Diagnostic Data: the importance of the Little Data

A few observations to begin

Any teacher today knows that most schools are data mad! End of year targets, Half termly reports, tracking of assessments and the list goes on, and on and on ……

As a young teacher this is all I’ve ever know, but it doesn’t stop me being completely and utterly aware of how unbelievably unnecessary it is.

I remember being a student teacher and constantly being told to level pieces of work in the name of ‘progress over time’. In fact on one occasion, I sent students away over half term to construct their own castles (back in the day when I was such a ‘fun teacher’). When they returned I was told by the Assistant Headteacher that I should level these. Need I say more!

Now in a post-level world some schools are leading the way in creating more meaningful assessment models. However, most schools still seem stuck in the same misguided mindset.

As Tom Sherrington has outlined ‘we continually attempt to make something complicated, very simple and we turn real meaning into a code.’ Why? Because this misguided mindset comes down to one fundamentally wrong assumption…..assessment is for measuring.

Those headline figures are always so attractive. BEST RESULTS EVER! 100% A*-C. This could not be more wrong. As the old teaching proverb goes ‘you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it’ and you don’t help students learn by measuring their learning and reporting it.

However, that is not to say we should not be creating data. We should! But we need effective DIAGNOSTIC data, which is about the students in front of us, and involves next steps to support their learning.

Creating Diagnostic Data

When I had my first observation as a PGCE student my feedback was ‘how do you know what every student in the class has learnt?’ At the time I didn’t understand what this meant. Later I dismissed this as unattainable. But now I know that at the end of every lesson I need to know if every student has learnt what they should have.

How have I been doing this? Well first a moment of honesty….I’m working on it. I don’t have some magic formula but I have borrowed some ideas from other bloggers which have really helped me to (as Hattie terms it) make the learning visible.

First, low stakes testing and lots of it. This has really improved the quality of students’ knowledge. It makes clear to students as we move from one topic to the next that they are not leaving prior knowledge behind. It also helps to reduce the forgetting curve. But most interestingly for the purpose of this blog it creates lots of interesting data. With this I can instantly see what topics students struggle with and identify students who are having problems with knowledge retention. I can therefore DIAGNOSE issues students have with lesson content.

The issue then becomes about the crucial next steps. I rely on three (completely unrevolutionary) approaches here. Going over the correct answers, reteaching content or setting homework. Pretty simple but effective, and takes up very little of my time and energy.

My second idea is marking every book every lesson. I’ve seen a lot of posts about this so I won’t bore you with more on this but it works. The first time I read about this I just thought how am I possible going to have the time for that. But after trying it, I now realise that it can take minutes to mark exit tickets from every student and indicate whether they have achieved the learning intentions of the lesson.

The next lesson students come into the classroom and have a task to begin which is differentiated based on their success in relation to the learning intentions. This takes very little time but it is far more powerful than me giving detailed comments every so often.

Concluding remarks

It’s all well and good creating this data and giving students next steps but to make this truly diagnostic, teachers need to ask question.

I keep a record of all this data in my mark book. This allows me to identify patterns and search for solutions. Little Johnny isn’t meeting the learning intentions every single lesson. Why is this? What can I do about it?

This data also allows teachers to have discussions with others. Just this week I had a meeting about a student. Armed with all this data I was able to give very detailed information about this student. Could the same be said if I had a mark book with only levels and grades?

My point is that it is completely possible to know if every student has met the learning intentions of lessons. By recording this and creating data we can find patterns (about students and classes) and we can have meaningful discussions with staff and students about their learning.

Therefore data can be hugely valuable. But it’s not the big data, which measures the students, that matters. It’s the little data that matters, as teachers on the ground can utilise it to help students learn.

Advertisements

Reflections on Assessment in History 

With a little bit of extra time this bank holiday weekend, in the midst of exam chaos, I have had the chance to do a little reading of Teaching History.

I have been an avid reader of Teaching History since being force fed a healthy diet of articles during my PGCE. From that an area of reading which has been my greatest interest has been articles around assessment and specifically how we can replace National Curriculum levels.

It is well documented that NC levels are an unfit and poorly suited model of assessment for students’ historical understanding. In a 2014 article Alex Ford draws on some excellent points made in earlier work and proposes his own model. This is an exceptional piece of work and is definitely worth a read and some reflection. Therefore here I want to draw out the reflection I have had reading this article and what I want to take from it.

What are we assessing for? 

This is ultimately the million dollar question and Ford draws out some key points exceptionally well, proposing three key objectives for assessment:

  1. Assessing attainment
  2. Describing progress
  3. Providing meaningful models for progression

With these three key objectives Ford makes clear that one assessment model, like NC levels, is not enough to achieve these goals. This fits in very well with an idea addressed in a recent course I attended with an OFSTED inspector. We took a look at educational terms like ‘progress’ and ‘attainment’ and took some time to compare and contrast them. What became clear from this activity was that these are very different terms but have become conflated.

