Author Archives: The Wing to Heaven

The Global Education and Skills Forum 2017

Last week I spoke at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai.

I took part in a debate on the following topic: This house believes 21st century learners need their heads filled with pure facts. I spoke for the motion, together with Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for School Standards in the UK. Speaking against the motion was Andreas Schleicher, the Director of Education and Skills at PISA, who has been so influential in promoting the use of PISA’s rigorous and robust data sets when comparing education systems.  Also speaking against the motion was Gabriel Zinny, from the Argentinian National Ministry of Education and Sports. You can see a video of the debate here. For a summary of the my arguments, you can look at some of the previous things I’ve written, e.g. chapters 3 and 4 in Seven Myths about Education, or this blog post here on why the 21st century doesn’t fundamentally change everything.

The motion was not an easy one to defend given how absolute and extreme it was – in fact, in a discussion beforehand with Gabriel Zinny, we realised we actually agreed on many things! And at the start of the debate, the audience did not agree with the motion, as you can see from a vote taken at the beginning.

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But when the vote was retaken after the debate, we had managed to win a lot of people round.

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The rest of the conference was absolutely fascinating. There were a series of other debates, of which my favourite was on one whether we should teach global or national values. Julia Gillard spoke in favour of global values, and Michael Gove in favour of national. They both gave very smart, witty and thought-provoking speeches – I would recommend listening to them. I hadn’t heard of their debate partners, but they were also excellent. Lutfey Siddiqi, speaking in favour of national values, advanced an argument similar to ones I’ve read recently by David Goodhart, about how it is dangerous for global elites to become disconnected from their national communities. Emiliana Vegas spoke of the damage that teaching national values had done in her home country of Venezuela.

If I can make some kind of tenuous link between the two debates, I would say that the global concepts I think education should be most interested in are historic global inventions: in particular, the writing and number systems. We take these for granted and sometimes even forget that they are inventions. But writing and number systems are enormously profound and powerful concepts. They are the product of numerous minds from various cultures, and were developed through cross-cultural collaboration in an era long before global conferences. They are also completely abstract and counter-intuitive: it took hundreds of years of trial and error to develop them in their current format, and it is not possible for any one individual to discover or create them in their own lifetime. That, in turn, is one of the main reasons schools and universities were invented: writing and number systems will not be acquired spontaneously, and institutions are needed to safeguard and pass on this knowledge. Perhaps the conservative and ‘national’ aspect of education is that such institutions should be designed to conserve the hard-won knowledge of the past, and such institutions will almost always be organised along national lines, with respect to national cultures. The liberal and ‘global’ aspect of education is that the fundamental concepts we teach, the ones that enable everything else, belong to no nation. When we teach children to read or to count, we aren’t just giving them the tools they need to be able to participate in a conversation with mankind. We’re teaching them systems that evolved globally in an era before long-distance travel. The very existence of numbers and writing show that ideas recognise no borders, and are capable of persisting long after the civilisations and empires that gave birth to them.

The highlight of the conference was the presentation of the Global Teacher Prize on Sunday evening. I think the concept of the Global Teacher Prize is brilliant – the work that teachers do should be recognised and celebrated more often. The presentation of the award to the winner, Maggie MacDonnell, was extremely moving. You can see the ceremony here.

Shakespeare and creative education

This essay was first published in the Spring 2016 edition of Use of English.

I can remember reading Othello for the first time when I was studying A-level, and feeling slightly disappointed and cheated when I read the notes about Shakespeare’s sources for the play. What particularly offended me was how the main female character in the source version of the story, Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, was called Disdemona. Not only had Shakespeare not bothered to come up with a plot of his own, but he had made only the most token attempt to disguise the fact by changing Disdemona to Desdemona.  And Cinthio’s novella seemed, from the sections in the Arden notes at least, to be the worst kind of melodrama, full of stock heroes and villains. What would the modern equivalent of this be? Ian McEwan writing the story of Dirdre Barley, resident of Coronel Street, and her unjust imprisonment by the British state? He’d obviously be laughed out of town.

