Is it the best way to improve performance?


Prof Dylan Wiliam of the Institute for Education believes that teaching teachers to use regular feedback on pupils’ performances – known as “formative assessment” – to aid learning was the best way to improve their performance. Teachers do not create learning, learners create learning, but teachers create the conditions in which students learn. Simply telling teachers what to do doesn’t really work It is impossible to prepare teachers for every situation they will face in the classroom.

 Professor Wiliam believes that a focus on formative assessment can generate as much as eight extra months of learning per year at a cost of only £2,000 per classroom. This is around 20 times as cost-effective as for instance class-size reduction says Wiliam.

The two features of what he terms effective learning power environments missing in most classrooms, both in the United States and the United Kingdom—and indeed in most other countries—are: one, that they create student engagement—what Lee Shulman calls “pedagogies of engagement” to create classrooms which are inclusive, where the level of cognitive demand is high, and where participation is obligatory—and two, that they are well regulated; they keep student learning “on track”—what he calls “pedagogies of contingency”. The crucial ideas here are that we create classrooms that engage students and that we control and manage the learning much more effectively than we’re doing at the moment. On formative assessment the idea is that we should use assessment to influence learning and that the teaching should be contingent on what students have learnt, so that while teachers are teaching they continuously collect evidence about where the students are so they can make adjustments to their teaching to better meet individual students’ learning needs. So, if you’re serious about raising student achievement, Professor Wiliam says we have to invest in teachers and classrooms, and the way to do that is in teacher professional development focused on assessment for learning. But what does this formative assessment (or assessment for learning) really mean?

 Professor Wiliam claims that if you are not doing one of these five strategies you’re not doing assessment for learning, and if you are doing assessment for learning, you’re doing one of these five things. The five key strategies are: clarifying and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success; engineering effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning; providing feedback that moves learners forward; activating students as instructional resources for each other, and activating students as owners of their own learning.

As politicians strive to improve performance often with clunking top down initiatives, too little attention seems to be paid to what teachers are actually doing in the classroom. The effects of good teaching on individual pupil performance are profound. We need to focus much more on what happens in the classroom and Professor Wiliam’s approach and evidence which is all about personalized teaching merits closer attention.

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