AfL: cargo cult teaching?

OK, so here’s a quick summary of the story so far: A few days ago I suggested in a blog post that maybe AfL ‘wasn’t all that’. Lots of lovely people kindly got in touch to point out that I clearly hadn’t got a clue what AfL actually was, and then Gordon Baillie wrote a really rather good response in defence of AfL on his blog.

Right? Right. At this point I’m going to tediously catalogue what I know about AfL so no one’s confused about what I might and might not be suggesting. Here’s a collection of posts I’ve written on feedback and assessment:

Formative assessment and the markscheme July 2011
What’s the point of assessment? August 2011
If you grade it, it’s not formative assessment September 2011
Should we stop doing good things? September 2011
What can engineers teach us about assessment? September 2011
Is there a case for summative assessment? September 2011
The joy of marking October 2011
Feedback: it’s better to receive than to give February 2012
Making feedback stick  July 2012
Work Scrutiny: what’s the point of marking books? January 2013

If you’re minded to wade through these you’ll be able to trace the development of my thinking on these thorny issues. I tell you this not to brag (some of the earlier posts are a little too dodgy to feel boastful about) but to establish that I do have some idea whereof I speak. Not only that, I’ve read through a good deal of Dylan Wiliam’s oeuvre, especially Embedded Formative Assessment and feel able to encapsulate his collected wisdom as follows:

AfL must consist of the following processes:

  • Establishing where pupils are in their learning
  • Establishing where they should be
  • Working out how to get there

That’s from me book, that is.

The first 2 bullet points are just data. No one in their right mind would ever suggest that it’s not useful to know what your pupils know and are able to do. Of course it is. If you don’t know this how could you ever work out whether your teaching was in any way effective. (More on this here.) And not having a very clear idea of what pupils should be able to do is just negligent. The 3rd bullet point is the kicker. This is where the much vaunted power of feedback takes over. In a nutshell it is the teacher’s ability to get their pupils to understand how to improve. I don’t care whether this feedback is written or verbal, pronounced by the teacher or the pupils themselves, engraved on stone tablets, or communicated via Vulcan mind meld; that’s just technique. The point is that kids should know how to improve.

Now I for one feel very happy to refer to this delicious smorgasbord as plain old vanilla ‘good teaching’. And good teaching has been around for as long as there has been teaching. And that’s quite a long time. Let me assure you once and for all that I am, broadly, in favour of good teaching.

My contention though is that when we take certain aspects of good teaching and repackage them we provide a breeding ground for fools, charlatans and snake oil salespersons. We take what is merely sensible and dress it up as something arcane and unknowable; it becomes a kind of Latin mass which requires the presence of an anointed one to explain to the plebs.

Where I’ve ended up is that “AfL” has become tarred by all kinds of clumsy, well-intentioned brushes  (as well as more malign and opportunistic ones) and has become synonymous with the kind of unthinking nonsense we’d all like to see the back of. Just because the cognoscenti have a beautiful & pure definition of what AfL should be doesn’t help all the poor saps who are told to ‘do it this way’. The sad reality is that AfL as a ‘thing’ has become a bit of a toxic brand. Of course we shouldn’t stop doing the stuff that works but it would be eminently helpful to stop thinking of that stuff as something apart from, and separate to, good teaching.

My suggestion is simply this: let’s decouple all the great bits of good teaching upon which the house of AfL was founded and abandon all the jargon and ill-conceived ‘how to’ strategies.

Is that too much to ask?

And one final point. The central tenet of my argument was that you can’t really assess learning any more than you can smell the colour red or weigh happiness. We know these things exist but they’re mysterious to us. As long as we acknowledge that what we’re assessing is merely pupils’ performance, than fine. But that’s not what happens; the overwhelming majority of teachers and inspectors believe that we can measure learning.

So, is AfL a cargo cult? Well, as long as folk convince themselves that they have a firm hold on this most slippery of abstractions they’ll be guilty of building bamboo airports in the hope that the gods of education will deliver unto us, their faithful servants, our longed for magic teaching cargo. But if we simply concentrate on helping pupils understand how to do thing they currently can’t, a supply plane might land.

Related posts

The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance
Force fed feedback: is less more?

22 Responses to AfL: cargo cult teaching?

  1. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

    • Teacher says:

      Just to add to the debate from a primary school perspective… I recently did a staff meeting on ‘Revisiting Formative Assessment’ having attended one of Wiliam’s workshops in London. Staff were really engaged when I presented evidence behind formative assessment and I avoided any jargon. When discussing the importance of sharing the learning intentions/objectives (and that underlining the LO does not count as sharing the LO!!) I made it clear that I don’t care how this is done, whether teachers covered the LO or jumble the words of the LO, as you say above, that’s just a technique, as long as children know where to go and how. The discussion then moved on to how we make a professional judgement on which technique/s to use (based on experience or the teacher’s personality). So far so good…
      At the end of the meeting one my colleagues approached me and told she was confused because, first, she said, we have to make sure our lessons are consistent across the 3 classes in my year group but now we can use our professional judgement or personality when sharing the learning intentions!! The next day in the staffroom, another colleague asked me about the staff meeting… so is this another initiative from the government?
      I hope the above illustrates the reality in some staffrooms when it comes to formative assessment.
      While I agree with your suggestion of ‘good teaching’ I still think that teachers need some form of ‘AfL house’ to rely upon, but here’s the difference, teachers have to be given the opportunity to look at aspects of formative assessment of their choice and in a collaborative manner.

