Imagine if I were your boss…
Oh ELT! What are you? Are you a branch of applied linguistics or are you a branch of pedagogy? Are you both? If so, which one of your parents do you most resemble? Or are you a foundling – left lying among the cabbages and discovered by a well-meaning old couple who have tried to rear you despite being hopelessly out of touch with whatever it is that you are? Sadly, as far as I can see, whatever it is that you should be, it is not what you are.
Where’s the angst coming from? Well, we live in existential times. And in those existential times what causes me a lot of angst is the frustrating tendency of my team to show the scantest of regard for some essential principles of education. This week it is the principle of formative assessment that is proving to be the bane of my life.
By formative assessment I mean, like pretty much most other people who use the term, the type of assessment that allows a teacher to get some idea about what their charges can and can’t do and that then allows them to feed these perceptions back to said charges. So, when pacing the classroom like an awkward lion at a school disco, there is more purpose to it than just showing the observer that you are aware of the concept of monitoring. [YIKES! I’ve just had a memory of being told by a colleague some years ago that the teacher should never sit down in the classroom.]
The idea of stalking the herd is that you are able to observe what is going on and decide the extent to which the students have got it. And if they haven’t got it, you can begin to form some hypotheses about why that may be the case. This then opens the possibility for all sorts of useful conversations you can have with your students. We call this teaching.
I wasn’t this abrasive when I led a development session about formative assessment (or sweet FA as I called it). What struck me about one of the sessions was the attitude and behaviour of some teachers.
“So, first of all, just talk to each other about what you understand by the term formative assessment,” says I.
“Formative assessment is the type of assessment that we do in every lesson to determine what the student does or doesn’t know and that we then employ to shape the content of our lesson with a view to addressing any cognitive lacunae that become evident from our evaluative observations,” say they [with some paraphrase, it must be admitted.]
“Shit!,” think I, “now what are we going to talk about?”
Luckily, while the teachers knew what a dictionary might say about formative assessment, it soon became clear that their knowledge was way out of sync with their practice. And before long, they were putting forward bold claims that formative assessment was anyone’s responsibility but their own, that it should take place on a sporadic basis and that it was best done by giving percentages out to students.
If you are a teacher reading this, formative assessment is your responsibility (it’s really the reason you get paid), it needs to happen on a daily basis and don’t give out any percentages. Nor should you give out pointless bits of formative assessment like, “Good!” Well done!” or equally vapid bits of fluff like, “Great writing! You need to improve your grammar though.” Similarly, don’t think you can cheat your students by only giving them substantial(ish) feedback on their writing. They have a right to get purposeful and meaningful feedback on their listening, their reading and their speaking too. That’s why they pay the money to your boss. That same money that’s paying (at least in part) for his yacht and your mortgage.
But Secret! Why do we have to talk about formative assessment for listening? Why can’t we talk about formative assessment for writing? It’s easier. I am only paraphrasing a small amount. The teacher who asked this has considerable experience. I gritted my teeth (to prevent slippages) and kept my musings to myself: How did it ever become acceptable to defend one’s utter ineptitude in public? Look, if you don’t know how to formatively assess listening, go and read some fudging books. Jiminy Cricket!
The session dragged on. It was brightened up when I produced a learning objective from our syllabus. “Here you go,” I offered, “this is the objective that you have decided to focus in on for today’s lesson. Work together and decide upon the kind of things that you will look out for that will help you determine if the student is performing at the standard you expect, below the standard you expect or above and beyond the standard you expect.”
I might as well have said, “Look at this text in Azerbaijani. As you will see, it is a scientific diatribe against string theory. Find the three most cogent arguments and discuss how you would expect somebody to address them. Make sure that you do all of this in pidgin Vulcan.” What was even more telling was the reaction: it wasn’t quite apoplectic, but there was a distinct sense that I had no right to be asking them to do something that was so difficult.
But I do. You see, it is my job to oversee the maintenance and enhancement of standards on my team. To do that, I need to know that teachers are capable of approaching assessment from the most minimally rigorous manner; that they are not relying upon their hunches to help them make judgements about what students can do; that students, in exchange for thousands of pounds, can rest easy knowing that their teachers are taking an interest in their individual progress and are making relatively objective evaluations about what they can and can’t do and are making these evaluations against a set of clear and explicit criteria that students can have access to. It might all be an illusion, but it is a helpful illusion that provides a path through the madness.
Teachers! Your job is to be aware of a set of standards that we use to differentiate between one learner and another. You may not agree with the standards nor even with the idea that it is feasible to do such a thing. Nevertheless, those that pay the piper call the tune. So, the standards are sticking around.
Your job now becomes to share these standards with the students and to make them meaningful. The standards need illustrating with criteria that you can use to measure student progress and, because we like to say such democratic things, you can teach the students to use the standards to measure their own progress.
Once the standards are established, it is your job to plan your work in such a fashion that you are inching closer and closer to those standards. We call this teaching. As you do this, observe students and make a decision about how close or far they are from reaching the standards. This is also called teaching. Where they are far from the standard, try to find out why and then help them move in the right direction. That’s right: teaching. Where they are hitting the standard, try to identify ways in which they might move beyond the goal and outperform (teaching).
Yes! It will mean that you have to spend longer than you did when thinking about your lessons. You will now need to ask yourself, why am I doing this with them? The answer will almost never be Ah yes! Because it is unit 9 and we have just finished unit 8. The answer is invariably going to be along the lines of Ah yes! Because they are supposed to be able to listen for and identify relevant information from extended explanations or presentations on a range of topics and yet I have noticed that they are not very good at doing this.
The typical approach to lesson planning should start from the syllabus. Look at the syllabus (it’s that document that is gathering virtual dust and cobwebs on the shared drive). Know what the standards for your level are. Then go and do meaningful and purposeful things with your students that are designed to help them meet these standards. You will know that you are doing meaningful and purposeful things with the students because you will see them learning and I will hear them complaining a lot less. And when I ask you why you are doing a particular activity with the students, you will confidently state that it is in service of the intended outcomes of the lesson. You will not bare your teeth at me and exhibit the kind of primal behaviour that jackals exhibit over the disputed carcass of an elderly -and now defunct- wildebeest.
You see, I think that we are teachers first and foremost. While it is useful to know about the order of adjectives and the identifying features of non-relative clauses, it is much more valuable to know about how people learn and how people can be supported in their learning. This is what we are paid for and this is what we are expected to be experts in. It is quaint and endearing to hear you argue that your experience is the only guiding light you need to inform your practice. When you open your own school, I wish you the best of luck with that. Until that point, however, know that we value your experience greatly, but do not share your faith in it as the sole arbiter of student aptitude.
Go teach. And primum, non nocere.
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