Rethinking Assessment: Closing the Gap

teacher-marking_1455046cThere’s been a great deal of discussion in my school recently about the kind of feedback that teachers should provide to pupils when marking written work. The debate continues to rage between those who believe that pupils should not, under any circumstances, be given a mark for completed work, just a comment, and those who think that a mark should be given at all costs. I’m stuck somewhere between those two posts at present; I can see the argument that if a mark is provided, pupils will skip over the teacher’s written feedback quickly and not pay attention to it, but I also think that when completing examination-style work, a mark is vital.

I do wonder, however, whether the feedback that we teachers provide our pupils with is always as useful as it could be. What is the value of a comment such as “Good!” or “Excellent!” if it does not also provide some suggestion as to how a pupil can progress further? And if a constructive comment is provided, such as “make sure you start each paragraph of your essay starting with a clear point,” how do we know that our pupils actually understand what we mean and will heed this advice and act on in next time they complete a written task?

Last year, I created a “History Progress Sheet” in an attempt to ensure my pupils digested the feedback I provide when I mark their work. In this table they record the date, the title of the piece of work, their mark, a summary of my comment, and a short personal reflection (one or two sentences) about how they can improve their work in future. This has generally proven to be very useful indeed; it compels my pupils to read my comment and to provide a response to it. Over time, it provides pupils (and me) with a quick and easy to read guide to the progress they’re making. Each time I set a piece of work, my pupils are asked to look back over their progress sheet and to try to take on board previous comments when completing their new task.

Of course, this is all well and good in theory. Unfortunately, as with many of these initiatives teachers develop, in the day-to-day busyness of the classroom, it can sometimes be forgotten. My school has lessons of just thirty five minutes, and by the time pupils have arrived five minutes late to the lesson, I’ve got them settled and focused and distributed exercise books, I can sometimes feel pressurised to get on with the main body of the lesson, not least because we have a lot of content to cover.

I’ve been challenged to think more carefully about my written feedback to pupils by this post on Tom Sherrington’s excellent website that I have recently discovered via Twitter. In this post Tom describes a visit to Saffron Walden County High School to observe their approach to marking and feedback. Saffron Walden call this, ‘closing the gap’. This simply means that pupils are required to act on the feedback that they have been given by their teachers. Teacher comments are often shorter but pupils have to address issues raised by feedback straight away. In humanities subject like my own, this involved redrafting work to take account of feedback.

Now, this is nothing new, and I’m sure that many of us often ask our pupils to redraft work if we feel that it is unsatisfactory or particularly weak. What does strike me as quite revolutionary, however, is embedding this notion of ‘closing the gap’ so wholeheartedly into assessment policy. Redrafting is not something reserved for those who have not invested sufficient time or have somehow failed; redrafting is something that is routinely done, by all pupils, in order to raise standards.

‘Closing the gap’ seems to be an excellent exercise and I have no doubt could radically improve the quality of children’s work. It also ensures that pupils read teachers’ written feedback on their work – and indeed, that teachers are required to write useful, constructive comments that direct a pupil how they can improve their work.

Since reading Tom’s post, I have been giving serious consideration to how I can incorporate ‘close the gap’ into my own assessment strategy. In order for this to happen, it is clear that some ‘content coverage’ time will be lost, which, in a subject such as history, could potentially be a real issue. I am convinced, however, that time invested in ‘closing the gap’ will be far from wasted; indeed, providing pupils with the opportunity to critically reflect on their own work and to respond constructively to teacher feedback seems like an excellent way to promote their learning. I would far rather that my pupils learnt a little less content but had a mastery of the skills required to write an essay and complete source work exercises.

I wonder if my Head of Department will agree…

Rethinking Assessment: Essay Self Assessment

3773861315_5200510f5b_oHow do we use assessment to improve the quality of our pupils’ work? This is one of those questions that is often at the forefront of teachers’ minds. There can be nothing more discouraging than spending a lesson going through in detail how to complete a piece of work well, only for our students to hand in assignments that fall short of the standard we had hoped for. Sometimes it can seem that our pupils are simply ignoring our advice. It can be very exasperating for us, as teachers, and I have no doubt that it can be similarly exasperating for our pupils, many of whom no doubt believed that they had submitted a high quality piece of work.

