Making sense of the world

16th September 2011 at 01:00
One school's pro-active approach to assessment is giving pupils plenty of space to explore the processes of learning itself. By Douglas Blane Photography by Simon Price

Wouldn't it be nice if every experience and outcome in Curriculum for Excellence came complete with its own learning intentions and success criteria, all wrapped up in a little box with pink ribbons around it?

That would be too easy, though: too prescriptive, too teacher-led. It wouldn't involve the learners, which is what works, according to the research - and what the teachers are quite explicitly doing at Charleston School, Aberdeen.

"Successful learning isn't simply the transfer of knowledge from one person to another," says headteacher Barbara Gray. "Learners need time and space to construct their own understanding. So teachers need to make professional judgments about what to teach and how to teach it.

"It is a challenge to take one of those experiences and outcomes and develop clear success criteria from it."

It is a challenge the Primary 5s are getting stuck into today, with the help of their new teachers. Gael Ross and Claire White are team-teaching their classes this session, but as an experienced critical skills practitioner and principal teacher, Mrs Ross takes the lead this lesson.

"Let's think about the different roles in your groups," she tells the class, eliciting information about what the facilitator, timekeeper, materials manager, recorder and quality checker have to do.

"That's right, Colin - the facilitator checks everyone has a job and is on task, and that everyone's voice gets heard."

A fun exercise follows, to match individuals to group roles using questions tied into this term's climate change topic: "Who's the last person at your table to use an electrical appliance today?"

"Who walked furthest to school, using up most energy?"

The point is not simply to assign roles randomly, but to get a disparate bunch of people talking, listening, negotiating, compromising and starting to cohere as a group.

"I took the bus then walked a bit."

"Yeah, but you're not in this one Abbie. You already have a job."

"I know, I know."

A quick show of thumbs, once the questions have been answered, feeds back to the teachers that everyone in the large class now knows their role in the complex assignment they are about to tackle.

Each group has one learning intention for the afternoon, related to how they work as a group, and agreed with their teachers after the last time they did so. Written in large letters on folded card, these are now passed out to groups to stand in the middle of their table, as a visible prompt while they work.

As the lesson proceeds there is constant discussion around the tables, when the teachers aren't talking to the whole class. Some of this way of working is familiar but some is new to the pupils. A strange little word on all the cards generates flurries of puzzled chat.

"`Target. To manage our time better. SOB.'"

"SOB - what's that?"


"Sob, sob."

"What does sob mean?"

"I have no idea."

Other group targets around the class include: to listen to each other; to be more organised; to manage our time better; to be more focused on the task; to communicate better as a team; and to include everyone.

"Now you've got your targets, think carefully about what they would look like and what they would sound like," Mrs Ross tells them. "Talk about that with each other then tell your recorders, so they can write it on your cards. Put it under SOB.

"SOB stands for `specific observable behaviours'. It means very specific things you can see or hear. Draw an eye beside the `looks like' and an ear beside the `sounds like'. You have three minutes."

As the children chat, the teachers move around the tables, listening in, prompting, asking open questions. "What will I hear if you're communicating well?"

"What will I see if you're organised?"

"Resources we need here and ones we don't need there."

"Good, what else? We want very specific things you'll see and hear."

"What will I hear if you're on task - from each of you in your task roles?"

"Our heads will be down and we'll be quiet."


"We might need to be talking."

With two teachers and nine groups around the large room, there is a lot of unmonitored chat. Virtually all of it seems to be on task. But as nine- year-olds struggle to assert themselves, please the teachers and fit in with their group, there's also humour, random remarks and sometimes friction.

"What would we hear if we're communicating better?"

"People discussing stuff, sharing ideas."

"What would we see?"

"People talking."

"What if they're talking about other stuff? I do have a good point, you know."

"Yes but it's quite a silly point. What else would they be talking about?"

"I don't know."

At one end of a large table with a group of five pupils, one girl is shaking her head. "This is all going wrong," she announces sadly. "Nobody's listening to anybody, the group's too big and Ross is just doing what he likes."

