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.