Perhaps the biggest point I will be taking from this article then is Ford’s point that we should be using separate grading styles for attainment and progress. Therefore it is very clear to students that different aspects of their learning is being addressed.

Where is the history? 

As a PGCE student we used to hear horror stories about ‘Scary Mary’ the Geography tutor, whose catch phrase ‘where is the geography?’ haunted the Geographers nightmares. However, as I have reflected on that idea it becomes apparent that the question ‘where is the history?’ is a question that History teachers should be asking more.

For example, it can be very easy in history to spend a lesson studying Nazi propaganda, with a focus on ‘skills’, and miss the opportunity to explore some deep contextual knowledge.

As this threat of missing the historical knowledge exists for teachers, it can also exists for students. However, when we look at the old NC levels how much emphasis is given to substantive knowledge?

Therefore Ford emphasises that assessment should link to conceptual mastery and historical knowledge. For me I envisage that this would involve having an individualised mark scheme for every assessment (as is already good practice). With this it can be made clear what conceptual mastery we expect to see, but also what knowledge we expect students to cover. Therefore we can avoid some overly formulaic approach to writing history.

Aiming for a ‘gold standard’

This is a term that played the central role in my final research project into assessment during my PGCE and it is a key term used by Ford here.

In looking for a gold standard we want to see ‘what is the best of history?’ What is it that we want the best historians to do? Ford lays out some of key aspects of a gold standard in history. The idea of a gold standard for history is definitely something that every history department should be focusing on and discussing regularly. As a starting point maybe Ford’s article would be a great way to instigate some discussion.

For me I believe that the gold standard should be used not just for our assessment planning but out curriculum planning, where we can map out a plan of how we can aid student progress to achieve this standard.

The place of informal assessment

Aside from formal assessment, something which has regularly come up on writing about assessment has been low stakes informal assessment. The purpose of this is to ensure pupils factual and chronological knowledge. Making sure that they have a strong understanding as they engage with complex conceptual tasks.

This could take the form of quizzes, timelines, mini-essays, news reports, multiple choice questions and so on. This is something which I have done some of this year and certainly something I plan to do more of next year. I think that this can also fit well into ideas around cognitive science and working memory as we can ensure that information is being used regularly to shift it into students’ long-term memory.

Thus, informal feedback can be conducted at regular intervals, to sure up retention of knowledge, and the results can be recorded in exercise books.

What assessment should look like? 

Three key pillars surround Ford’s ideas about what assessment should look like.

  1. Formative feedback

This is the work which Ford says students should be given time to respond to in lessons. For this I think that there is the possibility to bring in some ideas about DIRTy feedback.

  1. Measures of attainment

As I explained earlier Ford splits up measures of attainment and progress. The outcome for measures of attainment can therefore come from the results of informal assessment and the grades for specific assessment task.

Ford also uses his own grading system here. In the world of exam factories however it is hard for many history teachers to move away from NC levels. Therefore this is where a traditional numbered system can still find a place.

  1. Measures of progress

This is a really interesting approach which I think is often being overlooked in schools, which is true progress. Progress is the buzzword in education but do we really mean progress? Ultimately just writing down a grade in a report every half term doesn’t constitute looking at students’ progress.

Therefore Ford creates descriptors for students’ progress and an evidence list for this.

Another interesting way of addressing progress is that Ford puts a +,= or – next to students work based on whether they are making progress.

Engaging parents with our idea of good history

For me this could be the key element to creating good history, involving parents in our thinking. Parents are not in our classrooms, are not undertaking the learning their students are, but they are often called on to help with homework. So what I envision is sharing our ideas of good history with parents.

This really could be a far simpler process than it may first seem. What I envision doing (and am sure many out there already are) is putting together a parent guide book for history. This could involve curriculum maps, assessment question and general guidance on what it is we will cover. It could also involve including some historical content for parents to help their children with their understanding. As well as places to find other resources.

However, what could be of really significant here is sharing with parents our gold standard and what progress in history looks like. Part of this could be sharing the evidence sheet Ford proposes with parents. With this we can therefore begin to share our ideas with parents.

Final reflections 

Ford is quick to emphasise that this is all still a working process and to really get an insight his article is worth reading.

However, although teaching history is an amazing publication it isn’t a place to go for a quick idea. Instead it is a way of inspiring some reflection. Therefore what I have tried to do here is give you an insight into some of my reflections from my reading.

It would be great to get some insight from other teachers on what they are doing with assessment so please leave a comment.