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Asking fat questions about achievement

The debate on setting and streaming has not been focused on the most important issues, says Ian Smith

As part of the "Assessment is for Learning" initiative, teachers are being encouraged to ask fewer and better questions. Better questions require pupils to think and help teachers to tune into what and how their pupils are thinking. These questions are sometimes referred to as "fat" questions, as opposed to "thin" questions, which generally involve asking pupils to guess the "right" answer that the teacher has in mind.

The debate about setting and streaming on these pages over the past few weeks made me think about whether we ask fat enough questions about raising achievement in schools. After all, it's the question "what strategies work best to raise achievement for all in schools?" that underpins debates on setting and streaming.

Dylan Wiliam, professor of educational assessment at King's College London, pointed out recently at the SETT show that it is not just the UK that is obsessed with school achievement. Throughout the world, achievement in school has been linked to a range of issues from economic development to mental health.

It has struck me for some time that the debate about setting and streaming in particular and school achievement in general has not focused on the most important questions. So I thought I would have a go at fattening up the debate by devising some better questions for us to address. I have put them together into a multiple choice question.

Which is the fattest question to ask about raising achievement? Is it: 1. Can we accurately measure how good schools and teachers are at raising the achievement of pupils at the moment?

2. What strategies work best to help raise achievement?

3. What do we as educators really mean when we talk about achievement and what do parents and pupils think we mean?

4. Whose achievement do we want to raise - all, the majority, or just a few?

5. How far do educators believe it is possible to raise young people's achievement through encouraging them to work hard and use the right techniques, and to what extent do pupils themselves believe this to be true?

6. To what extent is there a link between teacher and parent beliefs about what is possible and those of young people themselves?

7. Do young people's beliefs about achievement actually influence their achievement and, if so, how?

No 1 is wrong. It's a thin question because the answer is "no". Tests to assess current achievement are much less accurate than many people believe.

Trying to predict what future achievement will be is not only impossible but stupid. As for trying to separate school factors from other factors, let's not go there. If the question had contained the words "more accurately", then it would have been a fatter question. It is one we need to address but is still the thinnest question on the list.

No 2 is not the fattest question, although we need to wrestle with it. In his talk, Professor Wiliam tended to suggest that it is thinner than it appears as there is a single right answer. For him, it's not systems or types of school or streaming or class size, but the quality of the teacher in the classroom. I think it's a bit more complex than that, as good schools make it a lot easier to be a good teacher. So it's fat but there are others that are even fatter which need to be addressed if we are to help teachers to improve.

I am afraid questions 3 and 4 are not the fattest either. They are obese questions which bring in issues to do with inclusion. They also beg other fat questions about what we think intelligence is and what schools are for.

But these are questions we have not seriously addressed in our national priorities and in the recent national debate. Some educators may believe there is a difference between achievement and attainment. Pupils and the public are not fooled.

If you chose a question from 5-7, give yourself a gold star. These are the obese questions we really need to address. But we don't do it because they are just too challenging. They don't just require us to think logically, but to examine our feelings, our core beliefs about learning and teaching and even about what it is to be human.

Thankfully, someone else has been addressing them on our behalf. Carol Dweck, an American psychologist, has spent most of her working life exploring people's attitudes to intelligence. Her research underpins some of the work undertaken in Scotland by a regular contributor to these pages, Alan McLean.

He developed the concept of "achievement mindsets", which we in Learning Unlimited have been using with teachers to challenge their thinking about how we affect other people's self-motivation. It is only when teachers explore their own beliefs about achievement that they recognise how badly our 3-18 assessment system is in need of reform.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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