Nor was this use of sources a one-off. I was to go on to learn that most of the Roman and Greek plays borrowed from Thomas North’s translations of Plutarch, and that most of the English history plays borrowed from Raphael Holinshed’s chronicles. Still others borrowed from contemporary playwrights. To give a couple of examples of such borrowing from just one play, look at Antony and Cleopatra.  Shakespeare has Enobarbus describe Cleopatra’s procession along the river Cydnus as follows:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

(Act 2, Scene 2, 195-214)

North’s translation of Plutarch is remarkably similar.

She came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight.[1]

Other parts of the same play are borrowed from more recent sources. Antony and Cleopatra was probably written in about 1606, and is clearly influenced by Samuel Daniel’s play The Tragedy of Cleopatra,  written in 1594: ‘there are a number of details common to both plays which are not to be found in Plutarch.’[2] Daniel’s Cleopatra speaks of her determination to die in the following terms: ‘I have both hands, and will, and I can die’ and ‘For who can stay a mind resolve’d to die’.[3] Shakespeare’s Cleopatra speaks of ‘My resolution and my hands I’ll trust’ (4.15.49).

To the modern eye, this may all look a bit like cheating. However, it is interesting to consider such practices in the light of Shakespeare’s education, where such reliance on source materials was actively encouraged. Shakespeare probably attended the King’s New School in Stratford from about 1571. At this time, there were approximately 360 grammar schools in England, and we have a fairly good idea of the curriculum Shakespeare would have studied and the prevailing pedagogical style.[4] These grammar schools were based to a very large degree on the memorisation and repetition of classic Latin texts. The curriculum was deep rather than broad. New material was introduced relatively rarely, and when it was, it was studied to exhaustion. In Brian Vickers’s words:

The curriculum was not large, but the teaching was incredibly thoroughly. New facts were released sparely (new words at a rate of three a day) and after the master’s explanation the pupil would repeat it, memorize it, be asked to recite it; be tested again, repeat it, and be made to use it over and over until there was no chance of forgetting it. The amount of repetition required is frightening. School hours were from 6 am till 9, then breakfast; 9.15 till 11., then lunch; 1 till 5, then supper; 6 till 7, for pure repetition; for thirty-six weeks a year, and for four to six years. First thing in the morning pupils were tested on the facts they had been given to learn the previous day. Then some new work was introduced to be studied until lunchtime; that afternoon it would be repeated, and a little bit more added. All would be rehearsed in the evening, tested next day, and so on. Fridays and Saturdays the whole week’s work was reviewed and repeated.[5]

Pupils would memorise definitions and examples of over a hundred rhetorical figures, and be encouraged to spot them when reading literature. They were also encouraged to use such literary texts as models and templates in their own writing. Cardinal Wolsey advised grammar school teachers as follows:

You are to mark every orthography, every figure, every graceful ornament of style, every rhetorical flourish, whatever is proverbial, all passages that ought to be imitated and all that ought not.[6]

In short, Shakespeare was encouraged at school to memorise, to imitate and to repeat, and in his plays, we can see Shakespeare took this advice to heart. We have already seen how he used and manipulated his sources in a very similar way to that recommended by Wolsey. We can also see that the rhetorical figures he memorised at school formed a vital part of his craft.  In Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode traces the evolution of Shakespeare’s language across his career. His earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, may well be his ‘most learned’, full of the rhetorical techniques he would have learned at school. Marcus’s speech at the end of the play features Senecan tags, Homeric epithets, and references to the myths of Philomel and Orpheus. Shakespeare’s last tragedy, Coriolanus, employs such figures in a different manner – but it still employs them. There is imagery involving an osprey and a fish, ‘a conventional bestiary illustration’ which Kermode describes as being ‘tersely adequate’; then ‘the oxymoron “noble servant” illustrates with precision the dilemma of Coriolanus’ and finally there is synecdoche, with a casque standing in for the battlefield, and a cushion for the senate house. Coriolanus was written in the early 17th century, but Shakespeare would have learnt those figures and examples of them at school in the 1570s.[7] We can also see the direct impact of particular textbooks on Shakespeare’s plays. One of the most popular textbooks of rhetorical techniques was George Susenbrotus’s Epitome Troporum Ac Schematum, and TW Baldwin has shown how Shakespeare used very many of these stock figures in his work. For example, Susenbrotus used lead and stone to represent dullness or stupidity, and air and fire to represent speed and swiftness, and these symbols recur frequently in Shakespeare’s work. Similarly, in Susenbrotus, asyndeton is illustrated by Caesar’s famous line: I came, I saw, I conquered, and this exact line pops up again and again in Shakespeare. A line from an ode from Horace about the ‘wicked Adriatic sea’ is exemplified in Susenbrotus as an example of synecdoche, and reused in The Taming of the Shrew. There are countless examples of Shakespeare’s reuse of such stock phrases, both those from Susenbrotus and other popular rhetorical textbooks of the time.[8]

