A number of separate issues that I’ve been considering over the last few weeks came together in one meeting.
These issues were: accountability; formative assessment; attainment; enabling teachers to experiment; measurement; administration;venture capitalists; trust; learning and teaching; risk management; and consistency.
And so it was this week a group of us (head teachers and managers) looked at how we might go about creating cultures in our schools where head teachers relinquished some of their control and in so doing enabled teachers to experiment with their practice with a view to improving learning and teaching.
The “risk” for head teachers (and society) is that these changes to our practice might not result in any improvement in children’s attainment. It’s funny how people react to such a query – and immediately adopt the higher moral ground by saying that education is so much more than attainment. But this put me in mind of my discussion with Rick Segal and how he, or a someone in Dragon’s Den, might react to a teacher who went into pitch for their new business idea – in this case formative assessment – to seek their support and financial investment.
One of the problems that we face in education is that we are all adopting – to a greater or lesser extent – the principles and techniques of formative assessment – we are convinced by the logic, the rhetoric and the fact that the reaction of pupils is extremely positive. Yet what would the Dragon’s Den investor’s want to see before they invested their hard cash? The answer is obvious to everyone – evidence – hard numbers – reliable, objective and valid data. Where do we get such data? – summative assessment in the form of tests; external examinations; assessment free from teacher influence.
Teacher – “so you don’t trust me then”
Dragon – “Yes I don’t trust you – no more than I would trust someone who was trying to get me to invest in a new vacuum cleaner which will sell for $500 but doesn’t know if people will buy it or how much you will make in the first year. Where are the figures?”
Teacher – “I can tell you that pupils are engaging in lessons more than ever before. I’ve given them questionniares and the reponses are really positive. Parents are telling me that their children having never been as enthusiastic about learning. Class behaviour has improved and I don’t nearly give out as many punishment exercises.
Dragon – “OK but maybe your just entertaining the kids. Maybe they are having fun but after a few years of this they will become bored and you’ll have to come up with something different.”
Teacher – “So what you want is for me to test your child to find out if they know and understand more and have more skills and show you the results”
Dragon – “Exactly”
Teacher – “But don’t you understand that this runs completely counter to what we are trying do with children – and will undermine the positive benefits of formative assessment”
Dragon – “Not at all – I’m convinced by the logic and rhetoric of formative assessment – it’s just that I don’t understand you’re reluctance to collect the hard data”
Teacher – “If you focus on the “hard numbers” then I will just shift my attention to achieving the results and pay no attention to the processes of teaching and learning. In other words I’ll give you you’re numbers but it will corrupt what we’re doing”
Dragon – “So what you are really saying is that you don’t actually believe in your product – it won’t sell – it won’t generate the numbers? In that case Im afraid I won’t invest”
My apologies if this seems a bit long winded but this seems to get to the heart of the matter. My point is that we need to have faith in what we are doing but realise that there is a need to gather the numbers – through summative assessment. It’s part of the intellectual process, the science of teaching, the business of reflective practice.
If we don’t then it will only be a few short years before some reactionary force uses another conflicting set of ideas and rhetoric to shift our practice in an opposite direction.
The point is that we must engage with teachers to develop an understanding that the “numbers” are necessary – but that if they use the “numbers” and continue to develop their practice that they will move so far beyond any “accountability as a line of conseqeunce ” that their practice will be liberated, rewarding and self-sustaining. In such an environment the head teacher would be well advised to relinquish control because it would be teachers who would interrogate the data imbued with a hunger to improve their practice.
I’d like to work in a school like that – what’s more I’d like my child to be taught in a school like that.