Assessment in a Knowledge Curriculum

I have written and spoken at length about simplification. In short, I have come to believe that a knowledge curriculum simplifies everything we do as teachers. Rather than considering engagement, entertainment, or pupil interest, a knowledge curriculum relentlessly and ruthlessly prioritises kids learning stuff in the most effective way: that is, reading it, writing about it, and being quizzed on it.

In my past life, here are some ways I assessed pupil learning:

  • Painstakingly marked their books with lengthy written targets for improvement that pupils responded to
  • As above, but for essays and assessments
  • Used spurious National Curriculum levels to denote the level the child appeared to be writing at
  • Developed an assessment ladder based on vague descriptors provided by GCSE exam boards to denote how far a child was from the GCSE expectations
  • Had pupils complete multiple choice exams which, having sweated over making, I would then have to mark
  • Had pupils swap books with one another to write insightful comments such as: ‘good work. Next time, write more’
  • Asked pupils to tell their partner what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to write a mind-map of what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to make a presentation of what they know about a topic

Not only are the above techniques unnecessarily complicated, they almost never gave me any useful information about what my kids could do.

At Michaela, we ask the kids questions constantly. Every lesson begins with two to five practice drills. In English, this would consist of two or more of the following:

  • A spelling test
  • A vocabulary test
  • A grammar drill
  • A gap-fill on a poem the pupils are memorizing
  • Knowledge questions on a previous unit
  • Knowledge questions on the current unit

We then read some material, and ask the pupils questions to ensure they have understood. The pupils then answer some questions about the material. We then go over the questions as a whole class, and pupils edit their responses using the whole-class feedback. For a lengthier piece of writing, I would use a half-page of feedback as outlined in my post ‘Giving Feedback the Michaela Way.’

For our bi-annual exams, pupils write an essay or, in subjects like Science or Maths, complete an exam paper that tests their ability to apply their knowledge. They also complete two to five ‘knowledge exams,’ which are simply open answer questions about everything they have learned that year. (Example questions from English could be: ‘What is a simile? When did Queen Elizabeth die? When was Macbeth first performed and where?’) We don’t painstakingly mark every paper – instead we sort them swiftly into three piles: A, B and C. A quick glance can tell us how a pupil has done – lots of gaps is a C, a sample glance at a number of correct answers and all questions attempted with a well-worked extension an A; everything in the middle a B.

The reason we can assess so simply is that in a knowledge curriculum there is a correct answer. There are, though we love to deny it, right and wrong things to say about literature. At Michaela, we are explicit about this. When I asked for pupil inferences about Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men in my previous school, I remember asking them what the colour red could symbolise. Their answer, ‘jam,’ was simply wrong. What we do at Michaela is to codify the knowledge we want the pupils to learn, teach that knowledge, and then relentlessly test that knowledge.

Simple.

Research Ed 2015

There is surely no better way to begin the school year than immersing yourself in the genius of other educators. Compared with the last two conferences, though, this is the first I have attended every session, and not felt overly exhausted by the close – a testament, I think, to beginning the school year in a dynamic school with an exciting role, surrounded by supportive staff, but also to Tom Bennett’s astonishing capacity to gather together the best and the brightest to deliver and to dazzle.

Daisy Christodoulou: Life after levels

A long-time admirer of Christodoulou since reading her fabulous book, this session brought the theory and practice of life after levels to light. Noting that prose descriptors provide only the illusion of a shared language (after all, ‘Can compare two fractions and identify which is larger’ could apply as well to 3/7 or 5/7, 3/4 or 4/5 or 5/7 or 5/9), and ultimately ‘adverb soup’ she went on to share much wiser systems.

First, using the questions themselves, thus showing exactly what students can and cannot do, to provide clarity on exactly what they still need to master. Even better, use multiple choice questions, to probe student understanding more deeply by building in key misconceptions to the possible answers. Second, because of course we cannot get rid of essays, by ranking them instead of using spurious descriptors (as Christodoulou notes, we often get through half a class of marking and realise we want to change the first few – we are always, if only unconsciously, comparing essays for quality as we mark). This sounds tricky in practice, but I’m excited to explore ‘No more marking’, which presents essays to you to rank two at a time, before applying an algorithm to rank the lot.