So what is the answer to this quandary?

I’ve been thinking about assessment for some time, and have tried in recent weeks to develop new and improved mechanisms for providing meaningful feedback to my pupils. I’ve produced “assessment tracking sheets” for my pupils, have overhauled the system of marks that I use, and tried to further develop my use of self- and peer-assessment. I’ve felt that this has all been a move in the right direction, and have had useful conversations with my pupils as a consequence (even if there is still a tendency amongst some to regard peer-assessment as an excuse for me not to mark their books)!

I still did not feel, however, that I was getting close to my goal of using assessment to significantly bolster pupil performance. Sticking a mark scheme in front of a pupil and asking them to mark their neighbour’s work produced somewhat erratic results, and also ate up a great deal of lesson time. Whilst the school’s senior management believed such an exercise was a tremendous example of “Assessment for Learning,” in my view it was fundamentally flawed, since whilst some pupils found it a useful exercise, I was not convinced that it was leading to a great deal of learning.

I was particularly inspired last week, however, by a blog post I read by Miles MacFarlane. In this post he summed up the assessment philosophy in his own school in the statement:

Efficacious learners honestly reflect, self-evaluate, and assess their own work against criteria they understand. They are independent and reflect meaningfully on both their content mastery and their skills as learners.

One particular element of the assessment cycle at Miles’ school particularly caught my attention. Miles says that before completing a task, students and their teachers

Explore the characteristics of exemplary models of the product they are creating. These characteristics form the criteria by which they will assess their own work.

Miles continues:

Throughout an activity, students consult the criteria to see whether their product meets the requirements. They are also encouraged to add value by going beyond the criteria. Before submitting their completed work, students self-assess against the criteria and reflect on their learning processes and strategies. Teachers respond to student assessments providing feedback on both the product and their learning strategies.

Spurred on by this post, I have created a self-assessment proforma for essay writing that I am trialling with one class at the moment. This proforma provides a checklist of the key elements of an outstanding essay, broken down into the key components, (introduction, main body, conclusion and general points.) This checklist is intended to reinforce what is required of a good essay in a simple, straightforward way that can be easily understood by my pupils. The intention is that once they have finished writing their essay, they tick the box indicating that they have included each of these elements in their essay. If pupils are able to tick all the boxes, then they should be reasonably confident that their work is of a high standard. If they are unable to, then they are advised to edit and amend their work so that they are able to complete the checklist more fully.

Also on the self-assessment proforma is a copy of the mark scheme issued by the examination board for essay work. Pupils are asked to read through this scheme and to grade their essay accordingly, before commenting on why they have given their essay this mark, and what they would do differently next time in order to produce an even better essay.

This is the first time I have used this particular proforma, and I have yet to see how well my pupils are able to use it. I am looking forward, however, to marking their essays and reviewing their self-assessment. If it works then I am confident that it will lead to a much greater understanding amongst my pupils about what makes a good essay, and enable them to dramatically improve the quality of their own work. If this, or a similar tool, is used regularly, then hopefully I will see a sustained improvement in the quality of all of my pupils’ work.

Have you developed any assessment tools that have enabled you to promote and develop the learning of your pupils? Please do share them below!

OFSTED: What does a good teacher look like?

RETRANSMITTED ADDING 0930 TIME TO EMBARGO. Embargoed to 0930 Thursday February 9. Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw during a visit to Fairlawn Primary School, in Honor Oak, south east London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday February 8, 2012. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Most teachers live in fear of OFSTED, and with an inspection imminent in my school, I can readily identify with that feeling at the moment! I was reassured, therefore, to read this blog post recently which reports the answer Michael Wilshaw, the Head of OFSTED, gave when asked to describe a good teacher.

Wilshaw commented two teachers in his previous school were successful,

because they developed a style of teaching with which they were comfortable, not complacent… and which they knew worked. It worked because children really enjoyed their lessons; were engaged; were focused; learnt a great deal and made real progress.

He went on to say,

For me a good lesson is about what works… So this is a plea, this evening, for pragmatism not ideology in the way we judge the quality of teaching.

