Assessment for Learning has fallen prey to gimmicks, says critic

17th October 2008 at 01:00
A technique designed to show pupils how to improve their work is more glossy brochure than solid practice, according to a leading academic. Helen Ward reports

Schools are falling prey to consultants who hand out Assessment for Learning (AfL) packs that only pay lip service to the idea, says a leading academic.

Bill Boyle, professor of educational assessment at Manchester University, said many schools were introducing gimmicks but not changing their practice.

About 80 per cent of the 480 heads he surveyed said AfL was a very high priority. But follow-up visits to 24 schools found little evidence that teachers were using the technique's principles in their day-to-day practice.

In practice, AfL should involve using assessment - for example, noting which children put up their hands in class - as a way to help pupils improve, rather than simply a method of recording marks.

AfL is part of the Government's Excellence and Enjoyment primary strategy, published five years ago. The idea had been around since the 1960s, but it took off after a major study by the academics Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in 1998. They found GCSE grades rose at schools where the method was used.

Professor Boyle said: "During the course of roll-out, the principles (of AfL) got reduced to a shopping list of things to do, which could be memorised: sharing learning objectives with the pupil; using written comments to feed back to pupils rather than supplying marks or grades; using open questioning rather than closed; involving pupils more in their own learning process, and introducing peer and self-assessment strategies."

When he visited schools, he observed classrooms with learning objectives on the board and some peer assessment, but found that teachers still controlled the learning rather than giving pupils more active involvement. This was partly because of misunderstandings about AfL, he felt, but also because national tests straitjacketed schools.

Shirley Clarke, an educational consultant, helped to popularise the terms Wilf ("what I'm looking for"), Walt ("we are learning to .") and Oli ("our learning intention is .") after they were coined by teachers on one of her courses.

She now thinks Wilfs and similar acronyms should be scrapped.

"The more high-profile AfL becomes, the more it gets misinterpreted," she said. "It is about improving children's learning, not just a quick fix."

Ms Clarke said that when she started the work in 1998, the idea of learning objectives (what pupils were learning) and success criteria (whether they had learnt it) were new. "So Walt, Wilf and Oli, at that time, were wonderful," she said. "Teachers were making them into characters - into dogs or cats.

"Walt you can't really go wrong with, but Wilf was a bit of a disaster - it meant teachers were giving children the success criteria instead of asking children to generate them. It made children think, `This is about doing what the teacher wants us to do.' Even worse, using animals meant some young children were saying, `We're learning this for the dog.'

"So now on all courses and books, I say get rid of them. It has blighted me. There may be teachers still using them, but they ought to be throwing them away. I now talk about learning objectives and success criteria."

Martin Armitage, head of Gunthorpe CofE Primary in Nottinghamshire, said: "Since Excellence and Enjoyment, teachers understand they have to be more creative in the classroom, and my staff are.

"The whole ethos of assessment is moving towards ongoing monitoring. It has been generally well received by colleagues I speak to, who see it as an alternative to Sats. There are schools that suspend their curriculum and teach to the test. That's not something we do here because we think Sats will be going soon."

Pupils lead the way

Pupils at Stanley Road Primary (pictured) in Oldham, Greater Manchester, tell their teachers what they want to learn.

For each unit, teachers first find out what pupils know and what they want to know. Instead of teaching the Tudors, they might come up with a question such as, "Was Henry VIII a good king?" Teachers will then help pupils to investigate. This involvement of pupils in setting their own tasks and measuring their success is part of the school's move towards Assessment for Learning (AfL).

The school, where 92 per cent of pupils are from minority ethnic backgrounds, is also revamping its curriculum to focus on teaching skills.

Nye Goodwin, its headteacher, said: "Instead of teachers moving towards a defined outcome, they are more uncertain about what the outcome is going to be. For example, in art pupils may be looking at how to apply paint. Rather than learning about Van Gogh and ending up with 30 sunflowers, we don't expect all the children to turn out the same work.

"But there is a constant tension between trying to do what is right and working in challenging circumstances with outside pressures to do with tests rather than AfL."

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