What does Shakespeare’s obvious reliance on memorisation and imitation mean for his reputation as one of humanity’s most creative minds? Have we been getting it wrong for all these years? Is he actually, to borrow a phrase from one of his contemporaries, Robert Greene, an ‘upstart crow’ whose best work is copied from others? Probably not. Far from reconsidering Shakespeare’s reputation, we need to reconsider modern notions of creativity and originality. Our modern ideas of these concepts are influenced by the Romantics, by the idea of the lone and solitary individual summoning up great thoughts in a spontaneous ecstasy. In Shakespeare’s day, Greene notwithstanding, creativity was seen as relying more on tradition, and poetry ’was a craft to be studied.’[9] Shakespeare was not the only creative genius to emerge from this milieu.

Credit for the ability of so many Renaissance writers to use the full expressive resources of language must be given to the humanist school-system and to the masters who so energetically enforced it…we can see from their later compositions, the schools exerted a lasting impression on the writers who attended them.[10]

Another famous product of a similar education wrote the phrase which best sums up this model of creativity: ‘if I have seen further, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.’[11]

Which conception is right? Is creativity best developed in the somewhat paradoxical way encouraged by the Renaissance grammar school, by engaging with tradition? Or is the more spontaneous and free-flowing method preferred by the Romantics and most modern educationalists to be preferred? Interestingly enough, there is a body of recent academic research which seeks to answer this question – and the evidence so far is all on the side of the Elizabethan grammar schools. In a range of different disciplines, researchers have shown that mastery and creativity are the result of thousands of hours of practice. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which popularised the ‘10,000 hours of practice’ theory, he charted the development of original thinkers as varied as the The Beatles and Steve Jobs, and showed that all of them depended, as Shakespeare did, on hours of often quite gruelling practice.[12] The academic research underpinning Gladwell’s book is perhaps even more interesting than this. The ‘10,000 hours’ idea derives from the work of the Swedish cognitive scientist K Anders Ericsson. Ericsson showed that what mattered was not just practice. Mere experience, or hours logged, does not help develop mastery of a discipline. Instead, what matters is what Ericsson termed ‘deliberate practice’.[13] Deliberate practice involves breaking down a skill into its constituent parts, and practising those. This is better at developing skill than simply practising the skill itself. Musicians, for instance, don’t practice by playing a piece again and again, but by playing scales and practising particularly tricky parts of the piece. Footballers don’t practise by playing full-sided games, but by doing passing drills and playing small-sided games. Practice does make perfect, but it’s a particular kind of practice. Paradoxically, it’s more useful to practise activities that don’t look like the final end goal. Cognitive science also emphasises the importance of ‘overlearning’: it isn’t enough to understand something in the moment, or to perform it successfully once or twice. Performance isn’t learning. To truly understand and master something requires repetition, often beyond the point we may think necessary.

