Who wants to be a Formative Assessor?

Theme music, friend-phoning, familiar graphics and even Chris(tine) Tarrant were all in place for an informative seminar on formative assessment on Friday afternoon at Longniddry Primary, hosted by Ann McLanachan. There was a good turn-out, with an assembly hall full of teachers from every primary in the Preston Lodge cluster together with a group from the secondary.

"Millionaire" technology was used effectively to capture attention, and get everyone focussed on questions about:

A range of quotes from
Black and Wiliam , Shirley Clarke and local primary, secondary and nursery teachers were then used to lead into a demonstration of a "formative assessment-friendly" classroom. Examples included using increased wait time when questioning; sharing of learning objectives and using thumbs-up/thumbs-down, and green/amber/red traffic-lighting to check understanding.

Charli Russell from Preston Lodge demonstrated the difference improved questioning techniques can make by working with the whole group. First, with the aid of an accomplice, she used general knowledge questions to show how easy it was to switch off everyone else by consistently accepting answers from one or two enthusiastic students. Then she went on to use increased wait times and thumbs-up/thumbs-down to show how much more interaction and engagement resulted.

A case study of a whole-school approach tackled the question "What makes a good lesson?" This included the WALT and WILF approaches to sharing of learning intentions. I'd heard of WALT, but not WILF:

WALT – We are learning to…

WILF – What I'm looking for is…

The formal presentations were concluded by presentations from three members of the Learning Team, who spoke of their own experiences. There's no doubt that nothing beats personal stories – narratives – for engaging an audience and sharing knowledge. Jan, who spoke quietly and modestly of her own experience, held the audience spellbound in a way that a fact-dumping PowerPoint presentation could never have done. The spontaneous round of applause she received was well deserved. Her stories of how her decision to target project work led to children demanding the sharing of learning intentions and success criteria were memorable and confidence-inspiring.

Finally we concluded with an opportunity for colleagues to share ideas. This included completion of a "Where am I?" progress check sheet. In my group, there was good discussion over what exactly was meant by the shorthand terms used: sharing learning intentions; feedback; modelling; think, pair, share/talking partners; traffic lighting; questioning; wait time; self and peer evaluation; use of wrong answers. This was ideal for developing a shared understanding of what was meant by these terms. It seems to me this is a necessary first step to developing the practice.

We were provided with a list of recommended books for further reading. These were:



Assessment for Learning – Putting it into Practice

335 21297 2

Targetting Assessment in the Primary Classroom

0 340 72531 1

Unlocking Formative Assessment

0 340 80126 3

Enriching Feedback in the Primary Classroom

0 340 87258 6

Formative Assessment in Action

0 340 90782 7

Formative Assessment in the Secondary Classroom

0 340 88766 4



Queensferry High School

Not needed at Preston Lodge yesterday, so accepted an offer of supply work at Queensferry High. I find I'm starting to see offers of supply work at other schools, and in other authorities, as opportunities to get a chance to see how things are done in other schools. This is something you don't get to do if you're on the Teacher Induction Scheme, so maybe the "alternative route" has some advantages. Queensferry High proved to be a very welcoming school, with, as far as I could see, students who were a credit to their school.

One highlight was seeing a special arrangement that had been introduced for a class with a particularly troublesome history. Half a dozen or so particularly difficult students had been extracted to work with the head of department, while the remainder worked under a special, rigorous regime. The head of department started off the lesson with tremendous energy. She went round the class doing one-to-one checks with each student, ensuring that homework diaries were out and jotters and pencils ready. Nothing was left to chance, and talking was absolutely out. A system of warning points was being used to record any shortfalls. Homework booklets were collected and work for the period, already set out on the whiteboard, was clearly explained. The outcome was a class which worked very hard indeed – as if in an exam – despite being left in the charge of an unknown supply teacher. Had anyone walked in during the period, they would never have guessed that this had ever been a troublesome class. Looking over what I've written, it sounds very authoritarian. In practice, though, there was a strong feeling that the school cared about these students, and simply wasn't going to let them miss out on learning.

