Where confusion is allowed

26th September 2008 at 01:00
Asking pupils the right question can be more beneficial to them than marking their work, claims formative-assessment guru

The only way to improve pupil attainment is to improve teacher quality, says Dylan Wiliam, and the only affordable way to do that is to "love the ones you're with" and improve their performance in the classroom.

Teachers often did not explain to pupils how to improve, instead telling them what had gone wrong in their last piece of work. "We need to give kids a medical, not an autopsy," said Professor Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education in London, and considered the guru of formative assessment, at a masterclass for South Lanarkshire teachers last week.

Research showed overwhelmingly that formative assessment - where teachers use feedback from pupils to adapt their teaching to meet pupils' learning needs - was successful, he said. In Japan, for instance, teachers teach science topics in 14-week blocks. They spend 11 weeks teaching the topic, and then test pupils in the 12th week. "They don't mark it - the teachers look at what the kids have learnt and spend the last two weeks addressing the the gaps and adjusting their teaching," he said.

Asking the right questions in the right way was essential, Professor Wiliam said - but so was giving the right kind of feedback. "Kids get upset when they don't get marks, but that doesn't mean we should give them marks. Kids who get bad marks get demotivated," he said.

In one school in England, teachers came up with an alternative when the headteacher insisted that pupils' work was graded every week. If a piece of work was less good than their previous work, it was graded with a minus; if better, a plus; and if the same, an equals sign.

"The kids who are used to getting As hate it because they have to keep improving," he commented. But it also allowed lower-ability pupils to see improvement.

Teachers should spend twice as long planning lessons and coming up with the right questions as they did marking pupils' work, but too many teachers did the opposite.

"You can put learning back on track with one question instead of marking the same thing wrong in all the jotters," he added.

Professor Wiliam urged teachers to spend time generating good questions by discussing them with colleagues. Wait-time at the end of a child's answer and before the teacher responded was also important: "They need to elaborate their own thinking."

Teachers should then ask pupils to justify their answer: "If your kids are going home less tired than you are, you are not doing a good job."

Another strategy was the "basketball" question, where the teacher poses the question, pauses, then pounces on one child for the answer, and then bounces it back to another pupil, asking what they think of the answer. This was part of his "no hands up" strategy (except for pupils to ask a question).

If a pupil's answer was "I don't know", the teacher should not let him or her off the hook. Instead, he or she should get three or four different answers, then go back to the first child and ask which was the best answer. One quick way of checking whether pupils had grasped a lesson was to do a class poll. One teacher named each corner in the classroom A, B, C or D. If all the answers got the same support, she would send her pupils into their letter corner where they would have to discuss how to convince everyone else why theirs was the best answer.

Professor Wiliam said he had encountered a teacher in Aberdeenshire who displayed a poster in her classroom saying: "Stuck? Good - it was worth coming in today."

The aim for all teachers should be to create classrooms where kids wanted to share their confusion.


Donna Gray, acting depute head, covers non-class contact time for nursery, P3 and P7, Wester Overton Primary, Strathaven.

I knew the theory and had done the background before - at South Lanarkshire the training is very thorough - but how to do it was a big stumbling block. I shall be using the "exit pass" out of class - where the pupils write down a point about the lesson before they leave. It will let me to redress something I have put across as a misconception.

Jane Lennox, P4 teacher, Woodside Primary, Hamilton.

Having worked in associated school groups, I am not sure if there is enough chat between those in the groups and those not. Those in the groups get a lot from it. I plan to share learning criteria so children can work on their own assessment.

Allison Craig, PE teacher, Trinity High, Hamilton

He gave us good practical advice about small changes and small steps. The best bit of advice was to forget about reluctant teachers and hopefully you will change them via the kids' reactions. I will be trying out mid- term questions within the lesson and unit work, rather than at the end of the topic.

Carla Fagan, principal teacher of PE, Holy Cross High, Hamilton

The session was awesome. Initially, I struggled with the idea of not giving marks, but I like the idea of marking a piece of work with a minus, plus or equals to show whether it is less good, better or of the same standard as the last piece of work.

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