We can see how both deliberate practice and overlearning were present in Shakespeare’s education. The analysis of rhetorical figures involved breaking down literary texts into their constituent parts and memorising those parts. And we’ve also seen that relatively little new content was introduced: pupils had to ‘overlearn’ content before they were allowed new material. The apparently oppressive repetition of grammatical and rhetorical drills may not seem on the surface to be particularly helpful for developing creativity. But actually, they were. The insight from Shakespeare’s education and modern research is that far from stifling creativity, memorisation and repetition enable it.  As Rex Gibson said,

Everything Shakespeare learned in school he used in some ways in his plays. At first, he applied his knowledge of the rules of language as he had acquired it at school. Some of his early plays seem to have a very obvious pattern and regular rhythm, almost mechanical and like clockwork. But having mastered the rules, he was able to break and transform them; to move from Titus Andronicus and The Two Gentlemen of Verona to Hamlet and The Tempest. On this evidence, Shakespeare’s education has been seen as an argument for the value of learning by rote, of constant practice, of strict rule-following. Or, to put it another way, ‘discovery favours the well-prepared mind’. Even the early plays show the same quality of writing that characterises his greatest plays. Shakespeare turned his school knowledge into striking dramatic action and vividly realised characters. His dramatic imagination was fuelled by what would now be seen as sterile exercises in memorisation and constant practice. What was mechanical became fluid, dramatic language that produced thrilling theatre.[14]

One very good example of how this process worked can be seen in Love’s Labour’s Lost. We have seen how Shakespeare borrowed from Susenbrotus the stock figure that lead was dull and slow. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Moth the schoolboy says to his master, Armado, that a horse is moving ‘as swift as lead’. Armado reprimands him: ‘Is not lead a metal heavy, dull, and slow?’ It seems obvious to Armado (and presumably to the grammar school alumni in the audience), that Moth has misunderstood this chapter in the textbook. However, Moth responds that ‘You are too swift, sir, to say so: / Is that lead slow which is fired from a gun?’ In this scene, both Shakespeare and Moth’s creativity are on display, and both reveal exactly what Gibson and the cognitive scientists would say about the development of creativity. Moth’s witty subversion can only happen if he knows what the stock meaning of ‘lead’ is, and Shakespeare’s scene also depends on his knowledge of the rhetorical figures and their role in the typical schoolroom. Far from being stifled by school, the originality and wit of both Moth and Shakespeare grows out of such ‘school knowledge’. Baldwin offers us a plausible explication of how Shakespeare’s thought processes might have worked here.

The development of this sequence in Shakespeare’s mind is significant. He begins by reversing the conventional idea of lead as the symbol for slowness. Then he jumps to its conventional antithesis, the idea of thought as the symbol of swiftness, correlated with air and fire, as lead and stones are with earth. Finally, both lead as bullets, and thought are connected as symbols of swiftness. Clearly, Shakespeare had in his mind to begin with both the hyperbole plumbo stupidior and the symbolism of lead to represent the slower elements, as mind represented the swifter elements of air and fire. So when his mind started on lead, it inevitably worked through these previously prepared grooves.[15]

Shakespearean scholars and cognitive scientists approach the development of creativity in very different ways, but they have both come to similar conclusions. If we accept the conclusions of these academics, what are the implications for modern education? It is at this point that many readers will become uneasy. It is all very well to extol the virtues of Shakespeare’s education from a distance, but suggesting they might provide a model for modern schooling is a different matter. Even Vickers, who praises the impact of the Elizabethan grammar schools, calls the amount of repetition ‘frightening’ and ‘remorseless’ and says ‘one is glad not to have been a boy at such a school – or, perhaps more, not to have been a master.’[16] This is certainly a powerful argument. It may well be that Shakespeare’s education was peculiarly suited to developing creativity – but it may also be that we are not prepared to sacrifice that much in order to develop it. Other things are more important.

Still others might argue that the world has moved on since Shakespeare’s time, and that such methods are impossible to bring back, even if we wanted to. Perhaps the best counter-argument to this comes from Dorothy L. Sayers, in an article about education which features a Shakespearean analogy.

What, then, are we to do? We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. That is a cry to which we have become accustomed. We cannot go back–or can we? Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does “go back” mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. “Cannot”– does this mean that our behavior is determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be very difficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentieth century is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if “the Middle Ages” is, in this context, simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not “go back” to it–with modifications–as we have already “gone back” with modifications, to, let us say, the idea of playing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and not in the “modernized” versions of Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatrical progress.[17]

The analogy with Shakespearean performance is an intriguing one. Just as we have ‘gone back’ to performing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and indeed often using stages and costumes as similar to his as we can find, what might it look like if we were to ‘go back’ to a more Shakespearean mode of education? Obviously, as Sayers says, there would be modifications. Just as we do not now perform Shakespeare with only male actors, so too no-one would propose excluding girls from education, or indeed reintroducing corporal punishment. Similarly, one would not want to bring back the punishingly long hours, or the exclusive focus on Latin literature.

