In 2014, preparing trainees at Teach for Sweden’s Summer Institute, I taught formative assessment better than ever. In three hours we covered all five strategies and two or three techniques for each, with examples of each technique tailored to trainees’ subjects and time for them to consider how the strategies fitted their context. I even checked for understanding at each stage using the strategy we’d just discussed… A great session, I thought. Teaching the same topic this year, I ditched 90% of the previous session.
Big problems with how I was training teachers:
1) Too much information
I suspect most experienced teachers use only a handful of formative assessment techniques frequently; it took me years to gain basic competence in half of what I was teaching. Briefly introducing teachers to a dozen techniques overloaded them with information they would neither use nor wish for in their first term.
2) Knowing is not doing
The slide above shows that two of the three verbs in the learning objectives are “understand” and “know”; but knowing what success looks like is less than half of the battle. Showing teachers a good hinge question – without allotting time to create several – almost guarantees they won’t be used.
3) Overlooking complexity
Designing hinge questions is tricky; choosing what to do with students’ responses, under time pressure, is difficult too. A teacher has roughly thirty seconds to assess students’ understanding and decide what to do next: this is an ethical and practical challenge; each choice – continuing, going back, or splitting the group – has pros and cons. We barely discussed it. Showing a brief video of a teacher doing this hardly prepares a trainee to do the same.
Overall, the session offered a huge amount of potentially useful information, but I struggle to believe it caused lasting change in trainees’ behaviour, or set them up well for the classroom.
Keeping the main thing the main thing:
This year I changed almost everything about the session, following these principles:
1) A clear aim and a visible outcome
Trainees had to leave the room ready to use assessment in their classrooms. So I needed them to practise their assessment there and then – otherwise, I couldn’t be sure they would be able to do this independently.
2) Self-denial: limited objectives.
I described to trainees in another session the importance of limiting oneself: sharing only a fraction of a fascinating topic is painful, but essential in setting achievable lesson objectives. The same applies to teacher training; I love formative assessment, but sharing every amazing facet is unhelpful. So rather than training teachers in the five strategies of formative assessment:
I prepared teachers to use two: learning intentions (in the planning session) and eliciting evidence of student achievement.
(I prioritised this because, once objectives are set, the key thing is the teacher knowing how well students are achieving them. If they can do that, they can employ the other three strategies: providing useful feedback and designing activities allowing students to learn from one another and themselves).
To ensure mastery of this one strategy, I taught just two techniques: exit tickets in full, hinge questions in part. It was painful cutting techniques I believe to be important, interesting and useful; but it’s better teachers leave a session able to use two techniques in the classroom than vaguely aware of several. Success within these limits prepares them to experiment and add to their repertoire later.
3) Including the whole process.
Formulating an exit ticket or a hinge question is just the first step. The real skill is acting upon the information it provides, whether after the lesson (exit tickets) or during (hinge questions). I set out to teach every aspect of an exit ticket:
- a challenging, attainable, curriculum-oriented lesson objective
- a question or questions testing success in meeting that objective
- swiftly assessing students’ answers
- an appropriate next step based on students’ responses
- delivering that next step
4) Practising each step
At every step I followed the same procedure, designed to ensure trainees could actually do it themselves: introducing and modelling the idea, asking trainees to create their own, making time for them to deliver it, receive feedback and act upon it. (I’ll write more about this in a future post) So, for exit tickets, we:
1) Reviewed formulating objectives and created our own.
2) Rewrote the objectives based on peer feedback.
3) Having examined models of exit tickets, we scripted exit ticket questions
5) We examined the various possible next steps with student responses.
6) I invited trainees to prepare what they would do if half the class appeared to have mastered the objective, half hadn’t.
7) Teachers delivered what they had prepared, and again, refined it.
I’ve glossed over what I ‘taught’ them about how to do this (the whole presentation is at the end of the post), to emphasise the key aspect: for every single aspect of an exit ticket, I made time for teachers to practise, struggle, improve and internalise actually doing it – leaving me with some degree of confidence that they would do the same in the classroom.
Everything is practice
New teachers have much to learn; but my reflection from this summer is that teacher training dwells too heavily on exploring what good teaching might be and insufficiently on preparing trainees to be good teachers. Understanding what excellence looks like is important, but we help teachers most when we put them in a position to be excellent.
Theoretical understanding matters; there is nothing worthwhile to practise without a model and an underlying theory – like the theory of formative assessment. An individual session without practice might be interesting, useful, fun and perhaps even potent. But there’s a time and a place for it: beginning teaching is the time for a glimpse of the underlying theory and a focus on what works in the classroom. I struggle to see the point in any theory in teacher education, unless it has some application in the classroom and unless teachers change their behaviour – consistently, not once or twice – as a result of learning it. I struggle to see how anything will be applied without time for trainees to practise its application. (I learned a similar lesson in designing Continuing Professional Development two years ago). And what is the point in teacher training, if it does not lead teachers to change their behaviour?
There is an interesting analogy here: the way we teach young people is the same as the way we teach adults – or should be. One fundamental principle of lesson planning is designing the assessment then planning backwards: how will you know students learned what you taught? If I taught a brilliant explanation of Magna Carta, then stopped, I’d be laughed out of town. I have to do something to see if they’ve ‘got it’… But what is ludicrous in the classroom sometimes seems permissible in teacher training. We would surely never write ‘to appreciate’ or ‘to understand’ as a lesson objective; we would instead plan for students to be able to ‘explain’ or ‘describe’. If we expect students to show and refine their understanding actively, likewise we must expect teachers in training to do the same.
My fear in teacher training is that teachers grasp an idea (or nearly do) and then, thrown into the maelstrom of school, they lose sight of it immediately – or try it and fail. So this year, I asked teachers to practise everything I hoped they’d be able to do in the classroom, whether that was sharing a vision, managing learning, planning or delivering. What I want is experiences like the post below, of one of the trainee’s first days, in which she had successfully used exit tickets. Practice gives me some hope that this will happen.
Other posts in the series:
A culture of practice, explores how we design an environment in which trainees feel motivated and safe practising.
Planning Practice, Practising Vision sets out how to plan a practice session.
Making Verbal Feedback Work explains how to design feedback in teacher training.
The full formative assessment presentation is here (some relates to the Swedish curriculum, but you’ll work it out).