Assessment for Learning can harm learning

It is obvious that we should assess what pupils can do. It is obvious that a part of the reason for this is to ascertain what we have to teach them. Assessment for Learning gives us a load of ways in which we can do that, so all great.

Except it’s not. As David Didau points out repeatedly since he’s got into Robert Bjork’s work, we can only measure performance, not learning.

If you agree with me in that it is essential that pupils practice using the knowledge and procedures they have been taught in order to ensure it enters their long term memory, you should probably agree that Assessment for Learning can give the wrong impression of when to move on. Many many educational theorists – the first I came across was Ted Wragg and he was hardly an educational traditionalist – have suggested we don’t allow pupils enough practice for development of mastery.

It’s on almost every lesson planning proforma I’ve ever seen.

In assessment for learning, it is implicit that if they can do it, you do something else. This is particularly damaging in a single classroom, where after a bit of assessment of something that they’ve just been taught the teacher (or worse, another pupil) assesses what the pupil can do and because they can repeat the procedure, ie they can perform, the teacher moves on to a new topic. I know good teachers learn to come back to these topics in a spiral curriculum, but I’d much rather  a curriculum and practice where pupils practise until they never get it wrong, and that we allow the proxies for learning to become stronger ones (ie pupils show development of the knowledge they are accessing to access new knowledge, extending beyond the original limits of working memory as they use their long term memory). It is fine to come back to stuff two weeks later, and evidence suggests the best way to come back to it is a low-stakes test – the issue is that Assessment for Learning encourages us to tick topics and knowledge off as “done”.

My second set of problems with Assessment for Learning is that in the way it is presented to teachers, it appears gives equal weight to several ‘strategies’ for assessment. Taken together, these could be seen to be a proforma for teaching, and I’ve written about how I think they’re counterproductive before. This proforma for teaching is worse than most though, entailing a load of tricks to jump through… Learning Objectives, peer and self assessment, formative use of summative assessment, questioning (basketball, not ping pong*), diagnostic marking (great, but arguably not time-efficient) and so on…

The problem here is that this marries neatly (and who knows, may have driven) into OFSTED’s “show progress every twenty minutes” narrative. The rise of flashing mini whiteboards or mini plenaries are often just AFL strategies employed so that an inspector can see them. “We’re using AFL, and AFL is telling me we’re ready to move on, and we coincidentally have made progress”. As we have seen, this has become pernicious.

I am sure most teachers reading this will rate themselves as effective practitioners and be thinking “well I don’t use it like that” and “it can be useful”. I’m sure some of them are even correct and there is “good” use of AFL. I know there is worse practice than overuse of AFL. Neither of these are defences with how AFL has been presented to the profession. Because I reckon most teachers (maybe even the vast majority) will have used AFL counter-productively (often because they were told to by SMT), and it will have caused widespread minimisation of practice in classrooms and in homework. And that’s no good thing.

My contention is that Assessment for Learning causes significantly too much pace in classrooms and often harms learning.

* Basketball, not ping pong – is this not typical of the modern narrative of progressive teaching? If any style of questioning is designed for the teacher to say less, this is it. It’s praise for the pupils teaching each other. Sadly, they can only repeat or challenge what they know, and witnessing a high quality ping pong conversation with a teacher (who knows more, one would assume), is of more benefit than a group basketball discussion that barely builds at all. What is wrong with the teacher being the one that challenges, shapes and articulates where the questioning goes according to a plan?


4 thoughts on “Assessment for Learning can harm learning

  1. As well as moving on too quickly after students have demonstrated something once, I also think that the overuse of AfL means teachers spend too much time focusing on assessing what has been learned rather than allowing time for the students to get on with it and practise their skills. Time is a vital factor in the classroom. Deciding what lollipop stick to use next is not.

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