But there are clearly some places where our departures have been in error. Another modern scientist, Herbert Simon, has reflected on the accuracy of a great deal of what might be termed ‘traditional education’, even as he suggests how we could improve on its principles. In his words,

Human beings have been learning, and have been teaching their offspring, since the dawn of our species. We have a reasonably powerful “folk medicine,” based on lecturing and reading and apprenticeship and tutoring, aided by such technology as paper and the blackboard –  a folk medicine that does not demand much knowledge about what goes on in the human head during learning and that has not changed radically since schools first emerged. To go beyond these traditional techniques, we must follow the example of medicine and build (as we have been doing for the past thirty or forty years) a theory of the information processes that underlie skilled performance and skill acquisition: that is to say, we must have a theory of the ways in which knowledge is represented internally, and the ways in which such internal representations are acquired. In fact, cognitive psychology has now progressed a long way toward such a theory, and, as we have seen, a great deal is already known that can be applied, and is beginning to be applied, to improve learning processes.[18]

Much of the powerful ‘folk medicine’ that Simon refers to has in fact been abandoned in the past fifty years as being out of date. Before we can improve learning processes in the way Simon suggests, we first of all have to reverse some of those abandonments. If we were to combine the best of a traditional Shakespearean education with what we know from modern science about how we think and learn, what might it look like? We might see a focus on memorisation and mastery, and of depth before breadth. We would perhaps see new technology used to help memorisation, not to try and replace it. More attention would be given to how drill is scheduled and organised, with modern theories about the best way to time and space repetition being used to structure the school day. We would probably also see more of a focus on a core, shared body of knowledge, but in a range of different subjects, not the exclusive focus on Latin authors that we saw in Shakespeare’s day.

The task for current educationalists is in itself a creative one, somewhat akin to that of Shakespeare’s own process of creation: to absorb and master the best practice from the past, and the latest research from the present, and to synthesise it in such a way as to create something new. Or, in the words of a Shakespearean contemporary, when we innovate, we must ‘make a stand upon the ancient way, and then look about us, and discover what is the straight and right way, and so to walk in it.’[19]

[1] Qtd in Muir, Kenneth. The Sources of Shakespeare’s plays. Routledge, 1977, p.221.

[2] Muir, p.229.

[3] Qtd in Muir, p.229.

[4] Baldwin, Thomas Whitfield. William Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke. Vol. 1. University of Illinois Press, 1944.

[5] Vickers, Brian. In Defence of Rhetoric. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989, p.257.

[6] Qtd in Mack, Peter. Elizabethan Rhetoric: theory and practice.  Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.15.

[7] Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. Macmillan, 2001, p.17-26.

[8] Baldwin, Vol. 2, pp.138-175

[9] Kermode, p.32.

[10] Vickers, p. 264.

[11] Newton I. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 574.

[12] Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Hachette UK, 2008.

[13] Ericsson K.A., Krampe R.T. and Tesch-Römer C. T’he role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.’ Psychological Review 1993; 100: 363–406; Ericsson K.A., Charness N., Hoffman R.R., et al. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[14] Gibson R. Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 46–47.

[15] Baldwin, Vol.2, p.150-1.

[16] Vickers, pp.257-8

[17] Sayers, Dorothy L., ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’ (1948). http://www.gbt.org/text/sayers.html Accessed December 1, 2015.

[18] Anderson J. R., Reder L.M. and Simon H.A. ‘Applications and misapplications of cognitive psychology to mathematics education.’ Texas Education Review, 2000; 1: 29–49.

[19] Bacon, Francis. ‘Of innovations’.  The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford University Press, 1996, p.387.

How do bad ideas about assessment lead to workload problems?

