Primary teachers are excellent at catering for the needs of their learners, and plan lessons which include plenty of fun and games, songs and stories, and projects and crafts. So much so, that children are often completely unaware of just how much they are learning.
I’m sure you’ve all cringed to hear students answer the question ‘what did you learn today?’ with a resounding ‘nothing’, which we all know is far from true. We teach grammar and vocabulary. We teach the skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. We work on behavior management and motor skills. We develop learning strategies and digital literacy. We enable children to work collaboratively and autonomously. The list goes on.
Changing that ‘nothing’ into an honest reflection of what happened in the lesson is neither difficult nor without benefits for everyone. Research suggests that when children are involved in the learning process their level of achievement increases; this entails knowing what they are learning, how they are learning it and what the teacher expects from them.
Self-awareness is one of the key life skills identified as essential for life in the 21st century. And importantly for us teachers, by helping children to notice, understand and talk about their own progress we reduce the amount of time we need to dedicate to convincing parents and caregivers that their child is on track and learning.
With that in mind, here are some tips for visible learning in the primary classroom:
1. Lesson menus
Start and finish each lesson by showing children a lesson menu and using it to discuss the lesson. I like to frame these as Can Do Statements, which work particularly well to highlight the learning that has taken place.
If at the start of the lesson children answer (or indicate non-verbally via thumbs up/down) ‘yes’, use this opportunity to find out what they already know and where the gaps are in their knowledge. That way you can spend your valuable lesson time on the things your students really need to work on.
By the end of the lesson the children should be able to answer ‘yes’ to at least some of the statements, and if they can’t – you know what to focus on in the next lesson.
Lesson menus are a great way to engage children in the content of the lesson, and are also very reassuring since children can keep track of where they are in the lesson, giving them more autonomy and responsibility for their learning.
Finally, by finishing the lesson by discussing what was learnt, children leave much more able to share this information with their parents or caregivers.
2. Success criteria
Primary learners tend to take the fastest route to finishing an activity by giving one-word, incomplete or guessed answers. Often this means they do not get the full benefit of the activity, which is where success criteria can be instrumental.
Success criteria can be given for any task, and are essentially an extension of instructions which show children exactly what they need to do to be successful. Ideally students help the teacher formulate success criteria, which means first showing them what they need to produce.
If they are to write a postcard, show them an example and get them to analyze the important features. If they are to give a presentation then think about how you can model this. The model doesn’t have to be good – a bad model can work extremely well in highlighting what not to do.
After the activity, students can use the success criteria to reflect on their own progress or peer assess with a partner. Teachers can also use them to give focused feedback which is meaningful to students.
3. Continuous assessment
You don’t have to wait till the end of semester test to assess your students. As teachers we observe our students all the time, and keeping a record of what you notice provides key insights into student strengths and areas for development, and saves time in the long run.
Where primary learners are concerned, it’s not only language we need to be aware of but a whole range of behavioral and developmental goals such as working alone and in a group, thinking creatively and critically, dealing with stress.
Praise, where deserved, is a great motivator and looking at a whole range of criteria means all children can be rewarded in the context of their own learning. Keeping an eye on each child as an individual helps avoid comparing children and inadvertently ranking them on their language abilities.
Here is a checklist you can use to monitor continuous assessment in your classes:
Continuous assessment checklist
I hope these ideas for visible learning in the primary classroom are useful!
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. Maximising impact on learning. Routledge.