discussion point and there was some real good contributions from the class. I was unsure if he had done this on purpose, so asked him afterwards. He said that he had in this instance and often does this because he did it once by accident and the results were great. I think this is a superb idea that I will use myself.

Also in Thursday I observed a new y9 science lesson. A couple of my form were in the class and have been in trouble a bit in science so I went to see how they were and offer assistance if required. The lesson was on penguins (always a winner) and cooling rates and included an experiment where the pupils were simulating the huddles emperor penguins stand in to keep warm. It was good fun and the difficulties some members of the class had with graphing made me think that as a maths department we need to embed this skill better in KS3. It also got my brain flying about cross curricular lessons with science on graphing and I hope to implement those next year.

This is one of three cross curricular projects I have in the pipeline, all of which excited me. The second is with an English colleague (@goldfishbowlMM) and involves looking at “The maths of Shakespeare”, and is very exciting. The third is once that a music colleague has suggested to me and involves trying to help improve the times tables of our pupils using the medium if hip-hop!

With these projects and mentoring an NQT, next year is looking incredibly exciting already!

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