This is part 7 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

Bad ideas can cause workload problems. If you have a flawed understanding of how a system works, the temptation is to work harder to try and make the system work, rather than to look at the deeper reasons why it isn’t working.

The DfE run a regular teacher survey diary. In the survey from 2010, primary teachers recorded spending 5 hours per week on assessment. By 2013, they were spending 10 hours per week on assessment. Confusion and misperceptions around assessment are creating a lot of extra work – but there is no evidence they are providing any real benefits.

So what are the bad assessment ideas which are creating workload but not generating any improvements? Here are a few ideas.

Over reliance on prose descriptors when grading work
Like a lot of teachers, I used to really dislike marking. But when I would stop and think about it, I realised that I actually really liked reading pupils’ work. It was the process of sitting there with the mark scheme trying to work out a grade and provide feedback from the mark scheme that I disliked. And it turns out there is a good reason for that: the human mind is not good at making these kind of absolute judgements. The result is miserable teachers and not very accurate grades. There is a better way (comparative judgement).

Over reliance on prose descriptors when giving feedback
Prose descriptors are equally unhelpful for giving feedback. A lot of the guidance that comes with descriptors recommends using the language of the descriptors with pupils, or at least using ‘pupil friendly’ variations of the descriptor. The result is that teachers end up writing out whole paragraphs at the end of a pupils’ piece of work: ‘Well done: you’ve displayed an emerging knowledge of the past, but in order to improve, you need to develop your knowledge of the past.’

These kind of comments are not very useful as feedback because whilst they may be accurate, they are not helpful. How is a pupil supposed to respond to such feedback? As Dylan Wiliam says, feedback like this is like telling an unsuccessful comedian that they need to be funnier.

I like the approach being pioneered by a few schools which involves reading a class’s responses, identifying the aspects they all struggled with, and reteaching those in the next lesson. If this response is recorded on a simple proforma, that can hopefully suffice for accountability purposes too.

Mistrust of short answer questions and MCQs
Short answer questions and multiple-choice questions (MCQs) can’t assess everything, clearly. But they can do some things really well and they also have the bonus of being very very easy to mark. A good multiple choice question is not easy to write, to be fair. But once you have written it, you can use it again and again with limited effort, and you can use MCQs that have been created by others too. Unlike feedback based on prose descriptors, if you use MCQs to give feedback then pupils can actively do something helpful in response to your feedback.

How can we measure progress in lessons?

This is part 6 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

With national curriculum levels, it was possible to use the same system of measurement in exams as in individual lessons.

For example, national curriculum tests at the end of year 2 and 6 were measured using national curriculum levels. But you could also use NC levels to measure progress in individual lessons and at the end of terms. For example, you could have a task at the end of a lesson, and then you could tell pupils that in order to be a level 4a, they would need to perform in a certain way on the task; to be a 5c, they would need to reach a certain standard, and so on.

You can see the attraction of this approach: it is coherent, because you are always using and talking about the same grades. It’s also great for accountability. When Ofsted call, you can offer them ‘real-time’ assessment data based on performance from the most recent lesson.

However, in practice this system led to confusion. Pupils might be able to perform at a certain level at the end of a particular lesson. But when they came to sit their test at the end of the unit or the end of the year, they might not be at that level. As Rob Coe says here, levels started to take on very different meanings depending on how they were being used. Far from providing a coherent and unified system, levels were providing the illusion of a coherent system: everyone was talking about the same thing, but meaning something very different.

So what is the answer? I don’t think exam grades can be used to measure progress in lessons. What happens in the lesson is an ‘input’, if you like, and what happens in the exam is an ‘output’. It makes no sense to try to measure both on the same scale. Here is an analogy: we know that if you eat more, you put on weight. But we don’t measure food intake and weight output with the same scale, even though we know there is a link between them. We measure food with calories, and weight with kilograms. Similarly, we have to record what happens in lessons in a different way to what happens in the final assessment.

