Thursday, 13 November 2014

Reviewing 'Embedded Formative Assessment'

Hello again! As part of my literature review for my Thesis, not to mention my own personal development, I have read Dylan Wiliam's 2011 text 'Embedded Formative Assessment'. For my own selfish reasons, and to show that I've engaged with (and hopefully understood) the text, I am going to go through some of the key points below.

Wiliam's text is largely cited as a must read for
all teachers and leaders. 
The first point that I found interesting was Wiliam's statement that the 'greatest impact on learning is the daily lived experiences of students in classroom, and that is determined much more by how teachers teach than by what they teach' (emphasis in original) (13). As I progress throughout my Masters study, this is something that I'm increasingly becoming aware of; however, I don't think I fully understood the impact of different teaching methods, routines or styles before I began reading up on 'effective' teaching and learning.

I like to think that I was a fairly 'typical' teacher prior to starting my Masters, in that I taught what I thought were decent lessons and did the best I could by my students. However, I now realise that my practice wasn't as good as it could have been, purely because I didn't know what good practice actually looked like. It used to be rare for me to actually observe good practice in action because, as a 'regular' classroom teacher with no wider responsibility within the school, I never got to watch other teachers teach.

Over the past two years, my school has undergone some really positive changes to remedy this, including the use of Lesson Study. I think that's a massive step forward, and I've really enjoyed the process. I'm also taking part in a Deep Coaching programme, which again allows me to watch other teachers in action. Both of these programmes have allowed me to see different types of 'effective' teaching in action; it's unbelievably helpful to observe how things are done in other classes, especially if you're trying to understand what good practice is (or looks like).

Anyways, how does this link to Wiliam? Well, I think that most teachers will find things like Lesson Study and Deep Coaching helpful, but I sometimes feel that more needs to be done to show teachers the research behind good practice. It's one thing to see it in action, but it's another thing to understand the reasoning behind choosing to use that good practice. I don't think I'd have made the professional progress I've made based on Lesson Study and Deep Coaching alone. It would be like showing a student a really good piece of work, but failing to show them the process behind what makes it good. I'm a firm believer that greater sharing of how and why things work is one of the best ways to make permanent changes.

Another point linking to this, which seems pretty self evident but is worth repeating again, is that if you improve teacher quality than your results will, almost by default, improve. Wiliam words it in a rather tricky way though, by saying that 'the most effective teachers generate learning in their students at four times the rate of the least effective teachers' (20). While I don't doubt that this is true, it presents a rather troublesome issue; how do you establish who your 'least effective teachers' are and, more importantly, how do you make them 'better'?

Wiliam addresses this issue himself, by saying that 'we need to have better ways of identifying in advance who will be good teachers' but admits that this 'turns out to be surprisingly difficult, because many of the things that people assume will make a good teacher don't '(23). In fact, given our current political climate, I have doubts about how such identifying features would be established, or even agreed upon, within the teaching community; there's always going to be debate about what makes a good teacher, and it's extremely tricky to define. Some would argue that effectiveness can be based on the results of pupils, but I know many teachers who would find such a definition unfair. Others might say it's personality traits, teaching styles that are used, or a whole other plethora of factors. The truth is, I think it would be incredibly hard to set a basic standard of 'good enough for teaching' and 'not good enough for teaching'. Teaching has always been one of those professions that you have to do before you can evaluate your success.

Similarly, you can't just 'remove' the teachers who are deemed 'least effective'. That wouldn't go down well with the unions, and frankly it's a bit unfair. Everyone should be given the opportunity to change and adapt; we all have the capacity to grow, after all. Besides, Wiliam states that even if we did 'raise the bar' of entry into the profession, or sacked the teachers who didn't meet new standards and replaced them with ones that did, it would still take thirty years for the change to affect results (25)! Shocking to think about, really.

William himself admits it's unsteady ground, and ends his first chapter by saying that instead of being highly selective, or purging the 'least effective' teachers out of the profession, we should instead 'invest in those teachers already working in our schools' (26). This is an idea that I can get on board with.

Chapter two moves on to an area that I am much more comfortable with; formative assessment. Wiliam (and myself, for that matter) believes that 'attention to minute-by-minute and day-to-day formative assessment is likely to have the biggest impact on student outcomes' (27). However, he recognises that getting teachers to change their outlook and use of feedback isn't something that can happen over night. He also admit that many teachers may be reluctant to take on board new initiatives regarding assessment, because (and it's true, in some regards) teachers are often 'bombarded with innovations, none [of which have] time to take root', due to ever changing governments, leaders, policies, etc. (29). Perhaps then, as I have mentioned previously, more teachers should be made aware of the research behind the benefits of formative assessment; this would allow them to see that it's not some passing fad, that it does have benefits that will work in the long term, and it isn't (or maybe I should say 'shouldn't) going to disappear with the next change of government.

