In 2003 at a school in UK where I was Head of English, we had an In-Service Training session led by a wizened and softly-spoken old professor from King’s College, London. The Professor was called Paul Black and the session, entitled “Assessment for Learning”, changed my professional life. Below is an extract from an article entitled “Journey to Excellence” that appears on the Education Scotland website; I think provides a good overview of the Professor and his theory and why it is so important for modern schools.
“The current worldwide interest in assessment for learning is, to a large extent, due to a review of research carried out by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam at Kings College in London and published in 1998. Their publication, 'Inside the Black Box', was a review that drew upon 250 research journals and publications between 1988 and 1997.
Black and Wiliam’s research spanned all age groups (from 5-year-olds to university graduates), subjects and nationalities. It was also based on empirical data. Black and Wiliam considered only research that used control groups, for instance, where learning gains were measured by comparing average improvements in tests with the scores for typical groups of students taking identical tests.
As a follow-up to 'Inside the Black Box', Dylan Wiliam and others at King’s College demonstrated that teachers could improve the quality of assessment for learning in their classrooms within the existing constraints of national tests and examinations.
In a pilot project over a six-month period, teachers implemented a new teaching programme using formative assessment. The teachers chose from a range of options: improving their questioning techniques, developing self-assessment procedures, sharing success criteria with pupils, giving feedback and comment-only marking.
Their results were reported to the annual conference of BERA in September 2001. Some of the strategies used by teachers were also published in 2002 in ‘Working Inside the Black Box’. Since then several versions of 'Working Inside the Black Box' have been published covering subject areas such as science, maths and English.
The main messages
Black and Wiliam’s research came up with three main findings.
1. Where assessment for learning is implemented effectively, it raises standards of achievement across the board, but particularly for low achievers. It reduced the spread of attainment while raising the bar for everyone. Where pupils are given better quality support and feedback, and are encouraged and empowered to take more responsibility, they learn more effectively.
2. There are common barriers that inhibit the development of assessment for learning in schools, namely:
- the over-reliance on testing that encourages teachers to promote rote and superficial learning
- the negative impact on pupils when the giving of marks, grades and levels is over-emphasised and where pupils are compared with one another; and
- the focus on the managerial role of assessments at the expense of learning.
3. There were many excellent of examples of good practice that schools could use to develop their own assessment procedures.
The team at King's College developed a number of key strategies that underpin Assessment for Learning.
- Finding out where pupils are in their learning through discussion and questioning.
- Teachers agreeing clear objectives with pupils and providing feedback that helps them to achieve these goals.
- Sharing criteria for success and expectations with pupils through sharing learning intentions and success criteria with pupils.
- Making peer and self-assessment key components of learning.
- Enabling young people to take greater ownership of their learning.”