Support that is worth its weight

26th September 2008 at 01:00
Being part of a network, like WeightWatchers or Alcoholics Anonymous, can help teachers raise attainment

Hundreds of teachers across four Scottish education authorities are being trained by the guru of formative assessment - Dylan Wiliam - in how to lead teacher support groups in their schools, modelled on WeightWatchers or Alcoholics Anonymous.

The aim of the initiative is to set up what he calls Teacher Learning, thus making teachers significantly more effective in implementing Assessment is for Learning strategies in their classrooms.

Professor Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education in London, argues that implementing formative-assessment strategies effectively can add an extra eight months of learning per year at a tenth of the cost of cutting class sizes which, he argues, adds only four months per year.

"Politicians go for the quick wins that get them a quick result. We have tried and failed with that for 30 years. It is time to start doing things we know will work," he said.

While teachers have been trained in formative-assessment strategies over the last 10 years' classroom practice has not changed significantly because the theory delivered has not been sustained.

By being part of a network, which he likens to WeightWatchers or Alcoholics Anonymous support group models, Professor Wiliam believes teachers can raise attainment significantly in thousands of classrooms across Scotland, because members will hold each other to account - a concept he calls "supportive accountability".

The four authorities which have adopted the model - Aberdeenshire, South Lanarkshire, East Dunbartonshire and Dumfries and Galloway - have each sent 150 teachers to a Dylan Wiliam masterclass. Each teacher will then be expected to go back to his or her school and help set up a teacher learning community (TLC) consisting of eight to 12 other teachers.

The programme is supported by the Tapestry leading partnership and over the next two years, the TLCs will meet once a month to offer support. They will also receive support from Tapestry tutors who have been trained by Professor Wiliam.

Each teacher will have a personal action plan, in which he or she will commit to implementing a limited number of formative-assessment techniques in class. Each month, teachers will have to report to the other members of the TLC on how effective they have been.

Only classroom-based teachers can participate in TLCs, Professor Wiliam stipulates. Non-teaching heads or quality improvement officers are excluded because they do not work primarily in the classroom. "Improving teaching and learning is not an easy or quick process and schools will need to prioritise Assessment for Learning for at least two years if they hope to see the improvements that research tells us are possible," said Professor Wiliam.

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