Notes on making good progress?: Chapter 6

In this series of posts I record my notes from Daisy Christodolou’s book “Making good progress? The future of Assessment for Learning” It is quite excellent. You can buy a copy here.

Life after ‘Life after levels’: creating a model of progression

The two assessment systems described in the previous two chapters suffer from the same flaws:

  • The expect the same assessment to produce two very different inferences
  • lead to overgrading and overtesting
  • lead to unhelpful feedback
  • lead to the measurement of formative progress with summative grades
  • inadvertently encourage a focus on short-term performance and discourage long-term learning.

The purpose of a grade is to describe performance not measure progress. No assessment system can succeed unless it is based on a clear and accurate understanding of how pupils make progress in difference subjects.

Assessments have to be selected and designed with reference to their purpose. Different assessments serve different purposes and have to be designed accordingly. We cannot rely on one assessment or style of assessment for the all the assessment information we need. Pupils who get better at decoding phonemes do become better readers; those who establish a clear sequence of historical events do get better at source analysis.

A good assessment system must not only clarify the current state and the goal state, which is can do through the use of summative assessments, but it must also establish a path between the two: the model of progression.

Textbooks have a role here. They can be used to communicate the the model of progression. In science they provide exemplars, it is noted in Kuhn’s work that scientists gain expertise by learning many examples. Textbooks offer an effective and detailed way of communicating a progression model.

Modern textbooks can look very different to the older ones, as they can now be online and do not have to feature just prose.

A progression model needs to be specific, not generic, and it needs to break complex skills down into small tasks that do not overload pupil’s limited working memories. As the model builds, pupils will be able to manage more complex tasks because they have memorised and automated the initial steps, but the model must start with the basics.

It will look different in different subjects and for different concepts within the same subject. Teachers are required to make decisions about what tasks are most likely to lead to the attainment of the end goal in that particular topic.

We need to clarify what the final aim of education is and we must use these aims not exam success to build our progression model. Exams are only samples of wider domains and because of this, there will always be ways of doing them well that do not lead to genuine learning. However if we set mastery of a domain as a goal the exams will be valid measures.

Goodhart’s law: when a measure becomes a target it loses it’s value as a measure.

If our end goal is success on an exam we will end up with a progression model which leads to exam success but not to the wider goals we really want.

Teaching to the test and exam prep does not correspond to the problems that students will face in real life so, if they have focussed excessively on these types of questions it will compromise the validity of the results.

If pupils are graded every term or every few weeks and dramatic improvements are expected then cramming and teaching to the test is likely the only methods that will provide short term improvements.

Memorising the right thing vs the the wrong thing is exemplified by memorising model essays or memorising lines of poetry. Memorising poetry  helps pupils move towards the end goals of the English curriculum in ways that are not achieved by memorising essays.

How should we make decisions about what knowledge is worth remembering and what isn’t? Daniel Willingham provides some pointers – how could these be applied in group 4 specifically bio?

Lessons should be viewed in the context of the progression model. Remembering somethings will create meaning, other not so much. The same lesson may or may not create meaning depending on the sequence it is part of. It is possible for a lesson to be highly effective if part of one sequence and ineffective if part of another.

In establishing a progression model we first have to establish what it is we want a pupil to be able to achieve. We have to define this in terms of the fundamental concepts we want them to master, not in terms of exam success.

Isobel Beck recommend a list of 400 words per year to be taught for the first 10 years of education. The research on teaching vocabulary also  suggests that pupils learn examples of vocabulary in context rather than definitions.

Subjects may not always be the best way to think about progression models. Some traditional subjects have arbitrary content. Some subjects have content that is in other subjects in different national systems.

Progression models should be focussed on concepts that we want students to acquire. The metaphor of marathon training for a progression model is particularly helpful

Burn, heretic, burn!

Once upon a time in the West, if you believed in the transubstantiation of bread and wine during Holy Communion and you lived in one part of Europe you got burned at the stake. If you denied this small fact and lived in a different part of Europe you also got burned at the stake. It didn’t matter if you agreed on 99% of the other details of your religion, you still killed those with slightly different views. Humans do that darnedest things to each other based on the most trivial of differences.

