Education: A nice little learner

Government plans to raise standards in the classroom concentrate almost exclusively on teaching - but are they looking in the wrong place? By Patricia Broadfoot
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The Independent Online
Raising standards - this is at the core of Government policy. The last few years have seen relentless pressure on schools, teachers and, increasingly, students. Central to the strategy of raising standards is the use of assessment. Pupils' achievements are being measured through national assessment and examination results; school and even local education authority quality is being measured through Ofsted inspections. Target- setting to raise aspirations and naming and shaming those not doing well enough are all part of the pressure which is currently directed towards raising standards.

And yet it may well be that the mighty edifice of policy initiatives that has been constructed to underpin the process of raising standards in the end achieves little because it has not addressed the one issue that must be central to raising standards - learning. Learning, that is, not teaching. Surprisingly, while issues concerning teaching quality and teaching styles have received considerable attention in recent policy debates, learning, and the factors that affect it, have, by comparison, been hardly addressed. This is all the more surprising given the very substantial evidence that exists about the factors that help or hinder learning and hence how it can be improved.

One such factor is, ironically enough, assessment itself. Not the assessment which is designed to measure and compare, to grade and categorise into levels and lists; but the assessment that must underpin all learning, which provides feedback on our efforts, which tells each of us how we are doing and helps to guide our subsequent efforts to achieve success. This is the kind of assessment that goes on constantly in classrooms. It is inseparable from the business of teaching and learning; it is, I would argue, central to raising standards. It is here, at classroom level, that the war of raising standards will be won, that the daily battle to motivate pupils and to equip them to become successful learners will be fought and where the key to success ultimately lies.

That this is indeed so and not just empty polemic has been convincingly demonstrated in recent research. Although it is fashionable to rubbish educational research, the findings from a review of over 250 separate studies of the link between assessment and learning. The review was conducted by Professor Paul Black and Dr Dylan William of King's College, London, and gives a clear and incontrovertible message: that initiatives designed to enhance the effectiveness of the way assessment is used in the classroom to promote learning can raise student achievement by the equivalent of between one or two grades at GCSE for an individual - and, for England as a whole, they would have raised the country's position in the recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study from the middle of the 41 countries involved to the top 5. The gain for lower-achieving students is likely to be even more substantial.

If, as it would appear, we may have discovered the educational equivalent of the alchemist's philosopher's stone that can turn base metal to gold, this evidence warrants, at the very least, serious study and discussion about its implications for practice.

What are the key elements in the formula for success and can these be readily reproduced in the average classroom? Improving student learning through assessment appears to depend on five deceptively simple key factors:

l The provision of effective feedback to students;

l The active involvement of students in their own learning;

l Adjusting teaching to take account of the results of assessment;

l A recognition of the profound influence assessment has on the motivation and self-esteem of pupils;

l The need for students to be able to assess themselves and understand how to improve.

Although these recipes for success may seem obvious, there is considerable evidence from Ofsted reports that they are not practised in the average classroom. The evidence suggests that more often teachers' tests tend to encourage rote and superficial learning and that there is a tendency to assess the quantity and presentation of work rather than its quality in relation to learning, with marking and grading being emphasised at the expense of advice and encouragement. Perhaps most important of all, however, is the effect of national assessment, which puts too much emphasis on comparisons between students. Such comparisons lead many children to become demoralised and to believe that they are not able to learn.

Although there is some evidence of recent improvement in classroom assessment practice in this country, the recent torrent of policy initiatives informed by very different assumptions about how to raise standards has meant that support for developing this vital aspect of professional practice has been largely neglected.

Moreover, teachers have been under such pressure to conform to new requirements that much previous good practice has not survived. Teachers are increasingly under pressure "to teach the test".

It is time to change the balance and provide much more national support for the development of good classroom assessment that is directed at supporting learning.

In particular, teachers need support and training to give pupils feedback on their work, which avoids comparisons with other students but provides advice on what they need to do to improve. Pupils need to be trained to assess their own progress, to understand the purpose of their learning and what they need to do to be successful.

Although these ideas are not radical in themselves, they do represent an urgently needed shift of policy emphasis. The institutional stranglehold of league table comparisons needs to be lifted in order to allow teachers and pupils to spend more time on learning to learn, on developing the skills and attitudes that underpin the sustained motivation to try - ultimately crucial to success. Funding is needed for development projects to see how assessment can best support learning; new approaches to assessment need sustained dissemination through initial and in-service training. Above all, what is required is a shift in policy focus towards working from evidence of what works. Ultimately it is teachers and students working together in the right way that will raise standards. Research has provided a clear way forward; it is time to take it.

The writer is a professor of education at the University of Bristol