  2. I wished I’d come up with ‘clumsy well-intentioned brushes.’ I like the distinctions made here between AfL as a pure concept and AfL as a distorted branded jargonised ‘thing’. I’m now more inclined to use the phrase ‘formative assessment’ in this area.. it’s just an aspect of good teaching that means what it says. I also think performance and learning need to be understood as different – you’ve made this case really well – but feedback on performance goes a long way to support learning, even if you can’t see it – or smell it there and then.

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Tom – of course you’re right: we can infer learning from performance – we just need to be cautious in the assessments we make based on these inferences.

  3. Bill Feeble says:

    “The most heavily approved of end of lesson techniques for the teacher who is interested in being saluted for their proper adherence to last year’s bloodless and unstylish gimmick handed down from academia for unquestioning conformists to adopt.” ‘Saloadashitinnit.

  4. Chris Moyse says:

    Not sure the first two bullet points are just data but more an understanding of how they have and will be assessed. Success criteria, to use FA jargon, is important here. When students have a understanding of what t hey know and can do then they are more able to steer their own ship methinks
    Good debate but I still think its unnecessary to label it as anything other than good old teaching

  5. Heather F says:

    You are so right. I have ended up thinking that we should only really ever suggest good practice possibilities. The moment good practice ‘tricks’ become compulsory being seen to do those techniques becomes an end in itself. It is like picking randomly one of Lemov’s 49 techniques in ‘Teach like a Champion’ and claiming good teaching is only possible when that technique is used.

  6. […] recent blogs debating the merits of Assessment for Learning (AfL), particularly here , here and here. While I’m sure I risk repeating some of the points already made, I can’t resist weighing in […]

  7. Tamsen Jones says:

    It’s great that you are opening a dialogue about AfL. I agree that AfL, in essence, can be considered just plain old good teaching. However, I also believe that the original (and regularly updated) pedagogical ideas behind it are definitely of value as it makes ‘good teaching’ strategies and thinking explicit, not just a personality thing or belief system. It also challenges embedded ideas about teaching and learning. That being said, the concept has definitely been bastardised and I think Sue Swaffield makes an excellent argument here: http://www.aaia.org.uk/content/uploads/2010/07/The-Misrepresentation-of-Assessment-for-Learning1.pdf

    Sadly, when you compare the National Strategy materials sent to schools to the AfL materials sent to Scottish schools and Northern Ireland schools, it is quite obvious that it was seen as a ‘quick fix’ here in England and I feel that this has created a lot of misconceptions! I think that the way it was ‘rolled out’ left a lot to be answered for.
    The idea of promoting it as ‘Just plain old good teaching’ is a little amusing! The teaching profession would, as a whole, tut and ask who the hell these academics think they are to tell us how to do our jobs (I can just picture the conversation in the staff room or the rolling of eyes in the CPD training!). It is also only one aspect of plain old good teaching and the authors would be accused offer-simplifying a very complex process (unless you’re in the Michael Gove school of thought! Assessment for Learning was just too catchy for its own good and had the key words that sent political hearts a-fluttering at the time, and so a little bastardised version was born.

    The summary of AfL as:

    Establishing where pupils are in their learning
    Establishing where they should be
    Working out how to get there

    has been fleshed out a lot more by Dylan Wiliam and co in more recent literature (which I realise you’re aware of as you talk about ‘Embedding Formative Assessment’) and he has tried to distance their thinking and practices from the brand of AfL, as well as addressed the intense focus on feedback in their initial literature (and the danger of pupils becoming overly dependent on it.) It is very difficult in English to identify such a clear-cut gap in the learning, even when using APP 😉 , and learning is, as you state, a messy affair.BUT when your crew knows what treasure you’re aiming for, they can each work toward gaining their part of that treasure.

