This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2020 You can read the original version on the SecEd website here. This is the final part of a 2-part article on curriculum impact – you can read the first part here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
In the first article in this two-part series on curriculum impact (Bromley, 2020a), I explained that – to my mind – the purpose education is not solely to get pupils through qualifications, though these are clearly important, but rather to genuinely prepare pupils for what comes next.
Indeed, if we are to focus on the real substance of education, provide a broad and balanced curriculum that is ambitious for all and tackles social justice issues, then we should measure the impact of all this. As such, I argued that the purpose of “impact” is at least threefold:
- To evaluate the effectiveness of the way in which the curriculum is designed.
- To evaluate the effectiveness of the way in which the curriculum is taught.
- To evaluate the pace of pupil progress, pupil outcomes, and pupils’ preparedness for their next steps.
Last time I explored the first of these purposes so let us, without delay, turn to the second…
The way the curriculum is taught
As well as using assessment to evaluate the effectiveness of our curriculum planning – or intent – we should also learn from our impact assessments how well the curriculum is translated into practice in the classroom – in other words, its implementation.
Assessment is an integral – indeed, one might argue, an essential – component of effective teaching and learning. Broadly speaking, there are two types of assessment: summative, the focus of which is on final outcomes – what a pupil has achieved at the end of a unit, year or course – and formative, the focus of which is on diagnosing a pupil’s next steps.
Summative assessment usually takes the form of high-stakes tests; formative assessment can take many forms including class discussions, multiple-choice quizzes, peer-teaching and so forth.
Whereas summative assessment is the assessment of learning, formative assessment is often referred to as “assessment for learning” (or AfL for short) because it is a way of providing pupils with feedback about the progress they have made thus far and about what they need to do next to make further such progress.
But I would argue that formative assessment is not solely assessment for learning, it is also assessment as learning and indeed assessment as teaching…
Why “assessment as learning”? Well, formative assessment is a means by which pupils actually learn, not just a guide to future learning. For example, by engaging in classroom discussions and questioning – one of the five formative assessment strategies expounded by Black and Wiliam (1998) – pupils deepen their knowledge and understanding and therefore learn.
Why “assessment as teaching”? Well, formative assessment is not only a method of providing information to pupils on which they can act, or indeed a means through which pupils can actually learn; it is also a mechanism for providing information to the teacher on which they too can act – after all, teachers use the outcomes of formative assessment to guide their planning and teaching; formative assessment tells them what pupils know and can do and what they do not yet know and cannot yet do, and therefore, at its simplest, proffers intelligence about whether to reteach, recap or move on.
We should therefore use our impact assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of our teaching. To achieve this aim, it might help to ask the following questions:
Do teachers have expert knowledge of the subjects they teach? If not, are they being supported to address gaps in their knowledge so that pupils are not disadvantaged by ineffective teaching? Does the school support an effective programme of subject-specific professional development as well as training on generic pedagogy? Do the teachers assigned to each cohort, each year group and each level and type of qualification have the knowledge and experience to teach it well? Thus: is timetabling as effective as it could be?
Do teachers enable pupils to understand key concepts, presenting information clearly? Are teacher explanations effective – for example, do they make use of dual coding? Do teachers also model thinking aloud for pupils to make the invisible visible and the implicit explicit? Do they explicitly teach the language – including Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary – that pupils need in order to understand the curriculum? Do teachers articulate clear learning outcomes and make explicit what pupils should know and be able to do at the end of each sequence of lessons? Do teachers establish routines for classroom discussions so that all pupils contribute fairly and in order that debate deepens pupils’ understanding? Do teachers make use of “live” low-stakes assessment practices such as hinge questions and exit tickets to assess pupils’ understanding and to identify the gaps in their knowledge and skills, as well as their misunderstandings? Do they use these assessments to inform their planning and teaching so that lesson planning is fluid and responsive, rather than something to stick to religiously?
Do teachers ensure that pupils embed key concepts in their long-term memory and apply them fluently? Is the subject curriculum taught in such a way that allows pupils to transfer key knowledge to long-term memory? Do teachers gain the active attention of pupils’ working memories and make them think hard but efficiently about curriculum content? Once encoded into long-term memory, do teachers provide plenty of opportunities for retrieval practice to ensure the knowledge in long-term memory is brought back into the working memory so that it remains accessible, and so as to encourage pupils to apply that knowledge in different contexts? Is prior learning linked to new learning, so that what is taught today builds on what was taught yesterday and so forth? Are explicit links made between different parts of the curriculum and indeed across curriculum areas to help make knowledge transferable and useable? Is teaching sequenced in practice (not just in lesson plans) so that pupils acquire the knowledge and skills needed to complete each task before they are asked to complete it, and so that new knowledge and skills logically build on what has been taught before, enabling pupils to make progress towards clearly defined end-points?
