Assessment for learning in depth

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Assessment for learning (AfL) has become somewhat of a buzzword and has been an interest in education for over twenty years. According to Braodfoot and Black (1994) assessment sits at the core of learning and serves as a communicative device between the world of education and that of wider society. Since the Education Reform Act (1988) and coincident introduction of the National Curriculum (NC), the Government has put significant emphasis on assessment. The NC in England and Wales was created to standardise learning, so that the quality of output in schools could be measured (Murray, 2003). Therefore the notion of assessment in order to measure standards was central to its development. In this essay I will critically analyse the origins and purpose of AfL and then go on to explore how I, as a trainee teacher, implement AfL into my own teaching. There are a number of AfL devices that can be used within the classroom, from learning objectives, self and peer assessment, formative use of summative tests and feedback. Given the constraints with word count I will evaluate one specific area of AfL that I used during a sequence of three literacy lessons based around Instructions; questioning.

Subsequent to the introduction of the NC, the Task Group for Assessment and Testing (TGAT) was developed in order to build on the NC, designing a system of national testing and teacher assessment (DES/WO,1988). The task group report distinguished between summative and formative assessment:

"Formative, so that the positive achievements of a pupil may be recognised and discussed and the appropriate next steps may be planned.

Summative, for the recording of the overall achievement of a pupil in a systematic way"

(DES/WO 1988: para. 23)

The TGAT argued that formative assessment was principle in raising standards (DES/WO, 1988). However, as Black (2000) notes, their argument was considered 'weak' and was largely ignored in practice. The use of summative assessment prevailed due to the requirement for schools to demonstrate high standards of education (Black, 2000). Wiliam (2001) adds that as a result, assessment became divorced from learning and the huge contribution that assessment could make to learning was largely lost. Under the new Labour Government the NC was revised and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) determined that pupils would be assessed and a report would be written at the end of each Key Stage. Although there is still a requirement for summative assessment, the breadth of study offered by the NC suggests that formative assessment has an increasing role in supporting learning (NC 2008). More recently formative assessment has been labelled as 'Assessment for Learning' (AfL).

It was not until Black and Wiliam (1998) published conclusive evidence that AfL significantly improved pupil learning that there was a considerable push for implementation in schools and hence became an essential component of classroom work (Black and Wiliam, 1998). As Black et al state few initiatives in education have had such a strong body of evidence to support a claim to raise standards (2004: 9).

In its simplest form, AfL is described as:

"The process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there".

(Assessment Reform Group, 2002)

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) enhance this idea of interpreting evidence by introducing the notion that AfL enables pupils to be responsible for their own learning. They add that pupils will improve most if they understand the aim of their learning, where they are in relation to this aim and how they can achieve the aim (or close the gap in their knowledge) (QCA, 2008). Therefore one could argue that AfL encourages autonomous learning which increases self efficiency beliefs and the capability to perform (Pintrich and De Groot, 1990). This relationship is supported by Deci and Ryan's (1985) Self-Determination Theory (SDT) which purports that if a person's need for autonomy is satisfied then the motivation to improve will be intrinsic rather than extrinsic (Vansteenkiste et al, 2006; Deci and Ryan, 2002). Moreover this correlates with the social constructivist theory of learning and the humanistic philosophy of learning. Inspired by such theorists as Abraham Maslow (1954) and Carl Rogers (1951) AfL encourages students to have the 'freedom to learn', understand and be aware of one's strengths and weaknesses with an inherent belief to succeed. Maslow (1954) and Rogers (1951) argue that intrinsic motivation is a more healthy form. Reinboth and Duada (2004) agree, stating that intrinsic motivation and desire is associated with increased self esteem, enjoyment, persistence (Deci and Ryan, 1985) and more effective learning (Gottfried, 1990).

The supposed benefits of AfL run throughout education, with implications that children from a primary age benefit from having self awareness around their own learning through to those in higher education, at College and University. Indeed the Dearing Report (1997) states:

"The world of work is in continual change: individuals will increasingly need to develop new capabilities and to manage their own development and learning throughout life".

