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The Role of Formative Assessment in the delivery CfE

Curriculum for Excellence states that “success in achieving the purposes and principles of the curriculum is likely if pupils are helped to become actively involved in their own learning”.

AifL is one of the most powerful teaching tools we have in Scottish Education. The expectation was that every school in Scotland would embrace AifL by June 2007.

The principles of CfE are supported and underpinned by the principles of formative assessment.

CfE argues that it is a pupil’s level of engagement in learning and self assessment that makes for a successful curriculum. The outcomes and experiences come from the perspective of the learner –

I can …………………….. outcomes     I have …………………………. experiences

The challenge then in our classrooms is to build independent, self motivated learners. This requires both students and teachers to change well established classroom habits and practices including the distribution of learning power.

The idea of relinquishing control is the scariest part of the process – that first step in the abseil off a cliff. But once that first step is taken and the descent slowly and carefully achieved, step by step with a few knocks on the way, the feeling of wellbeing and success when your feet touch the ground is fantastic. Making formative assessment the foundation of your teaching produces that same adrenalin rush.

The principles of CfE can be met by the principles of Formative Assessment –

  • Know what is to learned and why
  • Know what is needed to be successful
  • Know what to do to improve

These are principles that apply to any learner regardless of age or stage – they are the key to successful lifelong learning. They are the how of learning not the what.

It is now more than 10 years since AifL became a focus in Scottish education. During that time it has developed and evolved due to the work of teachers in classrooms not just at home but across the world. Formative assessment has proved to be the most sustainable “initiative” and has improved the learning experience for youngsters and the teaching & learning experience for teachers. It is recognised as a significant strategy in raising learner achievement.

The development and redefining of formative assessment strategies is evidenced in the updated works of Dylan Wiliam (2006) and Shirley Clarke (2008).

Shirley Clarke outlines the key strategies in formative assessment as

  • Creating a classroom culture in which all involved see ability as incremental rather than fixed
  • Involving pupils in planning both appropriately pitched content and meaningful contexts
  • Clarifying learning objectives and establishing pupil generated and therefore pupil owned success criteria
  • Enabling and planning effective classroom dialogic talk and worthwhile questioning
  • Involving pupils in analysis and discussion about what excellence consists of – not just the meeting of success criteria, but how to best meet them
  • Enabling pupils to be effective self- and peer- evaluators
  • Establishing continual opportunities for timely review and feedback from teachers and pupils, focusing on recognition of success and improvement needs, and provision of time to act on that feedback
    (Active Learning Through Formative Assessment, Hodder Education, 2008)

These strategies provide both teachers and learners with a framework on which to build. Teachers will adapt techniques to fulfil the strategies and provide variety within their classrooms BUT the principles need to be constant and the basis of school consistency.

The key test will be how actively engaged our pupils are in thinking, learning and assessing that learning. Formative assessment is the catalyst for bringing together so many key aspects of learning – eg thinking skills, creativity, motivation and helps make them part of the learning process and not something else to add on or fit in. This is what CfE is built on – the weaving together of rich, thought provoking experiences.

CfE AifL
challenges and enjoyment supportive classroom culture
breadth variety of meaningful contexts
progression planning next steps/success criteria
depth drawing different strands together
personalisation & choice ownership of learning
coherence making links with prior learning across the curriculum
relevance purpose & value of learning

All supported by sharing learning intentions, generating success criteria, self & peer assessment, effective dialogue and formative feedback – a successful mix.

CfE also stresses the positive relationships and the climate for learning in the classroom as well as the ethos and life of the school as a community. This is also the foundation of AifL.

At the Third International Conference on Assessment for Learning held in New Zealand on March 2009 it was restated that properly embedded into teaching-learning contexts, assessment for learning sets learners up for wide, lifelong learning – the foundation of CfE. The conference summed up their views with a second generation definition of Assessment for Learning.

Assessment for Learning is part of everyday practice by students, teachers and peers that seeks, reflects upon and responds to information from dialogue, demonstration and observation in ways that enhance ongoing learning.

They provided the following elaboration
1. “everyday practice” – refers to teaching and learning, pedagogy and instruction (different terms are used in different regions of the world but the emphasis is on the interactive, dialogic, contingent relationships of teaching and learning)
2. “by students, teachers and peers” – students are deliberately listed first because only learners can learn. Assessment for learning should be student centred. All AfL practices carried out by teachers (such as giving feedback, clarifying criteria, rich questioning) can eventually be “given away” to students so they can take on these practices to help themselves, and one another, to become autonomous learners. This should be the prime objective.
3. “seeks, reflects upon and responds to” – these words emphasise the nature of AfL as an enquiry process involving the active search for evidence of capability and understanding , making sense of such evidence, and exercising judgement for wise decision making about next steps for students and teachers.
4. “information from dialogue, demonstration and observation” – verbal (oral and written) and non-verbal behaviours both planned and unplanned events can be sources of evidence. Observation of these during ongoing teaching and learning activity is an important basis for AfL. Special assessment tasks and tests can be used formatively but are not essential; there is a risk of them becoming frequent mini-summative assessments. Everyday learning tasks and activities, as well as routine observation and dialogue are equally , if not more, appropriate for the formative purpose.
5. “in ways that enhance ongoing learning” – sources of evidence are formative if, and only if, students and teachers use the information they provide to enhance learning. Providing students with the help they need to know what to do next is vital; it is not sufficient to tell them only that they need to do better. However, such help does not need to provide a complete solution. Research suggests that what works best is an indication of how to improve, so that the students engage in mindful problem solving.

Ruth Sutton, educational consultant, has highlighted that in the Scottish context many educationalists –both teachers and LA managers view AfL as then and CfE as now rather than using them to support each other. She suggests viewing the successful strategies on which AfL is based as the tools for effective learning and teaching – eg questioning for learning, feedback for learning, self assessment for learning.

How can we create a Curriculum for Excellence and lifelong learners without the rich tapestry of formative assessment?

Ann McLanachan, Learning Team Development