Listening to Daisy Christodoulou is like listening to the future. I have often felt worryingly far behind where she is, but I am desperate to catch up.

Nick Gibb: The importance of teaching

Gibb, unsurprisingly, used his speech to provide examples of schools doing well as a result of government reforms. Along the way, he cited the BBC’s ‘Chinese School’ as a start to move towards a profession where we are focused not on our preferred teaching methods, but on those which deliver outcomes for children. He noted that ‘for some, a romantic aversion to formal teaching will forever trump the evidence,’ and I hope this is not the case. Gibb went on to also say that ‘pupil performance is not the sole aim of a school,’ explaining that although uniform might have no impact on pupil attainment, we wish to retain it for another reason.

Tim Oates: Other nations’ systems

This session focused on debunking many of the myths of other nations’ school systems. He opened with the assertion that we need to be exploring why some students are so much further ahead than our students, and closed by noting that we can’t adopt another system wholesale. Oates was scathing on a number of individual arguments, demolishing them with a mountain of evidence. On Singapore, for example, their case is often dismissed as their society is overly homogenous and their educational outcomes the result of high levels of private tutoring; yet Oates disputes both counts. He noted there was high social inequality in Singapore and large income variation, and yet their educational outcomes were outstanding (the subject of a worrying conversation later with Dani Quinn, who pointed out ‘if their educational outcomes are brilliant but there is still vast social inequality… Is our mission doomed?’). He noted that private tutoring usually exacerbates a gap between rich and poor, as the rich can afford the best tutors, and yet no such gap exists in Singapore.

Jon Brunskill: Moral psychology

Brunskill began by asking: what can moral psychology teach us about behaviour management? This fascinating session asked more questions than it answered, as we explored various moral dilemmas. He noted that children are often in the ‘pre-conventional’ stage of behaviour, where they believe the bigger the sanction the worse their act, and therefore behave well mainly to avoid such sanctions. He asked the troubling question of strict and successful behaviour systems like those at Mossborne kept students in this paradigm of behaviour, not allowing them to progress to the higher levels of behaving well because it is morally the right thing to do. He also questioned the idea that moral reasoning influenced moral action, sharing the Milgram experiment which involved participants delivering life-threatening shocks to others (luckily, actors) on the orders of men in white coats (also actors).

Towards the end, Brunskill began to unpick why some people act heroically, and explore some ways we as teachers can influence our students – I look forward to hearing more on this in the future.

Amanda Spielman: marking and remarking in exams

I’m not sure I have enough knowledge of statistics to have kept up with Spielman on marking, so I won’t try to poorly paraphrase the bulk of this fascinating talk. When looking at exam marking, Spielman praised the move to electronic marking, much despised by many examiners, for allowing unusual behaviour (overly quick marking; late night marking) to be picked up and addressed more rapidly. She also explored the issue of re-marking, noting that while 99% of grades do not change, often more marks are picked up by students, perhaps as a result of the markers’ sympathy in knowing these students are desperate to move up a grade.

Katie Ashford: The building blocks of literacy

I was so excited to hear Ashford speak, as I’m a massive fan of what she is doing at Michaela Community School with her phenomenal reading programme leading to astonishing student progress. She began by speaking about some of the low expectations we have of students noting ‘I want you to feel bad’ about saying things like ‘it’s not realistic for him’ to achieve a decent GCSE grade. After engaging the emotions, Ashford moved quickly on to the practicalities of teaching children to read, advocating robust assessments (‘a “4b” isn’t going to tell you anything about what a child does and doesn’t know’), a strong phonics programme like Ruth Miskin’s, and fluency and comprehension interventions. Finally, she went into detail about her reading plans at Michaela to have students reading 100 classic texts over their time there (or, ‘100 books kids probably wouldn’t read if they were left on their own’). She also noted the importance of reading across the curriculum, which is something I’m going to think hard about in my current role – what are children reading in every subject, in every lesson?