(Dearing, 1997: 12)

However as Swaffield (2008) notes assessment is multifaceted and complicated, it comes in a variety of guises, takes many forms and fulfils many purposes (2008: 11). It would seem that through the process of AfL there is an expectation that learner's become more confident, independent and autonomous (Taras, 2002) and thus the responsibility for the students' learning is shared (Black et al, 2004). Whilst it may seem an entirely positive intervention and one that lends itself to a self reflective, dynamic and empowered learning experience I do query how truly realistic AfL is in the classroom? Indeed AfL may be desirable, but as Webb and Jones (2009) question how easy is it for teachers to achieve? Successful implementation of AfL surely depends on the learning approach and teachers' knowledge, skills and strategies that they use to carry out complex pedagogical processes (2009: 167). Furthermore is our education system is set up for an environment fully centred on the needs of the individual? As Taras (2002) states, do our current practices keep pace with our ideals of student centred learning? (2002: 508). Taras raises a valid argument. Is it possible to fully embrace AfL when our education system is designed to prepare children for summative testing at the end of each phase of schooling? Given that our education system is based upon summative test scores one could argue that there are mixed messages; empower learners so that they understand the roots of their learning and take responsibility for this learning yet ensure that all learners pass tests on a national level. On the one hand by encouraging AfL it would seem that we are accepting and indeed embracing the fact that all learners are different; learn in different ways and at different speeds. Yet on the other hand, we continue to test all learners on a mainstream, national level and consistently generate levels and numerical targets for every pupil. Black and William (1998) encourage the formative use of summative testing, so rather than seeing testing as a means of measuring, 'it can be used to provide an indication of pupils' strengths and development needs, especially at important stages of their academic career' (Smith, 2010: 4). However one might agree with Taras (2002); our current practices within education surely do not fit with the ideals upon which AfL are based. Hargreaves (2008) concurs; stating that the Government has put in place a 'debased version of the Black and Wiliam model of AfL' due to our constrictive model of education (2008: 1).

Although the implementation of AfL may be criticised the purpose and potential learning outcomes are widely accepted. Feedback is crucial to successful learning (Swaffield, 2008; Black and Wiliam, 1998) and is arguably one of the most effective forms of educational intervention (Hattie, 2007; Wiliam, 2007). Oral feedback, through questioning, is less developed than written feedback but can be a powerful way of giving instant formative feedback to students. Moreover questioning can work both ways and also provide instant feedback from the student to the teacher. Effective questioning goes beyond asking simple 'open' questions (as opposed to closed 'yes' or 'no' questions) and can be a difficult tool to seamlessly implement into the classroom. However despite any difficulties the DfES (2007) state a plethora of reasons as to why questioning offers the opportunity for a highly effective classroom where AfL is evidently active. The most prominent reason cited is that of questioning having the ability to enable pupils to realise what they know and, more importantly, what they partly know and guide them to further develop their understanding (2007: 2). Black et al (2004) agree, adding that questioning can become part of the interactive atmospher of the classroom and can provide an invaluable opportunity to extend students' thinking through immediate feedback on their work (2004:12). Crowe and Stanford (2010) further add that the effective use of questioning creates a 'dynamic and interactive dialogue' and indeed using higher level questioning and thinking 'predicates the manipulation of information and ideas which, in turn, provide an opportunity to develop new ideas and understandings' (2010: 36). Referring to the lesson sequence overview at appendix 1 (page 2) it is evident that I intended to use questioning as an imperative assessment tool as I felt that it would give me an instant overview and understanding of the children's learning and how they may be able to progress further. In addition I decided to make use of the individual whiteboards (see appendix 2a and 2b) when using questioning as this would allow me to assess the class as a whole, rather than just an individual child that answers a directed question.

The use of questioning is perceived to have many advantages. As the Northern Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB) (2008) and Trinkle (2009) note establishing the correct classroom climate is crucial to effective questioning. Black et al (2004) concur; adding that in order for questioning to be an effective AfL device the teacher needs to adapt a 'risk taking culture' and a 'community of enquiry' (2004: 11). Through my own practice I strived to create this inclusive community, ensuring that I included all children and made them feel valued and comfortable to share their own thoughts and ideas. I was happy for children to give a 'wrong' answer and by exploring why the answer may not be correct, as opposed to simply saying 'no', I felt that this contributed to a supportive and encouraging classroom environment. Rae and Nelson (2010) agree, stressing the importance of creating a collaborative learning environment otherwise the fear of getting a question wrong and looking like a failure in front of their peers will discourage learners from putting their hand up or answering a question if selected.

