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Research School Network: Swimming against the Tide – Assessment for Learning Beryce Nixon, CEO of Exceed Learning Partnership, discusses her Trust’s approach to assessment this term.


Swimming against the Tide – Assessment for Learning

Beryce Nixon, CEO of Exceed Learning Partnership, discusses her Trust’s approach to assessment this term.

by Doncaster Research School
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Beryce Nixon, CEO Exceed Learning Partnership


The Starting Point

The starting point for this article has to be my own personal reflections during Covid-19 and the importance of understanding learning, not just in the school buildings but wider learning within our communities. Instantly, we were faced with having to deliver learning opportunities in a different way in order to meet the needs of our pupils. One size did not fit all,’ was evident from the onset of this journey. Equity became a prominent feature in all our discussions as senior leaders within a multi-academy trust of five primary academies. Fault lines were emerging in our structures in order to ensure access for all and as a Trust we had to think creatively about our approaches to serving our communities. Our schools were playing a vital role beyond learning. Their custodial and community roles were central in providing packages of support and help that our families could draw upon in this time of need.

To further the above, we reflected deeply on our learning culture. Some of our pupils had disengaged from learning really quickly and we had to question why this has happened? Some pupils were accelerating at pace with independence and some pupils were finding the learning at home very challenging. It was not clear-cut to say that the disadvantaged’ pupils disengaged. Some of them did, but some pupils made a vast amount of progress. Learning at home, galvanised some pupils and they went above and beyond to demonstrate this, which at times even surprised their teachers when compared to the learning they had previously delivered in lessons.

In order to consider all these factors, we explored the research of Michael Fullen Education Re-imagined – The Future of Learning’, which made us reflect on all aspects of learning within the Trust.

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These were our conclusions:

  • An acknowledgement that well-being was a critical pre-condition for learning
  • Technology has changed from being a vehicle for delivery/​transmission to a mechanism for collaboration, social connectedness and culture building
  • Self-regulation and learning to learn are key determinants of pupil motivation, engagement and success. Our empowering learning model is crucial in developing these foundations and should not be an add-on to lessons 
  • Pupils who found themselves with more choice and voice exceeded expectations finding ways to help themselves and to collaborate with others.
  • Collaboration among teachers, support staff and leaders emerged because the focus was clear 
  • In the absence of high stakes testing, our assessments relied on teacher and leader professional judgements 

The diagnostic process

In order to build back better and achieve our ambition for a learning-led culture that meets the needs of all our pupils, we embarked on using an evidenced-based approach to the development of assessment. On returning to wider opening, it was essential to be specific about the starting points for all our pupils, in order to close the gaps’ and to certify that our teaching & learning programmes were adapted to individual pupils. Swimming against the tide: Assessment of Learning in a primary school’by Dame Alison Peacock was used as a starting point for reflection and discussion with all staff about the approaches to implement in order to ensure a deeper knowledge of pupil learning was achieved from the onset.

As a result of this research, we explored the concept of meaningful assessment,’ and our own moral purpose,’ of wanting to get it right for the pupils, so that they were integrated within a secure context in order to support the well-being and self-esteem of our learners. Amalgamated into this approach, was high quality professional development on the use of diagnostic assessment approaches. These sessions were practically based so that teachers had the opportunity to explore the difference between summative assessment models, formative assessment approaches and diagnostic tools. The ResearchEd’ – Guide to Assessmentedited by Sarah Donarski and Tom Bennett, identified the need to explicitly train teachers on these strategies and not to make any assumptions that teachers will have all this pedagogical knowledge. This was evident from the training programmes. Teachers felt confident in applying age-related approaches however they acknowledged that they were unclear about the importance of diagnostic assessment and how this could be assimilated into teaching to gain information, at a deeper level, about how pupils were approaching learning and what their individual barriers are to progressing further. 

Through the training, The EEF Guide to approaching School Planning: A Tiered Approach 2020 – 2021 was instrumental in questioning our thinking.

