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3 December 2021
By Zoe Enser

Responsive Teaching and the Importance of Formative Assessment

students sitting at desk writing

At the heart of all good teaching is the need to be responsive to our students’ needs. That doesn’t mean lessons designed around three different lesson plans, resources, or activities. Nor does it mean arriving without a plan. What is does mean is gleaning as much rich and accurate information from our learners as possible so we know what prior knowledge they have, what they can already do, and build on this effectively. What this then needs, is high quality formative assessment woven in to our everyday practices.

In my recent 'Effective Instruction in Secondary English' session with a group of Early Career Teachers, both from within Kent and as far afield as Bangkok, we examined what this might look like in the English classroom and how this relates to the work of Barak Rosenshine on effective instruction.

First, we examined what formative assessment means, looking at the work of Dylan Wiliam. In his short video on Formative Assessment, Wiliam talks about how we take constant readings from our students in order to ensure they are travelling in the right direction, using the analogy of an airline pilot. Traditionally, formative assessment has often become conflated with summative practices, taking place after a series of lessons, and replicating what they may need to do later in the course. Summative assessment is designed to take a longer term look at learning and moving to talking about ‘responsive teaching’ is a welcome one from me. As Wiliam says, it is the ‘minute-by-minute, day-by-day’ readings that we take from our students that will allow us to really respond to their needs. There is a constant dialogue that takes place between teachers and students in a classroom, including a variety of non-verbal cues which we pick up on to ascertain how they feel about their learning too.

We also discussed the quote from David Ausubel who said ‘‘If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle I would say: The most important single factor influencing learning is what a learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him (or her) accordingly.’ He makes it sound simple, and the idea probably is, but making that the reality when you have 30 students in your class, all of whom may have a variety of knowledge available to them, is a complex business.

We therefore explored ways we can ensure we could get the most out of our formative strategies. Importantly, it is worth taking time to consider some of the ‘hinge questions’ or ‘threshold’ moments which will determine whether students can effectively move on or whether they may remain stuck. These are the points we really need to plan for, and participants were given the time to explore something they were teaching or about to teach and reflect on what the students really needed to have embedded in their schemas before they could move on. Concepts around grammar, understanding the text as a construct, explicit and implicit meaning, and misconceptions were key. Now that these concepts have been identified, it will be important to ensure students have a firm understanding which they can build upon. Planning assessment opportunities around these matters.

That means examining different approaches to assessing this, including varying the presentation of the question or idea, in order to draw upon what Bjork and Bjork describe as desirable difficulties. It is one thing to answer a question that is familiar and based around a known text. It is another to do that with something they may have not encountered before. The Unseen elements of the GCSE are drawing on this very thing. We examined some possible ways we could assess in the classroom, looking at the pros and cons of mini whiteboards, hands-up, cold call and circulating the classroom. Taking the idea from Doug Lamov, we examined why planning your route and circulating purposefully may be a good way to really drill down to what students know. Also considering carefully what you are looking for when circulating, as opposed to it being a tool for checking students are on-task (by no means a bad thing of course) can also really focus in on those hinge points and ensure misconceptions are not embedded as you quickly correct.

Finally, we went on to look at how to ask more probing questions, ensuring that we were taking opportunities to go beneath the surface. Looking at why students had go incorrect answers as well as correct ones can tell us a lot about their learning, and thinking of Graham Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners is a useful reminder that we need to check the process as well as the final conclusion. We looked at an example where students chose between different statements about Macbeth. In inviting different perspectives, asking students to explain their thought process to make their decisions, and allowing challenge to come from around the class, we are also, as Dylan Wiliam says, ‘activating’ peers as a resource for learning and students as owners of their own learning too. An entire lesson could be based around a dialogic approach to five simple statements and could yield a lot of information about what students know and what they may still be struggling with.
It was a pleasure as always to explore all this with such dedicated and knowledgeable professionals and each is taking something away to explore back in their own context before we meet again on the 1st February. In the next session, we will be discussing retrieval and cognitive load, so it will be interesting to see how this relates to the work they have already undertaken.

Effective Instruction in Secondary English: Retrieval and Cognitive Load

If you would like to sign up to the next session, you can do so here: Retrieval and Cognitive Load - Tuesday 8 February 2022

All of the sessions are related directly to the Early Career Framework and build on the generic elements which will be discussed there.

If you would like more details or would like recordings from the previous two sessions, please get in touch below.