Do teachers use formative assessment to check pupils’ understanding in order to inform their planning and their teaching, and to help pupils embed and use knowledge fluently and develop their understanding? Do all these assessments have a clear purpose? Do they provide valid data on which the teacher can and does act? Is the feedback garnered from assessments meaningful and motivating to pupils? Does it help them to close the gap between their current performance and their desired performance? Is time set aside every time feedback is given to pupils so that they can process it, question it if needed, and act upon it in class while the teacher is present to provide support, challenge and encouragement?
In evaluating the effectiveness of the way in which the curriculum is taught, we would do well to consider the question, “what is learning?” If we define the complex process of learning as an alteration in long-term memory, as many cognitive scientists and educational psychologists do, then we can conclude that if nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.
However, transfer to long-term memory depends on a number of factors. In order to develop understanding, pupils must connect new knowledge with existing knowledge. Pupils must also develop fluency and unconsciously apply their knowledge as skills. As Ofsted itself states, this process must not be reduced to, or confused with, simply memorising facts. Indeed, inspectors will be alert to unnecessary or excessive attempts to simply prompt pupils to learn glossaries or long lists of disconnected facts. Learning has to be meaningful.
So, in addition to the above, I would suggest that you also ask yourselves: how do we assess the effectiveness of the way in which our curriculum is taught so that pupils transfer key concepts into long-term memory and can apply them fluently – and what do we do with our findings?
Evaluating the pace of pupil progress, outcomes, and preparedness
As well as evaluating the effectiveness of our curriculum planning and teaching, we want our impact assessments to measure eventual outcomes so that we can determine what pupils have achieved – and also the extent to which our curriculum planning and teaching has enabled pupils to achieve what we intended while not perpetuating any attainment gaps.
By “outcomes”, I do not solely mean qualification outcomes, of course. As I argued above, the purpose of education is not just certification but to genuinely prepare pupils for the next stage of their education, employment and lives. So, what does this look like? What might we assess in order to make a judgement about the impact of our curriculum on pupil outcomes?
Here, it might be helpful to take a look at the “personal development” judgement in the Ofsted framework, which says that preparedness includes:
- Developing pupils as responsible, respectful and active citizens who are able to play their part and become actively involved in public life as adults.
- Developing and deepening pupils’ understanding of the fundamental British values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law and mutual respect and tolerance.
- Promoting equality of opportunity so that all pupils can thrive together, understanding that difference is a positive, not a negative, and that individual characteristics make people unique.
- Promoting an inclusive environment that meets the needs of all pupils, irrespective of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation.
- Developing pupils’ character, which we define as a set of positive personal traits, dispositions and virtues that informs their motivation and guides their conduct so that they reflect wisely, learn eagerly, behave with integrity and cooperate consistently well with others. This gives pupils the qualities they need to flourish in our society.
- Developing pupils’ confidence, resilience and knowledge so that they can keep themselves mentally healthy.
- Enabling pupils to recognise online and offline risks to their wellbeing – for example, risks from criminal and sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, substance misuse, gang activity, radicalisation and extremism – and making them aware of the support available to them.
- Enabling pupils to recognise the dangers of inappropriate use of mobile technology and social media.
- Developing pupils’ understanding of how to keep physically healthy, eat healthily and maintain an active lifestyle, including giving ample opportunities for pupils to be active during the school day and through extra-curricular activities.
- Developing pupils’ age-appropriate understanding of healthy relationships through appropriate relationships and sex education
- Providing an effective careers programme (in line with the government’s statutory guidance on careers advice) that offers pupils unbiased careers advice, experience of work, and contact with employers to encourage pupils to aspire, make good choices and understand what they need to do to reach and succeed in the careers to which they aspire.
- Supporting readiness for the next phase of education, training or employment so that pupils are equipped to make the transition successfully.
Ultimately, we should measure the impact of our curriculum by the extent to which we prepare all our pupils for their next steps – do they make good progress through our curriculum and go on to achieve positive destinations? Do our pupils leave us as well-rounded, cultured, inquisitive, caring, kind, resilient, knowledgeable human beings ready to make their own way in the world?