This week I pitched the idea of Assignments to the staff at Highbury Grove during a CPD session. I’ve had positive feedback from several curriculum areas so far and I’m optimistic that this is an idea that, after an evolutionary process over the next year or so, will help us to tackle lots of issues. I’m sharing it as this early stage in the hope that we’ll get feedback that might help. Add comments and suggestions below.
I hit upon this idea when wrestling with two major problems:
1. Assessment without Levels
Having ditched NC Levels at KS3, we’re using a simple Progress Grade as an interim – Excelling, Good, Some concerns, Poor. This is based on teachers’ assessment of progress from each student’s starting point. We’ve been working on the idea of producing subject rubrics that will help students, teachers and parents to make sense of these grades within each subject, linking them to standards. The problem has been one of simplicity vs depth. It’s actually really hard to write a summary rubric that doesn’t lose all the meaningful detail. So – what to do? There is also the ongoing difficulty with GCSE grades changing and the danger of talking in terms of trajectories that can be self-limiting. Using GCSE grades is too macro and leads us into the fixed mindset ‘performance goal’ trap – rather than focusing on the micro details of learning and mastery.
2. Early Intervention and learning support.
I was struck by the phenomenon of the English GCSE controlled assessment catch-up sessions during the Easter holidays. Here were Y11 students who, having ducked and dived for years, were spending eight intense hours during the holidays locked-down in the process of producing extended pieces of writing. The absolute necessity for them to complete the work (now or never) finally delivered the response they needed to give. I thought ‘why can’t we get them to do this earlier’? What if we created a completion deadline structure throughout their time at school that produced this intensity on a regular basis? This echoed a discussion I’d had with members of our Behaviour Team where we agreed there was a ‘Murphy’s Law’ of intervention: the moment you decide a student needs an intervention, you feel you should have done it sooner.
Related to this is the problem with supporting students with learning beyond the classroom. Parents and pastoral staff have ridiculously nebulous conversations with students about their school work. How is anyone supposed to know what constitutes ‘being up to date with the work’? If a student falls behind, how do we know exactly what they need to do to catch up – at home, in the tutor room or in the study support centre? Usually, there is a shrug of uncertainty or a sweeping brush-off – ‘I’ve done all my work’. Really? Students can drift through school, rarely properly keeping on top of what is required to achieve; it overwhelms us and we become desensitised too readily.
The solution? Assignments.
An Assignment is basically an outline of the key pieces of work that need to be completed within a specified period of time. The idea is to have the whole curriculum – every subject in every year – described via Assignments. They don’t have to capture every detail – just the main elements of the work. ‘Being up to date’ means finishing all of the tasks within an assignment by the deadline at the standard required. The idea here is that ‘completion’ is the most basic level at which to engage students in a discussion about progress and standards. This then leads into the concept of quality, improvement, mastery and so on. But, first, do the work ! All of it.
Assignment sheets can provide information to inform decisions about progress grades, defining the standards within the completion criteria. Also, given our work on the Trivium as a structure for exploring our curriculum, we could use Assignments to embed ideas about Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric into everything we do. Knowledge, Exploration and Communication seem to be useful terms to use to express these ideas to students and parents.
Students will be set assignments of different lengths in different subjects. They could represent a half-term’s work or a term for subjects with fewer lessons on the curriculum. We could use shorter assignments at the start of GCSE and AS courses to make sure students are fully into gear, working at the right level from day one. Crucially, we will gear our intervention and study support provision around assignment completion. Students who have not completed assignments will be required to do so by attending catch-up clinics. They’ll need to generate the intensity needed throughout the school year. The goal is to engender a culture of routine hard work as students realise that lots of desperate dashes to complete assignments just in time isn’t a healthy way to live!
With all of this in mind some SLT colleagues and I knocked together some mock-up Assignments to inform the discussion alongside a rationale:
A Planning tool –
- embeds Trivium thinking: knowledge, exploration communication – ensuring that these ideas are woven into the fabric of everything we do.
- provides students with a guide to the work that must be done by a certain time. This can link to pre-learning material, making notes, catching up work after any absences or preparing for an assessment.
- gives parents and staff an overview of the content and the assessment in every subject at any given time. This is far more detailed than current curriculum overview guidance and would facilitate far more meaningful discussion.
An Assessment tool –
- defines standards at different levels: completion of minimum requirements, quality, extension. Completion can be gauged by the class teacher, the student, parents and other staff.
- allows for different modes of assessment to be blended into overall assessment eg speaking, writing, practical work, oral presentation, test . Authentic subject specific assessments can be defined as needed within any given assignment.
- gives parents very clear guidance about requirements for any given unit of work against which Excellent, Good, Some Concerns, Poor progress are measured.
- provides opportunity for different tiers of work to be assigned, within classes or between sets, so that progress is relative to the expectations implicit in the work set.
An Intervention tool –
- provides a common language for discussing the nebulous notion of ‘being up to date’; the completion of an assignment.
- students can be set short-term deadlines and completion targets in all year groups; these will provide achievable short-term goals for all students and a focus for pastoral guidance instead of referring to far-off goals that seem too distant to matter now.
- provides a reference point for selecting students who need support to complete the work set. Non-completion of assignments would trigger requirements to attend compulsory catch-up clinics where the assignments can be finished.
The work involved in producing Assignments that really work in an authentic, efficient way in every subject is significant. We’re not going to get this right first time or overnight. I found it easier to write an assignment (the Sound example) having just finished teaching the topic. It may be that we produce the first generation of Assignments retrospectively, just before the end of each unit. Some will incorporate multiple units so we’re not chasing too many deadlines; we’re hoping that the deadlines are spread over time more or less organically but that remains to be seen. Ideally, they will be designed to make marking easier – not create massive new folders of records to keep. Again, that will take some doing. There are lots of other questions about designing challenging assignments for students with different starting points building in growth mindset thinking and top-end challenge. No small task but we’ll be taking our time.
So – there you have it. Assignments! What do you think?