Monday, 17 November 2014

Review of 'Assessment as Learning'

Definitely a text worth reading if you'd
like to brush up on your knowledge about
how assessment practices can (and should)
be changed to create better teachers and
As mentioned in my previous post, the latest text that I've read is Lorna M. Earl's 'Assessment as Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximise Student Learning' (2013). Of all the texts I've read over the past few months, I feel like Earl's stance, her fundamental beliefs and viewpoints, is one that most closely matches my own. It almost felt like I was, in a way, reading the opinion of a close friend, someone who shared a deep felt belief in the same things that I do. Overall, I agreed with most of what Earl was saying in the text; on the whole, she provides a well judged argument about how teachers should, across the globe, try to make assessment part of the learning process (hence the title 'Assessment as Learning), instead of just the 'end goal' (assessment of learning). That being said, I feel it would have been more beneficial if Earl had coupled her strong, research based arguments with some practical suggestions for ways to improve. However, right from the beginning she does acknowledge that this element is lacking from her text. She says that the goal of the text isn't to provide 'detailed directions for implementing classroom assessment strategies' (8). The text, therefore, is more about providing a starting point for educators and leaders to begin having conversations about teaching, assessment and the links between the two. She aims to provide 'insight into the powerful influence that classroom assessment can have on students' learning' (8).

First of all, Earl starts the text by describing what she means by assessment as learning; it is learning that 'goes even deeper [than checking on what learning has been achieved]...and draws on the role of personal monitoring and challenging of ideas that are embedded in the learning process and the role of both students and teachers in fostering this self-regulation process' (4). Assessment as learning should emphasise the role of the student in creating and assessing their own learning, when they 'personally monitor what they are learning and use the feedback from this monitoring to make adjustments, adaptations and even major changes' (4). This links to ideas of metacognition, and suggests that we need to help students identify how they learn and what they learn themselves, which is no small feat.

Again, Earl is very straightforward in addressing this fact. She states that assessment as learning is not a 'superficial change'; it certainly isn't something that teachers can just adopt on a whim. It requires a 'fundamental shift in thinking about teaching and about assessment and about the relationship between them' (5). I can certainly agree with this statement, and have seen the reality of teachers who think they've made changes to their assessment practice, without fully understanding the reasoning behind it; these teachers make surface changes to their practice, but usually the impact on their students is minimal. Earl writes that changing the assessment environment requires 'more than tinkering with practice' and I completely agree (5); it requires a full-scale change of attitude and approach, which isn't something that you can just do overnight. It requires information, scaffolding of what success looks like, and practice.

Earl succinctly summarises her point by saying that 'It seems so easy, even commonplace, to change the language and not the concepts, to believe that the work is done, when it has barely started' (8). I've seen the effects of these types of changes throughout my teaching career, with the 'implementation' of different strategies, policies, etc. How many times can any given teacher remember sitting through a meeting, being told the benefits of one reform or another and then being told that this is the 'new way forward', the new cure for what ails education? I've only been teaching seven years, and I've seen many different 'fads' come and go in education, many of which seem to be the 'language-not-concept' changes that Earl talks about here. If we truly want to change our practice, we need to better understand what it is we're being asked to do, which often means understanding the reasoning behind different policies,  strategies, practices and initiatives. I think part of this is what Earl is trying to accomplish in her text.

It is to this end that I think Earl and I agree most; she states that 'changing practices will not be enough' and that we, as teachers, need to better engage in 'discussions and reflections' about our beliefs (9). According to Earl, '[e]mbedding changes into routine practices without this discussion is unlikely to have much influence' (9). Ever since starting my Masters degree I've felt this way; it wasn't until I started to read the research and reasoning behind formative assessment that I truly began to understand its uses. Prior to that, I was (and I am slightly embarrassed to admit this, but I think it reflects how many teachers may have felt/feel) sceptical about the new assessment policy adopted by my school. I felt that it was childish, patronising and a waste of my time. I was angry about the proposed changes, and felt like it was just another example of 'the powers that be' dictating how I taught; I saw it as a control measure by the school, and not as something that would necessarily benefit the students.

Fortunately, I am now able to see how ridiculous my initial way of thinking was. I now recognise that assessment for learning, or formative assessment, is one of the most important factors in increasing student achievement. I now strive, on a lesson by lesson basis, to better incorporate formative assessment into my lessons. It's an ongoing process; I'm nowhere near as good at it as I want to be, and it's something I am dedicated to learning more about. It's something I see myself continuously reading and research up on; I can't see myself stopping because the desire to continue learning has been instilled in me now. However, I don't think that I'd have had such a drastic change of heart if I hadn't had access to the research and reasoning behind effective assessment practices. This makes me think that the average teacher might still be where I was two years ago; going through the motions of making changes to how they assess students, but not really buying into the process because they don't understand it.

Earl writes, and I wholeheartedly agree, that 'fundamental changes can occur when teachers themselves believe that the changes are worth making' (18). Again, the change that occurred within my own beliefs proves this; I am now committed to making fundamental changes to the way that I teach (and learn) because I believe that they are worth making, for myself and for the students.

The balance of assessment, as found on page 32 of Earl's
Anyways, I should probably get back to the topic at hand: assessment as learning. Earl spends a whole chapter defining the three different types of assessment (assessment for, as and of learning). I'm not going to go into detail about what assessment for and of learning are, as I think most people are already aware of their definitions (if you've been reading my blog for awhile, you should be, at any rate!). Instead, I am going to focus on assessment as learning, since it's the title of the book and also most likely the concept that people will be unfamiliar with. That being said, it is important to note that Earl says all three types of assessment have their time, place and uses; instead, she suggests that a balance between the three should be sought.

Essentially, assessment as learning is an extension of assessment for learning; it emphasises the role of the student as a contributor and critical connector between assessment and learning (28). Students should become empowered to 'ask reflective questions and consider a range of strategies for learning and for acting' (28). Obviously, this isn't something that is going to come easy to students, nor teachers for that matter. It will take training. It might even fail in the first few attempts, but I'm a strong believer that failure is the greatest step towards progress. By allowing students the opportunity to critically reflect on their work and their progress, making judgements and alterations along the way, they will inevitably become better learners (29).

This therefore encourages greater metacognition among staff and students, and suggests that 'learning is not a passive process' (39). Earl says '[a]ssessment as learning is the metacognitive process where learners are responsible for their learning and for determining how to move forward' (52). She also says that teachers need to 'have a sense of what it is that pupils are thinking' in order to better teach them. This links back to some of the readings I've been doing on making thinking visible. In order to promote better learners, teachers therefore need to be able to present and model 'external, structured opportunities for students to assess themselves' (52).

This links into the primary research I've done so far, where students that I interviewed implied their discomfort with self-assessment; they suggested that they are not given enough training, or even opportunities, to self-assess themselves. Until they become more proficient at doing this, they'll never be able to unlock their own potential. Teachers owe it to their students, and themselves, to become better equipped at teaching students how to be critical of their own work, with an aim for improvement, not comparison to others.

However, as I've mentioned earlier, and as the students in my own brief study suggest, being able to self-monitor is not something that comes easily (53). Earl quotes Earl & Katz (2006) to define the following steps that teachers should take to encourage independent learners:

* model and teach the skills of self-assessment
* guide students in setting goals and monitoring their progress towards them
* provide exemplars and models of good practice
* work with students to develop clear success criteria 
* guide sudents in developing internal feedback 
* provide regular and challenging opportunities to practice
* monitor students' metacognitive processes
* create environments where it is safe for students to take chances and where support is readily available 
                                                                                               (cited in Earl, 2013, page 53)

Motivation is another topic that Earl discusses, and one that I again feel less familiar with. She states that '[u]nderstanding how motivation works provides the key to keeping learning at the forefront and building pattern of learning that are automatic and last a lifetime' (44). On a personal level, I can see what she means; I am now motivated to continue reading and researching effective teaching, learning and feedback strategies because I enjoy the effect it has had on my teaching, the learning of my students, and my own self-esteem. This ties in with the motivating influences of success and competence; I am motivated because I see the success my improved understanding has on my own practice and I feel greater competence in my ability to teach effectively. As such, I think motivation isn't just about being able to motivate students; it's about motivating teachers to be able to make the necessary changes to their practice as well.

Earl goes on to say that motivation can be used as part of assessment when it stimulates 'the intrinsic interest of students' and provides them 'with the direction and confidence that they need to take the risk' (78). She also suggests that when 'students feel ownership and have choice in their learning, they are more likely to invest time and energy in it' (78). I know that in my own classroom, I am often reluctant to give the students a choice during lessons; they often complete tasks that I determine. This has given me pause, and made me consider ways in which I can add student choice to my lessons in a way that will motivate them to succeed while also reaching the learning goals that I have set out.

One thing that I am trying very hard to incorporate into my own classroom is the idea that mistakes and failure are a positive thing. I always use positive language when discussing mistakes and errors; in my first lesson of the year, I make it very clear that 'mistakes are my favourite thing' and try to reinforce this in all of my lessons. I was pleased to read that Earl also sees the value of mistakes. She writes that:

Motivation is enhanced when errors and mistakes are treated like a normal part of learning, with timely feedback and a chance to rethink and redo the work and when assessment is designed to provide students with access to their progress and allows them to stay engaged with the task (79).

