Making assessment work (for us, in our context): Part 1

Since moving school and role in September 2018, assessment has been a significant part of my role, and contribution to our whole school Curriculum, Teaching, Learning and Assessment strategy.

In a time when schools across the country are undergoing significant changes I think it is important for us to reconsider the purpose and effectiveness of assessment in our schools.

What do we mean by assessment?

I think Mary Myatt sums this up really well in her book:

If the purpose of robust curriculum planning is to ensure that pupils are taught the demanding aspects of a topic, then checking whether they have got it needs to be done through assessment. …  Whatever information is gathered and whatever feedback is given to pupils, the important thing is that they act on it.

The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence, Mary Myatt

(If you haven’t already read Mary’s work in this area, I’d strongly recommend it!)

The vast majority of assessment we do in schools must be about providing information on the learning that has taken place, the gaps that exist and the next steps in order to fill those gaps. This, as described by Mary, is what we see is formative assessment. This has to lead to the next stages in learning. Summative assessment then is when we are assessing (hopefully celebrating) the learning that a student has completed at a point in time. We talk about completing summative assessments all of the time but in reality, the only truly summative assessments are external examinations which result in a grade being obtained by students. Even when we are completing summative assessments in class, we tend to use them in a formative manner afterwards, altering the next stages of teaching. At our school, the key difference between summative and formative assessment is that the summative assessment leads to a parental report.

Daisy Christodoulou describes the differences between formative and summative assessment really well. She talks about the assessment of learning (summative) measuring the final outcome, but the assessment for learning (formative) measuring the skills that build towards the final outcome.

I’ve also seen it described as the difference between a driving test and driving lessons. In each driving lesson, the instructor is assessing (formatively) the skills that a learner driver will need to master in order to pass their test. The instructor will then provide feedback, hints, tips and perhaps re-teach and re-model the skill. This might happen several times until the learner has perfected that skill. In the driving test (summative) the examiner will observe the learner’s skills and ultimately issue a pass or fail decision. The examiner’s role is not to provide feedback, solely assess the learning that has taken place.

Our principles

When reviewing our assessment processes over the course of this year, we have gone back to the basics first, agreeing our principles of assessment. I think they speak for themselves, and act as a reference point in everything we do; if we implement a system that does not meet these criteria, then we’ve made a mistake somewhere.

  • Manageable: The demands they make do not overburden the staff or students in compiling them or the parents in interpreting them.
  • Understandable: The meanings of the levels/grades, marks or comments are clear to staff, students, parents and others.
  • Informative: The progress made by the students and the developments that need to take place are clearly shown to staff, students, parents and others, in line with the statutory requirements.
  • Accurate: The data that is entered by staff should be accurate, as opposed to under or over cautious, allowing data to be meaningful and useful for all.

I’m going to use part 2 and part 3 of this series of blogposts to write more specifically about our approaches to formative and summative assessment respectively, and the rest of this post to introduce the flavour of our assessment, reporting and recording processes. The title of this post is deliberately Making assessment work (for us, in our context): Part 1, and I think the most important part is the (for us, in our context). It is what we’re doing, at this moment in time, on our journey to meeting our principles 100%; it might work in your setting, it might not, but hopefully at the very least it prompts conversation.

Our approach to assessment, recording and reporting

  • We have standardised our approach to formative assessment at KS3 (more to follow in part 2 of this series) with following visits to Tudor Grange School in Solihull before my arrival.
  • Department feedback policies focus on providing valuable feedback to students in a way that suits them. For some, this has been regular low-stakes quizzing, for others weekly exam questions. Whatever the strategy, it has to work in the subject area and for their students.
  • We’ve scaled right back to only 3 data collection points per year, entering only attitude to learning and a teacher or summative assessment. In fact, the first collection point at KS3 only records attitude to learning because we feel that setting good working habits is the primary focus at the start of the year.
  • From September 2019, we’re removing the need for subject written reports across the school. In our view completing them involved high effort for relatively low impact. We’re replacing them next year with a much shorter (one paragraph) annual tutor comment following the second data collection point, where the tutor will summarise the data and the student’s pastoral achievements.
  • We’re using the time saved from writing written reports and adding an additional parents evening for Year 11 and Year 13 (combined on the same night) to provide further subject specific advice for our students, along with stands focussing on revision strategies, wellbeing and career aspiration. (We’ll save that for another blogpost!).

