Creative Teacher Support

Creative, practical support and discussion for classroom teachers everywhere

A Defence of AfL

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If you play a word association game with most teachers (something akin to “Mallet’s Mallet”) and say the word “assessment”, what is the word most commonly returned? I would hazard a few answers here, but in my experience, it’s “test”. For me, this uncovers a fundamental misunderstanding of what Assessment for Learning IS and how it manifests itself in our classrooms. This blog is a response to the, as ever, excellent, blogging of David Didau @LearningSpy and his most recent piece regarding the efficacy of AfL, “Chasing our tails – is AfL all it’s cracked up to be?“. Read it, if you haven’t already, it’ll make you think about some of the furniture of the last ten years of CPD in a different way, in fact read all of David’s blogs over this weekend, they’ll fill you full of ideas right when you need them before going back to school.

In this case, I think the seductive nature of an argument against something many of us have been “told” to do for a considerable amount of time without a clear definition of what it really IS is flawed. Teachers love that, “see, I told you it was crap”, moment, it’s in their makeup. With a twitter handle like @AfLPie, I couldn’t really let this one lie.

The first thing to note is that AfL was never really AfL, it’s “Formative Assessment”. A term too steeped in the theory rather than the practice of classroom teaching that it was comfortably packaged as something more “teacher friendly” and initialism heavy for CPD needs. Once you start to unpack where formative assessment sits with summative, diagnostic and ipsative assessment, teachers are either reaching for dust laden boxes of Professional Studies notes or asking when coffee or lunch will be. Neither situation is conducive to the “rapid” improvement needed in many schools. As acknowledged by David in his blog and in the comments, the implementation of AfL at school level, after the Kings Medway project and the advent of The National Strategies, was flawed in that it provided a tickbox structure for an AfL “lesson” or series of lessons in which certain features were key and “had” to be included: objective setting, success criteria, plenary blah blah blah. Now I’m not a Strategies apologist, they did what was needed and, in many cases, made teaching satisfactory when it wasn’t and good where it wasn’t. What they didn’t or couldn’t do was make inroads in improving the already great teachers. They were doing it already.

The introduction of jargon to describe already existing pedagogical entities made many colleagues uncomfortable and challenged their own perceptions of their own practice. “What we’re doing/learning today”, became objectives or targets or aims (depending on school or training institution), “ingredients” became success criteria, add plenary and keep going until the morale of the best teachers you’ve seen is eroded beyond repair. Many of those colleagues were practising the pedagogy that Black &Wiliam used to write “Inside the black box” in the first place (it’s important to note that “black box” is itself a synthesis, a la Hattie, of a large number of other studies of what works in classrooms). Considering that teachers’ performance does not vary greatly after the first three years, the introduction of this “new” idea made many question the core of what they did every day that actually “worked”. It was packaged and presented poorly. I get why. There was a job to do. But now we’re left with an Ofsted that isn’t too worried about process and is instead concerned almost exclusively with product so we’re scrambling around for what “structure” to put on classroom teaching and so questioning AfL?

Teachers should have been empowered to identify where aspects of their practice matched that of the effective teaching observed by and studied by the Assessment Reform Group, kind of like how Kings Medway was carried out. They should then have been supported in building on those strengths to create, potentially loads of different styles in different classrooms, but with one outcome: great teaching and learning as a result of it.

Dylan Wiliam has himself pointed out recently that many schools are not “doing” AfL in the way that it was intended, instead seeing it as tracking progress and inputting assessment information into a variety of systems to see where intervention needs to take place. As an overarching theory one can see what they’re doing but it ain’t AfL or formative assessment as it was intended.

Black & Wiliam AfL Wrong TES

The best teachers, many of them, to some extent intuitively teach with a formative style. Constantly assessing performance to, as David says, “infer” where learning may be occurring and then “measure” in its crudest sense in terms of progress. All questioning is assessment, all task setting is assessment, hell, most of what we would recognise as teaching is really assessment. The long game with formative assessment (and all teaching?) is learning, as David says, it’s too tricky an entity to imagine that we can observe it and control it in a simple input/output model, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of AfL. Chris Hildrew (@chrishildrew) makes the point in his comment on David’s blog that assessment of progress in one lesson is neither necessary or desirable but that it IS a necessary skill in a teacher’s short and medium term planning in order to cater for gaps in knowledge or observable skills. This is what the best practitioners of an AfL “style” do, many of them pre-empting areas where persistent difficulty is likely to occur in the light of previous assessment feedback or information – sometimes correcting misconceptions within a lesson, sometimes over a series of lessons or a topic, using assessment opportunities to provide the learner with information about where they are in relation to where they need to be and the teacher with information about what they need to do to cater for these difficulties with acquisition of knowledge. As Chris points out, the input/output model WAS debunked by Black & Wiliam.

The pedagogical “baby” that David is searching for at the heart of AfL or formative assessment is the process of unlocking the feedback loop and the processes of understanding what “good” looks like. The power of modelling, success criteria, comment only marking etc were, in many cases, introduced to teachers through the lens of AfL. The premise at the heart of AfL isn’t that we chase progress, it’s that we see it as a longer term result of the feedback that we give through the process of assessment – an ongoing process. Some may laugh and say “that’s just good teaching” but it is also an approach outlined through AfL or Formative Assessment. It is not enough to suggest that “we’ve always tested kids” then taught them and so on ad infinitum,the process of Formative Assessment or AfL is about making misconceptions concrete and adapting what we do to perhaps introduce more “deliberate” practice – not just moving on to the next topic.

