Learning a subject is not exactly the same as building a car – my issue with Assessment for Learning

As a not particularly sporty individual, it took me longer to learn how to play tennis than it did some of the others on the course I attended back in the early 1990s. Time and again, I couldn’t get the serve right. I knew the techniques and was trying to follow them. I asked the coach for guidance and he smiled. “You’ll get there, Fish, you just need more practice”

“But everyone else seems to be getting it” was my response.

“Probably because they’ve done racquet sports before and you haven’t. Just keep at it.”

He was right. I’ll never be a tennis star, but after practising evening after evening, I did eventually “get it”

The reason I am sharing this anecdote is because we are now encouraged to think that improvements in learning can always be thought of in terms of “what they are currently doing wrong” and “next steps.”  At a recent parents evening, I was asked the depressingly common question “So what does she need to do to improve?” In this case it was the student’s translation skills which were letting her down.

The honest answer was “She simply needs more practice and she will be getting that over the next few months” and it was the answer I initially gave. Yet I could see that this did not satisfy the parent. “But where exactly is she falling down – what extra things does she need to do?” was the slightly puzzled response to my first answer. I then mumbled something about identifying different tenses, which was noted down with satisfaction. I had identified something concrete. “More practice” wasn’t really seen as OK.

Yet the student concerned could identify tenses when doing specific grammar exercises on tenses. What she and indeed all the other students needed was practice at identifying tenses in the middle of a prose passage which contained numerous other grammar points. Nor was it just the tenses which needed to be identified, but relative clauses, passives, conditionals, adjective endings, the lot. Nearly all my students could  identify and use these grammar points in specific grammar exercises.  We were now beginning to look at putting all that knowledge together. This does not come immediately. It takes time, which is why I have always done translation with my classes, even when it was completely unfashionable. I have never bought the argument which says if a language teacher practises translation with students, then they are addicted to the “grammar- translation method” and obviously never use the target language or engage in communicative tasks. I have always done both.

I gather Dylan Wiliam’s idea of “Assessment for Learning” took the analogy of Japanese car makers and noted how “quality assurance” took place at all stages and not simply at the end. This was then applied in education. I do not dismiss the importance of students knowing what they need to do to improve, but it does not take into account the need for practice. A carmaker who has inserted a widget the wrong way simply needs their error pointing out. In education, I have no problem with students having their mistakes pointed out – indeed, it is necessary for improvement. Nevertheless, education is not really the same as building a car. Sometimes the answer to the question “What do they need to do to improve?” is simply “More practice, which they will get throughout the course, so they don’t really need to do anything extra”. Yet a whole generation of parents, teachers and pupils are now so conditioned by the idea of trying to analyse exactly what a student is doing wrong, that the idea of simply needing practice has become anathema. Moreover the practice needed will come over a series of lessons – a lot of the time a student does not need to do anything “extra” other than attend lessons regularly, where they will get all the practice they need.

Practice makes perfect. A hackneyed phrase, but it can be forgotten in an education climate of targets, WWW and EBI….




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2 Responses to Learning a subject is not exactly the same as building a car – my issue with Assessment for Learning

  1. adamcporter says:

    It has always confounded me that students should be expected to know (or would want to know) a specific ‘how to improve’ in a subject. This has been particularly evident in instances where observers walk from student to student asking this question, usually directly following ‘what grade/level are you working at?’

    As you say, I am entirely supportive of the notion that errors, weaknesses and opportunities should be pointed out to develop practice but these can only ever be specific when dealing with a narrow objective. Any ‘how to improve’ with wider relevance, as Daisy Christodoulou puts it, is descriptive rather than analytical, effectively a grade in prose form.

    However, in defence of William and AfL, in my understanding, both my case and your own, are not examples of what AfL was trying to achieve. In fact AfL’s primary purpose is to allow the teacher to determine the best possible “series of lessons” considering the current competence of the students. In fact I believe William himself has expressed regret of the term AfL, believing ‘responsive teaching’ to be a more helpful and more accurate label.

    I would very much hope that my students recognise that there are a great many things they can do to improve in my subject, but that the curriculum that I deliver and the opportunities for deliberate practice I provide as a result of what Inlearn along the way will always be far more useful to them than any one isolated statement.


    Liked by 1 person

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