Look out for the next two blog posts in this series, coming soon:

  • Making assessment work (for us, in our context): Part 2, focusing on formative assessment.
  • Making assessment work (for us, in our context): Part 3, focusing on summative assessment.

My thoughts on applying Rosenshine’s Principles to Computer Science

The May holiday is coming to an end, and while school holidays always provide the opportunity for rest and relaxation, they also provide teachers and school leaders the opportunity for ample reflection about our practice.

If you have spent any time on Twitter recently you would have no doubt seen the many edu-twitter comments about Tom Sherrington‘s latest work ‘Rosenshine’s Principles in Action‘. For some time, I have believed in Barka Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, the simplicity, clarity and pratical nature make sense to. The paragraph of Tom’s writing that struck with me the most after reading this book brings us back to the most important aspect of teacher practice in applying well researched and thought out principles to the subject-specific domains that they will be evidenced in.

“We already suffer enough genericism in education and it would be a mistake to seek to impose a ‘Principles of Instruction’ formula of some kind into areas that it does not belong. For each subject domain, teachers should consider how the four strands apply… the way these things take form varies significantly from physics to Spanish to history to art to drama to maths and to science. Let’s celebrate that variety and not seek to confine it.”

Tom Sherrington

In my view, Sherrington has hit the nail on the head here. Schools should agree a set of generic principles for teaching practice, and I think Rosehshine, along with other research such as Making Every Lesson Count are the right places to start. After this, department teams should be given every opportunity to apply these principles to their subject specific domains. As a Computer Scientist, here is my take on applying Rosenshine’s principles to the subject that I love. I’m not going to claim this is the only way to do it, or indeed the best – just things that have worked for me, in my classroom.

Sequencing concepts and modelling (Principles 2, 4 and 8)

I think there is a piece of work for departments to do here. In my view there are four strands that are essential to success in Computer Science (problem solving, understanding algorithms, data representation and computer systems) and therefore the building blocks of these have to be structured in the correct order. Breaking these down into the skills and concepts that allow students to access the most complex tasks can then allow teachers to build on these over time. It is essential that teams take their time to do this together, so that there is a shared understanding of the order of teaching.

Take the example of selection in algorithms. Ultimately, we want pupils to be able to understand, read and write blocks of selection in a textual programming language. Rather than going straight into writing an if statement in Python, I build towards this. Start with the principle of selection in the real world; if it is raining, stay inside, if it is not raining, go outside. It may not take long to explain these models to students, but this can then be taken into other forms. From here an IF statement be created in Excel, in Scratch or in software such as Flowol, before we move to the complexity of a text based language. Presenting the complex ideas in small stages, and using different models over time allows students to build towards complex knowledge that is necessary for their success. Throughout all of this it is important that the challenge for students is high and scaffolding is put in place to support students. Identify the highest attaining student in your class and set the challenging objective there, scaffolding other learners to achieve this.

Questioning (Principles 3 and 6)

One of the biggest benefits of teaching Computer Science is often the fact that you will be in a room with a range of resources at your finger tips. Self marking online resources such as Microsoft or Google Forms, Quizziz or Kahoot can be used regularly to build in low stakes testing to check student understanding. However, I would urge teachers to focus not only on the tools for questioning, but the questions themselves! The work of Computing at School (and others) to develop Project Quantum is fantastic and is often one of my go to resources. Project Quantum is a collection of well over 75 multiple choice quizzes that test student understanding.

Sherrington uses the questions have you understood vs what have you understood in his book and I think this is a crucial thinking point. The questions can often tell us what they have answered, but there is a chance that students have simply guessed, particularly where multiple choice is involved. One of my favourite activities, particularly at KS4 and KS5 is to ask students a series of MCQs and give them a score at the end without telling them which questions they answered correctly. Then I ask students to work in pairs or small groups to agree a final set of answers, with justification for these answers. This works particularly well with A Level groups. Only once groups have agreed final answers do we review as a class and address misunderstandings

Reviewing material (Principles 1 and 10)

Retrieval practice is a massive buzzword at the moment in the education world. The tools and strategies for completing retrieval practice can be transferred relatively easily between subjects in my view, but the work for departments here is the decisions around what topics must be featured in retrieval practice.