Some other ideas I liked: good coloured maps of the building displayed in stairwells; carpetting in corridors and classrooms which reduced noise, and signs such as one-way signs on stairs were professionally-made, giving a good first impression.



Practising Formative Assessment

Friday 3 November
I've been trying to improve my understanding of formative assessment by reading
Assessment for Learning – Putting it into Practice by Black and others . This is a whole area that wasn't covered when I trained – but that's probably true of most teachers too. The excellent
Moray House Returning to Teach course provided an introduction, but it's not a subject you can learn in an hour or two. I tried the
Assessment is for Learning web site, but found that it jumped quickly from key points to supporting case studies – but without explaining much more about the underlying thinking. This isn't a criticism of the web site; it's just that books are better, I think, for explaining some things.

Today I tried one of the ideas from the book (p35) of using different questioning to get a better understanding of where students were starting from. The idea is to move away from limited factual questions. I tried using a so-called "big question"; "How come if cells are living things, so take in food, and get rid of waste, that they don't have any organs to do that?" The topic of the lesson was diffusion, and this proved a much better lead in than to start in the textbook manner with a discussion of what diffusion was. By posing the question, then asking the class to discuss in pairs, a surprising range of ideas was put forward. This, as the book claimed, definitely provides a better understanding of individual learning needs.


More phone calls

Thursday 3 November
Received a couple of phone calls from schools wanting to know if I was available for supply work in Physics. It's reassuring to know there is a demand out there, and Physics is one of my subjects, but I'm already too committed.

Doing a day's cover in Edinburgh this week has made me aware that I've been fortunate to be able to work in the one school for a long period. It takes time to get to know the students, the staff and the systems in a new school. That's an overhead that I think it makes sense to minimise at the probation stage if you can.


Good Website Guide for Parents?

Back to Preston Lodge today to teach science for the rest of the week. I'm sharing responsibility for a timetable with a very experienced supply biology teacher. Helpful information in the desk planner eases the handover, and a few notes highlight particular issues needing dealt with today.

She had suggested using some video material on cells, but as usual it's a time-consuming problem to track down an appropriate video. Although there's a range of material on video-cassette and as PC video files, the only way to know what's on them is to sit through the whole thing – and there's seldom time for that. It's at times like this you appreciate how easy it is to browse paper information and get a very quick idea of content. Perhaps the
Scottish Schools Digital Network will help solve this problem?

Ended the day with a well-attended S1 parents' night. It's becoming clear that students, and parents, are using the internet to complement information provided by the school. Sometimes it's to help with homework, but I was especially interested to hear from parents about children who were using the web to investigate a bit more on their own. In both cases, it seems that some sort of guidance on good web sites would be appreciated. Even the ones that are well-known in schools, such as
BBC Bitesize, are clearly completely unknown to some interested parents. Maybe schools could do more here? Must find out if anything's been tried.

Boroughmuir High School

Spent today teaching at
Boroughmuir High School in
Edinburgh . It's taken a long time for my name to find its way on to the Edinburgh supply list; this was the first time I've been approached to work there. It was good to get a chance to see how another school works, and I was made very welcome by the teachers there, especially Peter Shannon and Graeme Findlay in Maths. There was also a comprehansive introductory pack with all the essentials for visiting teachers – right down to a "permission to visit the toilet" pass.

One of the advantages of the alternative probation route (i.e. not following the Teacher Induction Scheme) is the possibility of working in a range of different schools as a supply teacher. The downside, of course, is that if you're just in for the day you can't gain in-depth experience in your subject area. You're also much less likely to have non-teaching periods available for any kind of planning – you're an extra pair of hands, and can expect to be fully employed… Today's timetable ended up including English and personal and social development, where I was in trouble trying to identify a range of recreational drugs from photographs. It turned out there was some uncertainty over whether the text book was right, so a visit from the police was planned to sort it out.

Found out from a poster about the Royal Navy's Maths and Engineering in Action web site,
www.rn-maths.co.uk. This looks like it should help in my efforts to make maths seem relevant. I plan to have a look and see what's there.