#LearningFirst: Sharing good practice in a life beyond levels

Primary teacher and boy in classroom

#LearningFirst Bath Spa ‘Show & Tell’ 22nd September 2016 was an opportunity for teachers from a variety of settings to come together, to share good practice and their school’s experience of their journey to a life beyond levels.

This is not a quick journey, but one that is personal, empowering, requires adaptation, reflection and risk taking. It’s about doing what is right for your school and learners.  As Mary Myatt stated “a number is only a number and takes us so far. You are not a level, you are a human being - a human being first, assessment second.”

So what did I take away from this inspiring, informative and interesting day organised by the @BeyondLevels team led by Dame Alison Peacock.

One theme that came through from a number of speakers, including Tim Oates, was the importance of doing fewer things in greater depth, and as Mary Myatt put it ‘keeping the main thing the main thing.’

Mary encouraged us to be clear about the difference between the task and the learning. She reminded us that it’s the journey, not the destination that is important and not to confuse ‘completing’ the work with ‘doing’ the work; it’s not about completing a worksheet. Tim Oates spoke about not shying away from difficult concepts and counter intuitive ideas, although children might feel uncomfortable, this is where learning occurs. We need to ensure that we are clear about the underlying concepts that a child needs to grasp, in order to move their learning forward and to remember that not all learning objectives are equal. Ask yourself the question, what are the big concepts and ideas behind what I am trying to teach? Mary warned us against mistaking bits for the whole! She reminded us there is danger in fragmenting the curriculum and that English is bigger than prepositional clauses or fronted adverbials; we are doing children a disservice if we are not rooting this learning in rich literature.

When we are thinking about formative assessment it’s so important to ask the children rich and deep questions. These questions need to be authentic and to allow us to understand what is going on in a child’s head. Ask yourself, what tells me that a child has got it? Don’t accept a superficial response – dig and probe, make sure that you have understood what they have understood - pay close attention to what they say! These conversations, alongside the evidence to be found in their books and summative assessment will then give us insight, enabling accurate assessment of the children’s understanding and identifying the next steps in their learning.

Dr Sue Bodman from the Institute of Education spoke about assessing reading and what matters. Her focus was what does research say we should teach and therefore assess? Sue talked about the big five:

  1. Phonemic awareness –the knowledge and manipulation of sounds in spoken words
  2. Phonics – the relationship between written and spoken letters and sounds
  3. Reading fluency, including oral reading skills
  4. Vocabulary development - the knowledge of words, their definitions and context
  5. Reading comprehension strategies

Sue discussed the dangers of separating word reading and comprehension and reminded us that reading is the interaction of the two. It’s too easy to forget this, just because they are measured separately. This reminded me of the work done by Dr Wayne Tennant on Understanding Reading Comprehension (2015) and his quote that “Children have a spoken language comprehension far in excess of their ability to decode. It doesn’t make sense to stall, or stagnate the comprehension component until decoding has been mastered.”

It was inspiring to see the passion, commitment and effort that so many colleagues had put into trying to create an assessment system that was right for their school. These were not short term fixes, but approaches and strategies that were tested, modified and under continual improvement. Simon Cowley of the White Horse Federation described their school led system as one where three years down the line they had:

  • Reduced workload for staff
  • Trust – happier staff
  • Increased effectiveness of monitoring pupils
  • Curriculum and assessment linked
  • A better understanding of pupil progress

They had decided that no child’s worth would be dictated by a number, a step or a point and that they wanted to understand the intelligence of the child as a learner, and to understand their learning behaviours. Children would be given the opportunity to engage in an enriched curriculum and not one that was driven by assessment.

Nicky Bridges from Robin Hood Primary, in describing her school’s journey on assessment without levels stated that it was important to “Measure what we value, not value what we measure.”

Find out more about the @Beyond Levels #LearningFirst community