Formative assessment and school improvement

I have a vivid memory of a penny drop moment from one of Rob Coe’s presentations about CPD. It was two consecutive slides. The first slide listed all the things that teachers typically do to get children to learn difficult things:

Explain what they should do

Demonstrate

Get them to practise

Gradually remove scaffolding

Tell them what they’re doing well and what they can do to improve

Get them to practise to automaticity

The second slide was brilliantly empty. It listed the things leaders might typically do to get teachers to learn difficult things:

Explain what they should do.

It was memorable because that had been my experience as a teacher for so many years. It came at a time when a world of educational knowledge was opening up to school leaders and marked a moment, for me, of a shift in thinking; of the opportunities of applying what we know about learning to school improvement.

At around the same time, I had picked up on Dylan William’s formative assessment strategies:

Dylan Wiliam’s formative assessment strategies

As Wiliam says, attending to classroom formative assessment makes more difference to student achievement than anything else. Certainly more than high stakes assessment.

A similar relationship exists between our school improvement efforts and high stakes judgements of our school.

Great teaching is about building knowledge of the extent to which children have understood what’s been taught then adapting teaching accordingly. School improvement is about building knowledge of the systematic beliefs and behaviours across our school and than adapting what we pay attention to accordingly.

Just as attending to classroom formative assessment makes the biggest difference to student achievement, might attending to whole school formative assessment make the biggest difference to school improvement?

If high stakes judgements of what children have learned contribute little to their achievement, I’d argue so to do high stakes judgements of teaching and of schools in their entirety. Things like:

  • Lesson observations
  • Judgements of teaching based on pupil progress
  • Learning walks for the purpose of judgement
  • School reviews
  • Mock inspections
  • Ofsted inspections

All of these can and have been used by to make judgements of individual teachers, of subjects, phases and of schools. And yes, just like assessment of children’s learning, it’s what we do we with information gathered that makes it formative or summative. It is of course possible to make the information gathered through those activities formative. And many would argue that they do. It’s the starting point that I have an issue with. Choosing to do lesson observations, learning walks or book scrutinies and then working on making them formative misses the point. It is an example of data driven decision making, again from Wiliam:

Increasingly, I’m thinking of school improvement as a combination of:

This is where Wiliam’s formative assessment strategies come in.


Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions

For school leaders, this is about bringing clarity to what problems require our attention and what we’re aiming for. It’s common to have a vision statement or something that goes by a similar name but they are too broad to be of much use. They only provide a direction; the route needs to be more specific.

Leaders need to share the specifics of the problems that they are paying attention to and what will help to tackle them sufficiently.

We need to show what excellence looks like, whether that is a curriculum overview, a medium term plan, how to focus children’s attention, how to check their understanding or how to model writing. Multiple examples is a great starting point for creating a genuine, deep understanding of the thing that we want colleagues to do. Wiliam warns of not rushing too soon into rubrics an this is explained nicely by Greg Ashman’s model of how rubrics fail:

How rubrics fail – Greg Ashman | Filling the pail

We need to be able to justify our priorities:

  • What is the specific problem we are paying attention to?
  • How do we know it is a problem?

We need to be able justify our strategies to tackle those problems:

  • What strategies have we chosen to solve the problem?
  • How do we know that those strategies are sensible choices?
  • What potential strategies have we discarded and why?

We need to be able to justify our plans for implementation:

  • How are we giving the strategies the best chance of success?
  • How have we ensured clarity of purpose for staff?
  • What are we stopping staff from doing to make this happen?

Eliciting evidence of learning

The evolution of the idea of formative assessment included Wiliam suggesting a missed opportunity in not calling it ‘responsive teaching’. He later cleared it up, showing why formative assessment and responsive teaching are not the same:

Nevertheless, Harry Fletcher-Wood ran with the idea of responsive teaching and his model is useful:

So what of responsive leadership? The need for clarity of strategic direction is clear but this has to be followed up with specific goals and well planned implementation. Leaders spend their time checking what colleagues have understood through discussion and seeing plans in action before using this information to settle on adaptations for them as leaders. This is important. If colleagues need to improve something, the onus is on leaders to provide the right support rather than mandate changes and leaving colleagues to it.

Fletcher-Wood elaborates on the idea of ‘responsiveness’:

“Cognizant of” – aware of how students are: what have they understood? Where are they stuck? What do they need?

“Sensitive to” – caring about how students are doing; accepting that missteps and misconceptions are inevitable in learning and that it is our duty as teachers to help students beyond them

“Behaviorally supportive” – taking steps to support students: adapting teaching to meet their needs.

https://www.sas.rochester.edu/psy/people/faculty/reis_harry/assets/pdf/Reis_2007.pdf (via Harry Fletcher-Wood)

Swapping out the word ‘students’ for ‘colleagues’ turns this into a neat description of what leaders should know and be able to do in their day to day work of tackling the problems that they face. It involves making use of multiple feedback mechanisms available to colleagues on how their efforts are going:

  • From children via the work that they produce
  • From colleagues on planning that they share and the ideas that they discuss
  • From colleagues in the room with them while they’re teaching
  • From those who support CPD more formally such as subject leaders or coaches

Colleagues’ role

Leaders might set the direction, specify the steps, remove barriers and provide support but all staff have responsibility in tackling the problems that have been identified. Leaders need to set up opportunities for collaboration – working together to achieve a common goal. Most typically, shared planning provides this opportunity as long as there is plenty of discussion and challenge. This can also be done through the establishment of PLCs.

But there is also the important strand of Wiliam’s formative assessment model of activating students (colleagues) as owners of their own learning. The huge barrier to this is time so leaders need to do two things. The first is to reduce all unnecessary workload to create time in the working day to think and reflect. A significant part of building knowledge of a specific problem is finding out what colleagues can stop doing that will enable the team to dedicate the time and mental capacity to tackling it.

The second is to provide colleagues with access to resources and reading that might come further down the line so that they can move at a faster pace if they feel that they can. Even better if we make doing so as easy as possible – links in one place and easy to find, for example. Think one-click purchasing on Amazon.


Summary

Wiliam’s formative assessment model applied to school improvement efforts can keep us focused on the right things.

  • Clarity of goal / direction around the problem that we are seeking to solve
  • Build knowledge of the extent to which colleagues understand that direction and are moving towards it
  • Make adjustments to the support we provide to colleagues to clarify their understanding and remove barriers to better understanding

And avoid judgements. They don’t help.

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