We should be wary of too much prescription. In my experience a formulaic approach pushed out by a school or rigidly prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule traps too many teachers into a stultifying and stifling mould which doesn’t demand that they use their imagination, initiative and common sense. Too much direction is as bad as too little.

Wilshaw then made five points about being a good teacher:

  1. Planning is everything, but at the same time lesson planning should be a framework to give flexibility, not a rigid plan to be adhered to at all costs;
  2. Teachers need to be reflective. Plans should be adapted when things don’t go well, and amended after the lesson. Teachers should talk a lot about their teaching to others, should be willing to go into other teachers’ classrooms, and be willing for their colleagues to come into theirs;
  3. Teachers should be perceptive, and understand the dynamics of a classroom. They should be highly interventionist and know how to dictate the pace of a lesson;
  4. Teachers should understand that nothing is taught unless it is learned. Success should be measured on whether children are learning and making progress;
  5. Teachers should be resilient people who are able to withstand the slings and arrows and occasional paper dart unflinchingly. The best teachers should make sure children know who is in charge and responsible for setting the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Wilshaw also described what OFSTED do not want to see:

We do not want to see teaching simply designed to impress the inspectors. We don’t want to see lessons which are more about classroom entertainment and promoting the personality of the teacher than embedding children’s learning in a meaningful way.

I don’t know about you, but I find that extremely reassuring!

What do you think of Wilshaw’s comments? Do share your thoughts below!


Twelve Characteristics Of A Top Performing Teacher

888748-anglican-church-grammar-school-headmaster-jonathan-hensmanWhat are the characteristics of a great teacher? This is a question that preoccupies those of us who aspire to be outstanding educators!

Jonathan Hensman, the Headmaster of Anglican Church Grammar School in Australia, offers his answer to this question in the May 2012 issue of Independence.

According to him, a top performing teacher:

  1. Adds value to the whole community of a school, and nurtures those around them;
  2. Gets involved in the wider life of a school, such as drama, music, sport, clubs, and weekend and holiday expeditions;
  3. Has a positive personality and gets on well with those around them;
  4. Has an extraordinary work ethic;
  5. Has personal convictions about the purpose of life and its values;
  6. Looks for opportunities to interact with students outside the classroom;
  7. Creates opportunities, seeking out the chance to contribute to school life, in the classroom and beyond;
  8. Possesses a heart and is generally refreshing company, willing to give time to students or parents;
  9. Feel priviliged to be a teacher, believing they have a special role to play in society;
  10. Is willing to speak out about controversial matters and are recognised as being credible because they understand the cultural context of the school;
  11. Has high expectations of themselves and their students and strives to get the best from their students by using their personality, work ethic and convictions rather than by coercion;
  12. Regards educating as more than a job, and for some, it may be a calling in a spiritual sense.

Hensman recognises the role the Head Teacher plays as “enabler” of top performing teachers, stating:

It is the responsibility of the Head to establish the culture of the school. A Head should be a role model, facilitator and encourager… Heads must create an environment for top performers to thrive, in order for them to continue to grow and develop.

What do you think are the characteristics of a top performing teacher? Do let me know in the comments below!

Source: Independence: The Journal of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia, Volume 37, Number 1, May 2012.

Time to Rethink Learning?

bw_teacher_pupil_blackboardIt is often said that we live in a time of great change. It seems that pretty much every week a new technological innovation is launched that we are promised will transform our lives. It is true that many of these new developments do indeed have a profound impact on our lives.

Back in 1997, when I was sitting my A’ Levels, the world wide web, at least in the understanding of the general public, was very much in its infancy. Some organisations, including the BBC, were promoting their new web sites to those who were lucky enough to have an internet-enabled PC. Generally such a computer would be equipped with a 56K modem that emitted strange noises whilst dialing, took several minutes to load a simple website, and prevented anyone else from using the phone.

During my time in the Sixth Form I was given my first email address ( – but knew of no-one else whom I could contact.

