In education as elsewhere, the only certainty is that a new idea will be along soon. Recently they have been like a flurry of buses, so teachers might be forgiven for looking forward to a breakdown. However, as the recent evaluation of project one in the Assessment is for Learning programme suggests, one idea that should not be lost sight of is the role of formative assessment in addressing some current educational concerns.
Formative assessment isn't exactly new. That may be a problem because too many people think they are doing it anyway. According to Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, who wrote the 1998 review rekindling interest in this area, the opposite is true; far, far too few people do.
Black and Wiliam's low estimate comes from their definition of assessment as: referring to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes "formative assessment" when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs. What is new in this is that feedback can only be called formative if it is actually used, by either the teacher to adapt teaching or a student to improve learning.
The question that confronts any teacher claiming to do formative assessment is this: "Do I know enough about the understanding of my pupils to be able to help each one of them?" The answer will probably shake all but the most accomplished.
How teachers perceive the relevance of this question is tightly bound to their beliefs in two areas firmly within what Stephen Covey calls the circle of influence, where teachers really do have the power to make a difference. First, there is the relationship between teaching and learning; and second, teachers' beliefs about their pupils' potential for learning.
For the former, teaching as transmitting knowledge, with learning as a separate process that may or may not happen contiguously, stands at one extreme; at the other stands teaching and learning as an interaction to develop each pupil's ability to incorporate new understandings and skills.
On the latter, one extreme holds that intelligence is fixed and pupils are empty vessels of various sizes and orifices to be filled with whatever learning their characteristics will allow. The other believes that we all draw from a well of untapped potential and that what we call "ability" is a complex framework of understandings and skills that can be learnt.
These are caricatures, but the closer my views approximate to the latter descriptions, the more compelling the need to know more about my pupils' understandings. On the other hand, if the former descriptions seem more accurate, then I probably won't be too bothered, despite prevailing research disputing my image of the teacher as pedagogue and the pupil as passive recipient of knowledge.
A reference to research is appropriate; more than many other ideas, our understanding of formative assessment is firmly grounded in solid research.
Thanks again to Black and Wiliam, few initiatives can call on such a substantial body of prima facie evidence stretching back more than 30 years.
Central to formative assessment is that learning must be made explicit; pupils need to know what they are being asked to learn and how they will recognise their own success, and teachers need to know what their pupils have learnt and what still needs to be done. Learning is made explicit through feedback, which teachers and pupils can both give and receive.
Teachers look for feedback from pupils to monitor teaching and learning; they and other pupils give feedback to acknowledge and improve individual learning.
Learning and teaching can be monitored by building a better picture of learning using discussions with pupils that are made more revealing through better questioning. Perhaps the most striking research is among the oldest.
In 1974, Mary Budd Rowe discovered that, when asking questions, teachers normally let less than one second pass before they either asked for an answer or filled the silence themselves. Increasing wait time to three seconds or more produced dramatically improved responses from all pupils.
Making learning explicit is equally important when setting tasks and giving feedback to pupils. Communicating learning intentions and the criteria to recognise their successful completion has a significant effect on pupils' mastery of their own learning and their ability to support their peers in doing the same.
Another striking piece of research set out to investigate grades and comments used in marking. In 1988, Ruth Butler found that pupils read the grades but ignored the comments. When given only comments, their work benefited, because they began to use the comments to help them improve.
These examples illustrate a fascinating aspect of formative assessment: where the teacher deliberately focuses on making learning explicit, even small changes in practice can have quite dramatic effects. And the research points to other evidence of improved involvement in learning, motivation, behaviour and even personal enterprise. How many recent ideas can we recognise here?
More powerfully, studies have also shown that formative assessment raises attainment for all and reduces the gap between high and low achievers. So it has something to offer on social inclusion, too. Other evidence suggests that working formatively gives teachers back some of the job satisfaction whose loss is so often a complaint at union conferences.
But there are impediments. There is the time it takes and the pressures of a crowded curriculum. Others are the current high investments in summative assessment, accountability and monitoring. The impetus to resolve these tensions has to be a realisation that few, if any, alternatives to formative assessment are likely to raise standards so convincingly.
Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam closed Inside the Black Box with a question:
"Are we serious about raising standards?" They argue that standards are raised only by changes put into direct effect by teachers and pupils in classrooms and that formative assessment is unique in making a research-based case leading to significant learning gains.
The real answer, of course, lies with teachers themselves, which is where it must be. Yet, we can all promote its adoption, whether by dismantling some of the barriers or just adding our voice to a chorus of support.
Eric Young is a former teacher who now develops software for iTelligent Classrooms to support assessment for learning and produces materials on formative assessment for Learning Unlimited.