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.