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Abstract: Assessment for Learning has become the prime drive in education in recent years.   It has not launched easily because it seems to add yet another exponentially complicating layer onto a pedagogy which has already been excessively fragmented … but if used simply …

National Curriculum spent twenty years making teachers focus on content in order to measure pupils’ levels of attainment of that content.   Nationally.   SATs were implemented in the big three subjects in order to ‘standardise attainment’ and the remaining subjects gradually acquired their own level descriptors in order to keep up.   But the experience with SATs was that they soon became ends in themselves (especially because school performance was attached to them – a wholly un-educational mistake) to the detriment of the means (teaching and learning within a nationalised, uniform curriculum). SATs became grafted – rather Frankenstein-ly – onto all the subjects and their (uniformly burgeoning) curricula.   Descriptors of levels of attainment proliferated as extensively and as randomly as gas.   Confidence in using levels of attainment was never achieved, either in schools (moderation still came down to ‘hunches’ in despair of trying to apply the descriptors in a hierarchy of attainment), let alone nationally (cf. even SATs had to become very blunt measures in order to be comparable).

It was just all too complicated, for both teachers to do anything more than just ‘get through the curriculum’, and for pupils for whom the only constructive course was to indiscriminately ‘try harder’.   Most pupils don’t have a clear sense of how to learn because the content is too overwhelming.   Their un-trained response, at best, is to just include more detail, or make it neater, or at worst to give up – angry and defiant.[1]

Aaagh, what to do?   How to teach something simple-enough and attainable-enough to pupils without exposing ourselves to the charge of un-professionalism? Learning skills or content?   Thematic or integrated?   Do we lurch from one to the other, or just wobble?   Or do we stay where we are, dazed and confused?

Knowledge before (or without) skills is,

  • vague (‘where are we going, why are we learning this’)
  • unstructured (understanding is developed by association rather than analysis)
  • un-measurable (or measurable only by expansion, breadth, detail rather than understanding or analysis)
  • un-transferable (skills developed are particular to the subject, or even topic, they were learnt in)
  • un-applicable (true enquiry needs to go deeper rather than just more broad)

Skills before (or without) knowledge is,

  • pointless (‘where are we going, why are we learning this’)
  • wide but superficial (understanding is developed by association rather than analysis)
  • only measurable according to the effort made; and its neatness!

Knowledge considered irrespective of Skills, or Skills considered irrespective of Knowledge are un-holistic, lead to un-natural learning and are un-effective[2].

The solution is … Assessment for Learning.[3]   Assessment is the means of identifying progression for any given aspect of an attainment target.   Assessment for Learning is the means whereby the pupil understands what this progression means so that they both know how they have achieved so far and how they can progress further.   For every single Attainment Target (every lesson/learning cycle) we need to present, task, assess and feed-back in a clear level 3-8 way.   In order for us to do this and for pupils to understand (and use) it, it needs to be simple.   Therefore:

Level 3 Knowledge
Level 4
Level 5 Understanding
Level 6
Level 7 Evaluation
Level 8

Level 3-4 you have to know it (detail, facts), level 5-6 you have to explain it (how it works), level 7+ you have to test it. What is ‘it’? It is any given Attainment Target. To break this down a little further:

Level 3 Knowledge Detail, fact
Level 4 Collections, sorting of details, facts
Level 5 Understanding Explaining idea behind detail, fact
Level 6 Explaining how ideas fit together
Level 7 Evaluation Testing ideas for purpose, enquiry
Level 8 Consolidating enquiry

With this simple structure we could take an Attainment Target, any Attainment Target, and we could present it, we could task it levels 3-7, we could assess pupils work on it levels 3-7 and we could feed back to pupils levels 3-7.   What precisely is required for each of levels 3-7 would depend on the respective Attainment Target as exemplar …