As shown on my plans in appendix 2a, 2b and 2c I pre-empted questions that I felt would be relevant to the children and would highlight whether or not the children had listened, understood and interpreted the information given about instructions. I thought about open questions yet was very aware of the age of my class and was therefore conscious not to ask questions that may confuse them. Looking at the questions I had planned at appendix 2a, Rogers and Abell (2008) would criticise me for not integrating multi level questioning. On the most basic level questions such as 'what are instructions?', 'how are they used?' and 'what happens if the instructions are not in the right order' are all open questions and do indeed require the learner to think about an answer which goes beyond simply 'yes or 'no'. However they are all comprehension questions. Whilst comprehensive questions demonstrate that the children show understanding of information recall and can put this information in their own words (Crowe and Stanford, 2010) on a more holistic level I have not utilised the different types and levels of questions (knowledge, comprehension. application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis) to support my systematic development of questioning strategies (Hill and Flynn, 2008). As Anderson and Krathwohl (2000) state I have fallen in to a common trap; teacher's often do not realise the types or qualities of questions that they use.

To improve upon this in the future, Costa (2000) suggests that developing a wide range of questioning strategies that include a diversity of question types will enhance the learning environment and allow for differentiation within the learning process. There are a number of ways in which this may be achieved. Clarke (2005) proposes using Edward De Bono's Six Thinking Hats, with each hat being linked to a different thinking strategy and thus a different style of questioning. For example White Hat thinking involves data and information presented neutrally, so questions would include 'what information is missing?' Black Hat thinking involves being defensive and cautious, so questions would include 'why would this not work?' I could also have thought about Blooms Taxonomy (1956) to develop a broader range of questioning types. The foundation work of Bloom's taxonomy divides educational objectives into three separate domains, cognitive, affective and psycho-motor and hence encourages a focus towards a more holistic view of education. Using Bloom as a stimulus would encourage one to think about the different domains and how to incorporate these into the types of questioning used. As Black et al (2004) recognise, using a variety of question types allows learners to become more active participants and come to realise that learning may depend less on their capacity to spot the right answer and more on their readiness to express and discuss their own understanding (2004: 13).

Upon further reflection of my own use of questioning I noticed that I tended to ask a question and then only wait for a few seconds before either asking another child or, occasionally, answering the question myself if that child had not responded. Rowe and Hill (1996) note that this is a common occurrence in the use of questioning, and in fact their study on questioning concluded that on average teacher's waited less than a second before they intervened. Black et al (2004) argue that the consequence of such short 'wait time' is that the only questions that 'work' are those that can be answered quickly, without thought; that is, questions calling for memorised facts. As a result the dialogue is at a superficial level (2004: 11). According to the NEELB (2008) there are a number of strategies that I could put in place which would provide learners with critical thinking time and thus they would be better placed to respond. Instantly, one strategy would be to increase the wait time (Black et al, 2003; Taras, 2009; Crowe and Stanford, 2010). Swaffield (2008) explains that this would allow learners the vital time they need to answer the question, would result in fewer 'I don't knows', would produce more thoughtful and creative answers and would benefit all learners, no matter their ability. Black et al (2004) note that many teachers find it hard to do this, for it requires them to break their established habits. However once they change, the expectations of their students are challenged (2004: 11). Other strategies, supported by Trincani and Crozier (2007) and the NEELB (2008), include involving the whole class rather than just one individual, walking around the room whilst asking questions (this takes the pressure off an individual), using a 'no hands up' approach (this would encourage all learners to stay engaged for longer) and finally using the 'think, pair, share' strategy to involve the whole class and give those learners who are slightly shyer the opportunity to participate. As Taras (2009) states integrating these strategies create a shift in the questioning framework. Learning moves from a behaviouristic theory where factual recall was prioritised, to a social constructivist perspective taken from cognitive psychology, where a complex framework of factors within a given context permits learners to explore their own understanding (2009: 64). Atkins et al (1993) agree, noting that this would also seem to correspond to 'deep' learning as opposed to 'surface' learning (1993: 50).

To conclude AfL plays a pivotal role in the classroom, and indeed literature emphasises the importance of AfL as a process to increase pupils' responsibility for their own learning (DfES 2007). This essay has critically explored the purpose of AfL, highlighting the discrepancies between the Government push for AfL to be used throughout education yet within a system which still relies heavily on summative testing. I have analysed my own use of one element of AfL; questioning, and can conclude that it is a powerful device that has several benefits for the teacher. Questioning has the ability to elicit children's' understanding, create an environment that encourages risk taking, contributes to classroom interaction and promotes learning and enthusiasm. However in order to fully achieve these benefits one must carefully consider and reflect upon the nature of questions used and actively plan to implement the use of multi level questions as part of their lesson planning (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2000; Hill & Flynn, 2008). As I progress as a teacher I will now take more time to consider the use of questioning so that I ensure that I am maximising its full potential.