Formative assessment has, in fact, been around since the 1960s. It was first coined in 1967 by 'Michael Scriven to describe the role that evaluation could play in 'the ongoing improvement of curriculum'' (Scriven, 1967, quoted in Wiliam, 2011, 33). Bloom, a name that most teachers these days will recognise, also referred to it in 1969 when he said that 'we see much more effective use of formative evaluation if it is separated from the grading process and used primarily as an aid to teaching' (Bloom, 1969, quoted in Wiliam, 2011, 33). He then goes through and gives some more detailed information about the evolution of formative assessment, which I'll gloss over at this point (because, frankly, I don't want to bore you). The important bit, obviously, is when he makes reference to his work with Paul Black in the 90s - if you haven't heard about their massive meta-analysis of studies on assessment, then you really must check it out - where he summarises to say that 'the research suggested that attention to the use of assessment to inform instruction, particularly at the classroom level, in many cases effectively doubled the speed of students learning' (36). You can't really argue with those kinds of results, surely?

In the end, he summaries his best definition of formative assessment as assessment which:

'functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers learners or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in the instruction that are likely to be better or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in the absence of that evidence' (43).

As you can see, formative assessment is now widely recognised as being most effective when it is used by both teachers and students. It also means that any assessment can become formative, so long as it helps to improve 'the instructional decisions that are made by teachers, learners or their peers' (45). This is how I think of formative assessment; in my experience, it's most effective when it's used by myself to gauge student understanding, make changes to my lessons, and then by the students to help help them make take the necessary steps to move their learning forward. If this cycle can be done within a given lesson, then even better!

In order for this type of learning to happen - learning in which students and teachers use formative assessment to gauge levels of learning/progress -  the criteria necessary for success must be clear. To put it simpler, students must understand what they are meant to be doing (51). This is where clear learning intentions and success criteria come in.

Wiliam states that 'all students [should] know what quality work looks like' (55). This will allow students greater chances of success, and will have a 'profound impact on achievement gaps' (55). I interpreted this to mean that modelling success, and what it looks like, (such as by providing scaffolding, exemplar responses, etc.) is key. He also suggests that success criteria, or learning intentions, should be created jointly with the students - what he calls 'co-construction' (59). This is something that I haven't tried yet, but it sounds interesting. My interpretation of the routine is that it means stating the objective (such as 'To identify and comment on the use of language and structure) and then getting the students to create criteria for what a successful response would need to include (in this instance, saying things like 'identifying the types of words used, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives').

That being said, there is a downside to being too clear. For example, if you provide criteria to your students that says 'you should include three adjectives', they are likely to include the three adjectives (which shows they can follow instructions), but they are less likely to have learnt anything from the process. As Wiliam states: 'The clearer you are about what you want, the more likely you are to get it, but the less likely it is to mean anything' (60). As such, there's a fine line between being clear and being specific. Sometimes by being too specific we remove all challenge, and do a disservice to our students abilities to judge/learn for themselves.

One thing Wiliam mentions, which came up in my pilot-before-the-pilot interview of students, was that students are 'much better at spotting errors and weaknesses in the work of others than they are in their own' work (66). When I asked students about how they felt about peer and self assessment, most were positive about their experiences with peer assessment and negative about assessing themselves. They felt that they weren't properly trained to assess their own work, and that often they were either too critical or too generous - regardless, they were rarely able to accurately evaluate their own work. I think this can be remedied by better training and increased use; it's a skill that I'm trying to build with my own classes, though with limited success so far (especially in the lower grades, such as year 7 or 8). However, even Wiliam admits later in the text (Chapter 7) that 'student's first attempts at self-assessment are usually neither insightful no useful' and that students should be encouraged to keep trying (152). As such, I'm going to keep trying to build with my own students.

Moving on, he spends Chapter 4 discussing how to get better responses from the students in terms of plenaries (or assessing what they've learnt after a lesson). Some routines/techniques are given at the end of the chapter which I found interesting, including something he calls the 'Exit Pass' (92). I've used this technique in a few lessons already, and found it quite useful for tying up the lesson and motivating some of the disengaged students; basically, they can't leave the room until they've provided me with the necessary work (their exit pass). Usually, this is an answer to a question (or two), which aims to summarise the key learnings of the lesson.

