How and why do we assess learning?

It is my view that our most critical role in the action that is teaching, lies in the bounds of assessment. It is also my view that all too often there is too little attention, time, devoted to this component, in all its forms.

Geoff Masters and Dylan Wiliam both remind us that assessment is just assessment and we should not find ourselves caught up in the additional labels: pre, formative, summative, etc. These additional labels come into play only when we act upon the data derived from the assessment.

The fundamental purpose of assessment in education is to establish and understand where learners are in an aspect of their learning at the time of assessment. (Masters, 2014)

Assessment, therefore, should sit at the heart of our planning and should be situated in the design process from the beginning, not at the end.

So, what is it that we need to be planning to assess?

  • what our students know at the outset of a lesson sequence
  • what our students are learning throughout the lesson sequence
  • what our students have learned as a result of our lesson sequence

What is missing here in our assessment planning? Of course, what has been the impact of our teaching (our pedagogies) on our students’ learning? How do we achieve this?

We need to plan for and design processes by which our students can give us feedback on the learning sequence/s from their viewpoints. Which means we must plan for and design our pedagogical processes such that we expect each and every one of them to have an impact (change) on our students’ current state (current learning), an impact they can describe for us in the form of feedback.

So, when we decide, for instance, that our students will work in teams to undertake a particular task, we must know why we have made that decision and, therefore, what we expect our students will be able to gain from our decision. Our teaching must at all times be intentional. Our intentions can also be assessed.

Please also take look at the Dylan William Centre for more inspiration around the value of assessment strategies.

Unlocking student potential; unlocking teacher potential

A recent report from Professor Field Rickards, Dean, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Melbourne University suggests four key strategies to address the perceived current decline in Australian student performance and implores the government to do more to address these:

First, they must increase the effectiveness of all teachers in what I call clinical teaching. We need to develop teachers’ capabilities through initial teacher education and professional development to diagnose, intervene and evaluate a wide range of individual student learning needs. Teachers must be able to use evidence about what each student knows and understands to inform the appropriate teaching interventions.

Second, they need to acknowledge that some teachers are more effective than others and excellent teachers must be recognised through new professional structures and pay levels.

Third, teachers must be enabled so they work in collaborative teams, with lead teachers elevated to support their colleagues. Just as teams of lawyers, engineers and doctors problem solve difficult issues together, the complexity and challenge of teaching cannot be tackled in isolation.

Fourth, school networks can effectively leverage the excellence that exists in each school. Focused support for effective networks will enable schools to share expertise and success to support continuous improvement.

While, yes, we can all argue that government should do more, we cannot wait for others to tell us what to do. All educators have the capacity to make a difference in their own context, so if any of the thoughts above resonate with you, then gather together a group of like minded colleagues and take action.

For instance:

  • start a lunch time reading group to look at assessment evidence
  • take a look at the work of Dylan Wiliam for inspiration and practical suggestions to try and share
  • examine Patrick Griffin’s work on assessment for teaching
  • commit to sharing success practices and visiting each other’s classes
  • attend a professional learning seminar together as a group and share your experiences with others
  • offer to be a critical friend
  • set a time and date to regularly review your curriculum documentation together to find commonalities and build connections for your students
  • share your favourite education writers; share your favourite tweets and blogs. It only takes a few minutes and the power will last forever.

The most important aspect of taking up this challenge is to do it together. Collaborate and contribute to each others’ learning. Your students will thank you for it and your leadership for change skills will flourish.