Thankful we are all humanists now to a greater or lesser extent (whether you accept it or not) and therefore it isn’t acceptable to burn each other. In his books Noah Yuval Harari charts the course of the three great humanist traditions of the 19th and 20th centuries: liberalism, communism and facism. All of these traditions placed mankind and the human experience at the centre of their creeds, as opposed to an almighty, thats what makes them humanist.

We now live in the area when liberalism has triumphed against the others, according to Harari. Even as a conservative you are a liberal, in the sense that you believe in the rights of the individual, freedom of the individual, and the equality of individuals. Democracy is the flowering of liberalism in politics. Everyone’s vote is equally valid.

Like all religions, humanism and, specifically for this thought trail, liberalism has its schisms. We humans love to be tribal and to argue. In someways it is what makes us human. Identifying who isn’t in our tribe helps us identify who is. We depend on our social interactions within our tribe.

Indeed Harari, likens the intellectual differences and squabbles between  humanist tribes to be not too dissimilar to the tribalism that erupted in Europe within Christianity, best exemplified by the Spanish Inquisition, which murdered hundreds of people over differences in the interpretations of the bible.

If you have spent any time on Twitter as a teacher you can’t possibly have avoided the prog/trad squabbles, rows and playground name calling, highlighted this week by closure of Debra Kidds account.

It’s a shame that the greatest CPD tool for teachers also highlights so much of our  worst social natures.

Despite the protestations of some, the debate between progressive education and traditional education (the prog/trad debate) doesn’t just exist on Twitter. It’s obfuscated because teacher training courses don’t teach education history (to my knowledge) and generally they aren’t balanced in discussing pedagogical approaches (again in my experience).

Any honest reading of the history of the ideas in education can trace the debate back to at least the early 1800s. Hirsch provides a decent overview in the appendix. In the wake of the American war of independence and the French revolution new ideas about the progression of humanity began to take hold. Nothing happens in a vaccum. As the ideas of the intellectual founding fathers of liberalism, communism and fascism spread, they were also to influence ideas about education.

I don’t intend to recount that history here, as much better has been written about it but with the, sometime vehement, differences in opinion between proponents on both sides of the debate, it is easy to forget that, ultimately, according to Harari, wether you identify as trad, prog, trad/prog, atradprog, we are all children of the great intellectual revolution of liberalism.

We all believe in the rights of the individual. We all believe in equality. We all believe in the individual freedoms of adult members of a civilised society. We just disagree on methodology and approaches of indoctrinating and raising adults into this society.

Those advocating a traditional approaches do not do so because they are sadists. They do so because they believe these are the best methods of reducing inequality, and helping all individual children fulfil their potential.

Those advocating progressive approaches do not do so because they have a hidden agenda to keep an elitist society propped up. They do so because they believe that these are the best methods for ensuring individual freedom and individual expression, as well as helping all individual children fulfil their potential.

And to be honest, I think most people would probably describe themselves as mods.

In a sense this debate is simply a practical outworking of the inherent tensions within liberalism: those of ensuring individual freedom and of ensuring equality. It’s hard, in any society, to have both.

So next time you feel like throwing a stone, just remember, you’ve got more in common that you think. It also might be worth remembering that without tone or body language the written word can be so easily misunderstood.

At least no teacher in the Twittersphere has literally burned another teacher at the stake for professing different views….yet.

Remembering stuff

Someone once said that the educational debate in the UK is lightyears ahead of the debate internationally. It is a shame really because you would hope that the minds engaging with educational debate from every country would add to making the debate more urgent.

The modern education system is sometimes characterised as being one where kids are mindlessly forced to rote learn and that we have to fight against this industrial factory like education. It’s anecdotal I know but I have worked in five schools and visited a few more and never seen anything like this. Where are all these schools that are battery farming their kids? Most schools are definitely more progressive in their outlook than traditional, in this sense. Although I would contend that good schools and teachers in them know when to adopt different techniques as necessary.

If you engage in debates about the aims and methods of education it is common to read thinking like this, a popular view exposed by many educators, and widely influenced by romanticism:

“The point I am making is that DI is very successful in a certain thing that we are measuring. Remembering stuff. For an education system that measures how well you can remember stuff sat at a table for two hours (of which the DP is really no different from any other offering) then I’m sure DI is highly effective…. but really why do we care? We all pretty much know that that such a metric is a) a terrible way for Unis and businesses to know that they have recruited an effective colleague b) it just isn’t they way to make it in the world past examinations. Once our smartphones can answer any knowledge based examinations (not far off from now) then DI will just about be a waste of everybody’s time. What I’m interested in is what type of instruction leads to creative, communicative, empathetic, collaborative, entrepreneurs and explorers? If DI does that then I’m interested. But first we have to develop a way of measuring these things to see if a certain practice achieves it. Any other research is basically past its sell-by-date, as I suspect are exam based remembering courses.”

Remembering stuff. It’s the practical equivalent of the old, male and stale ad-hominem stereotype trotted out in arguments in post-modernist education discussions at times. It’s uncool. It’s useless and why would anyone who cared about kids and their futures insist on paying attention to it in their classroom or school? It’s outdated. We don’t need to remember because we have google now. We don’t need knowledge because AI will take over our jobs and if we make sure kids know and remember stuff then they are doomed to be job-less, on future the scrap heap, in a world where 65% of the jobs haven’t yet been invented yet.

Why do we care about remembering stuff? 

First, let us not conflate remembering and knowing. They are not the same thing. Technically, remembering is simply the process of retrieving information from your long term memory that you know. Knowing something is having it stored there in the first place. It is possible to know something and not remember it.

This argument above mentions remembering initially but then refers to knowledge based exams and questioning the value of knowing stuff when our smartphones can do that for us later, effectively conflating the two. Both knowing stuff and being able to remember stuff are important. It’s no good knowing stuff and not being able to remember it and you can’t remember what you don’t know. So, in my view education has to help students do both of these things. Why is knowing stuff and then remembering it important and why should we care?

Well, actually, knowing stuff is still pretty important. Believe it or not. Some educator’s use Bloom’s Taxonomy to assert that remembering stuff is at the bottom of the pile, a low order skill useless on its own. However, despite the fact that this taxonomy is not informed by the cognitive psychology of how people learn and it is often presented uncritically, this interpretation is also not what Bloom intended. He put knowledge at the bottom as it is the foundation on which all else is built.

You can’t do much if you don’t know anything. And in fact the more you know, the more you can do, including learn more. The Matthew Effect is a well documented psychological phenomenon by which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The more you know, the easier it becomes to learn more and therefore become a life-long learner. That is one reason why we should care, especially if we want to make life-long learners.

These days it is fashionable for international educators to discount knowing  stuff because the international consensus is that 21st century skills are more important than knowledge per se. These 21st century skills are generally recognised to be the four C’s of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. The line of reasoning is, generally, that we need to teach these skills instead of knowledge.

There are a few problems with this line of thinking. Firstly these skills are not actually 21st Century in and of themselves, and there is no reason to think that they are more important this century than they were in the time of Julius Cesar. Indeed, calls for skills based curriculums go back at least a century already.

Secondly, we can’t have people skilled in these areas who aren’t also knowledgable. Most psychological research to date suggests that creativity requires knowledge and it is only possible to think critically about what you already know about. If you really think about it – to be a great communicator you actually need to know about what you are communicating about. Could you imagine the BBC Earth documentaries not only without a knowledgable David Attenborough but the teams of knowledgeable researchers who write the scripts?

Thirdly, the idea of teaching generic skills is also flawed. The generic skills method of teaching postulates that authentic tasks are ones that mimic real life i.e. science teaching that gets kids to act like scientists. Authors like Daniel Willingham and Daisy Christodoulou point out that the most effective way of teaching skills is through the deliberate practice method. Just as a football team doesn’t practice by playing games, but by breaking the skills needed to win (dribbling, passing) down to their component tasks and practicing those.

In short knowing stuff (and remembering it) is the foundation of the skills we want to instil in our kids, it is also the foundation of understanding and the foundation of life-long learning.

We all pretty much know that that such a metric is a) a terrible way for Unis and businesses to know that they have recruited an effective colleague b) it just isn’t they way to make it in the world past examinations.

Do we? How exactly do we know this? It seems hard to make that claim as it is pretty much unmeasurable. Even if you could survey every employer and university there are too many conflating variables. We are all products of this system. This claim is made without any proof and the burden of proof lies with the one making the claim.

Once our smartphones can answer any knowledge based examinations (not far off from now) then DI will just about be a waste of everybody’s time.

Oh no. Seriously? We still honestly think this? It is right up there with the “we can google it” claim that knowledge isn’t worth having. In addition to what I have written above I should highlight here the distinction between working and long term memory.

Working memory is what you can hold in your awareness and it is limited. The environment and long term memory are accessible from working memory and long term memory is unlimited in its store.

If we rely on google and not our long term memory we will find it very hard to make sense of the world around us as our working memories will constantly be overwhelmed. We wont be able to chunk information.

Knowledge isn’t just what we think about it is what we think with. If you rely on google on your smartphone you won’t be able to think well, you certainly won’t be able to think creatively nor critically nor communicate well.

Also, google is blocked in China. Do we really want to give governments that much power over knowledge and what we know and can know?

What I’m interested in is what type of instruction leads to creative, communicative, empathetic, collaborative, entrepreneurs and explorers? If DI does that then I’m interested. But first we have to develop a way of measuring these things to see if a certain practice achieves it.

Yes, it can do. DI has been shown to effectively increase what people know and remember. If knowing and remembering is the foundation of being able to think well, collaborate well,  and create well then we shouldn’t just throw these out.

One of the problems with international education in my view is that it over emphasises inquiry learning, making ideologues get hot under the collar when DI and other guided instruction is mentioned. We are trained to think schools are battery farming kids, when to be honest, they really aren’t.  I think we need to try to find out what works in what context and focus on that. I think that there is a place for guided instruction.

Anyway, DI does not always equate with rote learning. Why make it out to be?

I am also now reminded me of this article and this tweet. They are based on similar assumptions and outlooks, and I had wanted to write something in response to these claims.

I agree with Noah Harari when he writes that we often conflate intelligence and consciousness.  I am not convinced that AI can actually know anything. I think it is intelligent and can process a lot of information quickly, but I would contend that to know anything and remember anything you need to be conscious.

If this is true what is the real risk presented by AI? Probably automation of tasks that rely on data processing in some form. Doctoring for example, requires the ability to process symptoms and match them to known illnesses. But not every job is at risk of automation because not every job relies purely on data processing. As Harari contends in his books, the highly prized human jobs of the future will be the ones that rely on human ability to relate to other humans. Therefore Doctors are at much more risk of being automated than Nurses. However, Nurses still need to know an awful lot of stuff as well as be at good at relating to other people to be able to do their jobs.

Humans need knowledge to be able to think well and to specialise in areas. If we don’t ensure that people know things they definitely will not be better placed to work with or instead of AI. The people that are replaced by AI will be the ones who don’t know much.

Additionally, the fact is knowledge rich curriculums demonstrably reduce inequality and with the way social divides are opening up in our modern society perhaps the way for international education to contribute to a peaceful world is to close those gaps? Seeing as DI has been demonstrably shown to reduce social inequality (See Why Knowledge matters by E.D. Hirsch) and as international curriculum’s like the IB is placed in many public schools in poorer areas, I find it’s focus on inquiry teaching quite worrying.

I wonder if international educators can afford to ignore this stuff because generally our kids come from educated and affluent homes?

Notes on making good progress?: Chapter 5

In this series of posts I record my notes from Daisy Christodolou’s book “Making good progress? The future of Assessment for Learning” It is quite excellent. You can buy a copy here.

Exam-based assessment

Exams based on the difficulty model produce a lot of information that can potentially be used formatively as pupil performance on each question can be measured using the principle of question-level or gap analysis.

In the quality model of exam what looks like an exam is still an assessment that relies heavily on descriptors.

Exams sample a domain however and are not direct measurements. While a test that samples from a domain may allow inferences about the domain but it does not allow inferences about the sub-domains because the number of questions for each sub-domain will be too small. The resolution is too granular and not fine enough. Careful analysis of the question responses may provide useful feedback, particularly for harder questions that rely on knowledge from multiple domains, but this more nuanced information is not captured in a question-level analysis.

Harder questions at GCSE rely on knowledge of several concepts. It is hard to formative assess where student misconceptions lie if they get these questions wrong from a gap analysis. Complexity reduces formative utility.

It is not possible to measure progress fairly using summative exams [like past GCSE papers] because it is entirely possible for a student to have made significant progress on a sub domain but for that to not show up in a summative exam situation and because that topic may be poorly represented in the test, you cannot use just those questions to analyse their progress either.

The risk is that teachers may be incentivised to focus on activities which improve short term performance but not long term learning. Measuring progress with grades encourages teaching to the test which compromises learning.

Because exam boards spend so much time and resources trailing and modelling assessments it is hopeless for teachers to think they can match that rigour in the assessments they design.

Often tests are pulled in two different directions and this highlights a tension between classroom teachers who want formative data and senior managers who want summative progress data.

Notes on making good progress?: Chapter 4

In this series of posts I record my notes from Daisy Christodolou’s book “Making good progress? The future of Assessment for Learning” It is quite excellent. You can buy a copy here.

Descriptor-based assessment

It is suggested that descriptor based assessments can be used to combine the purposes of formative and summative assessments, but this chapter outlines why this isn’t really the case.

Statements given in formative assessments across many different lessons can potentially be aggregated to give a summative assessment. Although problems arise with the aggregation itself – do students need to meet all of the statements at a particular level? To get round this different systems apply different methods and algorithms.

I have direct experience of using this assessment model for grading student internal assessment in DP biology classes. The guide advocates best-fit grading.

Although different systems give different names to the categories and levels that they give to assessments using descriptors, they aim to create a summative, shared meaning. Even if we don’t intend to create a summative assessment, the moment we give a grade or make a judgement about performance we are trying to create a shared meaning, we are making a summative inference. As discussed in the previous chapter, for that summative inference to be reliable the assessment has to follow certain restrictions: it has to be taken in standard conditions, distinguish between candidates and sample from a broad domain.

Everytime we make a summative inference we are making a significant claim that requires a high standard of evidence to justify it.

This model does not provide valid formative data because the model is based on descriptions of performance, they lack specificity as to the process and therefore cannot be used responsively in the way that true formative assessment should be. They do not analyse what causes performance. They are designed to assess final performance against complex tasks.

The reasons descriptors are not useful for formative feedback because:

  1. They are descriptive not analytic
  2. They are generic not specific
  3. They are short term not long term

Pupils may benefit from tasks that are not able to be measured by the descriptors. The descriptors do not provide a model of progression. For example making inferences from text requires a large amount of background knowledge, gaining that knowledge and assessing the gain cannot be done using activities that can be assessed by these descriptors.

You may argue that teachers are free to use whatever activities they want in lessons as long as they realise that only some of them are capable of contributing to the final grade.

However some of the systems warn against using other tasks and can be designed to be used every lesson and require judgements to be made against hundreds of different statements, leaving little time for anything else.

Therefore there is lots of pressure to use class time to be the type of task you can get a grade from. Quizzes and vocab tests get a bad reputation as they don’t provide evidence for the final grade. If every lesson is set up to allow pupils to demonstrate fully what they are capable of, then lessons start to look less like lessons and more like exams.

Generic feedback based on descriptors does not analyse where the issues are and importantly, tell students how to improve. The descriptor only allows tasks that allow grading by descriptor. This will leave it hard for the teacher to diagnose where a pupil has gone wrong. Even at more advanced levels of understanding there is still value in isolating the different components of a task to aid diagnosis.

Educators can’t even agree on what learning is at least doctors and nurses agree on what health is!

Generic targets provide the illusion of clarity, they seem like they are providing feedback but they are actually more like grades. If a comment is descriptive and not analytic, then it is effectively grade-like in it’s function: it is accurate but unhelpful.

Finally these descriptors do not distinguish between short term performance and long term learning. This is the most difficult factor in establishing reliable formative inferences. If we want to know if a student needs more teaching on a topic, then formative assessment right after a unit will not allow us to make such an inference.

In terms of summative assessments there are several reasons why using prose descriptors is problematic. These are:

  1. Judgements are unreliable – underlying questions can vary in difficulty but can still match the prose description. If different teachers both within and between schools utilise different questions and tasks (that match the prose description) to summatively assess students, this introduces uncertainty into the assessment and cannot be used to produce a shared meaning. Ensuring examiners interpret these statements in the same way is also extremely difficult. Descriptors lack specificity and can therefore be interpreted differently, making judgements unreliable. Different judgements cannot produce a shared meaning.
  2. Differing working conditions – different tasks completed in different situations cannot produce shared meaning. Subtle differences in how tasks are present will influence how well students can do.
  3. Bias and stereotyping – humans are subject to unconscious bias and stereotypes even more so under pressure. This will influence the judgements that they make.