If you do try to measure activities in an individual lesson with the same scale as the final exam grade, then I think one of two things can happen. One is that you use activities in the classroom which are most suited for learning and for formative assessment: for example, in English you might use a spelling test. Activities like spelling tests are not very well suited for getting a grade, so the grade you get from them is very inaccurate, and causes a lot of confusion. The second option is to start to alter all of the activities you do in class so that they more closely resemble exam tasks. So you get rid of the spelling test, and get pupils to do a piece of extended writing instead.  This makes it more likely (although not certain) that the grades you get in class will be accurate. But it means that you are now hugely restricted in the types of activities you can do in class. You have effectively turned every lesson into a summative assessment.

We should record in-lesson progress in the way that is most suitable for the tasks we want to use. And lots of very useful activities are not capable of being recorded as a grade or a fraction of a grade.

What makes a good formative assessment?

This is part 5 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

In the last two blog posts – here and here –  I’ve spoken about the importance of breaking down complex skills into smaller pieces. This has huge implications for formative assessments, where the aim is to improve a pupil’s performance, not just to measure it.

Although we typically speak of ‘formative assessment’ and ‘summative assessment’, actually, the same assessment can be used for both formative and summative purposes. What matters is how the information from an assessment is used. A test can be designed to give a pupil a grade, but a teacher can use the information from individual questions on the test paper to diagnose a pupil’s weaknesses and decide what work to give them next. In this case, the teacher is taking an assessment that has been designed for summative purposes, but using it formatively.

Whilst it is possible to reuse assessments in this way, it is also true that some types of assessment are simply better suited for formative purposes than others. Because complex skills can be broken down into smaller pieces, there is great value in designing assessments which try to capture progress against these smaller units.

However, too often, a lot of formative assessments are simply mini-summative assessments – tasks that are really similar in style and substance to the final summative task, with the only difference being that they have been slightly reduced in size. So for example, if the final assessment is a full essay on the causes of the first world war, the formative assessment is one paragraph on how the assassination of Franz Ferdinand contributed to the start of the first world war. If the final summative assessment is an essay analysing the character of Bill Sikes, the formative assessment is an essay analysing Fagin. The idea is that the comments and improvements a teacher gives pupils on the formative essay will help them improve for the summative essay.

But I would argue that in order to improve at a complex task, sometimes we need to practise other types of task. Here is Dylan Wiliam commenting on this, in the context of baseball.

The coach has to design a series of activities that will move athletes from their current state to the goal state. Often coaches will take a complex activity, such as the double play in baseball, and break it down into a series of components, each of which needs to be practised until fluency is reached, and then the components are assembled together. Not only does the coach have a clear notion of quality (the well-executed double play), he also understands the anatomy of quality; he is able to see the high-quality performance as being composed of a series of elements that can be broken down into a developmental sequence for the athlete. (Embedded Formative Assessment, p.122)

Wiliam calls this series of activities ‘a model of progression’. When you break a complex activity down into a series of components, what you end up with often doesn’t look like the final activity. When you break down the skill of writing an essay into its constituent parts, what you end up with doesn’t look like an essay. I wrote about this about five years ago, where I set out what I felt were some of the series of activities that could help pupils become a good writer.

Once we’ve established a model of progression in a subject, then we can think about how to measure progress – and measuring progress is what the next post will be about.

How can we close the knowing-doing gap?

This is part 4 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

One frequent criticism of memorisation is that it doesn’t lead to understanding. For example, a pupil can memorise a rule of grammar, or a definition of a word, but still have no idea how to use the rule or the word in practice. This is a real problem. I would say almost every pupil I have ever taught knew that a sentence began with a capital letter. They ‘knew’ this in the sense that if I asked them ‘what does a sentence begin with?’ they would instantly respond ‘a capital letter’. Yet many, many fewer of them would reliably begin every sentence they started with a capital letter. This is a classic example of a knowing-doing gap, where a pupil knows something, but doesn’t do it.

Frequently, I see people using examples like this one to prove that explicit instruction and teaching knowledge do not work, and to argue that we should use more authentic and real-world teaching practices instead. For example, if we just ask pupils to read lots of well-written books and articles, and do lots of writing, they will implicitly understand that sentences begin with a capital letter, and use capital letters in the same way in their own work too. Unfortunately, this kind of unstructured, discovery approach overloads working memory. If only it were possible to pick up the rules of the apostrophe simply by reading a lot of books – the world would be a lovelier place, but it wouldn’t be the world.

