Liz O'Neill is a teacher from the UK who is now teaching Middle School in Minnesota. She recently took a course in Assessment for Learning (AFL) that was offered by ETS. Here she sums up some of the differences between teaching in the US and in the UK, why she took the course, how she intends to apply AFL.
The following are her words:
Why did I take a Professional Development course in the US?
I found out about Assessment for Learning whilst I was still teaching in Scotland. I came back to teaching after a long break and was pretty appalled by the state of education in my local high school. (I was living in a fairly remote area where there was only one secondary high school in a radius of about 45 miles.) Not long after I returned, the school had its government inspection; it was deemed inadequate in most categories. The English department possibly came off best in the inspection, because they had just appointed a new department head that used the principles of Assessment for Learning herself. She was an excellent teacher.
One of the recommendations that the inspectors gave was that the school give professional development in AFL. AFL is considered best practice in Scotland as it is proven to raise achievement. Having said that many people use the jargon of AFL and don't actually make the radical changes it requires in the classroom.
When I came over to the States I was determined to use AFL as I believed it really helped students learn. However the way things were set up made that particularly difficult. The culture–perhaps because of NCLB or grade point averages–is very much centered on summative assessment, which is the expectation of pupils and parents alike. Assessment is used to exclusively to rank students, or to provide accountability.
AFL is about using assessment constantly to provide feedback to students, so that they might modify the way they are learning. It means being able to change direction whenever a class needs you to, and about knowing when learning is taking place. It involves the students a lot more and requires them to take responsibility for their learning. It obviously can't always be translated into a grade book. That might be a good thing. Students shouldn't be judging themselves against other students or even standards too often; they should be judging their own progress.
That's the theory anyway. And most of these ideas are not new to teachers. Lots of teachers know about these ideas. They have been around for several years. Black and Wiliam's research came out 1986 I think. Some teachers argue that its just common sense, which it is. A lot of teachers know about it, use the jargon and don't actually use it to inform their teaching.
What difference will Assessment for Learning make to me?
I attended the ETS seminar for the sole reason of getting some insight into adapting AFL in an American context. Many of the practices I had used prior to coming here were slowly being eroded. I was frankly paralysed by the centrality of summative assessment in education. Students didn't want comments on how to improve; they wanted their grades. They were uncomfortable when I did any activity that wasn't getting a summative grade. It seemed to impact their creativity in writing; for example, they would not try anything that might be wrong. It impacted how they read: they just wanted me to tell them what they needed to know 'for the test'. They weren't curious; they just wanted to know 'the right answer'.
I was succumbing to that mentality and grading far too much–which as an English teacher means an awful lot of grading. I was also going back to the sage on the stage style of teaching. Not only that but I was observing that this system doesn't really serve students; the winners love it, but the losers hate it. The issue of failure permeates every endeavor. Students are constantly being ranked–which is affirming for the top students, and miserable for the weaker students.
(By the way, I am not suggesting we can remove summative grading–we do need this. But it shouldn't be so central to the everyday learning process.)
Finally (you knew I would get here eventually) what it means to me in practical terms?
Small changes made over a period of
Can't do away with the grade book. However, I can make some changes that will allow the grade book to be more formative. For me that will mean changing my categories from the 'products' of assessment to the 'skills' that students are supposed to be developing. I am working on that at the moment. I need to find a way that 'late work' and behavior etc. can be reported on in a separate form from actual academic progress. I want to change headings like 'formal writing' into: technical writing skills; forming an argument; fluency; vocabulary etc. I should be able to do this quite easily as I already use rubrics to show students what I am looking for in a writing piece.
I think I will also be using close reading broken down into the different skills too: ability to analyze; ability to infer etc.
Developing my courses with clearer learning objectives. Breaking down each lesson into 'what exactly am I hoping they will learn today'. Breaking down each unit into what I am actually hoping they will achieve. Being willing to jettison a beloved text if it doesn't lend itself to the actual skills needed at this time.
Using classroom practices which support student involvement. Teaching students how to properly peer-assess–and how to properly self-assess. That process takes time, especially since there have been some poor attempts at it already and many teachers and students think it is pointless.
Helping students see that learning is messy. Getting them used to doing activities which are not graded but still have some useful result.
Did the ETS seminar help me with this?
Yes. The course director, Carol Commodore, was excellent. She gave us loads of information specifically geared to how we would use this in practical terms. I think that it was possibly the best introduction to AFL that I have heard and I have attended a few AFL seminars in the UK.
I believe the other teachers on the course were equally impressed. There were administrators, elementary, middle and secondary school teachers and several other people who were themselves involved in giving Professional Development. Of course they were the ones taking the most notes
The most appealing thing for many of the teachers was the balance of theory and practice. We had many scholarly articles and research projects to look at, as well as the practical nature of the material, students' work etc.
The movement for AFL- if you can call it that really has some quite profound things to say about how we teach. Not only that but it does seem to get the support of teachers when it is properly explained. I think administrators and parents would like it too when they see how it raises achievement. It will only spread if teachers take it up–it has to be grassroots or teachers and parents will see it as yet another initiative, which will pass. Funnily enough it does seem to make rather zealous 'converts' however, so I think it will take off. It has in other countries. Its greatest danger is that its terms will be watered down by people anxious to look as if they know what it is. There's very little use in paying it lip service. (Gosh, I am sounding like one of the zealots myself now!)
Can I sustain this? Can I develop it? I probably need to find some support. I am thinking of asking my principal if he will form a teaching and learning group in the school. Most people are pretty stretched at the moment, so not sure if that will happen.
In a way AFL was the reason behind starting my education blog–I wanted to reflect more on my teaching and get feedback from others.
Hope this is helpful. And that you are still awake...