The fifth chapter is all about providing feedback that moves learners forward. In my original literature review, I found that the best feedback was that which was task or skill specific, and clearly instructed students on what they needed to do to improve. Poor feedback is ego-involving (praise for the sake of praise), too personal, or too general. According to Wiliam, 'much of the feedback that students get has little to no effect on their learning' and can actually be 'useless and, at worst, actually lower performance' (107). It is for these reasons that providing good feedback is key. I like to think that I've got this part of the feedback process down, but for the benefit of some people who might struggle with it, I will summarise his main points.

First of all, it's important to note that much of the literature says that giving grades is actually detrimental to learning. In my pilot-of-the-pilot interviews, the students echoed this sentiment, stating that they'd rather know what they needed to do to improve instead of seeing the grade; the grade only made them feel good (if they achieved a high grade) or bad (if they achieved a low grade). Interestingly, combining grades and comments has the same effect as only providing grades:

'giving scores alongside the comments completely washed out the beneficial effects of the comments; students who got high scores didn't need to read the comments, and students who got low scores didn't want to' (109).

As such, if you're putting grades and writing comments you're 'wasting [your] time' (109). I'm a huge believer that we should eliminate grades in all but the most summative of assessments. I rarely grade the work my students produce, and instead provide them with specific and targeted feedback on what they can do to improve. My mantra is, when they ask for a grade (and they often do, as they've grown up thinking grades are the only sign of success) that 'If you make the improvements that I've suggested, you can only go up'.

Let's take a moment to talk about praise; it's been in the news a lot recently, what with the recent Sutton Trust publication that suggests we shouldn't give praise anymore. Wiliam might agree; in the text he says that 'praise [is] not necessarily a good thing' (110). However, I think this has been taken out of context. Personally, I feel that praise for the sake of praise isn't effective; telling a student 'well done' or 'good job' isn't going to accomplish much beside stroking their ego. However, as a human being, I know that I value being told when I'm on the right track, which is why I think that giving 'two star and a wish' is a happy medium between praise and constructive feedback; it establishes specific skills that are being used correctly (so that students will, hopefully, continue to use these skills) and provides them with a stimulus for moving forward.

This leads on to the next point I want to make, which I feel further clarifies what effective feedback is: Wiliam writes that 'Feedback functions formatively only if the information fed back to the learner is used by the learner in improving performance' (120).  This suggests that a) it should 'provide a recipe for future action' (121) and b) that time should be given in order for the target to be reflected upon and used. In my opinion, not enough time is given to letting students work with their targets. Wiliam reinforces this idea by saying that if you can't provide learners with time to work with their feedback to improve their work, then you might as well not give the feedback at all (129). I've spent a lot of time devising ways to get students to 're-write' pieces of their work after getting feedback. At first, they tended to simply copy the work out again, making a few minor corrections. This annoyed me, because I had taken the time to provide the feedback, only to see students copying their work out again, not really accessing or working with the target. As Wiliam says: 'The first fundamental principle of effective classroom feedback is that the feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor' (129). As a result, I devised a new feedback lesson which modelled the difference between 'copying' and 'adapting', and have seen much better use of targets since.

The final chapter is about 'activating students as owners of their own learning' (145). He states that in doing this, students can produce 'extraordinary improvements in their own achievement' (145). Much of the chapter is tied to ideas of metacognition, which I have tried to explore in some of the other texts I've read (see previous blogs). Essentially, it's all about being able to explore what you know (knowing what you know), what you can do, and what you know about your own abilities (148). He talks about motivation, and links this in with objectives and criteria, stating that 'students are more motivated to reach goals that are specific, are within reach, and offer some degree of challenge (Bandura, 1986; Schunk, 1991; quoted in Wiliam, 2011, 150).

In order to encourage motivation and metacognition, he re-states some of his five main points:

1. to share learning goals with students
2. to promote the belief that ability is incremental rather than fixed
3. to make it more difficult for students to compare themselves to each other
4. to provide feedback that contains a recipe for future action
5. transfer executive control of the learning from the teacher to students                       (152)

He then provides some routines/techniques to try to unlock student ownership over learning, including a decent plenary technique that I've since pledged to try. Ultimately though, he ends by saying that only learners can teach learners, and in this regard I think he's right. I really enjoy the process of learning how to become a better teacher, and I recognise that my best learning will come from the students themselves; it's through monitoring their use of my feedback, or their reaction to the routines/strategies that I use, that I can best help them.