Sam Freedman: The five big challenges for the next government

Freedman began by asking how far we had come towards a school led system, and ended by asserting that such a system is still preferably to top-down initiatives led by government, which can provide a short-term push but in the long term do not make for sustainable system improvement. While government can devise what students learn, it is probably best for schools to have control over how students learn. The five challenges boil down to one: capacity. He then outlined challenges in resources, infrastructure, teacher supply, leadership and expertise, going over much-talked-of challenges in teacher recruitment and shrinking school budgets, and offering some suggestions for resolving these (make schools direct an easier thing to apply for; scrap fees for PGCE courses). The most important quote for me was that ‘schools are panicking and burning out teachers way too early in their careers.’ This is not a system issue, but a school issue; it is the job of leaders to shield teachers on the front-line from the stresses and strains of accountability, or we will be left with no more teachers.

I’m still digesting the genius of the day, and have added about ten books to my Amazon wishlist. The message of the day seems to me that we need to be critical and think harder, but not necessarily work harder.

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Just one book: assessment

In my last post, I outlined what I believed to be the foundational concepts that must underpin a school’s curriculum, using E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy as the one text I felt most clearly displayed what a great curriculum should be. Of course, it is almost impossible to create a curriculum without simultaneously thinking about assessment: it is all very well to teach students great stuff, but if they immediately forget it all, or show you that they’ve understood none of it by the end of your teaching, you might as well have taught marbles.

make it stick

The one book that has truly changed my view on assessment is Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. Prior to reading this book, I too believed in the value of re-reading, highlighting, and testing students’ knowledge and understanding using extended essay after extended essay, running the risk of breaking my own will to carry on teaching due to having to endlessly plough through immense paragraphs riddled with small misconceptions and tiny errors, all of which I would painstakingly correct, before trying to rationalise each error into a single “target for improvement.” Then, weeks, months, years after I’d taught students, what did they recall of what I had taught? Too, too little.

I want to make a clear distinction between feedback and assessment. I define feedback as qualitative commentary, and assessment as quantifiable, measurable snapshots showing a teacher what their students have and have not understood. Both have their place, but my feeling is we have over-emphasised the former to the detriment of both student learning and teacher well-being.

The key messages from Make it Stick seem to me to be:

  • “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.”
  • “We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not.”
  • Retrieval practice – recalling facts or concepts or events from memory – is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.”

The authors note that: “One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know.” Joe Kirby has brilliantly explained how this might work in practice over the long term for individual students here. In lessons, I would suggest, we need to not only assess what students have retained in order to know what to teach them, but also to model what this kind of self-quizzing looks like and enable them to practise prior to doing it alone.

And when should this quizzing occur? There frankly does not seem to be a bad time to quiz, according to this book. Students do better in the long-term if they have pre-quizzes (even if they get everything wrong, as “unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing of the answer when it is later supplied, creating a fertile ground for its encoding”), immediate quizzes (“in 2010 the New York Times reported on a scientific study that showed that students who read a passage of text and then took a test asking them to recall what they had read retained an astonishing 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who had not been tested”) and quizzes after partial forgetting has occurred.

The latter is of particular importance: “When retrieval practice is spaced, allowing some forgetting to occur between tests, it leads to stronger long-term retention than when it is massed.” The most helpful quizzing, they suggest, takes place long enough after learning that the quiz isn’t “mindless repetition” but not so long that “retrieval essentially involves relearning the material”.

“Quiz” does not necessarily mean multiple choice, or even teacher-directed. Brown et al give examples such as students simply writing down ten facts they didn’t know before reading a passage. Another user-friendly option is a “free recall” homework where students: “spend ten minutes at the end of each day sitting with a blank piece of paper on which to write everything they can remember from class”. This enables students to know what they have not yet learned, and so pinpoint their future revision of key facts and ideas. Even cloze exercises can be of benefit, as “the act of filling in a missing word in a text results in better learning and memory of the text.”

In practice, quizzing works best when it is:

1. Purposeful

Students understand why quizzing is beneficial – they buy into the idea of frequent quizzes when they understand the benefits it will have for their long term retention of key ideas.

2. Targeted

Quiz questions are thoughtful and targeted to the specific ideas students need to know, isolating individual facts or key pieces of information.

3. Instantly Corrected

Wrong answers are corrected immediately to ensure students do not leave your lesson carrying misconceptions.

