Sunday, 23 November 2014

Looking at 'Unlocking Formative Assessment'

My latest purchase was, admittedly, a mistake. I had found Shirley Clarke was a name that came up in a lot of the references for books I've been reading, and decided to consult Amazon to see if some of her titles were available. The first one that I stumbled upon was called 'Unlocking Formative Assessment'. However, what I failed to notice was the rest of the title... 'Practical strategies for enhancing pupils' learning in the primary classroom'. When the book arrived, I definitely had a hand-to-forehead moment. However, I decided to give the book a chance and read it anyways; my thinking was that the strategies, though aimed at primary teaching, could surely be translated towards secondary teaching. In that regard, I was not wrong; the text does easily lend itself to use at the secondary level, even though much of the examples and references are primary.

It is important to note that the copy I read was published in 2001; this means that it's missing much of the updated information/research behind formative assessment, and was written at a time when teachers were just beginning to take an interested in using formative assessment in their daily practice. However, it provides many sound arguments and ideas, which I will outline below. 

The start of the text provides an interesting metaphor about the difference between summertime and formative assessment, which I feel is worth sharing here: 

If we think about our children as plants...summative assessment of the plants is the process of simply measuring them. The measurements might be interesting to compare and analyse, but, in themselves, they do not affect the growth of the plants. Formative assessment, on the other hand, is the garden equivalent of feeding and watering the plants - directly affecting their growth.         (2)

I like this metaphor, because it provides a really simplistic and relatable way to consider the different types of assessment; it really emphasises the power of formative assessment over summative. 

I found that the text, while mostly reinforcing what I already know about formative assessment, did provide me with a few challenging questions. First of all, Clarke spends a whole chapter on planning, making it very clear that the clarity of the learning intentions is of utmost importance. Now, while this isn't a new concept for me, the way that she presented her argument did cause me to consider how I might incorporate a question on the availability/usefulness of learning intentions in lessons into my own thesis study. If I want to know how students perceive and use feedback in lessons, surely this must link to their understanding of a) the learning intentions, b) their ability to achieve these intentions and c) the teachers ability to mark their work against such intentions. 

In terms of my own practice, she also made me question my use of learning intentions; I usually start my lessons by asking students to record the learning intention (or lesson objective) in their books next to the date; in this sense, the LO acts as a title more than anything. Clarke suggests that this isn't always the most useful way of sharing intentions, which I had never thought of before. I will definitely have a look at when and where I introduce my learning intentions, so that they become more explicitly linked to the activity. 

The text has also convinced me that I need to make use of student input more often, when creating success criteria. Using a question like 'How will we know we've achieved the lesson objective' or 'What will success look like?' would provide an excellent starter activity (21). 

Clarke reinforces what much of the literature says about grades being detrimental as well. She states that 'marking is often directly responsible for regression in many pupils' and that it tends to 'demoralise and overwhelm pupils' (53). I've always been a firm believer in the fact that grades are useless if you're trying to improve progress, so it's always nice to see the idea reinforced. 

I questioned my own practice again when Clarke mentioned how, when assessing work,  teachers often assess criteria that aren't explicitly part of the learning intention, causing confusion among students.  For example, let's imagine that I had a lesson on analysing how writers use adjectives and adverbs to create detailed descriptions. During the lesson, I had students write a paragraph where they analysed a passage for it's use of adjectives and adverbs, but in my feedback I picked apart their use of spelling, punctuation and grammar. When the students receive this feedback, the focus is no longer on whether or not they had analysed language, but instead on surface features. This type of marking suggests that we expect students 'to apply all the criteria they have been taught for every piece of writing' making all assessments 'a test' instead of a slow building of skills (54). In future, I will definitely try to mark against the learning intentions of that lesson, not drawing a huge amount of attention to other features. 

Allowing time for reflection and feedback is also a key part of effective marking, as stated in the text. Again, this is nothing new to me, but Clarke does provide a number of useful techniques for allowing students time and prompts to begin the reflection process which might be useful for teachers new to formative assessment. 

Overall, I think the text provides valuable insight and information, but for someone who has read more recent work on formative assessment, it seems a bit basic and repetative. Nevertheless, it is a useful book, and one that provides a good starting point if you're new to the topic of formative assessment and it's practical uses.