An hour after the start of the lesson, teachers and children are finally satisfied that everyone knows their group roles, and the learning intentions and success criteria for the coming challenge are clearly set out in front of them.

"Once we've been working this way for a few weeks, we won't spend that long on this part of a lesson," explains Mrs Ross. "But we will take longer than a lot of teachers might. It is so important."

The challenge this afternoon is to organise the admin and housekeeping the children will do to help the class run smoothly throughout the year. The pupils have already spent a lesson identifying broad responsibilities, such as tidying up, looking after the library and ensuring the class works in an eco-friendly way.

Now they will firm up on specific tasks for each of these. "This group will work on the Stationery Superstars," Mrs Ross announces. "This one on the Cleaning Kids. The group at the back, you're the Meeters and Greeters. This one is the Super Secretaries, that one's the Loopy Librarians . I should be seeing all the recorders writing this down."

Five minutes of brainstorming what the jobs involve is followed by the challenge itself - to agree a list of responsibilities for each job, and to design its logo, create its badge and make its poster.

While this is happening, the teachers move around and assess the pupils, not on the work they're producing - not yet - but on the way each of them is performing in their group, against the agreed learning intentions and success criteria.

"It is complex at first," says Mrs Ross. "There's a lot going on. It takes time for it to become second nature - for teachers and pupils."

Miss White is new to the school and to the critical skills approach, she says. "I haven't been trained in it yet, but I'm picking it up on the job. It makes sense. The terminology takes time to get used to but the basics are straightforward. You can see that it's good teaching."

With the children engrossed in creative tasks, their targets for today can easily be forgotten. So again the teachers move around, dipping into the groups. This time the focus is clearly on assessment as well as teaching, using the learning intentions and success criteria on each table.

"Sometimes I would take notes at this stage and feed it back to the groups," Mrs Ross explains. "Often I'd make a note on a Post-it and stick it straight on to the target cards, so they're getting instant feedback and assessment. If it's for an individual, it goes into their learning log."

Having spotted that the five-person group needs support, she sits down with them, listens to their discussion, reminds them of their target - "To listen to each other" - guides them gently towards achieving it, writes little notes as she does so - "Good use of eye contact when Nika was discussing her ideas, Ross" - shows them to the children and sticks them on their target card.

It's an impressive display of multi-tasking. But with practice, she says, continual assessment like this is not hard to do. "If I know my children, I know what I can expect of them and what they need to do to improve in terms of their target for today.

"People sometimes think active learning is all about singing, dancing and creating things. But it's about much more than that. It's about brains being actively engaged in what they are doing and children being actively engaged in how they are learning."


The critical skills approach gives teachers a straightforward path from experiences and outcomes to success criteria, says Charleston School's headteacher Barbara Gray.

"It provides a framework that supports us in doing what is still a challenge for many teachers.

"If we create really good learning intentions and crystal-clear success criteria with our children - or better still by our children - we get successful learning. They've set them, so they can give each other feedback and reflect on their learning - and it's meaningful for them. It's not just a tick on a piece of work, which means nothing."

The policy at Charleston is that learning intentions and success criteria are shared in every lesson, she says.

"People are at different stages around the school, but most of my teachers have now been trained in critical skills and are using it in the classroom. As a result, we have developed a shared understanding of what good learning looks like."

Progress has been good but there is plenty still to do, she says.

"We need to develop a skills progression, which we've been working on. We need to look again at questioning what really makes the children think. We're working on connecting the learning on paper, and keeping succinct records of what went well and what the next steps are, without teachers having to produce big tomes."

There is no one model for effective assessment, she says. "There has to be a complex and appropriately balanced mix of approaches. But thinking about specific observable behaviours - and getting children to think about them - helps teachers become the facilitators of learning.

"Without some kind of structure, that can be difficult for teachers who have been trained, as I was, to be in control. If assessment is not about moving learning forward, there's no point in doing it."

Scottish Learning Festival

Assessing and Connecting for Successful

Learning, by Barbara Gray, headteacher of Charleston School, Aberdeen

SECC Glasgow, 21 September, 1.15pm

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today