4. Low-Stakes

The stakes are low – there is no need for any of this to stress students out. This, along with emphasising the learning benefits also tends to preclude cheating.

Taking the advice of Make it Stick, schools would do well to build frequent, low-stakes quizzes into their day-to-day teaching. High-stakes, long-answer assessments should be less frequent, partly because the feedback teachers can give on these will not be as accurate, as students will be displaying a much larger breadth of skills and knowledge. Short, frequent quizzes allow teachers to break learning down into its core components, and isolate exactly where students are weakest, and then teach to that weakness. They should also reduce the need for overly extensive feedback on long-answer questions, thus reducing teachers’ workload significantly.

My next post will explore teaching, and one book that I will suggest provides the clearest guidance.

What makes great teaching?

Before the summer, I asked on Twitter for advice on making a department handbook. The overwhelming response? Don’t. No-one will read it, it’s oppressive and not useful, it’s a bureaucratic tick-box exercise.

Much as I sympathised with such views, having new teachers join the department, and tending to spend much of my time (literally) running around the corridors of the school, I felt these teachers needed something to refer to when I (or a seasoned teacher) could not be found.

Brimming with hubris, I decided to open the handbook with “Teaching and Learning”, and proceeded to randomly write down ideas I had for what I think makes great teaching. It’s by no means an exhaustive, or even logical, list, but I’d be interested in the thoughts of others. I have pasted below exactly from the handbook, word for word.

Relationships

  • Like your students and tell them
  • Value what they say in class – ensure everyone is listening and taking note when anyone is speaking
  • Call home positively for as many students as you can. Do this early on and save yourself many negative calls later
  • Be there for your students emotionally, but remember you’re their teacher – refer on any pastoral issues promptly
  • Ask students to reflect on their learning and be honest with you about what they need more of. Be responsive to their needs

Mindset

  • Believe in the unlimited potential of all your students to succeed. Share this belief with them
  • Challenge your students to do better, even when they have “achieved” their “target” grade
  • Remind students who aren’t there that they aren’t there yet – further effort will not be in vain

Goals

  • Set clear goals for each lesson, each week, each term and unit of work. Share these goals with students

Feedback

  • Ensure written feedback is timely
  • Allow students time to ask you questions about your feedback
  • Give students time to respond and correct errors

Questioning

  • Challenge student answers – get them to develop their ideas further
  • Never accept “I don’t know” – always ask another student to help out so they can repeat the answer
  • At the same time, ensure all your students know “I don’t know” is fine to admit, as long as they show themselves ready to learn after saying this
  • Bounce questions to other students to answer
  • Practice hands down questioning regularly so all students are listening and ready
  • Aim to speak to each student at least once in each class

Pratice

  • Independent practice using key skills should be built into every lesson
  • Students should be supported by teachers during independent practice (e.g. circulating and making verbal corrections/suggestions for improvement as students write)
  • Bear in mind you might need to explicitly teach skills you take for granted – e.g. taking notes, the right place for a comma, what a verb is

Behaviour management

  • Expect 100% compliance with 100% of your instructions 100% of the time
  • Phrase instructions positively
  •  Talk about choices
  • Never allow students to “earn off” a sanction
  • Have a no excuses culture – one high standard for all
  • Have high expectations of behaviour – silence means silence; group discussion of the task means no off-task chat
  • Have clear and unchanging policies for all misdemeanours, no matter how minor, that you apply equally to all students (remember that it is not the severity of the sanction that is important but the certainty of the sanction)
  • Give specific praise – verbally and written
  • Narrate positive behaviour you wish to see in all your students
  • Avoid singling out students for chastising publicly, at least the first time you note off-task behaviour

Share and celebrate success

  • In class, verbally and frequently
  • Copy great work and share with the class
  •  Ensure students buy into learning as a desirable success to aim for
  •  Share success stories (students who have made incredible progress through hard work)

Knowledge

  • Have deep knowledge of the material you are teaching which goes beyond what students “need to know”
  • Use material throughout the curriculum to challenge students and empower them to find their place in any walk of life they choose

Discussion

  • Engage students in debate/discussion – allow them to reason through answers and ideas themselves. Challenge them to uphold their thinking. Ensure it is ok to change your mind with new evidence
  • Encourage structured and purposeful student talk

