Lorna Earl, Ph.D.
It has come to that time when we are all working to close out another school year successfully, and planning for the changes that will come in the new year. For me, and I hope for all of the educators who participated, the CAfLN conference and symposium provided a respite and a time for reflection on what matters for teaching and learning. It gave me a chance to eavesdrop on the conversations around the room and think about the challenges associated with staying true to the “spirit” of AfL, as described in the The Learning How to Learn (LHTL) Project in England (James et al., 2007). In its work, the LHTL team found that teachers implementing AfL in their classrooms often reflected what they called the ‘letter’ of formative assessment, focusing on the surface techniques, rather than the ‘spirit’, based on a deep understanding of the principles underlying the practices. Even in this project that focused on AfL, only about 20 per cent of the teachers in their LHTL study were using formative assessment in ways that were designed to help students develop as learners (James et al., 2007).
In a recent (2015) article for Education Canada, the Canadian Education Association magazine, colleagues and I took up this idea and tried to unravel some of the problems. The full article can be found at http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/unleashing-promise-assessment-learning. Here is an excerpt from that article:
The LHTL researchers found many teachers who were attempting to engage in AfL by adding strategies to their existing assessment repertoire without shifting the purpose towards enhanced learning. This finding echoed a finding from a Canadian study in which we used the metaphor of creating an audio recording to describe the different ways in which teachers incorporate ideas of assessment for learning into their practices. For some teachers, the process of incorporating new assessment strategies was like laying new sound tracks onto an existing track. Their original approach to teaching and assessment remained intact, but some additional material was superimposed upon it. The other end of the spectrum was like working with a sophisticated digitized recording system. This was rare in our study. These teachers had a sense of the components of the work and the mood they wanted to create, but operated using an open and changeable approach, skipping to anywhere in the work, adding little flourishes, and maneuvering all the bits to keep the whole production flowing. The teachers who used this digital approach were able not only to use a variety of techniques every day but also to move beyond them to circumnavigate what other teachers had experienced as obstacles. The third and most prevalent production style was a mixed one – some of it audiotape, some digitized – where teachers played with the digitized approach but kept coming back to the original tape. The transitions back and forth weren’t always smooth, and these teachers frequently expressed frustration and uncertainty about their practice.
As a result of common misunderstandings about how AfL works, teachers often engage in practical implementation based on limited understanding and superficial adoption of the ideas. Over and over, teachers incorporate the techniques associated with AfL, including peer and self-assessment and routine assessments throughout a course to track students’ progress. But just adding these bits is not AfL. Certainly the tools or techniques are useful, but teachers implementing the “letter” of AfL are in the early stages of understanding and embedding the concept into their practice; they still depend on rules and embed the new ideas as add-ons.
Becoming more proficient means developing a deep understanding of the underlying theory and learning to use the ideas to solve problems and make ongoing adaptations automatically. Teachers with this “spirit” of assessment for learning do not just add strategies to their existing assessment repertoire; they internalize the underlying principles, have a strong belief in the importance of promoting student autonomy, articulate a clear conviction that they are responsible for ensuring that this takes place, and take this empowering philosophy into the classroom and communicate it to students. The LHTL project demonstrated that:
although advice on specific techniques is useful in the short term, longer-term development and sustainability depends on re-evaluating beliefs about learning, reviewing the way learning activities are structured, and rethinking classroom roles and relationships..
If AfL is going to have the impact on student learning that research promises, it will be essential to move beyond the “letter” of superficial add-ons and rethink a wide range of practices. A noble and worthy challenge.