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Leadership Issues, Teaching and Learning

Defining the Butterfly: Knowing the Standards to Set the Standards

Slides from CPD input about stretch and challenge...

Slides from CPD input about stretch and challenge…

In preparing to deliver some CPD inputs recently, at my own school and another in Essex, I’ve been thinking about the problem of providing the appropriate level of challenge for all learners in the work we set and in the work we accept.  This has led me to consider how we know what an appropriate level is and how we assess work against expected standards. With NC levels on the way out, a lot of people are worrying about filling the void; my feeling is that we have an opportunity to re-connect with assessment and standards at a fundamental level, to resolve all kinds of difficulties.

Issues arise when teachers routinely underestimate what students are capable of. I’ve said many times that I feel a great many students are systematically under-challenged most days of their school lives.  Teachers and students get stuck in a circular compliance culture where expectations are always met  – but at a level of challenge that is building-in under-achievement.  How many times do I hear the phrase that ‘there isn’t enough top-end challenge’ in a lesson or even a school? Too often.

Of course, there is the other problem – one we deal with at KEGS.  Some students flounder relative to others in a high challenge culture; there is a risk that they become labelled as low-achievers and expectations of them fall. Their expectations of themselves also fall. In a recent post about Ron Berger’s critique method, I have suggested that a message from Austin’s Butterfly is that, too often, we accept work that is sub-standard; we associate certain students with their mediocre initial offerings without enabling them to push forward, insisting that they produce and experience excellence.

At the core of this issue – of students being set work that is too easy or having substandard work accepted – is that teachers lose sight of expected standards.  They don’t define what the finished Butterfly should look like for each learner, taking account of their age and prior attainment.  This is often because, in many cases, there is a sliding scale and it is difficult to know.

Take these questions:

  • Why does your heart beat faster during exercise?
  • What effect does dropping a ball from a greater height have?
  • Was it right to kill Osama Bin Laden?
  • How is Harry Potter different to The Hobbit?
  • Was King John a good king?

It would be possible to have a good discussion about each of these questions with students in Year 6, Year 9, Year 11, Year 13. But what answers should be expected at each level?  When should students start talking about haemoglobin and respiration? When should kinetic and potential energy start to feature? What distinguishes an A* GCSE answer  from a strong Year 6 answer about King John, Osama Bin Laden or The Hobbit?

Around the country, children in Year 9 will be making the same Powerpoint they were asked to make in Year 5; they will still be doing the same kind of percentages and fractions that they learned in Year 6; they will be having the same discussion about food chains in a forest environment that they had in Year 4; they will still be saying King John was bad and Bin Laden deserved to die instead of evaluating competing views in a coherent balanced manner.

How do we stop this?  It strikes me that we need to do a lot more work on establishing what standards mean, without using a proxy code; we should be doing it by looking at the actual work.  Teachers should be discussing this extensively within schools; schools should be sharing this information extensively between them.  Forget levels; good riddance to them – they were only ever a bell-curve marker anyway. Read this if you still think levels define absolute standards – they don’t.

What we should be doing is Defining the Butterfly.  For any piece of work we should be setting out the most challenging success criteria we can conceive of for the task.

  • In Year 8, an exceptional student should be able to produce work like THIS:  produce an actual example. It has the following features: …define the features.
  • The minimum expectations we would have might look like THIS: ..produce an example; define the features.
  • In Year 10, a six-mark answer to a question like ‘how does an eye adjust to focus on near and distant objects? ‘ should be structured like THIS:  example given.
  • Exceptional students in Year 7 might be expected to produce a poem analysis like THIS:  top end example on hand, with features identified.
  • By the end of Year 8, the highest performing students should be looking at solving simultaneous equations and Pythagoras’ equation; all students should be comfortable working out any percentage of any number and multiplying and dividing fractions.

To me, this is the real scale. Turning all of this real assessment into numbers sucks the meaning out of it; our obsession with levels and levels of progress has probably de-skilled a lot of teachers because knowing that the average for 8B is 5c doesn’t mean much in terms of what they can actually do and what it looks like to excel.  (The idea that Level 4a to 6b is the same size jump in learning as from 3a to 5b is so ludicrous in terms of the learning itself; it ONLY makes sense if levels are just bell-curve markers.)

The key to real assessment of this kind and the real standard setting that it allows, is to have routine moderation processes.  Schools could compile portfolios – writing, questions, work samples, book samples – from top, middle and bottom in each subject and gather in a room with schools nearby, every year.  Subject specialists should pore over each other’s evidence of standards and see what everyone else is up to.  This would have the effect of making everyone chase the best.  Once you see what Year 8s can do down the road, you’d be defining your Butterfly differently – it would be more and more sophisticated.   But every teacher should know very very clearly what excellence looks like; for every question they ask and every piece of work they set; not based on what they’ve always done – but based on sharp current information referenced against tangible exemplars.

How would you measure progress? Through the work.  When I worked at BIS Jakarta, a  3-18 school, every primary child had a ‘First of the Month’ book. On the first day of every month they would spend an hour writing on a fresh page in that book; the book would travel with them up the school.  Over time, you could see their progress simply by turning the pages. It was wonderful – and powerful as an assessment tool for the teachers.  If you turned all that into levels……I won’t go there again.

So, to conclude, Levels RIP.  Let’s define standards by looking at the very best examples of work that students can produce – and let’s share that information with our students and each other so that our sights are continually being set higher.  Let’s be very clear about the depth and rigour of the answers we expect students to give at each level in our curriculum so that we’re not accepting work they could have produced years ago.  It should be a routine part of departmental discourse to clarify expectations of standards, referring to the exemplar material on hand.  Let each Austin make the best butterfly they can.. and not the one they could do already.   It should be a matter of basic credibility for any teacher that they stretch the most able in their lessons – there is no excuse not to.

