Pupils in the driving seat

Three years after its introduction, assessment for learning is exciting teachers and empowering kids. Tom Deveson reports

The girl from Year 6 is articulating what must be music to the ears of any teacher as she describes what she gets out of her school's assessment for learning programme, which gives pupils the power to monitor their own achievements. "It's like knowing the teacher's secret - I don't have to worry about guessing the secret. I know how to make my work good."

Laquieca, 11, is a pupil at St Luke's primary school on the Isle of Dogs in London's East End. Together with six other primary schools and a secondary, it makes up an education action zone spreading the gospel of this programme.

Assessment for learning is above all concerned with helping children decide where they need to go and how best to get there. One consistent approach is to ask learners to agree on "What makes a good X?" X might be a particular writing genre, a way of solving a maths problem or a dance performance. The aim is to shift the emphasis to learners being able to monitor themselves.

A characteristic method is to use an anonymous child's writing to focus discussion on features of text; as pupils analyse what makes it good, they begin to see how they can produce, evaluate and improve their own written work.

I spent time in the schools - Arnhem Wharf, Cubitt Town infants and juniors, Harbinger, Seven Mills, and St Edmund's are the other primaries, plus George Green's secondary - talking to pupils and staff. Mandy Boutwood, Harbinger's head, explains her enthusiasm: "This project has ensured that the children want to learn and we can help them see how to do it. It comes from within, not from the prodding of a test."

Angelina John, a Year 4 teacher from St Edmund's, was initially sceptical but is now a convert: "You only have to see the children's faces - they want to be here. I positively want to come to school every day now - it's a transformation."

Robyn Bruce at Cubitt Town juniors described it as "the way I've always wanted to teach". She sees assessment for learning as "a small but monumental shift, a liberating culture within the classroom".

Carima, one of Ms John's pupils, says with feeling: "She (the teacher) makes you feel like you've moved into a different level. It makes you feel like an adult, so you work more independently and make your own decisions".

This is not achieved by abstruse techniques. It's done, for example, by welcoming children's definitions of what constitutes an effective piece of descriptive writing. Poppy, another of Ms John's pupils, put it this way: "You use the success criteria to help you remember what you're doing as you're working. You don't need to be told by the teacher over and over again."

You only need to see pupils confidently consulting their spidergrams and posters to realise that this is happily true.

Another simple but highly effective policy is to use talk partners in the classroom, increasing pupils' evaluative skills through discussion. This is obviously suited to young children, but the teenagers at George Green's school were equally appreciative: "Kids can often say it more clearly than teachers can," says Hassan. His classmate Jodie added that "it stops kids being embarrassed. You see things others have done and learn from your own mistakes."

And Keris from Seven Mills primary says: "A talk partner is a good idea, because whoever understands can help the others. You get more ideas and two brains are better than one."

Harbinger children were enthusiastic: "You get more courage to try out your ideas or you feel more support when you've worked out an idea together,"

says Fahim.

The programme provides intellectual stimulus, free from the taint of plagiarism: "It's getting ideas from other people - this isn't copying but being interested in what others have done," says Nural.

If pupils work to agreed and shared objectives, it means their teachers'

assessments can be advisory rather than critical. The schools have adapted the marking technique of three stars and a wish from First Steps, an Australian training programme for teachers. Children indicate three places in a piece of work where they think success criteria have been met and one area they'd like to improve; this avoids negative judgments and points the path towards progress.

Fanoula Smith, a teacher at St Luke's explains how she has customised this.

"Some Muslim boys use three angels, as if they're guardians on their shoulder. This really pays off and is very effective."

The children are entirely clear about why they like working this way - not because things are easier but because they are clearer and more rigorous.

"You swap books and see what you can suggest to improve it," says Ahktarul from St Edmunds. "You don't say insulting things like 'It's rubbish', but you try to help the other person, and so it's a bit like being a teacher yourself."

Anna in Cubitt Town infants, using the computer to design a pair of matching boots, defined her objectives: "I'm trying to make them like Karen's."

She was referring to her teacher, Karen McDonnell, whose earlier effort had become a model for pupils to follow.

"Compared with prescriptive approaches whose message often appears to be 'What must I teach?', the implied question behind AfL is always: 'What will the children learn?'," says Gail O'Flaherty, the head of St Edmund's. And Chamaine, a pupil at St Luke's, speaking of the "What makes a good X?"

question, put it even better: "I like a question like that. It shows what I can do, not what I can't."

Pupils' names have been changed.This is a shortened version of the booklet: AfL Project: Isle of Dogs Action Zone 20046. For copies, contact Francoise Moore, project director, Isle of Dogs Action Zone, Tower Hamlets Professional Development Centre, English Street, London E3 4TA; tel 020 7364 5495

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