I think that more teachers need to celebrate mistakes instead of seeing them as 'bad'. It's been my personal experience that using positive language about mistakes and failure has been immensely helpful, especially with students who have poor self-esteem. Take, for example, one of my lower achieving Year 8 students. During a recent writing task, he was quite vocal about how he wasn't able to complete the task because he was (his words) 'too stupid' and that he didn't understand, so he wasn't going to try.

When I approached him, I noticed that he hadn't made any attempt to write anything. I referred to the writing frame on the board and asked him to simply start by copying what was there, filling in the blanks when he got to them. Again, he reiterated that he was 'too stupid' to even attempt the task and that he knew he was going to 'mess it up' anyways. It was at this point that I flashed him a gigantic smile and said, with as much excitement as I could muster, 'That's awesome! I love mistakes! I'd love it if you tried and made a huge, whopping mistake, because then I could come and show you how to make it better. Right now, I can't help you make it better because there's no mistake for me to see. Make a mistake, and I'll come back and help you!'

He then picked up his pen and proceeded to make very few mistakes after all. When I came back to him to give him some feedback, I was able to point out the successes of his piece of writing, for there were many, and provide him with targeted feedback on how to improve. He later went on to write even more, with little to no reliance on me or the other students around him. Because I had encouraged him to make mistakes, instead of worrying about the negative consequences of an 'imperfect' response, he became motivated to take risks and write something that he had previously found too challenging. I had been able to communicate my standards to him (that making mistakes is a good thing), direct his learning (through use of the writing frame) and then provide him with timely and concrete feedback to move his learning forward (85). I think that this example proves that 'when assessment is integrated into the learning process, students and teachers can work together with a shared expectation of finding what makes sense' (86).

Moving on, Earl discusses how learning targets should be used in classrooms. She describes how 'learning is easier when both the teacher and the student have a clear image of where they are headed' and that 'the big picture' should be clear to all involved (89). She states that '[i]f they are going to take responsibility for their learning, they need to know what the grade scheme is and how the piece they are working with fits' (90). These ideas are not new to me, nor should they be for anyone who's done any reading on formative assessment. In my own classroom, I try to include differentiated 'success criteria' to any tasks that I ask my students to complete. I've found that this helps them to a) choose which level they want to work at and b) structures their work so that they have a clear idea of what it means to succeed. It also means that I cannot go into lessons without planning very carefully what it is I want and expect from my students.

Success criteria, rubrics, exemplars and models are all ways to encourage assessment as learning within classrooms. These allow students to:

benefit from seeing how it looks when it's done and from the process that an expert [the teacher, or other students] went through to get there. Having an image of where they are going, how long it takes to get there, and what the stages looks like both motivates and provides targets that they can visualise and strive for along the way (103). 

She goes on to state that 'nothing is as powerful as multiple images of what it looks like when the experts do it' (113). As such, teachers should provide students with multiple examples of successful work, so that they can see how learning can take many different forms; there is rarely only one example of what success looks like, since people interpret and create things in different ways.

Earl also makes reference to a sort of feedback loops, which is an idea that comes up often in the literature. She writes that teachers should use assessment to:

provide feedback to students about their conceptions and misconceptions; students [should] use use their feedback from teachers to adjust their understandings, rethink their ideas, and put their new conceptions forward, leading to another round of feedback and another extension of learning (102).

In my own practice, I've certainly tried to establish this type of environment in my own classroom, but I'd be the first to admit that it took (or takes, as it's ongoing) practice and effort. I've had to change the way I teach on a daily basis. That isn't to say that it's taken a lot of effort; in fact, I'd argue that while it might take more effort at the start, in terms of adapting lesson plans, etc., it's actually saved me work in the end, because my students are able to  make better progress, quicker.

I think the main message of the text is that teachers are learners too. We should strive to examine the ways in which we teach, and adapt these to better suit the needs of our students. In my opinion, the best teachers are the ones who are critical of their own practice, and actively seek ways to make their teaching better. Better teaching shouldn't be about meeting external targets either; it should be about creating better learners. I think that if we tackle the issue of improving learning, then the external targets will be met as a positive side effect.

Teachers should, therefore, adapt their practice so that they too become 'self-regulated learners who address their tacit knowledge and beliefs about assessment and teaching'; failure to do so will result in 'superficial implementations' that will not move learning forward (122). Earl states that learning about learning should be an 'ongoing professional responsibility to do the job well' and I am inclined to agree (123). Teachers should come together to share ideas, research and better practice about what makes good teaching, learning and assessment. It isn't until all teachers truly understand what makes good practice, which I think involves knowing the research behind it, that we will be able to make lasting changes in the profession.