This goes back to one of my first points about the need for teams to identify the most important strands for student success. Once this is done, it is these topics that must be revisited regularly. My lessons always feature one of the following four starters:

  1. True/false statements that students have to answer (with reasoning). I find these great for the theoretical aspects of Computer Science – especially networking, computer systems and the wider impacts of computers.
  2. Display an algorithm in pseudocode or actual code and ask students to describe what it will do and the the techniques that are used.
  3. Multiple choice questions to check student understanding on previous content.
  4. Display keywords and a topic name. Students have to write down everything they know about the topic, making sure that they use the keywords.

For all of these starters, it is important that they are as low-stakes as possible. I rarely expect students to write these in their books. My experience is that students fear recording answers to retrieval practice, particularly if it has not been revisited recently so that their confidence is low. Using retrieval practice regularly, and low stakes has helped me to increase confidence in student understanding. The other important element is that retrieval practice, in my opinion, should regularly focus the important strands for success.

Stages of practice (Principles 5, 7 and 9)

In my experience of teaching, working with NQTs and trainees, practice is often one of the areas of Rosenshine’s principles that are missed the most in Computer Science. Delivering content and checking understanding are areas that teachers are in control of, but when you release students to complete tasks, the nature of the subject means that students can quickly end up in different directions.

One of the subject-specific areas where I believe this is most important is algorithms and practical programming, particularly when the teacher is not a programmer themselves! Over time, I have built up a bank of program scenarios, taken from places including exam questions and programming tasks. I use these regularly when teaching these topics as a starting point for asking students to write algorithms (pseudo-code or flowcharts!) and getting them written into coded solutions. When you have taught a particular skill, giving students the opportunity to apply this skill to a range of tasks really tests and pushes their understanding. This is important, but where it most often goes wrong in Computer Science is when the students go wrong! Identifying and helping up to 30 students fix individual errors, when there are multiple ways of achieving the same outcome is hard, and so I am a massive advocate of Rosenshine’s 5 principle – ‘guide student practice’. Practice in Computer Science should be built from lots of small, easy to build-upon programming scenarios that build confidence. The first should be modelled and explained, with potential misconceptions identified so that when students are released they can achieve high success. Supporting this with high quality getting unstuck resources and well practiced routines of questions that will help students solve their own errors is essential. Whenever a student asks for help on a programming task, they must first be able to answer the following three questions:

  1. What am I trying to achieve?
  2. What is the program currently achieving?
  3. Have you checked previous programs to see if you’ve used the same skill?

If students can’t learn to get themselves unstuck, or the practice tasks are too hard, then they will not feel successful in their learning and the practice won’t lead to sustained improvements. Students all have printed copies of the quick reference guide below in their folders, and we display students code on the wall focused on the desired output, not the technique being used (eg. validating user input as opposed to creating a while loop to check within a range).

Final thoughts…

I started by saying Rosenshine’s principles have always seemed relatively clear to me, and Sherrington’s work has reinforced these messages and added some classroom specific activities to put them into action, but I firmly believe that the primary focus for departments to think about, before they apply Rosenshine, or any other teaching strategies, is the question what am I teaching, and why? Until this can be answered, Rosenshine’s principles cannot be effectively applied. Only by identifying the precise content that is being taught, can we begin to effectively improve the explanation, modelling, deliberate practice, questioning and feedback that helps students improve.

I would urge departments to think about the following questions:

  • What is the most challenging knowledge that must be understood, and skills that must be mastered?
  • What are the blocks that allow these knowledge and skills to be learned?
  • What order allows the blocks to be sequenced in the best way for students to link these blocks together and build on them over time (for your students, your teachers and your context)?

Once that is clear, I believe Rosenshine’s principles just help to deliver that content in a way that is clear and coherent.

#EducatingNorthants – the start of something special

Firstly, I should apologise for the delay in publishing this blogpost. #EducatingNorthants and 30th March seems like a long time ago now, but the business of the last week of the spring term, followed by the Easter holidays has interrupted my intentions to write this for some time.

If you have read any of the blogs about #EducatingNorthants already, you’ll have read about the challenges and contexts of working in Northamptonsire schools, where staff retention and recruitment is challenging, where there is a need to further improve outcomes and opportunities for young people with fewer resources, where there is a need to open young people’s minds to the world beyond our borders and a changing labour market. It would be easy to look at these challenges, and the national media’s reporting of education and come to the decision that teaching in or working in our schools is not worth it, but #EducatingNorthants didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like a day of doom and gloom; in fact the complete opposite.