Also whilst in the Sixth Form, I was given permission to use my father’s mobile phone whilst undertaking my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme hikes. This massive, brick shaped piece of technology, complete with pull-out aerial, was frequently commented on, since mobile phones were still something of a rarity. Signal was generally poor, and out in the Surrey countryside, it proved very difficult to make calls.

Technology has progressed rapidly

Since those days, technology has progressed rapidly. Websites have become extraordinarily common place, with around 644 million online in March 2012. It’s not just the number of sites that has seen a dramatic increase, however. Usability has also seen a marked improvement. Back in 1997, the BBC website was next to useless. Now, in 2012, on the same website, we can catch up with our favourite television shows, watch what is currently being broadcast live, and much more. We can also use the internet to watch films, buy books, do our grocery shopping, play games, manage our finances, find our next home, check out holiday destinations, and more. This is largely a consequence of the huge improvement in the speed – and quality – of the internet connections to our homes. Gone (thank goodness) are the slow, dial up modems of old, replaced by high speed connections of up to 40 Mbs, an astonishing 700+ times faster than the speeds we were getting in the late 1990s.

Mobile phone technology has also undergone a series of rapid transformations since 1997, beginning with the adoption of digital technology, then 2G phones, followed shortly by 3G fully internet enabled phones, and now the current adoption of 4G ultra fast internet phones. The mobile phones of today have little in common with the phones of 1997, however; the Apple iPhone and Google’s Android have turned simple call-and-text devices into fully fledged computers. The phones we carry with us today enable us to check our email, surf the net, take photographs, record video, listen to music, track our exercise, get directions when driving, read books. The list is almost endless.

Email has also seen significant improvement, with the likes of GMail, Hotmail, and more recently offering pretty much unlimited storage and all kinds of useful tools to help us cope with the deluge of email we all seem to be subject to these days. Email is now the tip of the social iceberg, however. What no one could have foreseen in 1997 was the development of social networks, most noticeably Facebook and Twitter. Facebook enables us to communicate with friends in a way that has revolutionised how humans interact. As of October 2012, this giant behemoth of the internet reached over 1 billion monthly active users. Twitter, the social network that is frequently derided as the pointless realm of narcissists, had also managed to clock up 500 million users by February 2012 (media

The impact of these developments on our lives has been profound. In the fifteen years since I left school in 1997 the world has changed, if not beyond all recognition, in significant ways that have impacted on the lives of us all. The way we work has been transformed. The way we spend our free time has changed hugely. The way we interact has been totally revolutionised. Even if you’re one of the increasingly rare people who does not have an internet connection, is not a Facebook user, and has no interest in acquiring a mobile phone, the changes that have been ushered in during the course of the last decade and a half will have impacted on your life. Election campaigns have been helped – or hindered – by social networking. Government policies have been amended as a consequence of online petitions. Revolutions and riots have been organised through Twitter. Our world, our society, our species, our personal identity is changing, for better or for worse, as a direct result of these changes.

Those of us who work in education have seen profound changes in the lives of those whom we teach. Many of our pupils own mobile phones. Significant numbers have their own Facebook or Twitter accounts (despite Facebook’s policy of limiting account registration to those over 13, many younger children are registered on the site). One of the most common evening activities, amongst those I teach at least, is to talk over Skype. Some teachers will hear our pupils bandying around names and phrases that we are simply not familiar with, names like Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and others which I can’t remember because they just don’t mean anything to me at all.

These are children for whom life is very, very different to those of us who were in their place a decade or two ago. These are also children who will go on to live in a world that we cannot even begin to imagine.

We need to see major change in the world of education

Our schools have tried to tackle these changes in different ways. Devices that are seen as a potential distraction to learning, such as mobile phones, are frequently banned in schools, as are handheld gaming devices, and frequently e-readers like Kindles. Websites like Facebook are usually blocked by our schools’ internet filters.

Schools have tried to keep trace of the huge technological changes by increasing the number of computers available in labs, and sometimes by introducing class sets of laptops or tablets. Classrooms are being fitted out with expensive interactive whiteboards and digital projectors.