    Basically, I see AfL as a means to reflect on the effectiveness of my teaching and the learning activities I choose, to ensure that the focus is on learning and not just covering the curriculum, and to make the success criteria available to the pupils so that they develop a growth mindset. Mary James et al, in their ‘Learning How to Learn’ literature, talk about the ‘spirit’ and the ‘letter’ of AfL and I think this resonates with what you’re writing. When teachers just ‘do’ AfL for observation or school policy purposes or because they’ve uncovered a nifty trick, they’ve missed the point. It’s about rethinking our core aim, which is to enhance student learning, and requires that we are willing to rethink the planning of lessons and change the roles that teachers and students play in supporting the learning process. It creates a framework on which I can build my classroom ethos that “Even geniuses…have to work hard for their accomplishments” (C. Dweck, 2002) and puts the focus on challenges and learning as opposed to looking smart. To me, the ‘spirit’ of AfL links with the concept of marginal gains – everyone can succeed because everyone can improve, even if it is in small steps. If we don’t make the learning steps and processes explicit, how can they know they have made these gains? The fact that so many pupils (and teachers!) still have the fixed mindset and belief that you either are or aren’t ‘thick’ and there’s nothing you can do about it is an indication to me that there is still a lot of work to do in this area. For those interested, ‘Formative Assessment:Makin It Happen in the Classroom’ by H. Margaret Heritage is a very useful read.

    At the very least, AfL created a dialogue about the nature of teaching and learning that wasn’t just between academics and policy makers, gave pedagogical grounding and justification for what many good/radical/crazy teachers were already doing in their classes, and made ‘good teaching’ a little less of a mystical element for others. Sure, many aspects have been misinterpreted, but which cult doesn’t have those problems? 😉
    Thanks for the reflective posts, David!

  8. […] I have witnessed this very recently with @AfLPie and @LearningSpy sharing an excellent, online tête-a-tete, regarding assessment for learning and posing solution for and against AfL; others include the […]

  9. neilatkin63 says:

    Great teachers don’t need AfL to be spelled out and formalised as it simply makes sense to know what the students are thinking and to be able to use this information together with the student to move on appropriately. The problem is there are many teachers who don’t get it and have no idea what their students already know, for these an AfL strategy has probably improved their practice. I can remember seeing the figures for the cost of implementing APP and it was horrific (anyone know how much?)
    The bigger picture though is as you said the Leadership jumping on the bandwagon and everyone has to do things in a certain way. Anything that compresses great teaching is a sin.

  10. Sophia Kerr says:

    Drawing on data from lesson observations and interviews with a headteacher, teachers and pupils in one of the Jersey primary schools which prides itself on its culture of trust, this paper highlights key issues of leadership, teacher reflexivity and research and the concept of the learning community that we have identified as essential to teacher capacity building and to developing and sustaining the change in learning and teaching approaches as well as assessment practices. One Year 6 Meadows school pupil commented when asked how AfL helps pupils to learn that, ‘Peer marking helps me to learn. If you do a bit of work and you think everything is ok, but then when someone else sees it they spot different things. It is from your friends so it is from a child’s point of view not the teacher’ mirroring their teacher’s view that, ‘It is making a difference, the children comment on it’.

  11. Gale Rios says:

    Actually, I have no problem with levels or assessment. You have to use them with common sense, and make them your servant, not your master. At Greenfield we teach – actually – primarily for enjoyment and fun! After that, I would hope we do a good job of teaching the pupils the skills and facts of History. We set classwork and regular homeworks for all the reasons classwork and regular homeworks should be set! But, every now and again, we set the pupils an assignment. These vary between 3 and 6 a year, depending on the age and ability of the pupils. We try to set assignment tasks that the pupils will find challenging and interesting. We find we can mark most (though not all) of them by using this generic markscheme , which is essentially a distillation of the key elements of the level criteria. Actually, it makes marking quite easy: it directs your attention towards the key historical elements (and away from things like presentation, effort and length) – all you do is tick the elements you have seen, and indicate on the pupil’s assignment where you saw the critical ones (ie the ones at the margin). The pupils understand it as well, and their next targets become REALLY clear! They are the next couple of skills on the list. (I am aware of all the stuff about non-linear progression etc., but – let’s face it – the whole list is just a list of common-sense ways to write a good assignment, eh?) We record the marks, and at the end of the Key Stage we look across the levels the pupils have got, and come up with a best-fit judgement. It gives us a yardstick for summative AND formative assessment. The pupils enjoy demonstrating what they can do, and like to know how good (or bad) their effort was. It satisfies everything that parents and SMT could ever want to know about how the pupils are doing. And it is easy to set and mark. What’s the problem?

  12. […] objections on that fact that I obviously haven’t understood what AfL really is. I have: click here for a sackful of posts proving this fact. That said,  I’d welcome some feedback on this […]

  13. […] is wrong, and what to do about it! Chasing our tails – is AfL all it’s cracked up to be? AfL: cargo cult teaching Questions that matter: method vs […]

  14. […] pretty sure we get the same sort of thing going on at the chalkface. A few years ago I suggested AfL is a cargo cult with teachers perfectly replicating the form of something they don’t necessarily understand. […]

  15. […] AfL: Cargo cult teaching? via @LearningSpy […]

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