Examples >>> History – Peasant’s Revolt Geography – Water Cycle Religious Studies – a Mosque
Level 3 Knowledge Detail, fact Key names, places Key words: rain, clouds, sun etc. Key words: minaret, quibla etc.
Level 4 Collections, sorting of details, facts Names & places on a timeline Key words on a diagram showing cycle Key words on diagram of Mosque
Level 5 Understanding Explaining idea behind detail, fact Causes that made names and places happen Explain how each element happens Function of the key features
Level 6 Explaining how ideas fit together How all the causes came together into PR Explain how elements work in a cycle How Mosque practices worship, study, community
Level 7 Evaluation Testing ideas for purpose, enquiry Did the PR succeed, what did rebels & leaders say v. do? Explore where WC is problematic Mosque as ‘submission’ & ‘peace’, umma
Level 8 Consolidating enquiry How does PR fit into wider Medieval age? How WC features on global scale issues Mosque within Islam

We would need to deliver our lessons with tasks that access the Attainment Target at a level 3-4 level (knowledge – all), at a level 5-6 level (understanding – most) and at a level 7+ level (evaluation – some), so that each pupil can concentrate on the task that corresponds to their target level.   This would de-complicate the curriculum (by making it both presentable by teachers and accessible to pupils) AND develop skills (because pupils would know how to develop from level to level because they are simple and they would be used to them lesson by lesson, rather than give it, at best, their best shot).

Isn’t this all just so familiar? Hasn’t every teacher since the 1960’s had Bloom’s taxonomy wheeled before them, o so very satisfactorily?   It maps the cognitive development from identifying facts (knowledge) to connecting knowledge (understanding), to testing connections (evaluation).   Well, ‘Phew!   That’s a relief – thank goodness Bloom thought about all that complicated stuff – now we can get on and teach!’   I am not sure that the taxonomy has been integrated into lesson-to-lesson teaching, partly because it seems possible to have lessons ‘happen’ without reference to it, partly because it takes time and creative energy to plan the working through of a piece of learning (both of which resources significantly disappear when teachers begin their teaching career), partly, also, because the pervasive drive and focus on ‘results’ (grades) in education has required teachers to condition reactions to learning in their pupils rather than nurture them through cognitive development.

Assessment for Learning should be the very working through of this cognitive hierarchy in each piece of learning: used at the beginning (structured KUE teaching), the middle (integrating K>U>E learning) and the end (formative >>> (occasional) summative KUE assessment).   The result of this will be educated pupils who have developed their intelligence (and know how to learn) rather than educated pupils who have ‘received’ their education as is their due consumer right.

[1]And this, quite possibly suggests the explanation for why there is a dip in KSIV: the majority of pupils, overwhelmed by KSIII perform flatly at KSIV simply because they are already tired and frustrated at the beginning of year 10 rather than a sense of seeing how far they could take their learning developed at KSIII.   They possibly pick up at KSV simply because they have ‘dropped’ all of the subjects which completely overwhelmed them before, not because they suddenly learn to study better.

[2] (I’m sorry), Aristotle said that the form and essence (of anything) are only notionally conceived of separately, they cannot actually be separate, the same as you cannot think of the shape of the wax of a candle separate from the wax itself.   If the wax is the ‘knowledge’ and the shape is the ‘skills’ (of understanding it), the teaching of one over (or before) the other is non-sensical, or certainly ineffective.

[3] Why hasn’t it worked so far (its been touted for a good 4/5 years to date)?   Simply because it is too complicated: a complicated, 8-levelled system of attainment across many possible skills applied to an often-revised but still complicated curriculum.   The three elements – content, skills and measure – have never ‘plugged’ into each other because there are simply too many ‘pins’ and ‘sockets’ to co-ordinate.   All we have managed to achieve so far are intricate level descriptors for single pieces of assessed work which have become so complicated that you have to be a very clever pupil to follow their progression (even when we have tried to easy-speak them).   They have become complicated in anticipation (we have been required to show how we are meeting Learning Objectives) rather than through use (i.e. ‘Learning’), and therefore they are not useful.

Postscript: this was first written and published around 2007; seven years later OFSTED (and therefore school management) have decided that the ‘way forward’ is to concentrate on differentiation using … Bloom’s taxonomy; we don’t use the words ‘Assessment for Learning’ anymore (I’m not sure anyone but the academics ever got their head around what it meant and because it didn’t produce any demonstrable change in whatever it is we measure as development these days, it was quietly dropped in the clamour of some other technique – learning History, maybe).   But apart from changing reference from Assessment for Learning to something else (which I decided to keep anyway seeing as I spent years getting my head around it; and it works), I didn’t have to edit this at all; we have made that much progress standing still in so many different ways …



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