Hey you, don’t teach that. Teach this!

Do we always teach what we value? it seems to me that when push comes to shove, we end up teaching what is assessed. The urgency of accountability results, inexorably, in teaching to the test. And this, sadly, ends up with teachers teaching stuff that they don’t particularly value. I’m not in any way a mathematician, but one of the problems with maths at GCSE is that the knowledge students are taught is atomised: they are rarely shown the links and connections between, say, vectors and averages. Why not? Because the examination doesn’t require them to know this. But would it help their conceptual understanding of maths? I think so. I’m on less shaky ground when discussing English – the ‘skills’ and ‘knowledge’ need to pass the AQA English Language GCSE are fatuous. A pupil’s ability to think about language is not valued; the strictures of the mark scheme insist that questions must be answered formulaically with little room for individuality, and none for passion.

But what if we changed what we assessed? Now that National Curriculum levels will no longer be statutory for September 2014 we have a golden opportunity to design assessment systems that will, in turn, allow us to come up with a curriculum  bursting with that which we value. Life after levels could be a thrilling prospect.

I love these images from Tom Sherrington’s presentation at the SSAT National Conference in 2012:

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This so clearly illustrates the effect assessment has on outcomes. As long as there’s a ceiling, children will be cribbed cabinned and constrained into merely meeting our expectations. But what if we lifted the lid?

I’m also really excited by opportunities offered by Harpaz’s taxonomy of Performances of Understanding

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Most assessment rubrics stop mid way down the second column and never enter into the territory of criticising or creating knowledge until way after GCSE. So what if we were to design an assessment system that deliberately waded in to this murky, unmapped territory? In Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education, David Perkins talks about ‘playing the whole game’. Learning should not just be about learning content,  but getting better at things.  It should be about thinking with what you know to go further; finding explanations and justifications, and involve curiosity, discovery and creativity. Whoa there! Wind back a bit – did I really just write that? Learning should involve curiosity, discovery and creativity? Doesn’t this besmirch and contradict everything I’ve been saying for the past year or so? Well, happily, as long as we acknowledge the very real dichotomy between teaching knowledge and questioning knowledge, I’m more than willing to embrace the contradiction.

Perkins suggests that we should consider what ‘playing the whole game’ in our subject might look like – what do academics, or experts in our domain do? And if we work backwards from this, maybe we will be able to see how ‘junior versions’ or ‘threshold activities’ might ‘make the game worth playing’. In my subject, experts are either professional writers or academic literary critics – if we were interested in ‘playing the whole game’ of English then it would be worth thinking about what it is these people do and to develop a curriculum and an assessment system that allowed pupils to play a ‘junior version’ of these games. Of course all this must be sensibly filtered through what we know about the science of learning and we must never forget that experts and novices have quite distinct brain architecture – they  think in very different ways. (See this post for a description.) We must therefore be mindful not to overload working memory when playing these ‘junior versions’ of our subjects’ games.

So, with it that buzzing about in my brain, I made the long journey through the mist shrouded cobbled streets of Durham to work with the quite wonderful English department at Belmont Community School to help them design a new Key Stage 3 curriculum and a new post-levels assessment system. It goes without saying that I’m heavily indebted to the work of Alex QuigleyJoe Kirby and Phil Bagstock –  their thinking has certainly made it easier for those of us following in their footsteps.

That said, here’s what we came up with:

I wouldn’t want to claim that this model is perfect; it’s a product of its context and was very much led by what Belmont’s English department wanted, and only partly shaped by what I thought it should or could be. One thing that they were very clear about was that reading and writing should not be assessed separately, so the ‘organising concepts’ that we decided upon have not been explicitly divided, although it’s pretty clear that some relate more closely to either reading or writing skills. But what we were all particularly proud of was the fact that assessment allowed, even encouraged, pupils to go beyond where levels left off and will, we hope, allow the lid to be lifted on the assessment tasks they will go on to develop. Although this model is still focussed on generic skills, it is designed to be a template that can be adapted when drawing up rubrics for specific assessment tasks.

The brief for the curriculum was that it would allow the extended study of culturally rich texts and would attempt place English literature within a sequential context. We decided to study only 3 broad topics, or schemes of learning per year, and to have two assessment points per scheme of learning. This still looks a little sketchy in certain areas but this document gives you the gist of it:

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We then went into more detail to plan out what some of the schemes of working would look like using two excellent planning tools taken from Creating Outstanding Classrooms: A whole-school approach. Here some planning examples from the Year 7 ‘Story of English’ scheme:

These schemes are based on rich enquiry questions, packed full of interesting and challenging content, and assessed against pupils’ mastery of the organising concepts of English. They are designed to ensure that pupils are getting better at the subjects and, as Harry Webb says, “there is nothing more motivating than becoming better at something.”

The pragmatist in me suggests that the overwhelming majority of schools will stick with levels out of fear and inertia. We’ll carry on with the same old same old like pit ponies released from the mines only to continue wandering aimlessly in the dark.  I’d like to think this post offers two points:

1) Although this process isn’t easy, it is certainly possible. It took two days with the whole department off timetable and me there to guide, shape, question and suggest. This was a considerable investment by the school, but everyone involved left feeling excited about the future and satisfied with the process. If you’d like to talk to me about doing something similar, please get in touch.

2) Daisy Christodoulou has written persuasively about why we should rid ourselves of the shackles of National Curriculum Levels, but more importantly this opportunity presents us with the ability to build something that might make a real difference to our pupils. This is a precious opportunity: don’t squander it.

Thanks for the title, and credit for getting this whole process rolling, must go to the inimitable Dan Brinton, Deputy Head at Belmont.

UPDATE: I’ve begun the process of trying to assess the efficacy of this assessment system here. Please feel free to add comments.

Related posts

Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum
Is there a way to avoid teaching rubbish in English?
Redesigning a curriculum