Academic exercise adds muscle

24th October 2003 at 01:00
Convincing theory doesn't always make for effective practice, but Gordon Stobart is impressed by a project that advances the art of assessment

ASSESSMENT FOR LEARNING: Putting it into practice. By Paul Black, Christine Harrison, Claire Lee, Bethan Marshall and Dylan Wiliam. Open University Press pound;15.99.

This is a surprising and welcome book. It is not, despite its title, a "how to" manual on assessment for learning. It is more the story of how teachers and students collaborated in a project designed to put research findings into practice. The book draws heavily on the teachers' accounts, which gives it an authentic feel as it explores ideas about changing teaching and learning practices.

The book has a history. In 1998 Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam published a major study of research into assessment and classroom learning. They summarised this in a pamphlet, Inside the Black Box, which has sold more than 40,000 copies worldwide. Then, with colleagues at King's College London, they recruited 12 maths, 12 science, and 12 English teachers from six "ordinary" schools in two education authorities, Oxford and Medway, with whom they worked closely for two years. The findings from the project were distilled in another bestselling pamphlet, Working Inside the Black Box. This book offers a fuller account of how the teachers took on assessment for learning in their classrooms and some of the consequences for the teachers, students and schools.

The book has three main strands. Chapters one, two and eight provide an overview of the ideas and conclusions; chapters three and seven deal with their implementation, how the teachers developed the project and the support that was required from schools and local authorities. The heart of the book is in chapters four to six: what happened and how it affected the teachers and their students.

The King's team's initial definition of assessment for learning was "any assessment for which the first priority is toI promote students' learning".

By the end of the project they had refined this to emphasise that information about learning must "be used to modify the teaching and learning activities in which teachers and students are engaged". Thus assessments used for recording purposes or long-term curriculum improvement do not meet the criterion: they may inform the teacher but they do not directly help students' learning. (This definition sits uncomfortably with some current ministerial uses of the term in relation to measuring where students are and defining targets for them.) Four areas of practice were identified for exploration in the classroom:

* Questioning. For example, allowing more "wait time" between asking a question and expecting an answer, a change that encourages richer questions and answers.

* Marking. Feedback could be improved by, for example, using "comment-only" marking.

* Peer and self-assessment by students. This encourages a more active role in evaluating their work and their understandings.

* Formative use of the information gathered from summative tests such as Sats. This increases the emphasis on finding out how students go about their learning and how they check their understanding.

The teachers began tentatively to implement their plans (they were not being told what to do), before going on to to make deeper changes to their practice and thinking. They discovered, for example, that if you wait longer for an answer, and encourage students to discuss it first, you start asking deeper questions, which, in turn, requires more clarity about what is being learned.

To understand better what was going on, the teachers asked for a seminar on learning theory. I would have liked more than two pages on this, as much of what happened was about teachers seeing student learning in a new light - "making student voices louder and making teachers' hearing better". I suspect that without a supporting learning theory, other teachers may remain hesitant about, for example, taking risks with peer and self-assessment.

The strength of the book is that, as it follows the ups and downs of implementing these changes, it introduces us to assessment-for-learning classroom practices. It therefore anticipates the questions teachers would ask: how do you introduce comment-only marking when the school, students and parents expect marks? How unnerving is it to allow students to take control of their learning? The authors are aware that they were working with small numbers of secondary school teachers in just three subjects.

Could the approach be generalised to other subjects? Knowing how secondary teachers can resist findings from other subject areas ("this won't work in historyI"), they provide a whistle-stop tour of the potential for other subjects.

This is one of the less successful aspects of the book. I would have liked the discussion anchored to the four areas of practice, with an invitation to teachers of other subjects to imagine how they could be incorporated into their classroom practice. This would have also reduced the overwhelmingly secondary school feel to the book, in which no mention is made of primary schools, even though most of the findings are directly relevant to primaries, as a larger parallel project in Scotland has shown.

Some links to, and comments on, the approaches to assessment for learning in the Government's new primary and secondary strategies might also have been valuable, if only as an appendix (so as not to mystify international readers).

So what did I learn from the book? Lots. That even small changes in assessment practice can slowly spiral into new understandings and approaches; that "informed professionalism" may be more powerful when teachers are offered ideas, choice and support rather than prescription; that getting students to work together on their understandings and their assessment is a powerful and underestimated part of classroom practice.

This is a heartening read that shows the power of assessment for learning and the potential for academics and teachers jointly to put into practice ideas that can improve classroom learning and teaching.

Gordon Stobart is reader in education at the Institute of Education, University of London Inside the Black Box can be read online at www.pdkintl.orgkappankbla9810.htm

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