EEF planning guide

These high level’ assessments can give us broad insights into individuals and groups who may need support based on national norms. However, such assessments typically won’t offer diagnostic information about pupils’ learning loss, what they need to learn or do next.’

A teacher’s job according to Dylan Wiliam (2011) is to create an environment where our students’ engagement in learning proceeds towards an intended direction. That is to say that we, as teachers, should not be focusing simply on transmitting’ knowledge or facilitating’ learning; we should also be focusing on establishing a classroom ecosystem where teaching and learning becomes fluid yet remains targeted.

In order for this to occur, we must form a bridge between the teaching of material in the classroom and how the learning of that information is being processed and manipulated by our pupils. The only way we can do this effectively, Wiliam astutely claims, is through the process of assessment.

From each of the training sessions, teachers planned approaches to diagnostic assessment within year groups, through phases, collating into whole school practice. Individual approaches were captured and shared across all academies in order to model implementation processes. The biggest factor in securing High Quality Teaching,’ was to allow teachers the time to explore the methodologies and evaluate the information about all the pupils within the class. We wanted to think differently and to optimise our time in doing what was most likely to be transformative, rather than following others in the pursuit of compliance.

Finding a way through’ for every child

As Dame Alison Peacock stated To teach and learn without limits is to place trust and empathy first, within a culture of high ambition for all.’

The findings of our assessment processes have been specific. Through feedback and discussion with teachers, they are much more knowledgeable about the information they are using to support the next steps for learning. High quality learning in lessons has been supported by the development of the environments in order to facilitate and personalise needs. Within early years, sensory, physical and communication development has been precisely planned into areas of learning and play-based provision. Additional focused teaching sessions, have been devised in order to enhance language development and support pupils to use language to communicate their thoughts, feelings and choices. 

Reading diagnostics have been used to personalise the development of skills and techniques. Teachers are explaining that they are modelling more explicitly these skills within sessions as a result of listening to pupils read and using miscue analysis to evaluate understanding of strategies being applied.

Across all the academies, pupil mathematical recall skills have been implemented as a result of diagnostics within lessons to evaluate these. This has developed a focus on automaticity so that pupils can accelerate in progress, if pathways can be rebuilt and they can begin to access this prior learning information. The EEF guide states that It will be important to differentiate between learning that has been forgotten due to extended absence from the classroom and material that hasn’t been learnt properly.

Through remote/​home learning programmes, teachers have implemented the cognitive load theory to ensure that pupils are practising learning and recalling knowledge and skills with low-stakes multiple- choice quizzes. As a result of these approaches, pupils are engaging in the platforms and receiving feedback to support their learning directly. The remote learning platform has also been used to integrate key skills identified as gaps in learning from the diagnostic processes, personalised to needs but not overly time-consuming for teachers.

Building back better!

Whilst the feedback on these assessment approaches are showing a positive impact, it is important to continue to embed this practice within high quality teaching approaches and to evaluate longer-term outcomes. It is also important to reflect on the culture that is being created, with teachers showing deeper knowledge and ownership which is driving the learning of the pupils. The initial revision of the way teaching and learning is being planned, with increased frequency, smaller chunks and precision, identifies a shift in the right direction towards a deeper learning-led culture. Teacher and pupil relationships are vital to this development. 

We argue that the solutions lie before us. We have the opportunity to creatively manage the immediate issues whilst building a bridge to a re-imagined education system. Re-imaging lays out a vision for an educational approach which draws from the best of traditional approaches, innovative practices and insights from remote learning to shape new, flexible, agile, hybrid learning models which create an ecosystem for learning in the future! 

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Michael Fullen Education Re-imagined – The Future of Learning


References

Michael Fullen (2020) Education Re-imagined – The Future of Learning – A POSITION PAPER ON A PARADIGM SHIFT FOR EDUCATION

Sarah Donarski and Tom Bennett (Jul 2020) The ResearchED Guide to Assessment – An Evidenced-Informed Guide for Teachers

Dylan Wiliam (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment

The EEF Guide (Aug 2020) to Supporting School Planning: A Tiered Approach 2020 – 2021

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