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Strategies that keep children keen to learn

The Scottish Executive and teachers favour a much greater emphasis on formative assessment than 5-14 national testing has allowed but many in the profession doubt that the current consultation will lead to that. Douglas Blane reports

St Catherine's Primary in Glasgow was chosen as the Education Minister's launch pad for the consultation on 3-14 assessment, testing and reporting because the Scottish Executive was so impressed by the school's work on assessment.

Along with other schools across Scotland, St Catherine's Primary has been taking part in a project to produce toolkits for formative assessment as part of the Executive's Assessment Is For Learning programme.

This has allowed them to work with King's College in London, where the original research on which the projects are based was carried out.

Headteacher Catherine Gildea says: "Formative assessment is all about learning and helping teachers to know if learning is taking place. King's College found that four things improve children's learning.l They should understand what they are trying to learn before they start and the criteria the teacher will apply for good work.l They should be given time to think when the class is asked a question. On average, teachers allow just 0.9 second before taking the first answer, so a few kids are engaged and the rest opt out.l The teacher should provide useful feedback on a child's work. Ticking or marks out of 10 don't improve attainment but telling them what is good and how they can do better does.l And the last thing is peer and self-assessment, in which pupils look at their work and match it to the criteria the teacher set at the beginning.

"These four aspects of assessment improve children's attainment, whereas standardised testing doesn't. It tells you where they are but it does nothing for their learning. Children who get 2 out of 10 today will get the same tomorrow.

"Formative assessment teaching strategies allow ways of teaching that keep children involved."

Miss Gildea says St Catherine's Primary devised ways to integrate these strategies into the curriculum guidelines, working with P1 and P5 children over a year, and got "very good results".

A traffic light system, learned from Dylan Wiliam of the School of Education at King's College, can show if children understand what the lesson is about: a green card means yes, orange means not so sure and red means no. Greens can then be paired up with oranges to explain, while the teacher goes over the lesson with the children showing red cards.

"The child has to think, do I understand what this is about?" says Miss Gildea.

To give feedback to the children, the school adopted the "two stars and a wish" strategy, where the teacher would say: "That bit is very good and that bit is very good but I wish you had remembered to I" Children then know what they have done well and what needs to be improved and how to improve it. If the focus is on how to do better, children stay involved in their learning, explains Miss Gildea.

"It is very easy for children to start disengaging in a calm way, just sitting back if you ask them to raise their hand if they know an answer.

Now it's 'Don't put up your hand; I'll ask everyone'."

Another strategy the school uses is What We Learned Today (WWLT), known as Walt. At the beginning of a lesson, children are told the desired outcomes and know what criteria have to be met and at the end they are asked if they have met them. Then, at the end of the school day, the teacher and children look at all the things they have learnt during the day.

Miss Gildea is convinced that formative assessment has had a positive effect on the children's learning. The school is now rolling it out to other classes but, she says, it is going to be a slow process to make the shift in everyone's teaching.

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