It is my experience, however, as a teacher of eight years, that schools are simply not changing fast enough. One of the most significant reasons for this is that we simply have not stopped to rethink just what the role and function of our schools should be in this new, rapidly developing age. I’m certainly not one of those people who will accuse our schools of being stuck in a nineteenth-century Dickensian model, but it is still frequently the case that education is about sticking an adult in front of a group of children and telling them lots of “stuff” that they need to know in order to pass exams, which are supposed to show future employers how clever and capable they are. The means of conveying this “stuff” may have got flashier and more glitzy, but teachers are still expected to communicate a body of knowledge to our charges.

It is my belief that this has to change. We need to see major transformations occurring in the world of education, in the same way that every other aspect of our society has been transformed. What is needed, though, is not just the adoption of more technology, but a comprehensive review of what it means to educate and be educated. We need to look beyond just our schools and look at what underpins our entire education system. What is required is a major rethink of learning itself. What is learning? What does it mean to learn? What do we need to learn? How do we learn? What is the impact of our changing world on what and how we learn?

I don’t claim to have any of the answers to these questions, but I hope through this project to attempt to rethink learning.

Richard Dawkins: I would be in favour of infanticide

The Guardian Hay Festival 2007Following on from last night’s blog post “academics propose killing babies,” I have just watched a YouTube video in which eminent evolutionary biologist and prominent atheist states that “morally I have no objection at all” to infanticide.

In fact, he continues to state, “I would be in favour of infanticide.”

Dawkins says that he would be happy for an “abortion” of a baby up to a year old if it “turned out to have some horrible incurable disease that meant it was going to die in agony in later life.”

I am utterly horrified by the cool and measured approach in which Dawkins suggests that it is perfectly acceptable to murder babies. Whether you have a religious belief or not, to deny the dignity of human life in this way is callous and, dare I say it, evil.

I really do worry about the direction our supposedly “civilised” nation is taking when admired, respected (by some) and highly educated people can propose such horrific treatment of a baby, a person, a human being.

The clip, which I am sure you will want to see, is here:

(Thanks to @thechurchmouse for highlighting this video on Twitter).

Academics propose killing babies

image001I have today read an academic paper which has left me deeply disturbed.

In a paper entitled, “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?”, two academics openly propose murdering newborn babies, since they are not “actual persons,” only “potential persons.”

Drs Alberto Giublini and Francesca Minerva, writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, suggest that killing a newborn baby should be permissible in all the cases in which abortion is, including cases where the child is not disabled.

The academics, who specialise in philosophy and ethics, put forward the view that neither foetuses nor newborn babies have a moral right to life; this is something reserved for “actual persons.” They decline to comment on when a “potential person” becomes an “actual person,” but say that babies do not qualify since they are not able to “make aims and appreciate their own lives.” Babies can, therefore, justifiably be killed. The fact that babies have the potential “to be persons” is, they believe morally irrelevant.

The authors suggest that the since the argument that a person with a condition such as Down’s syndrome could have an acceptable life is no reason to prohibit abortion, neither should it be a reason not to kill them on birth.

The authors don’t stop there, however, but continue by suggesting that it should also be perfectly permissible to murder a healthy newborn baby. Since a baby has not made any future plans, they see no reason why it cannot be killed. The document states that “the death of a newborn is not wrongful to her on the grounds that she cannot have formed any aim that she is prevented from accomplishing.” The authors believe that “the future we imagine for [the newborn child] is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives.”

The authors have coined the term after-birth abortion which they favour over ‘infanticide’ “to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a foetus … rather than to that of a child.” They also rule out the term ‘euthanasia’ because “the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice.”

In a particularly shocking statement, the authors suggest that “merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.” 

Clearly this paper is, at this stage, merely floating ideas, but I must say that I find it abhorrent and deeply disturbing that two educated people with a background in ethics can, in all seriousness, suggest murdering babies.

That this paper can be given credibility by virtue of publication in the Journal of Medical Ethics is worrying indeed.

This seems to be to be the very worst kind of philosophising – the kind that has been favoured in brutal regimes such as Nazi Germany. I really hope that there is sufficient disgust at this paper for such suggestions to never see the light of day again.

The full paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics can be read here.

UPDATE: I have just blogged about a video in which eminent scientist and renowned atheist states, “I would be in favour of infanticide.”