Define the Butterfly… now go and make it the best you can.


42 thoughts on “Defining the Butterfly: Knowing the Standards to Set the Standards

  1. This is great stuff, but it does highlight the difference between scrapping levels for single-subject experts and the generalist primary teacher.
    It’s absolutely right that a group of, say, French teachers could gain a great deal more from dialogue around real work than from the lifeless levels, but that level of discussion wouldn’t be viable for eleven subjects at primary level. We rely on the expertise of others to lead us in some respects, and levels were one way of organising that. Much as I’d love to meet every year with subject specialists to do it, time just doesn’t allow it.
    Mind you, maybe something positive can come from this void if secondaries are prepared to collaborate with each other to work with their locality primaries on this?


    Posted by Michael Tidd | November 20, 2013, 6:54 am
  2. I think they should. A local cluster in Chelmsford is exploring Y5 to Year 8 transition for literacy, writing etc. Every primary teacher should know what excellence looks like in each area. A primary HT colleague told me how she cringed recently when kids were sent to her for a Gold Star for work that was just really very ordinary. Teacher’s stds were too low.


    Posted by headguruteacher | November 20, 2013, 7:09 am
    • I’m sure that’s an issue in lots of places. I have to say, my experience is that primary teachers are very knowledgeable about the expectations in English and to a large extent Maths – but the foundation subjects are a mystery in many respects. The challenge is providing support for those smaller subjects.


      Posted by Michael Tidd | November 20, 2013, 9:09 pm
  3. I think that a school should indeed have system of moderated assessment, as you describe, that is both descriptive of work completed and well informed, in terms of what is inferred from that assessed work. My career so far has been dedicated to uncovering the huge potential that is not always expressed in written work. As an SpLD specialist Head Teacher I found that a flexible and creative approach to curriculum was key in enhancing performance; having a clear idea of what represents outstanding is one thing but offering new and diverse ways to be outstanding is another.


    Posted by Abigail Gray | November 20, 2013, 4:16 pm
  4. This is a very interesting post, Tom – thank you.

    I have become increasingly concerned about the pressure on secondary school teachers to allocate sub-levels to students’ work every few weeks, and I am glad that other options are now being discussed. The idea of compiling wide-ranging portfolios which could then be subjected to a moderation process – either within schools or between schools – interests me greatly. (Incidentally, Tom, I will probably be working with students from KS2 – KS4 in Norfolk during the course of this school year, and would be very interested to find out more about the literacy work of the Chelmsford cluster!)

    Meanwhile, I echo Abigail’s point that schools should have a system of moderated assessment that is both descriptive of work completed, but which also enables teachers to have a clear idea about how best to help each individual student to progress. Having taught many dyslexic students over the last 20 years, I fear for the students with SpLDs if more holistic ways of ‘assessing’ students are not taken into account. Some form of ‘Record of Achievement’ – to accompany the examination certificate – is one possible way forward. I have seen this successfully trialled in several London schools. For example, many employers are crying out for young people with communication and problem solving skills, resilience, determination, global awareness, community spirit, entrepreneurial flair, etc. I have high standards, and I want my students to be outstanding. But, as Abigail suggests, let’s explore the diverse ways in which our students can be outstanding. An obsession with sub-levels can distract teachers in secondary schools from this task, and I welcome the opportunity afforded by the ‘scrapping’ of the levels to explore other options. Collaboration between secondaries and their local feeder primary schools would, as Michael suggests, be an obvious place to start!


    Posted by Fran Nantongwe | November 20, 2013, 8:47 pm
  5. It is interesting that at my 13-18 school there is a real push up in standards once the GCSE courses begin. I think because teachers have a very clear idea where students need to get to and know they aren’t there yet.


    Posted by Heather F | November 21, 2013, 8:12 am
  6. I think it would be very helpful if pupils could bring their books with them from Primary to secondary school (or , better, have them sent on ahead). That way staff could see what the pupils had already done/could do and avoid setting work that was too easy or repetitive.


    Posted by Frank | June 23, 2014, 7:45 pm
  7. “By the end of Year 8, the highest performing students should be looking at solving simultaneous equations and Pythagoras’ equation; all students should be comfortable working out any percentage of any number and multiplying and dividing fractions.”

    I was nodding til I got to here. It is so disappointing that educators – both maths specialists and non-specialist leaders – still identify this kind of activity as mathematics work. It is as much mathematics work as parsing and precis are English work. An appropriate yardstick might be for pupils to produce a statistical essay using prescribed techniques, or to design a simple program to list the prime numbers, or to explain which numbers have terminating decimals and why.

    I know that mathematics is probably the hardest subject for the non-specialist to get a grip on. It is so contested, and so culturally significant. I do think though that it is worth the effort. Jo Boaler’s recent BBC radio show is a good start: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04gw6rh


    Posted by Nat | October 1, 2014, 6:57 pm
    • Are you saying that Pythagoras’ theorem should be so easy that students should be way past that or that students don’t really need to know it?. I don’t see why your examples are fundamentally more important or interesting. I am a specialist maths teacher amongst other things – I don’t think that’s really an issue here.


      Posted by Tom Sherrington | October 1, 2014, 8:18 pm
  8. Great post – I think the model you outline here is a far more robust way of ensuring challenge then one based on levels (especially target levels derived from prior attainment).

    As a system designer I am interested in the implications for tracking and reporting progress though. Have you really moved to a KS3 not just without levels but without marksheets too? That’s far more radical than all of the other ways of going AWoL I’ve come across. Does it mean accountability shifted to inspection of students’ books? How did staff react to that?


    Posted by Ed Cadwallader (@RootsImp) | September 2, 2015, 1:43 pm


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