think teaching and learning 22021-03-03T11:37:01+00:00

Teaching and Learning #2

James Wright

As is good practice, I want to start with some retrieval practice. In my last think piece, I wrote that in order to be effective and efficient, our teaching will have to be both ____?____ and ____?____.

The answers are knowledge-first and responsive. My first think piece was on the former. This, my second think piece, will be on the latter…

What ever happened to AFL?

Dylan Wiliam was one of the writers of ‘Inside the Black Box’, which gave birth to the idea of assessment for learning (AFL). Wiliam now regrets using the term ‘AFL’ as opposed to ‘responsive teaching’. And his ‘Embedding Formative Assessment’ has now replaced ‘Inside the Black Box’ with five key, refined strategies for responsive teaching at its heart. Brutally, AFL is now a toxic brand! One reason for this is the word ‘assessment’ – to too many of us that still meant long-cycle marking (marking of work long since ‘dead’) even if we started to do it better with more ‘comments-only’ marking (good) not graded marking (bad). 

What Wiliam actually had in mind was: ‘short-cycle, in the moment, feedback – in tight loops’ or responsive teaching. Another reason for the toxicity of AFL as a brand is that it became ‘the latest thing’ and, as a profession, we fell into the trap of creating a whole industry to check if we were implementing the strategies that go with AFL – in learning walks and observations etc. For example, when we used traffic lights as an AFL strategy, how many of us can honestly say that we chose it thoughtfully as it was the most effective and efficient way of telling us if our students ‘got it’? Did they help us to assess what they were meant to assess? More likely is that we got them out when we saw a member of the SLT walking down the corridor! And what did we ever do with those students who were ‘red’?

So, what actually is responsive teaching?

Before I define responsive teaching, we must accept an unsettling truth (a fundamental threshold concept for us as teachers) – that we can never truly know what goes on inside a student’s head. Therefore, we must look for the best proxies by which to measure understanding and, from there, advance learning. In this context, by ‘proxy’, I mean a representation of, a substitute for, what is really happening. Learning is messy. Messy (real!) learning is hard to see, or hear, or measure on a spreadsheet because learning is not the same thing as performing i.e. doing something in class. Better proxies might include:

  • testing knowledge, presented by you or manipulated by the students differently, a week later, for example, rather than in the lesson itself (i.e. give time delays) e.g. (re-)categorising or (re-)sequencing things after they’ve had a chance to forget;
  • getting students to think hard about something e.g. a paradox, a counter-intuitive idea, a threshold concept;
  • questioning using relevant examples *and* non-examples (a non-example could be an incorrect or irrelevant but commonly-held idea that needs to be dealt with to de-clutter/advance a student’s understanding or it could be a distracting exception to a rule);
  • drilling students for memorisation;
  • students answering complex questions directly and without scaffolding from the teacher – when you don’t have to scaffold to build up to a multi-layered answer and when you can ask supplementary questions, then that student, in that moment, *might* have ‘got it’!

There are some bad proxies, identified by Professor Robert Coe, which effective responsive teaching must avoid (see below). How many of these have we all fallen for as indicators of learning?
Students are busy: lots of work is being done.
Students are apparently engaged: busy and having ‘fun’.
The curriculum has been covered: “It says here I should teach you topic X and last week I did – before Ms A’s class too! – and I’ve now marked your assessments to prove it to my Head of Faculty. Now, let’s start topic Y!”
Some students have given you correct answers – regurgitated and not reconstructed. (There are other proxies – both good and bad – of course!)

A discussion of better proxies for learning, to support responsive teaching, can be found here 
The conditions for proxies for learning to be at their best include: stripping lessons back – away from distractions such as engagement for its own sake; through retrieval practice, not overloading students’ working memory so that they enjoy something called ‘automaticity’ (the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required).
Paraphrasing Sherrington in ‘The Learning Rainforest’: ‘teachers need to devise strategies to tell them where their students are and then, absolutely crucially, to adjust their teaching in response so that students’ learning is advanced. This is responsive teaching.’ Some typical AFL strategies may still be useful but the focus of whole-school CPD this year will be on responsive teaching strategies. These will be presented to you as food at a buffet – for you to choose from and try – and not force-fed. Responsive teaching trusts teachers and is highly individualised – to you and your students.

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