BBC News Education Homepage – 22nd April 2019

#EducatingNorthants was a meeting of minds; of teachers; of senior leaders and of colleagues from outside schools who want to improve the educational outcomes and opportunities for young people across our schools. I left the conference on Saturday 30th March feeling inspired about the potential we have in our county, optimistic about the opportunities and actions that would become the outcomes of the day, and most importantly, full of belief and reassurance that the work we are doing in our schools is going to have a positive impact for the young people in our care. I’ve tried to collate my thoughts into two sections below; my takeaways for teaching, learning and assessment and my takeaways for leadership. I’ll come back to some of this in future blogs to talk about the direction we’re travelling in our school and context.

Teaching, learning and assessment takeaways

  • We need to spend more time as curriculum teams thinking about what exactly we are assessing; the practice for assessment or the actual practice of assessment. Daisy Christodoulou‘s example of a football game is a brilliant analogy – during training you wouldn’t regularly practice a full 90 minute game (practice of), but rather breaking the discrete skills down and practicing the elements that are needed for success, set pieces for example (practice of). I had a brilliant conversation with a teacher during the last week of term about this. The teacher was finding that their Y11 class were struggling with answering extended questions so was setting one every week as homework but they weren’t getting any better. Practicing the actual assessment wasn’t actually helping. What the teacher needed to do was identify the elements that were not working and practice those instead.
  • Daisy used a brilliant analogy for data and assessment that hit home and has already become a true measure of our assessment structures moving forward. We want our assessment system to be the thermostat, with the information gained being used to take action, rather than just being the thermometer which would tell us information but not make any changes next. If we are not doing anything with the information gleaned from assessment, then let’s stop measuring it.
  • I love a good MCQ to test understanding of students but Daisy reminded us of something so simple but oh so important. Our MCQ and the possible answers we provide students must provide us with a real test of student understanding. The example of good distracting answers below was such a powerful reminder when judging the efficiency of assessment.
  • Carry less, do more was a theme when it came to James Pembroke‘s session about data collection and turning this into meaningful and useful information. We have already started reducing the amount of data we collect but Jame’s thoughts particularly about our desires to turn raw data into something else have resonated with us and are forming part of the thinking for the next stage of our refinements. We have to make sure that we only collect, use and report information that is accurate and therefore trying to shoe-horn it into something that is not is useless!

Leadership takeaways

  • One of the presenters used a phrase (not necessarily their own!) that I wrote down as it really resonated with me: “we don’t do that here as it has no impact on learning of students”. I think we are on a winning journey in our school and we have already removed lots of things that have no impact on student learning or outcomes, but I think there is a real opportunity for leaders in our school, and others, to be brave in removing things that have no positive impact and only introducing things that have been fully considered from all perspectives.
  • My final takeaway from the brilliant #EducatingNorthants was about optimism and ambition. Working in education is tough at times, but it remains the careers that gets me up every morning and gives me opportunities that I never imagined. Teaching allows me to meet incredible colleagues who are committed to supporting young people and it allows me to interact with young people who are full of belief and enthusiasm about the world they are about to enter. With all of the challenges around us, it would be easy for leaders and teachers to bring a sense of gloom and doom across young people, schools and their staff. #EducatingNorthants has reminded me of lots and made me think, but most importantly it has reminded me that as teachers, but leaders in particular, one of our primary roles is instilling a sense of belief in our colleagues and students. Regardless of what is going on around us, schools in Northamptonshire, our school included (I am slightly biased) are doing brilliant things and making a real differences to the life chances and success of young people. We must remember that every day, remind colleagues of this and praise the students in our care who have got great futures.

I am incredibly proud to work in education, and in Northamptonshire, not least because if the buzz and enthusiasm of #EducatingNorthants is anything to go by, the future landscape of schools in our county is going to be incredible. I’m excited.

My blogging journey resumes

I had a blog that I used relatively frequently four or five years ago. I used it for a very different purpose, to share my reflections as a Computer Scientist and a Head of Faculty. A number of things have led me to resume my blogging journey over the last few months and so here it is – my reflections as a Learner, a Teacher and a Leader. My intention in writing these blogs is purely to give me an opportunity to reflect and share my views on events, discussions and topics that matter to me in my role as Assistant Principal at a great school in Northamptonshire.

I spent some time over the Easter holidays thinking about the words Learner Teacher Leader and the order they should appear in. For me, Learner comes first and foremost out of that trio, and must continue to do so for my entire career as if we can’t continue to refine, improve and get better for our students we are not doing them justice.

Thanks for joining me on my (resuming) blogging journey!