One of the additions to my professional reading library these holidays has been Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam, his most recent publication.
The more I read, hear and think, the more I am coming to the conclusion that formative assessment is a necessary component of quality instruction. And by ‘instruction’, like Wiliam writes on p44, I mean ‘the combination of teaching and learning to any activity that is intended to create learning’. Formative assessment is an imperative. Something that needs to be embedded in curriculum documentation so it doesn’t get lost or seem to be an optional ‘add-on’.
Wiliam makes the point in his Introduction that attempts at schooling reform that do not take into account the following three factors will have little effect:
- The quality of teachers is the single most important factor in the education system
- Teacher quality is highly variable
- Teacher quality has a greater impact on some students than others
His argument is based on the importance of changing practice NOW. It’s not good enough to try and improve the quality of entrants into teaching or look at ways of removing the least effective teachers from teaching. These things are too fraught and will take too long to take effect. By concentrating our efforts on improving our current teachers’ knowledge and implementation of the 5 key strategies of formative assessment, we can have a much greater impact on educational achievement for the greatest number of students. These five strategies are:
- Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
- Engineering effective classroom discussions, activities and learning tasks that elicit evidence of what has been learned
- Providing feedback that moves the learning forward
- Activating learners as instructional resources for each other
- Activating learners as owners of their own learning
As I have noted in previous posts (and to the extent that I now feel I am constantly perched on the edge of a soap box), I firmly believe that any change to teaching practice or schooling process, must have improved learning as its driving force…and not merely the rhetoric of ‘improved learning goals’, which is ubiquitous, but authentic and well-supported means by which this is the prime directive (my Star Trek background evident here!)
Wiliam makes the point that too much effort is going into determining which teachers are ‘good’ and which are not. He comments that the focus should be on helping the teachers we have be better. Formative assessment can do that for their practice. Too much professional learning is not directed towards what really matters to improve student achievement. Improving teachers content knowledge does have some benefits but, more importantly, is pedagogical content knowledge – what to do with that content knowledge with our students. Formative assessment practices can help teachers reflect on the effectiveness of what they are doing and see what needs to be addressed through their professional learning.
Teachers, however, need to believe that they still have things to learn about their practice.
Dylan Wiliam references Doug Lemov – see the article Building a Better Teacher
, and I also highly recommend his book: Teach Like a Champion –
Wiliam quotes Lemov as saying that , for teachers, no amount of success is enough. The only teachers who think they are successful are those who have low expectations of their students. The best teachers fail all the time because they have such high aspirations for what their students can achieve.
Assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning. I never allow myself to forget the message of the old Peanuts cartoon dialogue: