Theme 1: How can educational design support assessment for learning and progression?
Paul Black

Report by Sarah Codrington

In assessment for learning, feedback is a key element, for it is a central feature of the learning interaction between pupil and teacher. It is involved in both oral and written forms, and in both short and medium term interactions. To improve their feedback, many teachers have needed to learn new methods for building on whole class discussion, and on this basis to promote self- and peer-assessment between students. This is a far fry from merely checking whether students have got the right answer and giving it if they haven’t. The shift of mindset that Assessment for Learning requires has been a formidable challenge to many schools. Teachers need confidence that this approach will pay off; they can be encouraged by the evidence that better learning enhances rather than lowers SATS or GCSE scores. 

Formative assessment is at the microscopic heart of teaching and learning. In formative classroom dialogue, teachers often have to respond immediately to learners’ contributions, and these responses cannot be planned as they are contingent on what the pupils say. Pupils’ contributions can be surprising, even baffling: the teacher has to bear in mind that what the learner hears in the first place may not be what the teacher intended. As an example, a teacher showed a picture of a daffodil and asked pupils what it was called. One child said it was called Betty. The teacher could just have said that’s the wrong answer. Alternatively this could lead to a discussion about the different types and meanings of names.

Activities should have clear learning aims underlying them. But it helps no-one if students are expected to navigate by targets and criteria for success which they do not understand. We need to get students to work together to help each other to understand the aims and to thereby be empowered to take charge of their own learning as they work to achieve them. For rich classroom dialogue, the teacher has to change role, from controller to conductor – and the learner has to change from being passive to being actively involved. It follows that activities should be engaging in involving pupils, and in order to stimulate such involvement teachers may need to develop their skills in understanding the cognitive and affective principles involved in interpreting and responding to pupils’ responses. Whilst it is more easy to achieve learning dialogue with some topics than with others, yet with any topic the choice of the leading question or task is crucial: a good task should be a vehicle to encourage pupils to express their understanding and then develop it in discussion in such a way that they are also opening up and challenging their reasoning skills.

All of this raises the broader question of what constitutes good teaching. People have different models. Teachers need a clear model for what they are doing; in the light of such a model they can plan activities which implement their aims, whilst being flexible in modifying such plans in the light of pupils’ contributions. Such a strategy will serve to guide the ways in which they balance activities between whole class  discussion, group work, and one-to-one discussion. Many teachers have found that in re-thinking their role in this way, they have been led to think less about the learning work they do for the pupils and to focus instead on stimulating pupils to do more of such work for themselves.

Once they become accustomed to contributing their own, often original, ideas, pupils can easily challenge the teacher’s knowledge with oblique questions. Indeed, as they get succeed in promoting such discussion, teachers find that they need confidence in their subject knowledge as well as in their pedagogic knowledge of it, and for some more training is often needed so that they can skilfully guide the development of their pupils’ understanding.


The following points were made: