Chasing our tails – is AfL all it's cracked up to be?

/, learning, myths/Chasing our tails – is AfL all it's cracked up to be?

Is it blasphemous to doubt the efficacy of AfL? While purists might argue that it’s ‘just good teaching’, we teach in a world where formative assessment has become dogma and where feedback is king. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to start upsetting the feedback applecart although there are occasions when pupils can benefit from it being reduced.) But AfL as a ‘thing’? I’m not just talking about some of the nonsense that gets spouted about lolly sticks and traffic lights, I’m questioning the entire edifice. Is assessment for learning really all it’s cracked up to be, or is it just me?
You see, here’s my problem: if we accept that learning is not the same thing as performance, then how can we possibly think that any AfL strategies are measuring anything except performance? For those that can’t be bothered to follow the link I’ll summarise thusly: learning is much too complex to be directly observed, it can only be inferred from pupils’ performance. And by learning here I mean the ability to retain information in long term memory and transfer to new domains.
Just in case all that’s a little opaque, let’s break down what happens in lessons which follow the principles of AfL:

  1. Teacher sets learning objective & shares success criteria
  2. Teacher introduces task designed to test whether pupils have understood and are able to meet the learning objective and success criteria
  3. Pupils attempt task
  4. Teacher assesses pupils (maybe using self or peer assessment) against the success criteria
  5. Teacher uses data from assessment to adjust teaching next lesson.

Have I got that about right? I must have taught about a billion lessons which have pretty much followed this pattern. And in every single one of them I have laboured under several misapprehensions. Maybe you have too? These are the pits into which we often fall:

  • The Input/Output myth: what a teacher teachers, pupils learn. This leads to…
  • Mistaking performance for learning – just because pupils can do something this lesson, does not mean they will be able to do it next lesson
  • Prioritising understanding above remembering – of course understanding is of a higher order than remembering, but it’s a devilishly slippery concept. It doesn’t matter what pupils understand if they can’t remember it. Ever had the experience of patting yourself on the back after a thrillingly brilliant lesson in which everyone understood everything and yet no one seems able to recall any of it next lesson? Yeah, me too.
  • Lack of practice. We assume, wrongly, that if our pupils can do a thing once they have learned it. Well, maybe. But they certainly haven’t mastered it. AfL is predicated on the idea that if pupils seems to got it, we can move on to something else. This is a deeply unhelpful way to approach teaching.

So this is the real problem: if we adjust our teaching based on the outcome of students performance in the lesson rather than on what they’ve learned, where does that get us? Where I think it gets us is into a hopelessly confused mess where we’re constantly adjusting our lesson plans based on information which is at best inaccurate and at worst, utterly wrong. Doesn’t this just result in us chasing the tail of pupil progress like a sackful of demented Alsatian puppies?
This post is really about people ‘doing’ AfL badly. Of course, none of this is to say that we shouldn’t use formative assessment, but let’s open the debate and be a little more thoughtful about why we’re using it and what we hope to accomplish. Let’s drain off the filthy bathwater and see if there’s a pedagogical baby worth salvaging. If we accept that AfL is just making sure kids know how to improve, then fine; that’s just good teaching. But if we’re seduced by the AfL industry pedalled by sharply suited Ofsted whisperers, then hopefully this will help pluck the scales from your eyes.
And if you’d like to take issue with any of this and feel compelled to point our the error of my ways, please do, but I’d rather you didn’t base your objections on that fact that I obviously haven’t understood what AfL really is. I have: click here for a sackful of posts proving this fact. That said,  I’d welcome some feedback on this – haha!

2013-08-29T21:17:40+00:00August 29th, 2013|assessment, learning, myths|


  1. […] Continued in Chasing our tails – is AfL all it’s cracked up to be? […]

    • John Eglin August 30, 2013 at 4:44 pm - Reply

      This post could be about any new trend in education; poorly understood by management; implemented too swiftly to impress inspectors. What a pity AfL/formative assessment is the target. Unlike the numeracy lesson with its many parts which was rolled out even before pilots were completed, AfL benefits from hundreds of research studies showing the efficacy of this mode of teaching many of which are referenced in Dylan William’s “Embedding Formative Assessment”.
      It is the culture of fear that leads staff and management to forget that they are the professionals and they make the decisions about what is best for their students. Teachers need to step up and take ownership of research based best practice and stop following cargo cult quick fixes because of fear of inspectors.

      • David Didau August 30, 2013 at 6:36 pm - Reply

        It could have been about anything but it wasn’t. What a pity you don’t seem to have grasped my objections to AfL: learning can’t really be assessed – certainly not in the short term. Summative assessments only really tests motivation and formative assessment that takes place in lessons only assesses performance. I really recommend reading the cognitive science of Robert A Bjork and the peerless research of Graham Nuthall for a thorough grounding in the complicated reality that is learning. I’ve read Embedding Formative Assessment and it contains many excellent observations and recommendations. But it’s flawed.

  2. chrishildrew August 29, 2013 at 10:30 pm - Reply

    I can see where you are coming from with this – doubtless there are teachers who have been told to implement AfL this way. As you say, if it is done like this, then it’s tail-chasing. It has (I hope) been established that measuring progress over a single lesson is neither necessary or possible, and that learning is a longer-term process that takes place over time. Implementing AfL to assess learning and to shape and inform planning over this time scale – the medium to longer term – makes it a valuable tool in the teacher’s repertoire. By all means assess constantly, and reshape your explanations or questioning, but to develop learning and understanding is a longer-term process.
    As an aside, I’m not sure the misapprehensions you attribute to the implementation of AfL necessarily follow. The original “Inside the Black Box” article by Paul Black and Dylan William credited with starting the ball rolling on AfL is essentially a demolition of the input/output myth, so AfL can be seen as a response to this misapprehension rather than a cause of it, I would suggest.
    Thought-provoking as ever!

    • David Didau August 29, 2013 at 10:42 pm - Reply

      The post was partly a response to spending the day working with teachers who had been told to ‘do’ AfL like this.
      Good point about Black Box

    • Heidi singleton January 8, 2014 at 10:59 pm - Reply

      Hello, I was interested in your comment that measuring progress over the course of a lesson is neither necessary or possible. Can you tell me what you do instead please? Is it like assessing a core task at the start and end of a PE unit if work for example. Many thanks Heidi Singleton

      • chrishildrew January 13, 2014 at 10:55 pm - Reply

        Hi Heidi – yes, that’s the idea. Students might make progress with an idea or a concept in a single lesson, but unless it sticks and is sustained over time it isn’t really progress at all. David has blogged about this in three posts about progress (if you search progress on LearningSpy you’ll find them), and I’d also recommend Kev Bartle’s “The myth of progress within lessons” here:

        • Heidi singleton January 14, 2014 at 7:57 pm - Reply

          Hi Chris
          Many thanks for those useful links. If only school team leaders would read them too!

  3. John Wootton August 29, 2013 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    Don’t you just love circles?

  4. @mrnickhart August 29, 2013 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    Thought provoking.
    If the key to long term retention is spacing, encoding information and practising recalling concepts (alongside, of course, quality modelling for understanding), then an expert teacher could plot a course through a topic, secure in the knowledge that the repetition and linking between topic strands is robust. AfL as you’ve described it does give information on performance but that’s not to say that it’s useless. One way of thinking about it is that it tells us information about students’ *readiness* for learning (as opposed to what they can perform). We know what they have encoded and how effectively they can recall concepts and can use it to provide feedback and develop these underlying requirements for learning. As you say, learning is much too complex to be directly observed so is AfL really just assessment of knowledge and recall?
    Your post has made me consider AfL from a fresh angle – thanks.

  5. Gordon Baillie August 29, 2013 at 10:38 pm - Reply

    Controversial Mr Didau!!
    What are you doing? This is the sacred cow! My favourite moment was taking up a new post to be told what we covered in week 1 then 2 and then that we “did our AfL” – alarm bells rang.
    My only issue with your interpretation is that it feels more based on the bastardised version of AfL that was given to colleagues during the National Strategies – they needed a tick box approach and teachers got seduced by the feeling that there were “tricks” that they could employ for observations – that fitted with a view of teaching at the time and “improved” the standard of teaching.
    The problem tends to be that teachers “do” AfL without understanding the underlying reasons “why” they’re doing what they’re doing. Classic problem!
    Pure AfL IS part of some of the best lessons I see and have seen. A former colleague, now retired, an art teacher, taught almost completely teacher led lessons – kids round a table, “here’s what we’re doing today”, “what do you notice?” Kind of stuff – kids have a go – come back – compare with a model – go back and try again – all the time supported by feedback from the teacher – she didn’t identify it as AfL but it was a classic lesson of the structure you identify but was brilliant.
    I would say that structure and quality of questioning and feedback is the important aspect that “makes” it AfL. Also – in the hands of the best teachers it’s brilliant.
    Wynne Harlen has done some nice work on AfL on formative use of summative assessment that chimes with Daniel Willinghams ideas about the structuring of learning and testing to best put info in long term memory – it’s worth a look and it’s AfL!!
    In its purest form its still worth the use as long as we prioritise the most effective aspects – AfL has been done a dis service by most of the training it has been delivered through.
    Just my ‘umble opinion.
    Gordon Baillie

    • chrishildrew August 29, 2013 at 10:42 pm - Reply

      Yes, I agree – the issue is not with AfL itself, but with the implementation of AfL.

    • debrakidd August 29, 2013 at 10:46 pm - Reply

      Yes, what he said 🙂

    • David Didau August 29, 2013 at 10:47 pm - Reply

      You’re right Gordon. I’m being provocative. I’ve certainly no argument with what you describe

  6. @TeacherToolkit August 29, 2013 at 10:54 pm - Reply

    Well said David. Just another fad we have all succumbed too and are now starting to see its imperfections

  7. Bridlyb August 29, 2013 at 11:58 pm - Reply

    Assessment for Learning
    Assessment as Learning
    Assessment of Learning
    Why Assess?
    to enable teachers to determine next steps in advancing student learning
    to guide and provide opportunities for each student to monitor and critically reflect on his or her learning and identify next steps
    to certify or inform parents or others of student’s proficiency in relation to curriculum learning outcomes
    Assess What?
    each student’s progress and learning needs in relation to the curricular outcomes
    each student’s thinking about his or her learning, what strategies he or she uses to support or challenge that learning, and the mechanisms he or she uses to adjust and advance his or her learning
    the extent to which students can apply the key concepts, knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to the curriculum outcomes
    What Methods?
    a range of methods in different modes that make students’ skills and understanding visible
    a range of methods in different modes that elicit students’ learning and metacognitive processes
    a range of methods in different modes that assess both product and process
    Ensuring Quality
    • accuracy and consistency of observations and interpretations of student learning
    • clear, detailed learning expectations
    • accurate, detailed notes for descriptive feedback to each student
    • accuracy and consistency of student’s self-reflection, self-monitoring, and self-adjustment
    • engagement of the student in considering and challenging his or her thinking
    • students record their own learning
    • accuracy, consistency, and fairness of judgements based on high-quality information
    • clear, detailed learning expectations
    • fair and accurate summative reporting
    Using the Information
    • provide each student with accurate descriptive feedback to further his or her learning
    • differentiate instruction by continually checking where each student is in relation to the curricular outcomes
    • provide parents or guardians with descriptive feedback about student learning and ideas for support
    • provide each student with accurate, descriptive feedback that will help him or her develop independent learning habits
    • have each student focus on the task and his or her learning (not on getting the right answer)
    • provide each student with ideas for adjusting, rethinking, and articulating his or her learning
    • provide the conditions for the teacher and student to discuss alternatives
    • students report about their learning
    • indicate each student’s level of learning
    • provide the foundation for discussions on placement or promotion
    • report fair, accurate, and detailed information that can be used to decide the next steps in a student’s learning
    Try to work out which is for learning as learning or of learning….
    The trick is knowing which is which how to employ it and does the establishment support it…..
    All just another day in the life of a tutor 🙂

  8. marymyatt August 30, 2013 at 7:56 am - Reply

    Great blog and comments. Heartbreaking when we hear teachers say ‘we’ve done that’ It’s a lifetime’s work. High quality conversations about learning. Also high on list of areas for development in reports.

  9. […] of David Didau @LearningSpy and his most recent piece regarding the efficacy of AfL, “Chasing our tails – is AfL all it’s cracked up to be?“. Read it, if you haven’t already, it’ll make you think about some of the […]

  10. […] so here’s a quick summary of the story so far: A few days ago I suggested in a blog post that maybe AfL ‘wasn’t all that’. Lots of lovely people kindly got in touch to point out that I clearly hadn’t got a clue what […]

  11. […] Is it blasphemous to doubt the efficacy of AfL? While purists might argue that it’s ‘just good teaching’, we teach in a world where formative assessment has become dogma and where feedback is king.  […]

  12. […] to read some recent blogs debating the merits of Assessment for Learning (AfL), particularly here , here and here. While I’m sure I risk repeating some of the points already made, I can’t […]

  13. […] when I recently questioned the much hallowed view that AfL is the best thing in education, the quality of debate was much higher. Maybe quality of debate is directly proportionate to the […]

  14. […] Teacher assessment is still the best way of assessing student progress and learning (although, as David Didau asserts, measuring learning is a horrifically complex business). It should still be the basis of teaching […]

  15. […] Läs David Didaus bloggpost från augusti – och fundera själv, både över vad du gör och över vad du inte gör. Jag funderar också, över min egen praktik. Och finner (precis som D D skriver i kommentarerna, också läsvärda) att det är väsentligt att kritisera rätt saker. Illa genomförd/genomtänkt AfL leder ingenstans. […]

  16. heidi singleton January 17, 2014 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    In fact there is so much on this website that I would love the staff (at the school where I teach) to have the opportunity to read. I came across David’s comments about his outstanding lesson and how he considers what sound track he will use each day. It reminded me to keep the joy in teaching and learning alive.

  17. […] we’ve been told about teaching is wrong, and what to do about it! Chasing our tails – is AfL all it’s cracked up to be? AfL: cargo cult teaching Questions that matter: method vs […]

  18. […] Läs David Didaus bloggpost från augusti – och fundera själv, både över vad du gör och över vad du inte gör. Jag funderar också, över min egen praktik. Och finner (precis som D D skriver i kommentarerna, också läsvärda) att det är väsentligt att kritisera rätt saker. Illa genomförd/genomtänkt AfL leder ingenstans. […]

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