Key to this idea is the feedback loop (noun) but also the idea that feedback “loops” (verb). As we introduce new information these loops begin to overlap, almost creating a spiral effect and, where they overlap, areas of persistent error that require teachers to build this into future planning alongside new information. (I will be writing about this in more detail in the coming months and also speaking about it at Teaching & Learning Takeover in  Southampton in October) AfL, or a Formative approach to assessment allows us to collect this information and adapt future lessons rather than following module plans or lesson plans slavishly in a content driven nightmare. It was Black & Wiliam that first advocated the primacy of feedback before The Sutton Trust or Hattie, but they, themselves acknowledge that they stand on the shoulders of the studies that they based their initial work on too.

It’s seductive to imagine that what we’ve been told all this time is nonsense. It’s often more challenging to consider what you know works and how this can be salvaged within an education “industry” that is hungry for newer ideas that may provide the panacea to all our ills. AfL or Formative Assessment was here well before this in the practice of many colleagues far more experienced than me and is one of the key frameworks within which much of the more recently discussed ideas, including those from the more easily digestible tomes of neuroscience, fit.

Cards on the table, for the past five years I’ve been an AST whose specialisms are, at least on paper: English & Assessment for Learning. I have spent a lot of that time trying to undo some of the poor implementation of AfL and aiming to persuade colleagues of its worth as a way to structure the delivery of much of what they do. I just couldn’t let it lie.

I also do training, conferences, weddings, bar mitzvahs… 😉

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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.

10 thoughts on “A Defence of AfL

  1. Bravo Gordon! A masterful defence.

    In *my* defence I’d like to point out that I’ve written a whole series of blog post on what AfL actually is – maybe I ought to have referred to them in this one?

    Also, I don’t think you engage with the central tenet of my argument: you can’t really assess learning any more than you can smell the colour red or weigh happiness. We know these things exist but they’re mysterious to us.

    I think where I’ve ended up is that “AfL” has become tarred by all kinds of thoughtless brushes and has become synonymous with the kind of unthinking nonsense we’d all like to see the back of. Just because the cognoscenti have a beautiful & pure definition of what AfL *should* doesn’t help all the poor saps who are told to ‘do it this way’. My suggestion is, let’s decouple all the great bits of AfL and rebrand them as ‘good teaching’ and abandon all the crap?

    Thanks for the kind words, David

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment. I hope I didn’t question your understanding of AfL and what it IS – that was never intended – sorry if it comes across that way. Links to your posts would be great and always welcome.

      I feel that we’re close in our feeling that the rollout was poor and produced misunderstandings. I do feel that I have engaged with the idea that we can’t assess learning in the fact that the original incarnation of AfL was as Formative Assessment – it was what followed that tried to make it more easily digestible which, in turn makes it diluted and less effective.
      AfL is far more, as you say, about inferring learning from performance through varieties of assessment opportunities and planning as best we can to plug these gaps. I know you know this – partly working it through for myself. I think the misunderstanding occurs through the name as much as anything. I agree that we can’t touch or feel an abstract like learning, I do believe that skilful and well taught/led teachers can infer and predict where difficulties occur.
      I have, in the past, “de-badged” AfL when working on a whole school implementation and quickly moved towards ways of delivering effective feedback. This was quite useful in revisiting concepts previously delivered poorly through CPD but I think it isn’t the way forward for AfL as a theory.
      I think it’s important for all of us to understand the theoretical underpinnings of what we’re doing. AfL still has “legs” for this as far as I’m concerned.
      Thanks again David. Always a stimulating and provocative experience.

      • The fact that you’ve had to ‘debadge’ AfL says it all. Yes, of course we should seek to understand the theory but AfL isn’t a theory it’s a brand. I’ve written my own defence of my original attack here: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/assessment/afl-cargo-cult-teaching/

      • Brand is right! But I think you’re original baby and bath water analogy is really important.
        The lowest common denominator of school CPD could persuade people that getting rid of AfL means none of its constituent parts are useful anymore.
        I feel like this is a case of beware the consultants and “sages”. Grass roots may be the way to go.
        Thanks again David. Going to read your defence now.
        Cheers,
        Gordon

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  4. I always find the odd thing about AFL is that it tends to be introduced in the context of curriculum and pacing that is very firmly set. In my mind, assessment is about informing one’s teaching: Did this idea come through accurately? Are students fluent enough in practicing this skill to be able to successfully use it in the context of more complex lessons that will be done in the future? And if they aren’t, then something needs to be done about it.

    But so often what you need to teach is so rigidly laid out that it makes no difference. Students may not have what they need, but tomorrow’s topic is already set forth. Whatever their incoming weaknesses are, a full year of new material must be covered. There is no time to make interventions in any case. So why bother? Why do formative assessments at all? It’s a very odd convergence of practices: AFL and rigid curriculum and pacing. It is as if no one does the math. They don’t think about the number of minutes in each period and how many minutes new concepts will take and then determine how many minutes are left for intervention, if any. And if none are left, then there should be no expectation that any intervention ever be done. It should be clear that we are expecting students to sink or swim. But we want it both ways. We want to be in lock-step, teaching the same topics as our colleagues every day, but we also want to be responsive to the individual needs of students. And you really can’t have it both ways.

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