So what is the answer? The approach with the best record of closing the knowing-doing gap is direct instruction. I will discuss one specific direct instruction programme here, Expressive Writing, as it is the one I know best. Expressive Writing aims to teach the basic rules of writing. Whilst it does introduce some rules and definitions, this is a small part of the programme. The bulk of the programme is made up of pupils doing a lot of writing, but the writing they do is very structured and carefully sequenced.  The programme begins with the absolute basics: pupils are given a list of verbs in the present tense, and have to convert them to the past tense. Then they are given sentences that use those same verbs in the present tense, and they have to cross out the words and replace them with the past tense verb. Then pupils are given sentences with a blank which they have to fill in with either a past or present tense verb. As the programme continues, pupils are expected to do bigger and longer pieces of writing. Each activity is carefully sequenced so that pupils are never expected to learn too many new things at once, or take on board too many new ideas, and there is frequent repetition so that important rules are not just things that pupils ‘know’ – they are things that become habits.

To sum up, there is such a thing as the knowing-doing gap. Pupils can memorise a definition and not know what a word means, and they can memorise a rule and not know how to apply it. But this does not mean either that memorisation is redundant, or that discovery learning is better at producing true understanding. The way to close the knowing-doing gap is through memorisation and practice, but through memorisation and practice of the right things, broken down in the right ways. Expressive Writing offers one way of doing this for writing, and I think Isabel Beck’s work does something similar for vocabulary. In the next post, we’ll look at how this approach can be applied to the creation of formative and summative assessments.

Is all practice good?

This is part 3 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

I can remember having a conversation with a friend a few years ago about the value of memorisation and practice. I said how important it was for pupils to remember things and to practice using them. She disagreed: she was sick to death of reading cookie-cutter, spoon-fed coursework essays that all sounded exactly the same, and all sounded as though they had regurgitated the words she had said in class in the lesson. For her, practice and memorisation were killing the life of her subject.

I completely recognised the truth of what she was saying. I had marked my fair share of coursework essays and felt exactly the same thing. So, why, if I am agreeing that this kind of practice is so damaging, am I still defending practice and memorisation?

For me, it is all about what we ask pupils to remember and to practise. If we ask pupils to write down their teacher’s thoughts on the opening of Great Expectations, memorise what they have written, and reproduce it in the exam, then we are not helping them to understand Great Expectations or come up with their own views on it.

But what if we ask pupils to remember the meanings of Tier Two vocab words? What if we ask them to memorise key quotations from Great Expectations? What if we ask them to practise and practise using the apostrophe? Is that just as damaging? I would argue that on the contrary, this kind of practice is really useful.

Something similar is true of maths. If a teacher asked a pupil to memorise the answers to problems like 372 * 487 and 657 * 432, it would seem very odd. But if you ask pupils to memorise the times tables, that’s much more understandable.

Why? Why is some content worth memorising, and why is some content not worth memorising?

Dan Willingham puts forward some really useful guidelines here. For him, there are three types of content particularly worth remembering and practising.

  • The core skills and knowledge that will be used again and again.
  • The type of knowledge that students need to know well in the short term to enable long-term retention of key concepts. In this case, short-term overlearning is merited.
  • The type of knowledge we believe is important enough that students should remember it later in life.

I would add one thing to the first bullet point. The type of core skills and knowledge that will be used again and again are often the fundamental building blocks of a subject. They are things that have been broken down and decontextualized, like times tables or the sounds that different letters make. Memorising these can seem inauthentic. It feels more meaningful to plunge straight in to real maths problems or real books. But the building blocks give you flexibility. If a pupil memorises a model essay on Great Expectations, that has no usefulness unless they are asked that one question. If they memorise 700 Tier Two words, those words have use in understanding Great Expectations, and in thousands of other contexts too.

One criticism of memorisation is that it drives out meaning. The next blog post will look at how we can make sure the things our pupils remember do have meaning.