Formative Assessment: Responding to Wonderings Continued

Participating in the Ontario Leadership Congress this past week had me thinking deeply about our learning and the importance of our work. As well as celebrating where we have come as a province (and for us, as a school district), Andy Hargreaves spoke about how important it is to acknowledge that much of our work is not new work; it has been around for many years. Currently in the educational world, however, we need to understand that we are in the business of deeply refining our practice, fully understanding why we use a particular practice with a particular student/group of students – in essence, understanding the work in a much deeper way than we ever have. We are in the business of answering the question “Why this learning for this student at this time in this way? at all times.  In this province, we know that each of us can continue to get better and better, especially in areas that we know will make a difference for students…that this is now the culture in education.

For some educators, this work may, in fact, seem like deep change; perhaps it seems huge and daunting as those educators may have resisted change in the past or may have had a Judger Mindset and thus were distracted from the true learning by factors such as the delivery method, a threatened feeling, a defensive attitude…a mindset which may have resulted from past experiences. Over time, that stance has led to the development of larger gaps (think technology!); perhaps resulting in educators feeling overwhelmed.  Regardless of the reason, the challenge is to now help/guide/encourage all of our educators to jump onto the “bus” as it is our moral imperative (from Fullan) to meet the needs of every student, ongoing professional learning is part of our Standards of Practice, and teaching is complex work (not to mention that it truly is fun work!) and requires a team approach. Hargreaves had me wondering if we helped those individuals to see that it is more about refinement, enhancement, and responsiveness…the notion that we are building on current practice…rather than replacing current practice…if the result might be different.  I worry that if we don’t figure this out then the gap will grow larger for some…how do we invite those who are struggling with change to be a part of the change?

With this in mind, I am attempting to use this reflective lens as I write today – to remind myself to connect the past to the present!   We are beginning to understand how Assessment for/as Learning (similar to Formative Assessment) is a key piece to achieving our district’s Learner Centered Pedagogy and Environment theory of action and of how this work helps (we think) learners to become increasingly engaged, motivated and have a sense of belonging in their learning environment. We know (and have always known!) that when we involve the learners as active participants in the learning process, outcomes are positive.  As we engage in formative assessment ourselves of where the adult learners are at, we know that for many, a surface understanding of Formative Assessment exists – an understanding that might be described as “content knowledge”.  This can be seen as a strength for some of us at this time – the notion that we have this beginning understanding and that many of us have chosen to “practice” these strategies in our classrooms – even if it may be out of compliance (and thus we have yet to see the positive impact on learning).  Let’s celebrate where we are as adult learners, while acknowledging that we have to now refine our practices to ensure that they are, in fact, making a difference in student outcomes.

At this stage of implementation, we have solid formative information that tells us that we need to understand more about formative assessment, specifically, we are realizing that:

  •  The Assessment Cycle (Learning Goals, Success Criteria, Feedback, Peer/Self-Assessment and Individual Goal Setting) takes place ONLY in the Assessment for/as Learning/Formative phases of learning – the PRACTICING phases – and is not used in the Assessment of Learning phase. We use this Assessment Cycle strategies to accomplish the goal of learning so that students are ready to demonstrate their thinking independently and in a new context in the Assessment of Learning (similar to Summative Assessment in some ways) phase.  Below are some look-fors from Moss and Brookhart, (Advancing Formative Assessment, 2009, pg.19) that illustrate how the Assessment Cycle strategies are embedded in Formative Assessment.

formative assessment

  • All of the components of the Assessment Cycle (Learning Goals, Success Criteria, Feedback, Peer/Self-Assessment and Individual Goal Setting) need to be used together as a system if there is going to be an impact on learners.

A formative learning cycle has five general phases:

  1. Model and Explain: The teacher helps students aim for understanding by sharing the learning target, the performance of understanding and the student look-fors.
  2. Guided Practice: The teacher scaffolds the learning, helps students set goals for their learning, and models how to use the look-fors to self-assess and to prepare them for their independent work.
  3. Performance of Understanding: The teacher continues to feed the learning forward as students engage in a learning experiences that lets them try on their new learning, deepens their understandings, and requires them to apply their look-fors to focus their learning and self-improvement efforts.
  4. Formative Feedback: Students receive descriptive information about what they did well and suggestions for exactly what they should do next to increase their understanding and skill and improve the quality of their work.
  5. The Chance to use the Feedback to Improve Performance: Students get what we call the “golden second chance” to attempt part (or all) of the performance again, this time with the advantage of being able to apply the strategies and feed-forward insights from the formative feedback.

(Moss and Brookhart, Formative Classroom Walkthroughs, 2015, pg. 28)

 We are learning that “the actual techniques teachers use to enact these (the Cycle) in their practices requires some careful thought.  Some techniques work better in some school subjects than others and some work better with some students than others.  It is also important to note that the teacher’s belief in the value of a technique is important.” (Wiliam, “Sustaining Formative Assessment with Teacher Learning Communities”, pg. 10).

Nicol and Mcfarlane-Dick (2006, in Edugains Video Viewing Guide Learning Goals and Success Criteria) point out that “many studies have shown that it is difficult to make assessment criteria and standards explicit through written documentation or through verbal descriptions in class…Most criteria for academic tasks are complex, multidimensional (Sadler, 1989) and difficult to articulate”. They suggest that students need to interact with the criteria in a variety of ways. In fact, the more students interact with the criteria, the more they are able to internalize the look-fors and apply them when assessing the quality of their work or performance.  This interaction is accomplished when the entire Assessment Cycle is put into place.

