Formative Assessment – Part 1 (Introduction)

This is part one in my series on  Formative Assessment where I blog my journey through Dylan Wiliams’  book, Embedded Formative Assessment and share my and my school’s change journey.

Back in the mid 90’s, formative assessment was a prominent part of the  practice at the school I worked for. There seemed to be a big push to develop effective and time efficient strategies that would allow us to know where our students were at, set goals and keep moving them forward in their learning.

But 20 years later at my current school, there is a twice yearly struggle as teachers attempt to get accurate assessment information to formally report on their students’ performance.

I see the tiredness and the stress in my colleagues, and the unsustainable hours that they put into this twice yearly process. At times I worry that some of them are about to break under the stress. There has to be a better way.


I’d like to see formative assessment become embedded in our school practice. Assessment shouldn’t be an event. It needs to happen continually and it needs to inform our teaching. Only by knowing where each of our students are ‘at’ are we able to plan appropriate learning experiences which will move them forward.

My own experience with using formative assessment to inform learning has taught me that it requires careful planning, careful teaching, regular feedback and efficient record keeping. It needs to become embedded  in our work flow rather than being an add-on. And,  it requires thorough curriculum knowledge so that we can harness the teachable moments that arise throughout the day.

It’s also a practice I’ve found hard to maintain. I’ve developed my own systems and techniques but they haven’t been sustainable long-term.  I always start the year well, and have good periods of time within the school year where I’m managing this process well, but there are also long periods where that hasn’t been the case.

I’d like to develop a  more sustainable practice, and I’d like to support my colleagues in developing these practices too. In the hope of achieving this, I’ve started reading Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam and thought I’d blog my progress, a little like an online reading journal.

Wiliam says in the introduction to his book that he wrote it with two purposes in mind:

1. To provide simple, practical ideas about changes that very teacher can make in the classroom to develop his or her practice of teaching.

2. To provide the evidence that these changes will result in improved outcomes for learners.

And that is exactly what I’m after: simple, practical evidence based strategies that will improve learning outcomes.

I’ll blog about Chapter One in the next post of this series.

Read Formative Assessment (Part 2) A Case for Differentiated Instruction here

Thoughts on Flow, Classroom Noise and Strange Dichotomies

I’ve been pondering the judgements we sometimes make as to what constitutes good teaching.

Years ago, a quiet classroom was seen as an indicator of effective teaching, good classroom management and student engagement. Now increasingly a quiet classroom is seen as an indicator of poor teaching, where the students are managed by fear, are compliant, not engaged and are learning to regurgitate facts rather than be critical, analytical and creative.

The reality is of course, quite different. In my previous post I wrote about how a beautiful meditative silence spread across my class as they became immersed in an art activity. This had nothing to do with compliance and wasn’t a requirement of my lesson. It had everything to do with engagement and flow.

What Kind of Teacher are You-

The concept of flow was developed by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and refers to a state of single minded immersion in a task, where time seems to stand still, and the awareness of anything outside of that task disappears. It’s a state of being worth aspiring to, and often in discussions about modern teaching we talk about creating educational experiences that will help students to find their flow.

My personal experiences of flow have related to music and art. In my younger years I was an enthusiastic painter and aspiring artist. One of my favourite pass times was to set up a canvas and paint  in my living room. I would quickly enter a state of flow, where the only thing I was aware of was the paint and the canvas. The constant chatter in my brain would fade away, as would my awareness of everything in my environment. I would forget to eat or drink. All that existed was me, my paintbrush, palette and canvas. Hours would pass in an instant, yet it felt as if time was standing still. When I’d attempt a challenging part of my painting and find the way to achieve the effect I wanted, I’d feel flooded with an incredible sense of elation.

I don’t believe I could have experienced that state of flow if I was engaged in dialogue with others.  My state of flow either produced or grew out of intense focus,  an internal and very personal psychological state.

And so I’m somewhat perplexed by the recent tendency to assume that a quiet classroom equals a compliant but disengaged classroom, and a classroom characterised by discussion and noise equals an engaged classroom. Sometimes the moments of deepest engagement are quiet moments.

I’d like us to look a little deeper. In my own teaching practice, quiet and noise are means to an end. Quiet sometimes emerges unexpectedly as children become immersed in activities. I’ve noticed its unbidden arrival in a range of activities including coding, where my students have  immersed in creating scripts (one of my chattiest students exclaimed , “Ms Campbell I’m so interested in this, I just can’t talk!”) , in art, in some mathematical tasks requiring great concentration and in writing.  At other times I will require students to work quietly because I know that they need that time of quiet reflection and concentration to process and think about their activity.

On many occasions, noise is a far more effective means to an end. In my coding classes, which as I mentioned are sometimes characterised by a quiet state of flow, I have to urge my students to pull themselves away from the screen and to work collaboratively with others. The tasks they are attempting are challenging, and there is not always a clear path to a solution. I’m not an expert and we are learning to code together, so I require my students to check in with each other, share their discoveries, build on them and work collaboratively to solve problems. Noise, discussion and collaboration are the most effective means for us to achieve success.

The quiet versus noisy classroom   is just one example of the misleading dichotomies we buy into in modern education. But looking at education through such a polarised lens can be a little superficial and unhelpful. Perhaps we use these as evidence of effective teaching because they are easily observed, but they deny the complexity of our work. Let’s resist the modern tendency to reduce education to what can be easily measured.

Teaching Quality or Teacher Quality – Framing the debate around education.

Just think about the difference between these two terms:

Teaching Quality

Teacher Quality.

The simple change, from a verb to a noun,  brings with it a massive shift in the way we think about the education system and the work of teachers.

Teaching Quality directs our attention to what teachers DO.  A few years ago in  NSW, we adopted the Quality Teaching Framework, a model of pedagogy which we used to guide our professional development. It included evaluation tools that allowed us to reflect on our practice, identify areas that we were doing and identify those areas in which we could become more effective. It was a tool for learning, that enabled all teachers to develop their practice and improve their teaching quality. The idea of Teaching Quality brings with it the notion that teaching can be learned and can be improved.  It also brings with it the idea of investing in and building a culture of ongoing professional learning.

Teacher Quality directs our attention to who teachers ARE. There is an ongoing debate around this idea in Australia at the moment. Should only our highest achieving high school graduates be allowed to study teaching, or should everyone be given access to a teacher education course?  Does success at school predetermine Teacher Quality?  Read this article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald for a taste of the debate. The term Teacher Quality  focuses us on the TYPE of people who become teachers rather than on investing in their ongoing professional growth.

I find the use of the term Teacher Quality extremely problematic when used to frame debate around education.  Too frequently it is used in a  way that, intentionally or not, denigrates the profession. As I wrote in my post The Problem with the Teacher Quality Debate,  often it puts the entire responsibility for an education system on to the shoulders of its individual teachers and other issues, such as equity, school management, funding, provision of access to professional learning and provision of adequate time to prepare lessons can be conveniently ignored.

A cynic might even believe that conservative governments and commentators,  who are eager to reduce rather than increase public spending,  deliberately use this language to avoid responsibility for dealing with the difficult and complex nature of an education system. The  solution is appealingly easy: recruit a better, higher quality type of person into teaching,  so that we have Quality Teachers and the education system will become one of the world’s best.  When the system doesn’t work, instead of dealing with complexity, we can just blame those other teachers, the one’s who aren’t of quality.