Assessment for learning….Handing back the baton.

If you are a teacher in the UK reading this chances are that you are either just crawling through the last few days of the last term of the year, ( In which case, what are you doing reading this?) or you have just started the longed for holidays.  (So really, why are you reading this?)  Those of you who are regular readers will, I hope have followed up on the link in a previous post to the Tyler Mali poem, “What do teachers make?”  You will share the pain of all teachers everywhere, well perhaps just in this country and the US, when someone who does not know what the job entails will trail the idea of long holidays and short days.  As a friend recently put it, if they like the idea so much how come they didn’t do the degree and the training and do the job for themselves?  Well to all of you I say, “Well done! You deserve the break.  Use it to recharge your batteries, rediscover family life, do a bit of your own learning and refresh yourself.”  Putting that to one side for a moment, if you do have time to reflect on what you do in your classroom can I suggest that you try to find ways of giving the responsibility for learning back to your students?

It is a management commonplace that I came across once again in Richard Sennett’s writings that you get what you test for.  In other words whatever the bench marks set for your school everyone will try to meet them, often to the detriment of education.  My challenge to you is to stick to your principles, find ways of teaching your students to learn, most of all teach them the joy of learning.  The clever bit is to do that while meeting all the curriculum requirements and addressing all the success criteria set by the government while avoiding the obvious temptation to teach to the test.  I suggest that if you teach children to pass tests they probably get good at passing tests; teach them to think and they can probably pass the test as well.

One way in which I try to do this is by being very open about the big picture, I tell my pupils what real design technology is all about, or indeed whatever subject I happen to be teaching at the time, then I tell them what we are going to have to do to pass the exam as well.  I treat the two as separate skills.  If you find yourself justifying what you teach to your pupils by trotting out the argument that if they study hard they will get good grades and if they get good grades they will get a better job and have more stuff, then take yourself into a quiet corner and give yourself a stern talking to.  Cast your mind back to when you were their age, did you really have any idea of the difference that learning could make to your future then?  Could you even imagine, as a twelve year old, what it would be like to be twenty one?  So why do you think they will get the idea?

It is now, or should be, routine for teachers to have clearly stated for their pupils what the learning objective of the lesson is, what the pupils will do that will show they have reached the objective and how this learning fits into the big picture.  I would love to think that in all teaching spaces learners were clear about theses things but more than that, enthusiastic about the learning and fully capable of knowing that they are making progress.  How many times have you heard the, “I can’t,” phrase from pupils?  For some reason it is usually associated in my experience with those abilities that are widely regarded as somehow talents, aptitudes that have been given to some but not to others.   All too often I suspect it is the result of a situation where an adult has assumed that children can all do the skill and has not actually taught them.   I hear it most often associated with drawing, somehow all children start on a more or less level playing field with many of the skills that we teach in Design Technology, or at least they perceive themselves to be at the same point.  Almost all of them are acutely aware of the ones who “can draw” and will happily point to them in the class if you ask them.  By the time we are working together they have formed the belief that they cannot do it.  I alwways share my experience which was of going through my entire education without ever being taught how to draw, my teachers expected me to draw but none of them ever took the time to show me how.  I also point out that if they could draw then there would be no point in me teaching them.

As long as I can persuade the child to attempt the work I can teach them basic techniques that will allow them to quickly see that they are making progress towards acquiring the skill.  Time to pass the baton back.  I cannot get to every student to point out the improvement in their work, nor is that the most powerful way of reaching them.  If I get other pupils to check their work and their progress, peer assessment, the benefits are enormous.  Not only for the pupil who needs the encouragement but also for the peer who is assessing the work.  You know the truth of the remark that the most potent way of learning something is to teach it.  So the most potent way we can teach our children is to let them become teachers. (If you are a UK reader at this point put on your best Meerkat voice and say, “Simples!”  If you are not in the UK just miss that bit out.)

Teaching is supposed to be about allowing pupils to make strides, sometimes it is more about allowing the teacher to feel in control.  Be honest, where do you stand on that statement?  I have just staggered through three curriculum days, we have a project where we get our year9 pupils to design and make a piece of furniture, start to finish in what is usually two days but this year was a day and a half.  We resource it, we show them a very simple construction technique which is easy but very flexible and we just stand back and help when needed.   I have to say they were amazing.   Every single pupil left school with a piece of furniture and a big smile.  As always someone stretched the project, this year the idea was to laser engrave designs on the table tops, what a winner.

Now if you really want to know I can tell you exactly what skills we were developing, just where it fits in the national curriculum and how significant it is in the overall  scheme of learning.  What I want to tell you is that it was the most satisfying experience of the year for me and the pupils who took part.  If you asked them I expect they could come up with some things they learnt but I guarantee they had fun.  Learning is supposed to be fun, the motivation to push yourself through the difficult bits comes from the experience of that moment of intense satisfaction; deferred gratification if you like.  I would be prepared to place a small bet that if you asked these pupils five years from now what they remembered about my lessons this would be the first thing. Take a risk, make them responsible for their learning just don’t expect them to complete the paper work.

One Response to “Assessment for learning….Handing back the baton.”
  1. Miriam McKinnell says:

    Really interesting – makes me question my own teaching and has really given me something to think about over the holiday.

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