The first draft of this post was written yesterday morning while my class was sitting a test. How ironic it is that the only time I’ve had all term to write is when my students are sitting assessment – particularly as the topic I want to explore is assessment.
Just at the moment, the issue of assessment and what constitutes good assessment seems ubiquitous to me. It dominates my twitter feed among the educationalists I follow, it’s the root cause of a considerable amount of activity and angst in my school, and most importantly, I attended a day long session with Dylan Wiliam not long ago where he (quite brilliantly) demystified his concept of ‘formative assessment’.
Which brings me to the inspiration for this post. I’ve been aware of Wiliam’s work for a few years now and I have come to trust his judgement on what does and doesn’t constitute valid research in education. That he comes from a long apprenticeship in the classroom as a teacher in the first place carries great weight with me. What really impresses me though, is that he clearly scrutinizes the research findings he looks at. If you are like me, you regularly come across correspondents who use or publicize research that usually supports their (presumably preconceived) views. In such situations I wonder if they ever read past the abstract and a few graphs before claiming here is proof of whatever it is they’ve been saying for years. By contrast, I have confidence that when DW refers to some new data driven finding he has first pulled the research apart and established it’s validity.
Basically, I appreciate that he does what I can’t. I haven’t the time or the skill to collect the entire body of research on anything in education and, in truth, I’m not going to do so here. When I write, all I can do is piece together what I think I’ve learned from my professional experience and match it against the opinions of experts I trust (such as Wiliam).
So it’s nice to see that when I finally meet the man, his finer points on Formative Assessment are compatible with what I wanted to write anyway.
I think, for the sake of clarity, I’ll hold off on my review of Formative Assessment seminar until my next post. For now, I’ll give you my unashamed spin on the topic so that it’s out of the way.
I’ve come to look on the concept of assessment as an extraordinarily pervasive and subtle riddle. Everyone (and I mean everyone) thinks they know what assessment is and how it is applied in schools because everyone has been subjected to it in their own schooling. And yet, while experience is the greatest teacher, I suspect our collective experience of assessment has led us all to the wrong perception of it.
It’s like a lesser known work by Pablo Picasso on loan from one gallery to another and accidently hung on the wall sideways. Before the error is realised people come to see it, they engage with, analyse and appreciate it. It ‘works’ for the first time audience and (while it isn’t in fact ‘working’ the way originally intended) the question soon becomes ‘should the problem be fixed or keep it as is since people seem to like it?’
I think we all look at assessment sideways. It’s complexity, it’s significance, it’s greatness. Sideways.
I’ve come to believe that, at it’s best, assessment gives clarity and structure to the effectiveness of a students’ efforts to learn. Beyond that assessment should inform us on what, if anything, should happen next. It should propel learning onward and foster creativity. Above all else, it should be affirming for everyone who is putting in an effort (ahh! there’s that word again).
That’s far from the working reality however, there’s too much riding on the outcome of assessment for too many stakeholders for my preferred definition to be accurate. Assessment is synonymous with standardisation, productivity, efficiency, and above all else – status.
I should point out that I don’t really mind any of this. I’m critical only up to a point since assessment as it is manifest in schools works for the vast majority of situations. It’s just that it’s conventional application all too frequently leads to conformity and/or anxiety which is generally unhelpful.
That’ll do it for the moment. While I’m not sure what Dylan Wiliam would think of my take on the topic I’m quite sure of what I think of his. That’s coming up next time.