rED Blackpool session review: Tom Sherrington

13 April 2018

In the first of our reviews of sessions from researchED Blackpool, held at Blackpool Research School on 24 March 2018, we look at Tom Sherrington’s session “No ‘Can Do’? – Making Assessment Actions Count”.

I had not seen Tom speak before, but his Twitter ‘thought experiment’ from last year intrigued me and made me reflect on my own practice:

Tom has recently published his book ‘The Learning Rainforest’ which provides an accessible summary of key contemporary evidence-based ideas about teaching, curriculum and assessment, and the debates that all teachers should be engaging in. Whilst I hadn’t read the book prior to seeing Tom’s session, it soon jumped up to the top of my ‘must read’ list once I had heard him speak.

Tom spoke about how assessment is feedback to us as teachers – it is about telling us a story. Unless it informs teachers in classrooms and helps pupils to see what they need to do to improve, it isn’t doing its job.

The idea of life after levels was discussed – and in particular the use of mastery grades such as ‘secure’, ‘exceeding’, etc which are vague and approximate, and getting suspiciously close to reinventing levels and all of the inherent problems that come with them. Tom challenged us as to whether these grades actually told us anything about progress, or just about how bad the school’s assessment system is, and to ask ourselves some difficult questions about assessment data in our schools:

  • Who are the children you’re worried about and what are you doing about them?
  • How many times do you have to collect data and what should that data look like?
  • What does your assessment data mean, and does it tell you anything about the learning or about what a pupil knows?

So what should we be focused on?

Leaders and teachers need to understand that assessment is inherently messy – it can’t always be put on a spreadsheet, and it shouldn’t be forced into a grading system for the sake of ‘neatness’. Tom shared his recommendations for high quality assessment:

Define what excellence looks like. What science / maths / English / history work would constitute excellence in Year 7 / Year 8 / Year 5? Make sure all teachers are aware of this and share it with the pupils.

  • Rehearse and repeat – practice and drill. Some of the best teaching Tom has ever seen involved lots of punchy drilling and rehearsal.
  • Check for understanding – make sure your teachers are great at questioning and probing. Sod the database! Spend time thinking about question sequencing (this linked very well to a session later in the day from Craig Barton, which will feature in a future review).
  • Relearn and retest – Quick, low-stakes quizzes work best for this. Tom described a system from his wife’s schools, in which quizzes are given in advance, together with helpful notes. Students know the questions in advance, and they learn how to learn! This builds confidence. Do it again if necessary! Design lots of resources which are quizzable: test yourself – and again, and again.

The takeaway for me was that schools need to do a LOT MORE of the low stakes – quizzing, knowledge tests – and a lot less of the big mock exams. And that we need to be less focused on the recording of meaningless assessment data which serves no purpose other than to appease leaders and parents.

Posted on 13 April 2018
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