Differentiation

  • Know where your students are, using recent data, marking and assessment for learning in lessons
  • Plan the next step your students need
  • Teach to the top, support at the bottom
  • Tell your Teaching Assistant (if you have one) what they can do to most help your students

CPD

  • Be aware of your strengths and areas for development as a teacher
  • Share good practice (e.g. during department meetings)
  •  Go and see teachers who do something you’d like to do
  •  Raise development needs with your line manager so the department CPD can be appropriate

Assessment

  • Mark student books regularly (at least every 2 weeks)
  • Level or grade student work once a half term. Remember that levels/grades are not as important as developmental feedback, but these levels/grades will help you to complete Assessment Point 1, 2 and 3
  •  After assessments, spend time exploring what students need to do next time to improve

Homework

  • Set students homework which builds on their learning in class
  • Homework should be reasonable
  • Be aware that computer access is an issue for some students
  • Be aware that some students will thrive on “homework extensions”
  • Build in spelling and grammar to your homework routine
  • Set homework on the same day/s every week
  • Ensure students write homework in their planners 

Communication with parents

  •  This can form the key to excellent student progress
  • Try to ensure your first contact with parents is positive
  •  Don’t be afraid to call a meeting with a parent; ask your line manager to attend as well if there are pressing issues you need to discuss in person prior to parents’ evening

The problem with progress

I feel like I’m hearing a lot about progress recently, and not just from “Progress 8.” More and more, our dialogue about education seems infused with progress – first there was “progress within a lesson,” now, progress over time. And what’s not to like? Clearly, the children in our care should be moving on, and improving day to day, year upon year.

And once I think I would have welcomed this: our focus on the C/D borderline, driven by league tables and a desperate need to stay afloat with budgets tied to student numbers, seemed to ignore both the top and the lowest achievers.

Or did it? In the fortunate position of working in small schools, in my experience we’ve always focused on pushing every child, even the lowest achievers, over the C-threshhold that will undeniably open more doors to them. I’ve written about how in my school 95% of students walked away with a C or above in English Language – and that my biggest regret is the 5% we didn’t get, when I knew it was possible. In my previous school, that figure was 98% last year – I wish someone would write more about that! (Caroline, Lizzie… I’m looking at you!) Moreover, the top were not left to languish; in my new school’s last year 11 cohort 35% achieved A or A* grades.

My problem with progress is not concerned with the top achievers. Any measure forcing schools to also stretch those with high prior attainment seems sensible. My problem with progress is when turning an F into an E carries the same incentives as turning it into a higher benchmark.

Cognitively speaking, I can’t find evidence that any child is not capable of achieving a C in English; all I can find evidence of is that they’re not capable yet. Some students need more time; through a variety of factors, whether that be poor attendance (so often linked to other social issues) or being in the early stages of learning English, or else labeling with any of the various acronyms denoting their ‘difficulties’ with learning. All this tells me is that they need more time, more attention, more intervention. And we need higher expectations.

Too often, students coming into secondary school with low prior attainment are victims of a social system which engrains disadvantage and ensures a cycle of poverty, and of an educational system not yet advanced enough to work through those gaps in their learning. The problem with progress, for me, is the potential there is to further engrain this problem, so that we end up fulfilling the low expectations society has had for certain children from birth.

I’m not sure I can ascribe to a system where an equivalent D represents a good thing. I’m tired of people telling me “that’s a huge achievement for that student,” because it might be, but we can do better; they can do better. We need to have bigger ambitions of our own ability to transform the life chances of every single child; not just the borderline children, of all children. In the new 9 to 1 system, I need to know what represents the ticket to the future, so I can ensure all students achieve it.

We don’t have to look far to see schools which are coming close to ensuring that all their students have access to any life they could desire; King Solomon Academy in London has used high expectations and epic amounts of work to secure useful outcomes for almost every student in their care. Then, of course, there are America’s high performing Charter Schools which send every child to university.

The problem with progress is when it comes with a lack of an end game. It is the kind of word which makes it acceptable for professionals to say: “we can’t change society/the welfare system/the class system/the parents” – when in fact we can change the outcome, and overturn the whole.