  • Co-construction is a vehicle that enables students to own the learning.

 “Collaborating to develop criteria, sometimes referred to as coconstructing criteria (Gregory et al, 1997), helps students and teachers to reach a common understanding of the criteria by which performance will be judged. By directly involving students in the development of criteria, teachers help students to deepen their understanding of what success looks like. The process invites students to share their initial ideas and understandings about the characteristics of successful performance. As learning progresses, teachers guide students in exploring and refining their understanding of the criteria by having them continuously reflect on and apply the criteria as part of their learning activities.” (Edugains Video Viewer’s Guide Learning Goals and Success Criteria)

 “It is important to note that developing learning intentions or success criteria with students is most definitely not a democratic process. The teacher is in a privileged position with respect to the subject being taught and knows more about the subject than the students do, and it would be an abdication of the teachers’ responsibilities to let whatever the students feel should be valued be adopted as the learning intentions.  The advantage of developing the learning intentions with the students is that doing so creates a mechanism whereby students can discuss and come to own the learning intentions and success criteria, making it more likely that they will be able to apply the learning intentions and success criteria in the context of their own work” (Wiliam, 2011, Embedded Formative Assessment, pg. 59).

 “An important technique for helping students understand learning intentions and success criteria is asking them to look at samples of other students’ work and to engage in a discussion about strengths and weaknesses of each….” (Wiliam, 2011, Embedded Formative Assessment, pg. 65).

Some teachers wonder why a class should spend time looking at other students’ work when they could be doing their own work, but as many teachers have discovered, students are much better at spotting errors and weaknesses in the work of others than they are in their own. Once students have pointed out such errors or weaknesses, they are more likely to avoid repeating them in their own work.” (Wiliam, 2011, Embedded Formative Assessment, pg. 67).

  •  Backwards Planning needs to take place – using Learning Goals rather than tasks – so that the components of the Assessment Cycle are used to their full potential, and so that learning makes sense to the learner – educators need to be clear themselves on what the learning targets (short and long term) actually are.

“I often ask teachers, “What are your learning intentions for this period?” Many times, teachers respond by saying things like, “I’m going to have the students…” and then specify an activity. When I follow up by asking what the teacher expects the students learn as a result of the activity, I am often met with a blank stare, as if the question is meaningless or trivial. This is why good teaching is extraordinarily difficult.  It is relatively easy to think up cool stuff for students to do in classrooms, but the problem with such an activity-based approach is that too often, it is not clear what the students are going to learn.  It is also relatively easy, on the other hand, to approach students directly about what you want them to learn, but this often results in unimaginative teaching. Teaching is hard, because as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2000) have pointed out, it has be to designed backward. (Wiliam, 2011, Embedded Formative Assessment, pg. 61).

  • We need to deeply consider the “front matter” of our curriculum documents – to find the big ideas of our curriculum, to identify the enduring understandings, and to ensure that skills and thinking are key to the work of our learners – as opposed to “Google-able” knowledge (only).
  •  The quality/specificity of the success criteria is linked to the quality of the descriptive feedback…more to come on this next week…

Until next week…offering a structure for co-creating…

3 responses

  1. What a great overview of formative assessment. This post brings years of our learning together in a way that consolidated the thinking that supports this process. I too was at a session most recently and too am excited about where we are as a board in our learning as it pertains to mathematics. I do see that based on the above blog we need to ensure that we all our at a common place in our learning. There have been some great tweets from this Congress and Selno. As we draw to the end of the school year we reflect on where we were, what we have accomplished and where to next. Thanks for bringing this thinking together and bringing clarity to areas that may continue to be in question.


  2. Nancy Petrick | Reply

    Wow, where to start! I have been involved in professional learning sessions over the last 5 days and I will start with the message that Andy Hargreaves stated, we continue to build on what we have done in the past – he used the parallel to going from driving an old car to getting into a new car, there were characteristics of the old car that you wanted to see in you new car, but perhaps they have just been upgraded and then there were some characteristic of the old car that just weren’t worthwhile putting into the new car. As we move forward and begin our planning for next year I believe we need to celebrate our successes, fine tune our working strategies and continue to check for understanding to ensure we are are all moving forward with the same vision.


  3. What I like about this idea of refining is that it acknowledges that we are all on a learning and development continuum – no matter where we are. This is a growth mindset. We may not have it yet. I have found it essential to acknowledge the strengths of the learners I engage with and build on those strengths. We all are at different places on the learning continuum. I think part of the power of optimism is acknowledging and celebrating where we are, because where we are is good – lots of expertise, experience, content knowledge, skill – but also acknowledging that we need to keep moving, no matter who we are or what stage in our learning. It’s that continual pressure and support to keep improving and refining. However, without that initial acknowledgement of strengths and enormous capacity that our learners have, we risk alienating them and building distrust.

    We’re several years past the intro of Growing Success and the culture of formative assessment is growing. We are hearing the same messages about formative assessment no matter what learning we are engaged in. I know my own understanding and use of formative assessment has taken time to develop, and all the messaging in our SLP sessions, Math PD sessions, and other formalized PD align and help to build that culture. Seeing and hearing a consistent message about formative assessment across contexts is helping build that culture.


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