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Formatively Speaking…

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“…for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so…”
The National APP Strategy 😉

A couple of weeks ago, during an #SLTChat, I made a throwaway comment about assessment, making it formative and how I’ve tried to steer the direction we take in my current department.

I did not explain it well in 140 characters.

I thought it would be useful, given the most recent excellent posts about APP, feedback, marking and meta-cognition to share how we’ve approached this. Basically, it’s about “front loading” the periodic assessment or making the “end of module” task, a start of module task. One of the biggest issues for the diligent teacher is how to make feedback meaningful and the end of module (or half-term) task often means that targets become redundant at the start of the next topic or module. We were sick of kids being provided with targets for improvement neatly existing on “target sheets” in folders never being acted on. If we were spending our time on it then it had to be meaningful.

The process comprised three parts:
1. “Front Load” the assessment
2. Standardise and improve feedback
3. “Back model” the curriculum to focus teaching

1. “Front Load” the Assessment
In the beginning of the process, we started with the off the shelf APP tasks (some good, some VERY bad – I know!) and used them as diagnostic assessments – designed to act completely formatively at the start of each half term. Some were related to the content of the taught schemes others concentrated on the skills we wanted to see exhibited in the learning within the content of the module. This has been under review for the past year – with new “home grown” tasks created in-house replacing some of the tasks the kids, or we, hated. It’s nearly there. We are also differentiating tasks and resources for different ability groups where appropriate and possible to do so.

The process we now use is that the task is delivered in two or three lessons straight away at the start of each half term. The focus is clear and relatively narrow until the final two to three half terms where reading or writing levels are given instead of individual sub levels for individual Assessment Focuses. As an English department we have an advantage in that the content is easier for us to cover: kids, generally, have been reading and writing for some time before we see them. We have asked colleagues to be, as much as possible, crisp and swift with this from delivery to feedback within the first two weeks of the half term. Students then act on their feedback on the individual periodic assessment but also have medium to long term targets to work on whilst working on the module of work for the rest of the half term. Teachers are also encouraged to adapt and mould the existing modules or schemes to suit the then identified needs of the class.

Colleagues would admit, I think, to having struggled with the idea of no “end of term/module” task/test, instead we encourage a range of AfL strategies to gauge the progress of individuals and the class in smaller “parts” of learning – as – by this time teachers have, through the marking of the first piece a clear idea of the needs of the class – ideally, influencing planning.

We do not use the APP grids for feedback and we do not follow the individual lesson plans that come with the tasks. We have made it our own – something that we have found has made it a far more manageable process for everyone. Teachers use their markbooks to record student achievement and students receive feedback.

2. Standardise and Improve Feedback
Slide3One of the advantages of this approach was the definitive approach to what was assessed and when for every child in KS3. This meant that “little and often” moderation and standardising could happen at the start of department meetings as and when we wanted it to. The aspect that became apparent at this point was the variability in the feedback that students were being given and how teachers viewed the necessity to act on it.

Slide2At our next meeting, we simply asked colleagues to add the most common targets or “action points” that they were writing in students’ books or assessments under each attainment target: reading, writing and speaking and listening and collated what we received. This tied into a whole school initiative in which, three times a year, students would receive “action points” from each subject – initially from a common phrase bank. (it can be retrieved here: Action Points Key Stage Three) This was ours – the rationale being, that if kids recognised their action points from those in their books or assessments then it may consolidate it further into being more alive in their heads. There was also space to include the more individual targets as and when these were required.

Slide1This also allowed us to incorporate more strategies designed to involve students in their learning and particularly assessment which can be, “done to them”. Teachers were encouraged to allow students to peer assess (not mark!) always in relation to success criteria, RAG grading for example, and acting on feedback before the teacher is involved. A strategy which I, and a number of colleagues use is the numbering of targets – don’t write the same thing again and again on a number of kids work – instead number the issues shared by the class as you mark and simply write the number – then in the feedback lesson – students themselves write their target on their work before acting on it.

A handbook provided for staff on making marking manageable can be retrieved here: Managing Marking & Feedback

3. “Back model” the Curriculum to Focus Teaching
English teaching and teachers can, at their best and worst, be grouped into camps that have attempted to be tackled unsuccessfully by a number of initiatives. They have all failed: the dichotomy that exists between the skills based curriculum and content driven curriculum – or indeed – skills based teacher and content driven teacher.

We wanted our teachers and students to be able to say, when asked, what you need to be able to do to be successful in English. Now, this isn’t a reductive question, it gets to what is at the core of learning in any subject. If you ask yourself what progress or learning looks like in your subject – it’s a very difficult question to answer.

We went about attempting an answer through “back-modelling” the curriculum. I collated the KS3 assessment focuses, KS4 objectives for AQA and WJEC and KS5 objectives for English Language and Literature. The document that I’ve used in training sessions since can be found here: GCSE Assessment Objectives AQA WJEC & A Level

The task colleagues were given was to record the objectives or key learning that will enable students to progress in English. Simple? Non.

The task is great because it results in some fantastic professional conversations. New and experienced teachers bring their own baggage as to what they expect students to be “able to do” that will support them in improving – listening to them drilling down into this – every time I’ve done it now – it has been a privilege to listen to these conversations. What begins to become clear is that there is a hierarchy of skills depending on key aspects of the learning in order to make others happen. As an example, most English teachers see the primacy of, at KS3 Reading, AF5: commenting on writers’ use of language – and they’d be right. However, what becomes clear is that, without AF2: select and retrieve info and ideas and AF3: deduce, infer or interpret – AF5 cannot become what it needs to be.

Once this principle is applied to the subject curriculum vertically, colleagues can begin to see the necessity for these same founding skills at KS3, 4 and 5. What this allowed us to do was plan our focuses for assessment at KS3 so that the key aspects of the learning were always assessed in combination with only one other AF – in feedback, students were provided with a sub-level for each AF and, because of the placement of the assessment at the start of a half term – had to work on them.

Essentially, we wanted KS3 to be a far more structured experience, but only in terms of assessment and the founding skills for students to flourish in English. Teachers were given the freedom to adapt and change schemes of work but only in response to the information they had gathered about their classes through marking and feedback.

APP was a part of this process, but it doesn’t resemble anything that I have seen in the initial programmes provided to us. Things like APP are rarely “off the shelf” even if that’s what we’re told. We need to carve it up, change it, adapt it and make it work for us and our students. We’re pretty sure we’ve done that.

“…if APP be rough with you, be rough with APP…”

The National APP Strategy 😉

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Author: Gordon Baillie

I am an Advanced Skills teacher in a large comprehensive school in the North West of the UK. Trained in Scotland, I have worked in a number of different settings in my almost fifteen years of teaching. I have been working with both my own and other local schools and their teachers to both enhance and improve learning and teaching for a number of years now. I am an experienced trainer of both trainee and experienced teachers and have contributed to both local and national conferences around learning and teaching, particularly around Assessment for Learning as well as being asked to contribute to keynote addresses around other, more generic areas of teaching. I believe that teaching and particularly learning are deeply creative pursuits and that the only way to continue to enhance them and the practice of teachers is to collaborate.

2 thoughts on “Formatively Speaking…

  1. Pingback: The Lunatics are Taking Over the Asylum | Creative Teacher Support

  2. Pingback: Back to the Future | Creative Teacher Support

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